Be­hind the mask

Four days of fes­tiv­i­ties in Kokopo

Paradise - - Contents -

Ex­cited chat­ter rip­ples through the dark­ness at Kokopo beach in East New Bri­tain where a grow­ing clus­ter of peo­ple is wait­ing. As milky early morn­ing light starts to seep over the hori­zon, the crowd falls silent in an­tic­i­pa­tion. Faintly in the dis­tance, chant­ing and drum­ming can be heard.

Ki­navai is a sa­cred ri­tual of the To­lai peo­ple in East New Bri­tain. Shrouded in se­crecy for hun­dreds of years, the tra­di­tion is to­day per­formed to open the Mask Fes­ti­val held in the province an­nu­ally. Lo­cals and tourists are in­vited to watch and join in the cel­e­bra­tions.

It is one of the rare oc­ca­sions that peo­ple out­side of the To­lai tribe are able to see the tum­buans. Both feared and revered, the

tum­buans are the masked fig­ures of in­car­nated spir­its. Re­spected el­ders of the com­mu­nity un­dergo a se­cret process as they pre­pare for adorn­ing the elab­o­rate cos­tumes of the

tum­buans. Once this is com­plete, it is be­lieved that they be­come the em­bod­i­ment of the spirit.

In days gone by, the tum­buans would pass judg­ments in To­lai com­mu­ni­ties. They would be sum­moned to a vil­lage to en­force or pun­ish, and their de­cree had to be obeyed. It is re­ported that tum­buans have burned down the houses of those that dis­obeyed them, and they can kill a de­fier with im­punity. At Ki­navai, their pres­ence is nec­es­sary to ini­ti­ate boys of the clan to man­hood.

On this morn­ing, women have gath­ered to bid their sons good­bye and good luck. They hold gi­ant sugar canes, the leaves wav­ing above their heads.

“They are com­ing,” whis­pers one of the moth­ers, Rachael, as the chant­ing grows louder and a clus­ter of boats on the hori­zon starts to drift to­wards the beach.

A pro­ces­sion of bare­foot boys be­gins to walk along the shore­line. Each wear­ing a red

lungi, they are ner­vous, bit­ing their lips as their eyes whip around anx­iously. Older boys and teenagers fol­low, then they all stop and turn to face the trans­fixed crowd.

Their moth­ers go to meet them and the cer­e­mony be­gins. The women, all stand­ing on one side, use a stone to break open a co­conut, splash­ing the wa­ter at their sons’ feet. Next they crack the sugar cane, be­fore fling­ing a hand­ful of lime pow­der. The white pow­der, along­side red ochre, is also smeared on the boys’ chests and smudged on their brow and cheek bones. It is be­lieved to pro­tect them from the evil spir­its.

Now, the boats are near­ing the beach. Aboard are the fe­male tum­buans and the male duk­duks.

The masks for both are con­i­cal. The fe­males’ are black with geo­met­ric faces and eyes of con­cen­tric cir­cles, painted in white and red. A tuft of white feath­ers flut­ter at the top. The male masks are face­less, but are taller and more elab­o­rately carved than those of their fe­male coun­ter­parts. Both tum­buans and duk­duks have a bil­low­ing body­suit of green leaves that rus­tle as they move and jig­gle. Only the men’s legs, from be­low the knee, are vis­i­ble.

The Ki­navai rep­re­sents the To­lai peo­ple cross­ing the sea and ar­riv­ing at the Gazelle Penin­sula hun­dreds of years ago. Once the boats are close enough, the tum­buans and

duk­duks wade to the shore and play­fully dance at the wa­ter’s edge. The To­lai peo­ple on the beach im­me­di­ately re­treat, as to touch the

tum­buans is strictly for­bid­den. Mean­while, the tourists and other spec­ta­tors lurch closer and there is a frenzy of pho­tog­ra­phy. As the rhythm of the drum picks up, peo­ple be­gin to stomp their feet and re­joice. The morn­ing sun is now golden, and ev­ery­one rev­els in its joy­ous warmth.

Later in the day, the mask fes­ti­val is for­mally com­menced at the Kokopo sports field with speeches and ap­plause. Tourists and pho­tog­ra­phers are gath­ered in a staged seat­ing area, but to­day the gate is open with no charge for en­try, so many peo­ple from

across the province have trav­elled to en­joy the show.

A square dance floor has been roped off, and spec­ta­tors sit cross-legged around its edge. Many lo­cals chew on buai, their lips stained con­spic­u­ously red. One of the stalls nearby pro­vid­ing snacks and sou­venirs is sell­ing icy poles. Many chil­dren have coloured rings around their mouths, in syn­chrony with their el­ders.

In front of the cap­ti­vated au­di­ence, the fi­nal ele­ments of the To­lai tra­di­tions are dis­played. The tum­buans are sum­moned by chiefs hol­ler­ing and bang­ing the kundu drum. They are whipped with strings of tabu, or shell money, then fall to their knees.

To­lai peo­ple walk among them and fill their bas­kets with tabu in an of­fer­ing, though tra­di­tion­ally this would of­ten have been the pay­ment of a fine.

An­other high­light of the four-day event takes place in the evening. After night­fall, guests are driven up to the vil­lage of Gaulim in the Bain­ing Moun­tains. There, a fire burns and crack­les. Al­most im­me­di­ately after we ar­rive, the drums be­gin to beat.

Cos­tumed men cir­cle the fire, then, one by one, they jump over the flames. Sud­denly, they spring up­wards and jump onto the fire, flames lick­ing their legs as they kick the burn­ing tim­ber, send­ing scat­ter­ing em­bers to­wards the crowd. The crowd gasps in uni­son, in fear and won­der.

In the pitch black and peace­ful­ness of the moun­tains, the flames are the only light, their flick­er­ing red and or­ange mes­meris­ing. Cou­pled with the evoca­tive chant­ing and drum rhythm, they leave us en­chanted. As the cer­e­mony comes to an end, we jolt from our trance and carry our weary selves home.

The next day, back at the sports field, fes­tiv­i­ties for day two of the mask fes­ti­val are set to get un­der­way at noon. But we’re on PNG time, and scat­tered but heavy down­pours keep damp­en­ing dancers’ en­thu­si­asm to per­form.

Fi­nally, the kundu be­gins a dra­matic slow and steady build-up, an­nounc­ing the im­mi­nent ar­rival of the first per­form­ers.

There is a sched­ule of events, but it serves more as an in­di­ca­tion of pos­si­ble per­for­mances than a strict timetable. As dancers in cos­tume ap­pear, it’s a fun game to guess which vil­lage they rep­re­sent. When men ap­pear with masks adorn­ing feathered birds’ heads, we know th­ese must be the Sinivit vil­lagers show­cas­ing their akaku­ruk or chicken dance. In uni­son, they stamp and bow, cap­tur­ing the il­lu­sion of the chick­ens on their head­dress peck­ing at the ground.

For the amu­rup or emu dance, a man from the Mar­mar vil­lage ap­pears painted head to toe in black. He is joined by two men in sur­pris­ingly re­al­is­tic black-feathered cos­tumes rep­re­sent­ing the emus. This dance is a com­i­cal one, with the man strug­gling to con­trol the two gi­ant birds as they scam­per around him. The ex­pres­sions on his face leave the crowd in gig­gles at the far­ci­cal hu­mour.

The fire eaters are an­other high­light. Th­ese men need no fan­ci­ful cos­tumes to at­tract the au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion. Bare chested with a sim­ple feather head­band, the lead per­former takes logs from the fire. One end smoul­ders in red, and smoke streams around his face. Then he takes a bite. Spec­ta­tors flinch, but he does not even wince as he chews on the burn­ing em­bers. A round of ap­plause ac­com­pa­nies our sigh of re­lief.

After the per­for­mances, there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to have pho­tos taken with the cos­tumed dancers. Or to sit and en­joy a chat with one of the tribes peo­ple, who are happy to share sto­ries of their cul­ture.

It is here, that I speak with vil­lagers from the Bain­ing Moun­tains, re­sult­ing in me rid­ing in the back of a pick-up truck up to their vil­lage just a few days later. The men have of­fered to show me their work­shop where the masks are made. An op­por­tu­nity I can­not refuse.

On ar­rival, I am taken up a steep muddy in­cline to the so-called ‘se­cret place’. They tell me I am the first woman and first jour­nal­ist to be al­lowed in­side.

It is a rather hum­ble build­ing, more of a shack, made from nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. In­side, an as­sort­ment of masks, some that I recog­nise from the fire dance, hang from the walls. Rest­ing on the floor is one half-made, just a skele­tal wooden frame wait­ing to be trans­formed.

Many of the masks have an­i­mal­is­tic qual­i­ties, such as ears and a beak, hav­ing been in­spired by the crea­tures of the for­est.

Gideon, a young man from the vil­lage, ex­plains how the masks are made. “When a man sleeps at night, he dreams of the head of spir­its. When he wakes, he will sketch on the ground with a broom­stick or small knife. Then he will use that draw­ing to make the mask.”

He points to one with a long pro­trud­ing jaw and teeth, like the snout of a croc­o­dile. “The maker had slept by the river when he dreamt of this one!”

The masks are made from tapa cloth, a fab­ric cre­ated by pulp­ing the bark of a tree, which is stretched over the frame. This is then painted in red and black. The black ink comes from the sap of a tree; and for the red, leaves of the areca tree are mixed with slaked lime.

The dances are per­formed about three times a year, some­times to pass boys into man­hood and some­times for fu­ner­als, as well as other spe­cial cer­e­monies. To pre­pare for the dance, the men per­form­ing must not par­take in any wrong­do­ing through­out the day, not steal nor say bad words nor even sleep with a woman.

“If a man does some­thing morally wrong,” Gideon tells me, “when he per­forms he will be burned by the fire.”

The wear­ing of some big­ger and more im­por­tant masks re­quires an­other level of ini­ti­a­tion. For this pres­ti­gious role, men must un­der­take a long pe­riod of fast­ing. The man is buried in the soil with just his head show­ing and is not al­lowed food, only wa­ter. Some men, re­port­edly, stay like this for up to a month. When they are lifted out by their fel­low vil­lagers, they are weak but must per­form the dance be­fore they are of­fered any nour­ish­ment.

This rite of pas­sage is only un­der­taken by the strong­est el­ders in the vil­lage and those who are most re­spected.

As we talk, the chief of the vil­lage pops by to say hello, beam­ing with pride for his trea­sured tra­di­tion.

He tells me: “This dance is im­por­tant to us as it has been passed on by our an­ces­tors.

It keeps the bad spir­its away.”

In the groove ... dancers get­ting into the spirit of things at the Mask Fes­ti­val.

Fire dance ... cos­tumed men leap through the flames in the Bain­ing Moun­tains (left); danc­ing to the rhythm of the kundu (right).

Ini­ti­a­tion ... (from left) the pro­ces­sion of boys and older teenagers who will be ini­ti­ated into man­hood; Mask Fes­ti­val danc­ing; a tum­buan; one of the elab­o­rate masks.

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