An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
I WAS fortunate to join the Yagaum and Teitab clans in the south Ambenob ward of Madang for a special occasion during the Christmas holidays of 2011.
The manhood ceremony is an important part of the Madang culture, particularly in the Amele, Bel and Rai Coast areas where it has been practiced for countless generations.
The haus man is a sacred place where boys are gathered and kept away from their homes and all impurities while taught to live as mature men.
Despite recent accounts of sorcery and cult movements associated with such traditional practices, this particular custom of the Amele, Bel and Rai Coast is nothing like these dysfunctional traditions.
As one young participant put it, “It is like rebirth”.
He said the haus man is a place for complete cleansing and reform.
Nonetheless, much of what is done indoors or in the vicinity of the haus man is strictly sacred. Strangers, foreigners and tourists are allowed to witness only the final stage of the initiation, which is the parade.
“It has been that way and will remain so”, Amele men say.
The parade, or taim bilong kamap as it is called in Tok Pisin, is a time to feast and witness the conversion of boys to men. Pigs are slaughtered according to the number of initiated boys.
At this ceremony, six pigs were bought and prepared for the day along with garden food such as taro, bananas, greens and other vegetables.
People from as far as Umin village on Astrolabe Bay had come to see and share in the feast. This does not include only immediate and extended family members, but others who come to see and tell.
All was quiet when, in colourful fashion, the young men took to the village arena to show their mothers and womenfolk they had successfully completed their initiation and were fit to live as responsible adults.
Their skin glimmered in the bright sun as they make a grand entrance. All were painted red with specially prepared oil, had similar hair styling and each wore a red laplap. They all appeared biologically as one.
As I found out later, this was intentionally done to strengthen the brotherly bond, respect and love for one another - the work of skilled haus man elders. Partly this implies to the transition from ordinary boys to young, beautiful men prepared to be active members of their respective communities.
Mothers and the womenfolk of the Yagaum and Teitab clans could not hold back tears of sorrow and joy. Six weeks of separation was behind them as they stood struggling to pick out their sons and grandsons among other young men. No fly nor the scourging heat could distract their incessant gaze.
“Today marks a new beginning for these young men”, announced the haus man elder.
Total silence followed his introductory remarks. In the middle of the village arena stood his troop of four initiated boys and their respective mos or guardians.
The six-week ritual didn’t enjoy smooth sailing but rather encountered problems or threats posed by rivals (other haus man elders), an elder told me.
In the early hours of that Saturday, rain poured relentlessly on the thatched roof of the haus man creating a deafening noise. However, the elders of Teitab proved too strong for whosoever was behind it.
The first ray of sunshine shot through the coconut and banana leaves bringing hope to the enthusiastic young men and their guardian. As they watched in awe, the burning ball eventually made its way above the dampen tree tops at the same time drying their muddied path.
No initiation proceeds unchallenged, I was told later.
After initial annotations the haus man elder now officially welcomed the public who had gathered to see his handiwork.
While waiting for the food, our short betel nut break ended as we turned to watch the spectacular Daik, a traditional dance performed as part of the initiation celebrations accompanied by food distribution.
Normally, the feast and singsing continued to the next day, however recently elders have come to limit this due to alcohol related problems.
The initiation is often scheduled for Christmas to cater for schoolboys, especially those who meet the haus man’s age requirement.
Madang is among other fortunate provinces that are likely to experience development through an industrial boom. I wonder, however, how many of these traditions which make up the rich cultural identity of this beautiful place can be preserved.