An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
CULTURES everywhere are unique and diverse. And the multitudes that make up these cultures view and interpret the world differently.
The Aekyom (Awin) tribe from the Ok Tedi area of Western Province have a culture where parents made all the arrangements and decided who their child should marry. However, this practice is dying out today because of internal and external influences.
Parental engagement and marriage meant there were delays. For a man, he had to prove he was mature enough to marry. For a woman, the same applied but this was not as strict as for the male. So a young girl was sometimes forced to marry at an early age.
For those mature enough to marry, there were several qualities they had to show. The man had to be a good hunter and provider and also be fit for other activities like warfare. Any young man who possessed these qualities had the opportunity to have arrangements fast tracked and would marry sooner.
The woman had to know how to make sago, make a garden, look after children, fish and, above all, be obedient to her parents.
The aim of arranged marriages to achieve a good and prosperous marriage.
The Aekyom people practice the system of first cousin marriage. Marriage outside the family is also practiced but only under certain circumstances.
The first cousin, the son of a sister, would automatically marry the daughter of her mother’s brother.
An important reason for arranged first cousin marriage was to avoid argument and revenge. When the couple encountered problems, they would become a family matter and be settled within the family.
Most often who a man or woman was to marry was never disclosed until the day of marriage.
When all arrangements were complete and when all parties agreed, a marriage feast would be secretly organised. The organisers would decide where to host it and set a day. Invitations were given out to all close relatives.
The bridegroom’s family and relatives would get gem stones, other materials of value and a pig or pigs, maybe a cassowary, and have them ready for the occasion.
When the day of marriage arrived, the bridegroom’s closest friends (also known as the persuaders - friends who are aware of what is happening), would stay close to him and cook something, tell stories and jokes and keep him company to keep the mind of the bridegroom occupied.
The bride’s closest friends did the same. However, the woman was always the first to know the secret because, in marriage, a woman is required to wear a simple tulip dress used only in marriage ceremonies.
As soon as the bride was told, people would gather around her and begin chanting.
While the chanting was going on, the bridegroom would become suspicious and ask his friends what was going on. This is the time when one of his closest friends got up, danced around him and tell him the meaning of the chanting.
Sometimes the bride or the bridegroom resisted but people had been appointed to calm the man and the woman before they did something silly.
The reasons why people kept the marriage secret is unclear to me, but one could guess it was to keep the bride and the bridegroom away from each other to avoid them having sex before marriage.
Usually, the wedding takes the whole night. Family members and relatives of boy and girl meet in a house and usually one of the uncle’s from the girl’s side stands up and announces the reason for the occasion.
He calls the niece by name and tells her- Tonight we are officially announcing that you will become the wife of – and calls the bridegroom’s name. In the same way, he calls the boy by name and repeats what he said to the girl.
By this time, everybody in the community has gathered at the meeting place. Most of these are older people who have advice for the new couple. These advisors offer advice on issues of life and marriage. This usually takes the whole night.
Throughout the night, the girl will continue to stay with her best friends on the women’s side while the boy stays with his friends on the men’s side.
If the girl is from another village, the two may not have seen each other’s faces before. This will have to wait until daybreak when they are sharing sago.
At daybreak it is either the uncle of the girl (the one who announced the marriage) or another close relative who declares the two as married. He then instructs the girl to cook sago and comes to a central public place. As she comes forward, he invites the boy to join her. Both of them are instructed to sit.
As they sit down, the uncle tells the girl to break the sago in half and hand over the other half to her husband to be. They both then share the sago in full public view. This indicates that the two are now one.
The ceremony is ended with feasting and then the man is ready to take his new wife home.
The newlyweds are expected to go out together on their first fishing or hunting trip.
The wife must at all times stay close to her husband. If they find a pig or cassowary in the bush, and the husband shoots it, his new wife is required to touch the elbow of the hand that let go of the arrow.
Whatever they gathered, they bring home, share and begin a new life together.
The Gogodala people have two head clans, white and red. All other sub clans fall into either of these.
When a man wants to marry, he must prove that he is ready. He must be capable of making a canoe, paddling, preparing yam gardens and building a house.
When the man’s parents see their son is ready, they decide to find a partner for him.
So they ask a family from the other clan if they can give their daughter in marriage. If the parents of the girl agree, they set a date for engagement kaka. Before then, the boy and girl will not know it is engagement kaka time.
Both families are required to cook food and come together in the girl’s family’s house and share the food. Here the boy’s father announces the engagement of the chosen girl. The father of the girl accepts the engagement and agrees to give away his daughter in marriage. During this process they will set a day when their children are to marry.
In the engagement period the boy’s family will test the girl to see if she will be loyal, trustworthy and faithful to the boy and see if she is capable of looking after their son and his family.
Whenever she makes sago she is required to bring a bundle of sago and when she goes fishing she has to take some of her catch to the boy’s family. This also applies to gardening and firewood until the day set by both parents for them to marry arrives.
At this stage the whole village readies the wedding feast. Men go hunting for meat while the women make sago, fish, gather tulip greens, collect firewood and dry coconuts and get them ready for the wedding feast.
On the marked day, the women wake up early and begin food preparation for cooking. At this time, men also start cooking the meat they have killed.
When the food is cooked an announcement is made for the girl’s family and clan members to bring the girl to the feasting area.
The girl’s parents and clan dress the girl in traditional attire and - with the food they have prepared, paddles her brothers have made and other gifts - take the girl to the boy’s family compound.
The girl’s clan members beat kundus and singing and dancing take the girl to the boy who she is to marry. The boy gladly receives the girl and the gifts she brings with her.
The boy’s family and clan members in exchange give their share of food and gifts to the girl’s family. There will be happy singing and dancing until the end of the feasting in the evening. The girl is now part of a new family. She will be required never to return to her family and clan again.
After all this, the girl’s family will ask for an exchange from the boy’s family. This custom, strong in the past, is now dying out.
So there are significant differences in marriage protocols between these two close neighbouring language groups. The Aekyom people practice first cousin marriage while the Gogodala people practice the exchange system.
The Aekyom do not made known the marriage to the man and woman until the wedding ceremony. The Gogodalas inform the two during the engagement ceremony.
The Aekyom marriage traditions and the Gogodala marriage traditions have some things in common: the parental set up; feasting and proving they are capable of looking after themselves.
Acknowledgements: Max Ako, Administrator, Rumginae Rural Hospital, and Dedewanato Won, Pay Clerk, Rumginae Rural Hospital