An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
KARIM LEK was a courtship custom in the Upper Simbu where young people met in the night to sit, share and express love, joy and affection through exchanges of serenades and courtship songs known as giglange-kaugo.
Commonly known as kumugl-ambai-kaugo, the practise was popular throughout Simbu and extended to bordering areas including Minj, Banz, Nodugl and Jimi in Jiwaka Province.
There were three types of karim lek popular in Upper Simbu: the kua-nade, where participants exceeded more then 20; the gilange-kaugo, where participants numbered more than five but less than 10 with the number of boys exceeding that of the girls; and the most intimate of all, the kumugl-ambai-kaugo, where the participants comprised mostly affectionate partners numbering to less than four (two boys, two girls) or just a boy and a girl.
While the latter two (giglange-kaugo and kumugl-ambai-kaugo) took place in the privacy of the girl’s homes all year round, the kua-nande was an occasional event held once or twice in a year at the special invitation of a host clan.
The invited clan then reciprocates by inviting men from the host clan for karim lek with girls from the previously invited clan. In all the three types of karim lek courtships, girls remain in their homes and the boys travel to visit them in the night.
Seating arrangements also determined the type of karim lek. In kua-nande and kumugl-ambai-kaugo sessions, both genders sit together side by side or alternatively in pairs with their hands clamped tight with interlocking fingers while in giglange-kaugo the boys sit in a row facing the girls directly opposite without any physical contact during the exchanges of love songs and serenades.
The kua-nande was more of a public entertainment involving a large number of participants from all age groups except elders, minors and married women. Young married men were eligible to take part should they wish.
The session could be held indoors or outdoors on clear moonlit nights that included massive head turning (tanim het or bitno-pia) and nose rubbing (gimano-kombuglo) between partners.
The session could become so intimate and generate such extreme affection that, at the break of dawn, young girls from the host clan would elope in numbers with men from the invited clan.
The gilange-kaugo and kumugl-ambai-kaugo, on the other hand, were restricted to the young and remained closed-door courtships that led to gradual friendship, affection and love amongst the boys and girls.
The boys had the freedom to karim lek with as many girls as they wanted. So were the girls until they decided to settle with one boy from amongst the many with whom they courted.
Between the closed-door and year-round karim lek types is giglange-kaugo, which was generally a show of talent by the boys and would precede the kumugl-ambai-kaugo in any karim lek session. It was performed by a team of boys who would serenade the small number of girls in a girl’s house. Elderly women also perform it in other night occasions as interlude or during intermissions during the ambai-ingugl paugua iwenda dingua and the ambu-kindene-kaman sessions.
The former session was held on the night before releasing a girl into public as adult after her first maiden period and the latter on the night before she was wedded to a husband. In both occasions the girl was grilled with the laws of dos and don’ts to observe in the upcoming phases of her life as an adult and as a wife respectively.
The giglange-kaugo session during a karim lek courtship could switch to kumugl-ambai-kaugo depending on the girls’ wish. While the boys performed their courtship songs the girls took the opportunity to decide on their prospective partners.
As soon as the session ended the girls forwarded individual requests to the boy of their choice. In this instance the unchosen colleagues left for the next girl’s house while the handpicked boys remained behind.
The chosen ones then rearranged the sitting positions, partnered themselves with the girl who picked each of them and with their hands clamped together, fingers interlocked and legs stretched out front they’d engage in the most intimate and the most romantic of all the karim lek types, the kumugl-ambai-kaugo.
If there were no selections made the entire team moved to the next girl’s house.
During the kumugl-ambai-kaugo courtship the boy would release one of his songs containing calculated lyrics and his partner (girl) would sing along with him, both ending the song sweetly with a dragging romantic tune known as gaugl-nigle.
The girl in return released one of her numbers and both would end it sweetly again with a gaugl-nigle. The interludes between the songs would be filled romantic chats, jokes, pep talks, fun and cheeky affectionate laughters known as sigil-gaugl-nigle.
This was all part of the courtship fun and the atmosphere would become intimate and so romantic that sometimes the girl’s head would fall to the side and rest on the boy’s shoulder.
Oblivious to the time the session would seem to drag on forever, the clock ticking towards dawn. The spectators comprising mostly kids and mothers from the nearby houses would be gone. The girl’s mother who had kept the fire burning to provide light for most of the night would doze off in the nearby bed.
When none of the karim lek participants would attend to a dying fire, love was in the air and at dawn the girl could elope with the boy to his place. When that happened she becomes a kaugo-ambai, meaning a girl won through karim lek.
The girl could remain in the boy’s village and become his wife or she’d be publicly oiled (or kugo-gaigl-kwa) and sent back to her place with gifts and presents.
In old times the karim lek culture was regarded as a matchmaker and was a mandatory custom amongst the young. It was a prerequisite for all young boys and girls and failure to participate was a disgrace and would stigmatise for the ones who did not participate.
As soon as the boy underwent the initiation ritual known as kua-ombuno (bird showing) in the yagl-ingu (men’s house), he was ready to court. During the ritual all the rules and laws – the dos and don’ts of life including feminine issues - were given to him.
These included the taboos to observe while on karim lek missions. Amongst the taboos were never to touch the girl’s breasts, never to swear, never to allow the hands near the grass skirt (purpur) area and, most important of all, never to sleep in the girl’s home after the karim lek.
After ‘graduation’ boys were ready to search the land and journey with other senior boys in the clan on regular night trips to girls’ homes for karim lek courtships.
As the culture did not allow boys and girls from within the same clan to court, the boys travelled many miles under cover of darkness across territorial boundaries of other clans in search of girls’ for karim lek.
Quite often unaware of another’s movements, two or more teams of boys from different clans could front up at the same venue (the girl’s house) at the same time. When that happened, the first team to arrive was allowed into the girl’s house for karim lek while other teams joined the queue outside.
Instances of jealousy cropped up during such moments and this could lead to fistfights between the teams, often instigated by a boyfriend of one of the girls who arrived late.
But this was all part of karim lek culture. Usually the other teams moved to the next girl’s house and returned later when the former team was thought to have finished and left.
The courtship songs or serenades remained the primary ingredient in any karim lek. It was this that conquered the girls’ hearts, as well as the girl’s mothers and other spectators in the girl’s home.
Every boy and girl made it their duty to be well prepared and equipped with courtship songs before they participated in karim lek. Lyrics were carefully selected and composed with words to draw attention and suit a particular partner or situation.
The lyrics were carefully composed to include the name of the girl, rivers, forests, places, roads and other familiar features. Often the boys turned to their mothers, who were experts in this area, for coaching before they ventured out.
For the girl, her first menstrual period denoted her maturity and the time to accept courtship. She would be kept indoors during the entire period of her first menstrual period (known as ambai-ingugl-paugua).
She would formally enter the world of adults when her menstrual period ended, and after a night of intense grilling, through a small ceremonial feast known as ambai-ingugl paugua iwenda endigua.
During the feast a special dish of the choicest foods cooked for this occasion would be placed before her to enjoy and to celebrate her adulthood. A pig or two may be slaughtered for the occasion.
Along with the food would be presents and gifts brought by friends, family members and relatives who would later benefit from the bride price payment when she was married.
The gifts would mainly consist of items she’d need in the next phase of her life - new clothes (grass skirts or purpur), mirror, beads and necklaces, body oils, face paint - that she would wear or use to make herself attractive.
Then the girl would join with other senior girls of the clan and live under a single roof to attract boys into the house for karim lek. A maximum of three and minimum of two girls (sometimes just one) normally lived under a single roof to attract boys into the house.
The house could be the home of one of the girls whose mother would act as a chaperone to all the girls. In the nights when karim lek was in session, she’d be the person responsible to keep the fire burning to maintain light and warmth.
It was always a desire of the boys to be the first to pair with a fresh girl and induct her into the art of karim lek. Boys from neighbouring clans would flock to the house at night when word spread of a new girl on the scene.
Often there would be resistance put up by the frustrated novice on the first night that could result in a tussle between the girl and the pressing male partner, who’d be keen to pin her down for the first encounter of karim lek.
Such resistance was expected and a technique called debikin sigua (where the thigh muscles were hit hard) would be applied by the boy to settle her.
Such taming was part of the karim lek fun and when the girl surrendered to the impact of the hit, the boy would pair off with the girl and induct her into the karim lek culture.
The boy often left a satisfied man with sweet memories after the session was over. If the novice was pretty he’d attempt to build a lasting relationship by making frequent visits to conquer her love.
It would be the same for a fresh boy in the girl’s house. Amidst whispers the girls would devise plans to pin the boy down and lock him up for karim lek. The nervous boy would often attempt to run for the door. But usually, with stealthy assistance from the boy’s seniors (who’d want their junior to be inducted by the girls), he’d be tackled to the floor.
A lone girl would engage him for his first ever karim lek by pairing herself with him. When the session ended, satisfaction would fill the girl who had conquered the boy and the moment would be remembered for a long time.
The karim lek culture is no longer practiced in Upper Simbu. The change of times and Western influence had waned the significance of this ancient custom, although certain elements like the courtship songs still survive today.
But these elements are abused in other forms of entertainment such as tourist attractions, public shows and other paid performances that hold no merit nor the actual flavour of karim lek culture.
This wonderful practise from ancient culture is expected to die out in 10 or 20 years and will then only be lip-talk, a thing-of-the-past.