KIMBE - The laulau trees rustled gently against the afternoon breeze as willy wagtails chirped on their branches while the blue sky looked down happily.
The open sea, in a crimson shade, glistened as men and women went about their chores leaving behind in the village the old, the frail, the sick and children.
The village was quiet as the older children tended to their tasks as the younger siblings played.
Old Makuri hummed a soft tune in her head, a faraway look on her face.
The lahara wind had started to dance again last night. Tossing and tearing things in its path. And the river bed was cracking and opening its jaws in the remorseless heat. The merciless weather had been too hard and too long.
The old people in the village called it ‘baimara’, the season of deep hunger.
This reign of misery was a hollowed restlessness that drew goodness from all around, weighing hard on the spirit.
Gone was the labour of harvest. Now the barren fields lay desolate and deserted. The swaying coconut palms seemed to stand aloof from this, like loyal soldiers on parade. But the scruffy cocoa trees were ill-mannered neighbours loudly stating their dissatisfaction with life.
Not far in the distance, the once thriving forest of old with its myriad of beautiful treasures had become the shadow of its former self, its scrawny bones protruding to the heavens like sculptures of beggars pleading for crumbs.
It was a defeated scene of poverty and strife and vile deeds leered in the backdrop of the survival of the fittest.
Yet the old people never gave up.
People like old Makuri, elders of great wisdom, who held the village together. The men discussed great battles and survival schemes for the looming drought. The women made plans for food and wove great art in music, dance and craft which brought back nostalgic memories of the good times.
At nights the old women sang the baimara songs, whose melodies rang into the starry night, the chords playing on people's hearts stirring emotions, bringing tears and quieting feelings of helplessness.
Surely the winds will change, it’s just a matter of time. The wet season will come again. Thus said the old people.
Yet in that picture of simple village life the garamuts of the dead were beating; the death songs waiting to snatch the life of the most vulnerable and destitute in acts of social obligation. A traditional public act of honour and stature between brother and his sister.
Down at the valley of Makasi, old Heagi sat puffing his ancient pipe in full concentration. Little Miti sat on the bare earth watching her grandfather swallow huge drafts of smoke.
Lately he had begun chewing on the ends of the pipe as he smoked. He was increasingly given to his own quiet musing, sometimes disrupted by a tirade of coughing and wheezing that emerged from his thin frame.
Squatting by the fire side next to Heagi bubu meri Aya was baking cassava and stealing glances at her husband. It was like a silent conversation between the two and she was in the script with the lesser role of an observer.
She had the gentle look of a bubu meri that could calm even the most heated argument and it was there now.
It was hot and humid, the breeze barely felt. Aya had an emotional craving to belong yet could not escape the feeling of being an outsider.
Yet she was not an outsider, a loner perhaps but outsider, never! She just could not shake off the feeling of being unfulfilled and unattached.
Saku whined and wiggled out of Aya’s hands as she sat still, waiting the tension to erupt. She could feel the words going back and forth yet none was spoken aloud.
Slowly bubu meri reached out and touched Heagi's hand as he looked into her eyes. Her face lightened as she obsrved both of them staring at her.
"Miti your grandfather and I have been thinking and decided we will need to host a Mademai feast for you".
A what, bubu? Miti could not believe her ears as she stood up to make a retreat. Whatever for bubu, she asked amid tears.
"Harem pastaim, Miti, "the old woman pushed Miti back to her seat.
It was wok kastom, a traditional ceremonial feast that took away her mother's life. How dare they make a suggestion like this to her?
"Because you are our only grandchild from our late son," the old woman's shouted back at her.
"You are a member of a long lineage of warriors and chiefs. Don't you dare forget that!” she added with such emotion that her voice shook.
"I will not. Because I will remember that is these customary feasts that deprived me of my mother," she spat back the words as the old woman tightened her grip.
"Stop!" Heagi's voice boomed.
"Miti, we are in a world that is neither fair nor without flaws,” he said.
"We live in a world where we need to make hard decisions for survival. Sometimes whether we like it not we have obligations. And you have obligations whether you like it or not."
With tears streaming down her eyes she bowed her head at her grandfather’s admonishment.
"We are going to host a feast of belonging. It is quite different from the kastom in which your mother died,” he said slowly.
She stole a glance at their faces, sensing the unease of her grandparents.
It was an ugly truth that spat out that venomous pain. The funny looks and whispers she had endured growing up had now been laid out to her. For all these years they had never once raised the issue.
Why did they have to spoil her departure with these ancient customs? lt was unfair.
“You will be living away from home and it is important we prepare you for your place in our society. It is our duty as your guardians. The new ways and borrowed ways are for our learning, but our traditional ways bring order to us.
“Change is sweeping through our land and we are rapidly losing more than we are gaining.
“This is our way of preparing you to face the world with an open mind. We cannot ignore the signs before us. We all need to act to protect and maintain what is ours by birth right.”
In the sweltering heat Miti's grandparents explained the Belonging Wok Kastom feast.
It was a special feast that held public significance to announce or declare a clan's linage connection. It was a customary statement of declaration and civic responsibility through a wide cross section of the community because a child was a community responsibility.
That evening the tarvur, the traditional messenger conch shell, was blown to summon the villagers to the public square .
There the village elder announced the customary feast date and notices for the event.
Old Heagi identified his feast helpers and outlined his intentions for the ceremony. He also gave tasks to others who became suppliers of goods to the ceremony.
Most of the people had minor parts as audience and witnesses who would share in the food exchange they would all contribute to - the ceremonial collection known as kori.
The announcement caused a great buzz of excitement.
The feast was held the following month as the dry season made her swift exit The rivers began to fill to overflowing and the prawns and carp were teeming again.
All the while the ocean currents brought in their own delicacies of grubs and shells and fish.
As the waters of the Earth brought forth these fruits so too did the ground and trees fill the air with aromatic perfume that swirled its blessing upon mankind.
This was what the old people called the season of good harvest.
As the day drew near, there was great preparation. The yard was trimmed and weeds pulled out. Woven pandanus mat known as karukah were gathered along with the traditional shell money, pram tabu.
On the week of the feast bundles of taro, sugar cane and other crops were brought and placed on a food platform built on high stilts in the front yard.
Many elders came to visit the family from far villages where family links had extended over many generations. Some came to contribute cash or in kind while others came as helpers for the feast.
There were those who would dress Miti on the day as well as others who would take part in various other chores and responsibilities.
There were so many people coming and going Miti could not think properly.
On feast day, the rooster crowed at daybreak and the village women came bearing fresh firewood and utensils made of the finest carved wood, shell and stone.
The night before the village women elders had gathered clay pots and water vases.
Five fat sows that Heagi had bought were slaughtered. They were spread across the food platform for the distribution ceremony.
A contribution mat, the kadis, was put at the side of the platform where people who attended the ceremony could place their contributions.
After everyone had made a contribution, the gifts were distributed according to a list of recipients identified on the family tree.
When all was completed, a speech was made and gifts distributed to maternal and paternal uncles.
Heagi and Aya were dressed in the traditional clan bilas with the sacred body paint smeared over their bodies.
An eerie cry was heard from a corner as an aunt of Miti crawled on her knees calling out Miti's parents’ names. Time stood still. It was as if she was calling out to appease the dead and to reassure that Miti was loved and cared for. This was the merest glimpse of the sacred place where the dead dwell and watch over in silent vigilance.
A hypnotic trance seemed to embrace the group of elderly women who sang the traditional clan ritual song as they dressed Heagi and Aya.
The audience gasped and watched mesmerised and then, as swiftly as it had begun, the chanting and singing stopped.
There was a brief interlude before the gift presentations followed by the food distribution and the formal ceremony ended.
Even after all the guest had left, Heagi and Aya continued to pay traditional shell money to the people who had assisted in the ceremony.
A strange thing happened to Miti after the feast. She felt a sort of belonging to the community and its way of life. She felt a new sense of communal respect and goodwill.
She had learned something about kinship and heritage.