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.
The day after the fire dance people got off to a relatively slow start. Around 10 a.m., I had an interview with James Cameron about the fire dance and Baining life, in general. We sat outside and the film crew filmed the interview. I found Jim an excellent interviewer, and the whole event felt more comfortable than I had imagined.
After the interview I set off for the North Baining. I had only five days left before my departure, so I chose the village that was easiest to get to. The journey turned out not to be as easy as I expected, in either direction. The driver, James, took me to a place where the coastal Baining and other residents navigate across the big bay, called Atiliklikun Bay, in big speedboats, called ‘banana boats’ because of their shapes. I thought I would be able to find a boat to take me across the bay. It was midday when we arrived, but the people on the beach said that none of the boats would be leaving until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening.
Being reluctant to just sit on the beach and wait, we called the district administrator for the coastal Baining–who had said on Thursday that he would be at this beach around noon–only to find that he was still in Kokopo. After several conversations, he persuaded us to drive back to Kokopo to meet him (an hour’s drive). When we did find him, he said he wasn’t ready to go, and found me another ride instead. That ride was also not ready to go, but I got into the car anyway. We proceeded to drive around Kokopo from store to store, while the various passengers bought supplies and talked with friends. Most of the passengers in this car were teachers from one of the local Baining schools; they were in town because they had been paid on the preceding Thursday and were now spending their earnings. They were not Baining themselves, but represented a spread of people from across Papua New Guinea.
Finally, around 4:30, we left Kokopo, but to my surprise we didn’t go straight to the beach where the boat was docked. Instead, we went to the home of the school inspector. He insisted on feeding us with rice, noodles, and chicken pieces, and some greens in a coconut sauce to put over the rice. This meal is fairly typical of what a teacher or other salaried person might eat regularly.
Just as it was getting dark we loaded into the truck again, this time along with the school inspector, who actually owned the truck, and headed for the beach. The school inspector then drove the truck home, and we got into the speedboat to head to Lassul Bay. Lassul Bay is the government headquarters for the Coastal Baining. There is a brand new health center there (to be opened with great fanfare at the end of March), a police station, the district administrator’s office, and the local government council offices.
One of the families I had been in touch with lived just outside the
government station, in what is called Number 2 Lassul (there is also a
number 3 and 4), a Baining settlement. We came up to their small beach
around 8 o’clock. It was totally dark, and I thought no one was living
Luckily, I was wrong. Although Tambas and his wife
Tangbinan, the couple with whom I had communicated, were not living
there–they had moved further back into the hills behind the
station–Tambas’ eldest son Martin Mengiam, who was two years old
when I first lived with this group of Baining in 1976, was. Martin (as
he is now called, it was Mengiam when I lived there) was away at high
school when I returned in 1991. He and his wife were delighted to see
me, as unexpected as my arrival was. Martin’s cousin (called sister in
Baining kinship terms) lived a few houses away, and she ran to meet us.
They all grabbed me, hugging and chattering, except for Awat, Martin’s
sister/cousin, who wailed and wept over me, even though she had only been
four when I left. Wailing is a sign of happiness when someone you
haven’t seen in a long time returns.
We sat in the dark around a fire
and reacquainted ourselves. The family remembered the photos I had
brought on my last visit of my two daughters, and wanted to hear all
about them. I asked about various people I remembered and got both happy
and sad news. We sat in the dark because there was neither electricity,
nor a kerosene lamp, nor even a flashlight. On subsequent nights we
hung my small flashlight up to shed some light on our food and
Old and new friends sitting outside Martin and Aidah’s house in Lassul the next morning. Photo by Jane Fajans.
quickly arranged a place for me to sleep along with two girls, Binan
and Taluvi, both around 12-13 years old, who were assigned to keep me
company. They were classified as my “grandchildren,” since their parents
had been like children to me before.
The next morning was Sunday.
This community, like most of the Coastal Baining villages, is Catholic,
so we got ready for church. Everyone washed in the sea just outside our
door and put on clean clothes. We washed in the sea because there was no
fresh water source nearby. The closest one is about a 25-minute walk.
Most people collect rainwater for drinking, wash their clothes and their
bodies in the same fresh water source on the occasions when they are
there, and then use the sea for bathing the rest of the time. The church
was only 200 feet away from where I was staying, so we wandered over
and watched people stream in from the various settlements nearby.
is no resident priest in the area, so the service was led by a
catechist. At several points he stopped the service and made the people
who were hanging around outside the church looking in, but also
socializing, come in and sit down. He and another woman led the singing,
most of which was in the Baining language, and they started several
songs over again when people missed their cues to come in. The service
ended with a bunch of announcements about work that needed to be done
for the school or the opening of the health center, etc.
was only half-full until the cachetist called everyone inside. Women
usually sit on the left and men on the right, but when everyone came in
it was too full and people sat wherever there was a seat. Photo by Jane
After church, which is called lotu in Tok Pisin and in
Baining, everyone gathers outside and talks and chews betel. There used
to be community meetings at this time, too, but now much of the business
is done through the announcements in the church. The children all
gathered in one area and began a free-for-all play period. I sat and
talked with a variety of people and handed out betel nut and received
betel in exchange. I was asked a lot about my children and my husband,
but not a lot about what I’d been doing since I was last there.
my Baining was insufficient for most conversation after so many years, I
could remember all the greetings, exchange expressions, and some simple
ways to explain my presence. For the rest we all conversed in Tok Pisin,
which is even more prevalent now than it was before. English is also
taught in the schools, and used by some of the more educated people, but
most Baining are much more comfortable in Tok Pisin, and I am not sure
how much English they really know. Even Papua New Guineans who speak
English well tend to speak Pisin in informal contexts. I planned to
visit the school during my stay.
In the afternoon, Aidah (Martin’s
wife) and I walked around the station so I could see the new health
center and the rest of the buildings, and strolled out along the road
that edges the bay. This health center is far bigger, cleaner, and
better staffed than before. They have one ‘doktor,’ who is trained but
doesn’t have a medical degree, and four nurses. They have a surgical
unit for minor cases, and a big maternity ward. More serious cases will
be transported, as in the past, to the hospitals across the bay, by
either ambulance or speedboat. The most prevalent illness in the region
is Malaria, which is endemic. Almost everyone has it, but they suffer
episodes only intermittently. The big need, in addition to malaria
medication, is good birthing and maternity care. The remaining cases
are mostly accidents falls, etc.
Aidah and Samsin in front of the new health center. Photo by Jane Fajans.
we walked around we continued to meet people, including the nurses and
policemen, and when we left the station we were hailed by numerous
Baining, either from their small hamlets along the road, or on the road
itself. Making the rounds is a Sunday activity, and everyone was relaxed
and talkative. Martin and my two roommates from the night before joined
us on our walk.
We walked all the way to the point of the bay. At the
main house of one of the old plantations, which still line the coast, I
was introduced to Tony Friend. I first thought he was a plantation
manager, but found out that he works for a company called Nautilus
Minerals, which is about to start operating a seabed mining project (for
copper among other minerals and ores) in the deep straits between New
Britain and New Ireland islands.
This was the first I’d heard of this
venture, so I talked more with him. He is not a mine expert or
geologist, but was hired as a community relations officer to liaise with
the community around the mine’s work. He also collects data on local
environmental conditions to use as a baseline for monitoring potential
problems from the mine and the other projects. As community outreach
officer he has helped with the school, the health center, and with
tuition for eight local students to go to high school on company
scholarships. I also saw Aidah angling for some money for her women’s
group and for a pre-school start-up.
He seems to be friendly with lots
of the Baining and relatively responsive to their needs. He wishes they
would be a little more engaged in developing their own agendas for
development, but respects their family and work values. From my
discussions with my hosts and the president of the local government
council, I think motivation for development is beginning to grow, but is
still several years off.
When I introduced myself to Tony Friend he
looked thoughtful, and then mentioned he had my book inside. Later in
the week I borrowed the book to show my Baining friends. I had sent
copies to several people when the book first came out, but they seem to
have either never been delivered, or to have vanished since then. Most
of the people just looked at the pictures, and I felt bad that there
weren’t more. A few, like Martin Mengiam, read a few passages and
remarked on some of the words and activities I discussed. They were most
taken with a picture of my ‘sister,’ whose name I was given back in
1976, Taluvian. She had died before my last visit. Several of her
‘children’ and sisters asked for copies of this picture. I will have to
compile a set of pictures to send back.
As a result of my
conversation with Tony Friend I want to find out more about this seabed
mining project, and about the risks and potential it might have for the
region and the people. Although I liked Tony Friend and respected the
work he was doing as community relations officer, I am less certain I
like the seabed mining project, and the potential for environmental
disasters that it opens up. In particular, I worry about Nautilus
Minerals’ plan to build an ore processing plant, which might very well
be located in Lassul Bay. Such processing plants in other parts of Papua
New Guinea have had devastating ecological effects. Although such a
plant would provide jobs and perhaps royalties to the Baining, it would
also be a catalyst for other Papua New Guineans to move into the area.
old acquaintances came over in the evening to talk to me. Binan
suddenly started doing homework in the near dark, and that was what
impelled me to get my flashlight and offer it to her. We found a way to
hang it up so she could work by its light. She was doing fractions, and
her work attracted a lot of the other young people to cluster around and
kibitz her. People go to bed early in communities like this and wake up
very early, too.