IF YOU read a lot of anthropology as I did once, you realise how dry and boring objective accounts of customs and culture can be.
Any anthropological writer who attempts to elevate to better prose, so escaping this academic miasma, risks the disapproval of their peers.
Anthropologists like Margaret Mead succeeded in bridging the gap because they were eminent anthropologists as well as exceptional writers.
Ironically, this is also a trap for Papua New Guineans writing about their own culture and heritage.
What might be interesting to you or your clan may leave other people unresponsive or confused. Making such accounts thought-provoking to a wide range of readers is a real challenge and in 2015 very few of the heritage entries in the Crocodile Prize succeeded in overcoming it.
Konetero Ronnie Dotaona did succeed. He took traditional custom and history and imbued it with an inspirational tone that tingled the blood.
In doing so he wisely chose a subject that strikes a chord in our collective memories. It is a coastal theme but highlanders have something similar in their stories of expansion and pioneering settlement.
Capturing these subjects in elegant prose makes dry anthropological accounts pale by comparison. Ronnie was a worthy winner of the 2015 Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing.
Suau: The sons of seafarers
KONETERO RONNIE DOTAONA
EVERY Suau-speaking lad is fond of the ocean. Ask him. And ask him about his dream. “Go to maritime college, join the navy or build a workboat.”
If a Simbai is born with all the secrets of the forest, then a Suau is a born seafarer. Infant boys are carried by an uncle or grand-uncle to the beach. He is made to face Tupo Yalasi, the direction of the west wind.
The old man will perform the ‘infant dance’ and sing the ritual song calling on the Yalasi wind to inundate the young one with strength. And the baby will be taken to the front of a sailing canoe in rough storms and the waves will spray his face while uncle or grand-uncle sings. Later, young people reaching manhood or womanhood undergo rituals connected to the sea.
Our fathers sail ‘kemuluwa’ or ‘amuyuwa’, ocean-going canoes with sails made of ‘dam’ - woven dried pandanus leaves.
The craft reminds me of the skill it took, and the tragedies experienced, on the part of my ancestors in crossing thousand miles of ocean to reach the land we call ‘home’. I do not know if the seas were ‘pacificus’ in that era.
The names ‘kemuluwa’ and ‘amuyuwa’ signify that these voyages journeyed across the Muruwa or Muyuw seas near what are now the Woodlark and neighbouring islands.
They built and sailed ‘wolibote’, workboats without motors, driven by sails. I asked my grand-fathers where the name originated. I came to understand that these boats were similar to whaleboats, thus the name ‘wolibote’ was coined.
The arrival of marine motors motivated them to share the dream of a white man, Reverend Charles Abel, to build boats. Our fathers were trained at Kwato Island by Australian boat builders.
Some were trained at Wako Wakoko Slipways and at Sariba Island, while others pioneered the Salamo Slipways on Fergusson Island. The quality of work our fathers did in the boatyards was comparable to Australian and British boat builders.
I recall the stories of my grand-uncle. When he sleeps on the deck at night, he feels the pattern of currents and waves hitting the boat. He tells the tiller man if they are approaching a reef or nearing land.
He uses the stars to navigate. He knows all the current patterns and uses them to his advantage. His clan totem is the sea eagle. I had a chance to travel the coast between Milne Bay and Morobe. On many occasions, I spotted the Kubona the dawn star from the ship. The first thought that entered my mind was, “I’ve seen the same star, my Lapita ancestors have seen.”
We hear stories of our fathers meeting sea monsters and storms and the parts of the Milne Bay waters where one is not allowed to utter a word. They tell us the different names of ocean waves and describe the areas from Milne Bay to the Motuan to the Gulf coastline that we need to know.
Suaus take pride that their sons were some of the pioneers to sail the oceans of our country. The songs of our forefathers were composed and sung on these journeys, songs of leaving their loved ones behind, coming ashore on foreign soil and of young lasses eloping.
Our fathers taught us the lives of sea birds - sea eagle, sea hawk, frigate bird and tern - and what we can learn from them. Sayings like ‘being shark-eyed and not of a sting ray’ or ‘sleep like a turtle’ or ‘wake up like a tern’ were coined.
Around the evening fires, we have heard stories and legends of the sea and its monsters: ‘sine’ligusi’salasala’, ‘sineboudalili’, ‘polepole’, ‘bolisaielo’, ‘sasalutu gwanegwane’.
If that was not enough, our mothers created games: string figures such as the ‘amuyuwa’, Kubona the dawn star, the ocean tides and currents, Taubodidi the seafarer. When kids play these figures, they are drawn closer to the spirit of seafaring.
A Suau man knows the look of a strong workboat; boats that can load at the same time and withstand the storms. As lads, we were taught the names of hardwoods that resist the naval shipworm, hardwoods that will last.
Suaus are a headache to the provincial maritime authority, because they breach strong wind warnings. They take pride in riding on the waves, even though they know that the ocean does not keep memorial headstones afloat.
May the Suau lads sail the waters and build hardwood boats out of love, respect and character, boats that will stand life’s stormy seas.
May they, in future, cross oceans with outrigger canoes. May their sails be filled with the trade winds. To our forefathers who have already sailed away. You’re a mariner. Fair winds!