THE significance of the bilum varies throughout Papua New Guinea. In Enga, for example, it is a symbol of the disproportionate societal burden women carry throughout their lives.
Years ago, during my Christmas break from school, my second oldest sister, a young cousin and I were returning home from Laiagam station after a brief visit with our oldest sister.
At the time, my sister had courageously walked away from her abusive husband.
The likelihood of us running into him was real since many clan members loitered around the road which passed through his village. My sister prepped us for a possible attempt by him to take her by force.
In such event, we were to fight our way out using every possible means. Our two-hour walk gave us ample time to strategise an escape plan.
Like every Enga woman, my sister wore a nice bilum on her head. During the attack, the bilum would come off. It was typical for men to publicly humiliate a woman by grabbing her bilum, toss it, step on it and at times cut to pieces - a way to psychologically attack a woman’s dignity and self-worth.
So, the plan was for our cousin to secure the bilum and run to fetch assistance while I remained with my sister and we fought our way out of the situation or at least offered resistance until help arrived.
In anticipation of this, I prepared a decent size stick to be used as required.
As expected, the inevitable happened. My former brother-in-law found us on the road, grabbed my sister and knocked her and the bilum to the ground.
Right on cue, my cousin grabbed the bilum before it was damaged and ran as fast as he could from the scene to seek reinforcements The ex-brother- in-law turned on my sister and savaged her mercilessly.
I was small and hardly an equal match, but my stick came in handy which caused sufficient effect to subdue him until he was no longer a threat.
With all the commotion, we were soon outnumbered by his relatives yet they left us alone, as they understood who was mostly at fault in the relationship breakdown.
However, this changed when our relatives arrived in great numbers prepared for the worst and heightening tensions between the two clans. Fortunately, it was settled peacefully.
Like all male Engans, I acted first regardless of consequence, which earned me a heroic reception. Male attributes were judged on fighting skills, the display of guts and determination, risk-taking and living on the adrenaline thus created.
That’s what Engan manhood was all about.
Conversely, like all Engan women, my sister wore more a bilum on her head as they all would until they died. From early on, their mothers taught them the skills to weave and embrace the concept of akalinya lao mandipae (born to be for men).
The practical application of the bilum for carrying babies or sweet potatoes was secondary. The core property of the bilum was to define women’s subservient role and to carry the burden of her cultural obligations.
Specifically the bilum symbolised desirable attributes as industriousness, provision of hospitality to her husband’s clan and bearing her husband’s children.
She had to swallow her pride, tolerate pain and be obedient even when physically or mentally abused. Hard work was instilled in her from her earliest years.
At a time when divorce was rare, against all odds my sister mustered enough inner strength to walk away from her abusive husband thus freeing herself. However, as if adding insult, the priest excommunicated her from the church while her ex-husband remained a church elder.
There are some modern instances where bilums are glamourised and have become synonymous with lipstick or other cosmetics. Yet in Enga little has changed.
My sister still wears a bilum. However, hers is now loaded with self-worth and self-respect, not weighed down with a dysfunctional cultural burden. She is at peace with herself.
That was my first and last time I had laid a stick on anyone. Given the situation, it was the least I could have done in her long journey of self-discovery.