Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She
was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in
Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining
people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua
New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
On Tuesday, March 13, 2012, Martin and his mother, Tangbinan, sent messages out to various hamlets in the region to invite everyone to a farewell dinner on Wednesday. All day I was told who would be coming. As plans got finalized, I learned that each guest was going to bring food, and that several men and boys were also going to arrange a dance performance of a part of the dance called amambua.
I had seen amambua performed several times when I lived with the Baining in the seventies, but had been told when I visited in 1991 that they no longer performed it. I was pleased to hear that they were performing it again. This particular performance was being readied for the opening of the new health center. The performance for my going away party was thus sort of a dress rehearsal for the event a week or two later.
With invitations out and preparations on the way, Awat, Aidah, and I set off to wash clothes. We headed for a spring and water hole about 20 minutes away. We had to walk about twice as far, however, because we first had to buy washing soap at the trade store along the coast. While at the store, we also bought some rice and tinned fish to serve as my contribution to the going away party.
The water hole is called ‘wata kalop’ in pidgin, which means jumping water. The water comes out of a crevice in the rock and falls to the pool below. Those who use the spring have created a small channel made of a split bamboo to create a kind of waterfall that works as a shower.
Women washing clothes at the ‘wata kalop’. Photo by Jane Fajans.
After we washed our clothes, we spread them out on the grass and bushes to dry. Then we sat in the cacao grove alongside the water and cooked some plantains and waited for our clothes to dry.
While we waited, a big hornbill (a kind of bird) flapped noisily
into a tree alongside us. I was startled since I considered these to be
relatively rare birds, but I was told it was a pet of one of the men
who lived up the hill from where we were. Although he was a well-known
bird, the young children were still fascinated with him and climbed the
tree to get closer.
Pet hornbill (amaranga) that came to visit us while we were resting in the cacao grove. Photo by Jane Fajans.
and Awat talked about some projects they would like to undertake in the
future. Aidah has started a women’s group, which she wants to use to
teach the women in the community some skills that will bring in some
money. She is curious about different handicrafts and mentioned how
some women in West New Britain make jewelry from seashells or turtle
shells. She also mentioned bilums, which are woven carrying bags made of
native twine. These bags are made and sold all around Papua New Guinea,
often for a relatively high price.
She wanted some other ideas about
crafts the Baining women might make. I said I would try to get some ideas from
different NGOs that helped set up such projects in countries around the
world. Aidah is also very interested in cooking and nutrition, and she wants
some cookbooks to help create a more varied diet. I gave her a few
different sauce recipes, which could be adapted in a variety of ways
depending on the starches, vegetables, or meats she had available. She
has set up a women’s catering group within her women’s group, and they
have occasionally cooked for events and meetings at the government
station nearby. She says her goal is self-reliance for women.
is not a Baining. She is a Tolai, a member of the neighboring ethnic
group in East New Britain. She is married to a Baining and has lived
there for about 12 years. Traditionally, the Tolai have been seen as
very successful entrepreneurs, and quite adept at participating in the
rapid development rampant in Papua New Guinea in the last 30-40 years.
Aidah’s interest in various non-traditional activities is an example of
this perspective, and sets her apart from her Baining neighbors to a
considerable degree. She is, however, interested in using some of her
skills and initiatives to help the Baining move into new activities and
relations with the world beyond the Baining region.
my last full day with the Baining. We cleaned the hamlet, cutting grass
and sweeping the cleared areas. We laid out several tarps for people to
sit on and collected an assortment of dishes and big leaves to serve
We talked about the different
kinds of food events. This farewell party we were preparing for was just
a common way of saying good-bye, and not particularly traditional. We
all discussed the several food events that are part of the mortuary
rituals and the ways that people use food to symbolically mark their
relation to the deceased. Consanguineal kin (those related by blood)
give food for the feasts. Affinal kin (those related by marriage) often
refuse food in these contexts, and may “taboo” a certain food like taro
or pig throughout the mourning period in memory of the deceased. The big
feast that marks the end of the mourning period becomes the occasion to
end the food taboo. This feast includes pigs, taro, coconut cream
sauce, and numerous other foods.
Another big food event occurs
during amambua, when people build a huge display of food, which is then
dismantled the next day and distributed to all who come to the event. I
saw this display built once in 1977. Most of the people I talked with
about this on Wednesday, however, had never seen it. I have promised to
send this photo to them.
began arriving around 6:30, when it was almost dark. We all settled on
the ground and began exchanging betel nut. Everyone one was anxious to
catch up and to give me relevant information about their families. My
two younger ‘sisters’ from 1976-77, Dembi and Dagerkan, both came.
Dagerkan’s husband told me all about each of their marriages and
children and where they had lived and worked. Dembi did not bring her
husband, but did bring her almost-adult daughter. Dembi was about 14-15
when I lived here before, and had just finished school. She was learning
to garden, cook, and take care of her ‘child,’ Awat (who was actually
her sister’s child).
Dagerkan was about two years younger and still in
school, but she too cooked and fetched water. We three often went to
fetch water together and bathe, and we all scraped coconuts to make a
soup for the greens we ate almost every day. Although I was classified
as sort of their peer since I was an unmarried woman, I was both older
than they and considerably less able in the cooking and gardening
skills. Both girls were very shy when I lived there before, but Dembi
seemed to remain very shy, while Dagerkan was more talkative now.
circled through the crowd and tried to remember names and relations,
but I became more confused as more people arrived and those I had met
moved to new groups. I was afraid to call someone by the wrong name.
Some people gave me individual packets of food thought to be special
treats. I received a branch with four mulis, which are a kind of citrus
fruit tarter than oranges but sweeter than grapefruits. I received a
leaf bundle of the seasonal food, pitpit, a lovely dish of chicken in
coconut milk served with noodles, and I was given an enormous cooked
taro, which I was told to take with me to town the next day. I sampled
each of these foods with gratitude and then contributed them to the
feast (except for the mulis and taro).
Around 9:30, a group of women
(and one man, Martin, my host) began dividing up the food into portions
to be distributed around the hamlet to each person or group of persons. It was a skillful and time-consuming job to make sure everyone had a
taste of everything, and enough food to fill up. I was glad I wasn’t
expected to organize this. There was indeed enough food to go around,
and soon everyone was happily eating.
we finished, a group of men and boys faded into the woods beyond the
cleared hamlet. They came back about an hour later to perform amambua.
Four older men sat down to form the chorus. They began singing and
pounding a length of bamboo on a log in front of them. Soon a line of
boys (from about 7 to 15 years old) entered the clearing. They had
headdresses made of coconut husks, wore grass skirts, and their bodies were
painted with black clay. They held sticks in their hands, which were
supposed to represent spears. The dance is said to represent men going
off on a raiding party.
the boys danced for a few minutes others, mostly girls, got up and
danced among the boys. The circle widened and grew as the music
the dance, which ended around midnight, everybody started to lie down
and cover themselves with thin cloth covers. In a short while only a
few people were still murmuring around the fires that dotted the
Everyone was up early the next morning; talk began
around 5:30. I had to leave to catch a speedboat with
Tony Friend at 7 a.m., and it was a 40-minute walk. I said good-bye to
everyone, especially to the students about to leave for school. I was
surprised that many of the guests decided to accompany me along the road
to Friend’s beach. I arrived there with an entourage of about 25
We settled along the beach and waited for the boat. We waited
and waited. No boat. Tony was perturbed. This had never happened before.
He got out his satellite phone and called the boat people, only to find
that the boat needed repairs. We waited for a report for over an hour.
Then, we learned that the boat could not be repaired in time. Tony
called for another boat, which had to come from Kokopo and would take
two hours. Most of my friends insisted on waiting with me.
asked people to tell me stories, but most were too shy. I finally went
into Tony’s house and borrowed my book, and soon everyone was looking at
the pictures. I promised to send copies of several of the pictures. A canoe came up to the beach, and a Tolai fisherman sold some of the women freshly caught Bluefin tuna.
we waited, I became grateful for the mulis and taro I had been given
the night before. I peeled and divided the mulis and the taro, and
distributed it to children and hungry adults. Instead of seeming like a
heavy burden, the food turned out to be really useful. The Baining
always pack food when they go places, and I think they have the right
idea. You never know when you might find yourself wishing you had
The boat finally arrived at 12:20. My friends and I
all hugged and cried as I left, but with the warm feeling of having
forged new and stronger ties. We set off for Kokopo and the Rapapo Beach
hotel. Unfortunately, the sea was much rougher and choppier than it
usually is at 7 a.m. since the wind had picked up, and we hit lots of
waves. Because of the rough seas, it took three hours instead of two to
reach the hotel. My tailbone was mighty sore from banging down over all
It seemed like much longer than 5 days since I had left Rapapo.