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The bilum – a cultural symbol of deep personal significance


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.  


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John K Kamasua

An heroic yarn. Thanks for sharing Joe.

Joe Herman

Thanks Robin and Daniel. Daniel, I have some sad memories associated with the incident you described. I was to go with Esetome to visit his nephews/nieces but we got separated on that fateful day. I still have one of his sand paintings with me, which I dearly cherish.

Daniel Kumbon

Joe, Do you remember Esetome, a Grade 10 student from Sirunki in Laiagam who was killed by his brother-in-law at Mamale in 1972?

He did not know that his sister had run away from her husband and had gone straight to their house at Mamale village during Christmas holidays. He was giving presents to his uncles and nieces when his brother in law crept up from behind and killed him with an axe.

I saw the ensuring tribal fight from the Laiagam government station as I waited for a truck to go to Kandep. I spent the night near Wanepap Catholic Mission. When there was no car all of next day, I started to walk to Kandep by about 5 in the afternoon.

It was soon dark when I arrived at Porgeras village. Two men from the village caught up with me. They had been to the fight. I stayed in one of the men’s house – a man whose name was Pake. Next morning I started my long walk home which is about 50 or so kilometres away.

At Kepelam (your village), a truck loaded with rice headed for Kandep during the 1972 frost and famine picked me up. The driver dropped me off near Catholic Mission Yapum in exchange for the few cents I paid him. I didn’t have enough to pay him to take me all the way to Kandep.

From there I resumed my long walk to my village of Kondo which is near the Enga boarder with Southern Highlands Province.

I recorded all this in my first book, Climbing Mountains, a supplementary reader for Grade 6 and 8 students. It was published by Oxford University Press a few years ago.

Yes, that ex-brother in law deserved your beating. It has always been the responsibility of male Engans to be protective of siblings, family property, extended family members and defend clan boundaries.

I am glad your sister lives freely now.

`Robin Lillicrapp

Your "Sticktoitiveness," is duly admired, Joe. It would be nice to hear from your sister. Maybe you could encourage her to tell her story.

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