Story by Dan
Thomas our host who had given our party the invitation to visit his Panam village greeted us at the drop off point. He asked us to wait a few minutes while he or arranged the village customary welcome. With his signal we walked toward the customary arrangement of traditional dress and bamboo windpipes. The village folk ranging from young children up to the elders and chiefs where covered in green face paint (a mixture of lime and plant dies) and wearing headdresses and skirts made from local fresh green plants.
A woman came forward and adorned us with handmade neck dresses as we formed a single line between two lines of village people singing and playing their beautiful bamboo windpipes.
We where guided into the welcoming wind house, a traditional hut made of bamboo, sago and other local plants. Here introductions where made first by the chiefs and elders and then by our party consisting of eco tourism operators and representatives from Arawa learning of Thomas and families project called ‘Welcome to Alewora” and help to network it with the other eco tourism initiatives in the Central Bougainville districts of Keita and Nagovis.
After the formal cultural proceedings Thomas gave us a tour of his amazing herb and flower garden that he and his family had been busily working on over the past year or so. They had cleverly used coconut husks layered like shingles to form the raised garden beds. This not only looks fantastic but it also provides a consistent water source to the plants and a home for the microbes to build on the already bursting fertility of the soils there. Thomas guided us to another area of the garden, the dinning wind haus, where we were offered fresh coconuts to drink and Buai or beetle nut to chew if we wanted. A storm moved in and we took shelter from the heavy rain in the dining haus.
We got served a beautiful lunch of fresh chicken from the village, rice, taro and sweet yams with greens and fruit. Over lunch we talked about the effects of mining on the environment and the people and discussed how eco tourism and agriculture where the preferred industries in the region. Thomas and the visitors alike explained that the reason they have taken up eco tourism initiatives is that they do not want to see further mining from foreign companies spoiling their beautiful lands again and hope to protect and preserve their environment and waters with eco tourism and agricultural cottage industries.
After lunch I met Peter and John from the village and they told me that later tonight there would be a big ceremony in the village just down there a bit further. They call it a “Sing Sing Kaul” and I was told it was a big customary ceremony of singing dancing and playing the windpipes all night long until morning where they would kill twenty pigs to share amongst the villages. The heavy rain stopped and the other visitors, the eco tourism co-ordinators got back on the truck bound for Arawa. Clive, little Clive and myself stayed and were shown to our accommodation, a beautiful bungalow with several rooms and mattresses (a luxury in Bougainville) with Mosquito nets.
I was invited to join the Sing Sing Kaul later in the night, this was very exciting. I waited with Thomas and his sons Dennis and Jeffery for the right time to walk with them to the ceremony. It was a slippery muddy path there but I managed it ok.
I arrived to a big group of local peoples moving quite quickly around in a big circle playing instruments and cheering Wooooo whoooo and singing. There were several hundred people moving anti-clockwise around a central point marked by a cut tree pole. I noticed several other smaller circles in the area as well doing similar things with different songs. I was told there would be a least ten different groups coming throughout the night. It was an amazing site to see so many people having so much fun and every one participating at one time or another. Dennis, Jeffery and Peter kept a watchful eye on me as their wantoks looked on wondering what this white man was doing here. But everyone was very friendly and many came and shook hands with me. Dennis asked me if I wanted to join in, I said ok and he took my hand and guided me into the big circle.
It is customary to hold hands with friends especially with other men. This took a little while for me to get comfortable with as we danced around the circle and I realised that I was not being judged for holding hands with a man, something that would be judged suspiciously in Australia. After a few hours of dancing I told Denise I would go back to Panam village as I was tired and so he could have proper fun without having to watch out for me all night. He said wait I will get you a room in my friends haus so you can rest a while. I was given a small room and Anthony one of the man who originally invited Clive and I out to Nagovis, brought me some sweet yams and Taro coated in coconut oil to eat. I lay down and rested a while, the huge sound of the sing sing kaul rumbled and shook the room I was in. I managed to sleep a couple of hours amidst all the commotion before Dennis came and woke me to dance in the Sunrise. It was huge, many circles of song dance as men with big bush knifes rotated around and celebrated with cheers and shouting. Even small children on mother’s backs or running around the outsides seemed limitless with their energy to party.
I ducked and weaved as I negotiated the slippery muddy ground and avoided the slicing potential of the bush knifes in hands of drunken men (local home brew spirit from coconut) slipping and running around chopping at the ground as they yelled with joy and satisfaction. Next came the battle of the beats with the big hollow log drums type instruments. This was a cultural battle of traditional communication beats than formed a battle with a winner and a loser. It was very interesting as I could not work out the winners from the losers but everyone else seemed to understand perfectly. Daylight had broken now and it was time for the pigs. Representatives of the Singsing groups took their mobile music parade over to the pigs playing there pipes until they finished in front of the pigs and proceeded to chop up there bamboo instruments with their machetes’ or bush knives.
Now I understood why they had been dancing and playing all night with bamboo pipe in one hand and bush knife in the other. The strongest men pulled the pigs out of there bamboo fence enclosure tied a rope to the pigs back leg and walked them off to the village they would be slaughtered at for lunch and dinner that day. The pig is traditionally cooked in bamboo with herbs over the fire. This makes the meat very soft and nice as the water within the bamboo steams the meat. I felt very fortunate to have the Panam village people share their pig with me.