My grandfather and great-grandfather would turn in their graves if they know that I now know what they had done as Chief Priests in the gabe anda (places of worship).
Friday 9 November, 2012, marked a milestone for Hela literacy.
A renowned and well known Hela chief, soldier, theologian and politician, Damien Arabagali LM, launched the book Datagaliwabe was working in Huli.
The book in itself is a significant achievement as Mr Arabagali took the honour of being the first Hela author. In Hela less than 10% of the population is literate.
This quote from Papuan Wonderland by Jack Hides, cited in the foreword to Datagaliwabe was working in Huli, really shook me.
As I gazed on this fertile valley, this wonderland where practically any crop will grow, the question of the future of this people occurred strongly to me and I wondered whether the introduction to civilization would make them any happier then they appeared to be when we first came into contact with them.
Changes came and destroyed the Huli culture and heritage and now LNG is destroying our land, water, family ties, religion and brotherhood.
And so I will answer Jack Hides’ question on behalf of my ancestors. No sir, your introduction of civilization did not make us any happier, it broke our spirit and our land.
The content of Datagaliwabe was working in Huli gives away sacred traditional knowledge and custom, known only to a few chief priests and warriors.
The Hela ‘wigman’ is one of the most famous traditional costumes, and often used to sell PNG tourism. However, not much is known about the deep tradition and culture behind the colourful dress.
As Arabagli states, the knowledge was sacred and not shared, therefore, missionaries often referred to it as paganism and many Christian churches made it their aim to destroy it.
My mother came from the priestly Tagapua clan mentioned in the book and I often used to listen to how she – as a child - used to follow her father to the places of worship (gabe anda) for sacrifices to Datatagaliwabe (God, according to the book).
My mother was not allowed near the sites; therefore she would wait until her father finished the ceremony.
I also grew up with the tales mentioned in the book as bedtime stories, especially the Haroli legend, Ira hari, Bayabaya etc. However the true knowledge was forbidden to us.
Damien Arabagli, in his attempt to prove that God was working in Huli before missionaries came, sold this sacred knowledge to the world rather cheaply.
I believe it should have entered the world with force, knowing that it is probably the last of the strongest and oldest cultures in the world and—sad to say one of the last dying ones, especially the Haroli institution.
The Huli culture and tradition as told in this book is unique in the way it coincides with the Christian Bible. You can compare the Ira Hari legend with the Tower of Babel, the death of Bayabaya with the death of Jesus, the House in the Sky with Heaven, Datagaliwabe with God, and so on.
There are no tales, traditional knowledge, myths or legends on earth that coincide with the Bible the way these legends do. It gave me a sense of pride of belonging to this culture and owning this heritage.
I will give my reasons as to why I said it was sold cheaply.
When I say cheaply, I don’t mean the price which is K100 a book (rather expensive I should say). I mean the importance, recognition and publicity and the book’s failure to reach the majority.
At the book launch, family and friends were the only ones invited and only a few politicians. Not many people were in attendance and those journalists who arrived were not given a table.
The people launching the book were a pretty close-knit group. They failed to use the power of media and failed to invite people who would help sell the book – like other writers and critics. Quite frankly, the launch was a failure.
The other factor that will greatly affect the book’s distribution is its appearance. Right now it is printed as a magazine. Magazines mainly sit on tables for visitors to come and pass time. My heritage will sit on tea tables, aeroplanes and in hotels. My grandfather will surely turn in his grave!
The book should have been in paperback form, where it would be easy to hold and read, to carry around and kept on a shelf. If it was to be an educational book, a hard cover medium sized textbook would have done the job just fine.
Secondly and most importantly is the title, Datagaliwabe was working in Huli. If that book ends up on a shelf in Australia or New York or the Solomons or even PNG where we have more than 800 languages, it will be ignored and will collect dust.
Or is he an African or Caribbean ghost or a medicine man from Asia? The Obama figure in front will attract attention, but all for the wrong reasons.
And thirdly, if any book is to be published it must be edited at least twice or more by different people, no matter if you are a professional established writer or a first-timer.
This book (or I should say, magazine) seemed unedited, and if any editing was done, sad to say, it was a half-hearted job.
The pictures were all over the place. I had to turn back several pages to see the pictures of houses or attire mentioned in a section. Sometimes when a picture was on a page, the text underneath or opposite did not correspond to the picture.
The book should have been written in a sequence where it started from traditional cultures, explaining their role and significance and then connecting them with Christian beliefs.
And finally, what I learnt when writing is that you must know your audience.
For a book such as this, one has to ask: Are we aiming the anthropology community or the religious community? Are we writing for the world to know and respect our culture or are we writing for the Huli speaking community? Are we writing for our children to keep our culture or are we writing for general interest?
Such questions guide us as writers. They also help when translating our tok ples.
We must all know that our culture is a priceless gift we were born with. Some people know only their ancestors’ tales and imagine them in their mind.
We, however, live in the time where we still see our culture and heritage, we follow them and touch them and feel them—unlike our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will only hear about them and see them in pictures and read them in books.
We must learn to treasure our culture and, when it is given to the world, we must show it in a way that people can never forget.
As they say, this is now water under the bridge and I just sat down and penned what is in my mind. I mean no offence to anyone and I hope that this can be used as an example and a guide for all heritage writers.
I write this as a reader with no judgment, conclusions, additions or subtractions to make. The views here are personal and I apologise in advance if I offend anyone.
I hope that readers will forgive the mistakes and errors and be interested to read about this exotic, wonderful and amazing culture that has been right under your nose but hidden so tight.
I promise, you will be amazed at how civilized we Hela were before missionaries and that we knew God and lived a Godly life.
If you have only heard about our bad side—I know most of you did—come and find out our unique side.
Although I might not have the right to do this, I feel this will be one of the few opportunities for publicity this book will get. Contact Damien Arabagali on (675) 7139 6144 or email [email protected] or [email protected] for more information.
* Hela Wane is a pseudonym of a prominent Papua New Guinean writer