Alakasam, Komgi, Matupit, and Raluana - Custom & Culture

filed under:

In addition to the more than 800 languages spoken at the community level in East New Britain, Tok-Pisin (commonly called Pidgin) and English are the two nationally recognized languages. Though not everyone speaks English or Pidgin, the majority of the population understands both, making communication possible despite the communal language differences. Many of these community languages even differ depending on what area you are in, similar to the differing vocabulary and dialects of English across the United States. For example, Kuanua is the language spoken in the Tolai tribe. There are small variations across the separate communities, meaning that the people in Matupit may speak a different dialect of Kuanua than the people of Raluana. The same can be said for the Qaqet communities as the villages are spread out across a very large area. Physical topographical barriers play a large part in creating the variations in languages, as physical barriers, such as mountains or volcanoes, are one of the main sources for community separation.

Despite the physical separation of communities and the wide range of cultural traditions, the exchange of betel nut (“buai” in Pidgin) is a common practice amongst all the peoples of East New Britain and the greater Pacific Island area. Betel nut is a small nut harvested from a particular variety of palm tree. The first step in every interaction we had during our stay was an exchange of buai, whether we already knew the people or we were meeting them for the first time. It is a general greeting regardless of tribe, status, or language, serving as a sign of goodwill and familiarity. When exchanging the betel nut, lime, and mustard (the purpose of which is discussed in the 2009 Heritable Innovation Trust document, see Appendix A), the buai is given and received using only the right hand as a sign of respect. This tradition goes for giving or receiving anything, not just buai.
Politically, Papua New Guinea is organized into provinces. Each province is then divided into a district, which is further divided into Local-level Governments, LLGs. The districts have their own presidents and cabinets, while the LLGs have representatives at the district level. A key part to the current civil society of East New Britain is the Autonomy Committee. Working towards financial security by creating a sense of ownership in provincial finances, the Autonomy Committee of East New Britain is attempting to set an example for the rest of the provinces. They emphasize that their movement for autonomy is not a separation from the national government, but a desire to add value to the country by stabilizing infrastructure beginning at a local level through establishing financial security. The committee is using the H.I.T. framework as the structure of their financial strategy.

In both the Qaqet and Tolai communities, land is traditionally stewarded by the communities rather than individuals. The elders within the community allocate plots to each person based on a matrilineal system. However, if a family moves away or the tenant of the plot dies leaving no one to maintain the plot, the land is returned to the community and reallocated as necessary.


The Qaqet communities are deeply traditional, however, over time they have integrated aspects of Roman Catholicism into their customs and values. In both communities, Alakasam and Komgi, we attended Catholic masses on Sundays. Due to the shortage of priests in the province and the remoteness of both communities, there are no permanent priests in Alakasam or Komgi so the majority of the services are led by community members and a government appointed church administrator. About once a month or on holidays, a priest from a neighboring village comes to lead the service. Angela, the administrator at the Komgi church, explained to us that she had attended seminary school and is fulfilling a three-year contract in the community. Though she is not from the village, they have integrated her into the community and she feels comfortable participating in their ceremonies and other community activities. The community firmly trusts her guidance and opinion on spiritual and community matters.

Alakasam and the three villages in the surrounding area rotate the responsibility of leading mass. Each village incorporates their own traditions into the services in how they lead prayers and hymns, select and present scripture readings, and bless and present the offering. Qaqet traditions are even incorporated into the decoration of the church building. Along with the image of the Virgin Mary and various depictions of Jesus’ miracles, characteristic of Catholic churches, the traditional Qaqet design (a black, red, and white design resembling clovers) is usually a prominent feature of the Qaqet churches. By integrating all these elements, unity is inspired through displays of Qaqet culture and values intermingled with traditional Catholic symbols.

The same sense of unity is a result of the traditional ceremonies as well. We were invited to attend a ceremony in Alakasam called the Fire Dance. The dance is usually done to celebrate significant events in the history of the community, to celebrate the life of someone who has passed away, to remember those that have passed away, and to commemorate the community’s relationship with their natural surroundings. The dance is generally split into two different events with the biggest being the night event. During the afternoon portion of the ceremony, the whole community gathers to dance with the selected traditional dancers while a group of women sing and create music by drumming pieces of bamboo. This continues until the sun goes down, then preparation for the night portion begins. During this part of the ceremony, 6 to 20 male dancers wearing elaborate costumes and masks representing the various aspects of nature dance to songs sung by a group of men, again, drumming pieces of bamboo. Before the dancers come out, a huge bonfire is built which is maintained and added to until the fire is raging. These dancers and the bamboo band do not stop singing and dancing until every ember of the fire has been stamped out. The community preparation for such ceremonies takes roughly six weeks. When these ceremonies occur, the community unites in celebration. While we were able to attend the ceremony, it was apparent that everyone in attendance, from the youngest to the oldest, was in high spirits and the bond within the community, regardless of whether they were originally from Alakasam or not, grew stronger.


Tolai society is organized around a matrilineal system of inheritance, land stewardship, and respect. During our stay in Raluana, we were told about the way this system works and how family structures function within it. According to the numerous people who explained this to us, there are two distinct clans within the tribe: the Marmar and the Pikalawa. Marriage is generally supposed to be across the clans, meaning a member of the Marmar clan must marry a member of the Pikalawa clan and vice versa. After the marriage, the husband will be incorporated into the wife’s clan. He and his wife will move onto the plot of land allocated to her by her clan at birth. The first-born child is cared for primarily by the father’s family and is considered to be a member of his clan. Every other child the couple will have is part of and the responsibility of the mother’s family and clan. When a boy turns 18, he leaves the family home and builds his own dwelling, called a “boy house,” in the same village as his mother’s clan where he lives until his marriage.

Religion plays a significant role in the Tolai communities as well. They take great pride in their ties to Christianity. Matupit was the village through which five of East New Britain’s current religions were introduced. Due to its proximity to Rabaul, what used to be the main port city, missionaries established themselves in this village before moving inland. Matupit prides itself on this distinction. Of the five Christian denominations that have entered the region, Seventh-day Adventist, Roman Catholic, and United Church are still present within the community. Immediately following the eruption of Tavurvur in 1994, the three churches on the island became angry at each other; each blaming the others for the disaster. However, the tensions between the three eventually died down and they decided to collaborate in efforts to rebuild Matupit. As a result, the community has been successfully recovering. While we were in Raluana, the importance of religion was apparent. The majority of people in the community attend their respective denominational church services on Sundays and at least one Bible study during the week. Many members of the Tolai communities even have both traditional and Christian weddings.

While staying in Matupit, we were able to attend the first of three parts of a traditional wedding, called the Warkulkul (var•kool•kool). The Warkulkul is the ceremony where arrangements are made for the bride to leave her home and live with her husband’s family for the time between marriage ceremonies. Once the appropriate ceremonies have taken place, the husband and wife will return to the wife’s plot of land in her home village and the husband will become a member of her clan. The Warkulkul takes place in the bride’s village and only the bride and the families of the couple attend; the groom is not present. The ceremony that involves the groom takes place roughly two weeks later in his community. The bride and groom’s respective clans sit facing each other across a wide aisle and the exchange of gifts and the dowry begins. The proceedings are overseen by elders and councilors of the village one of which is specifically charged with facilitating Warkulkul ceremonies. Throughout the first part of the ceremony, the bride hides in an undisclosed location somewhere nearby where the festivities are taking place. After the opening prayer, the leaders facilitate the exchange of the dowry, the amount of which has been agreed to prior to the ceremony. The Tambu, which is measured in fathoms, is presented to the bride’s family. After the Tambu has been presented, measured, and both the families and the facilitating local leaders have deemed the amount appropriate, the agreement is considered indisputable. The exchange of this Tambu creates a unique financial climate unavailable in a cash-based economy, where things bought or traded with cash can be taken back and exchanged for the original amount. When the amount of Tambu exchanged at the Warkulkul is agreed upon by both families, it is pronounced finished by the councilors. Once they announce its conclusion, it is not to be discussed further. The finality of this statement means no further objection is considered; in fact the matter is never again discussed.

After this primary exchange has taken place, it is common for the family of the bride to give several lengths of Tambu to the groom’s clan as a gesture of goodwill, along with an exchange of buai. Later in the ceremony, this gift will be reciprocated as compensation for the transportation of food and other items provided by the bride’s family for the bride and groom’s new home. After the various exchanges of Tambu take place, the technicalities of the ceremony are finished and the celebration begins. The women from the groom’s family run through the village searching for the hidden bride. Often times the bride is hiding somewhere close by, but some brides build small shelters with no doors or windows making the search even more difficult. The search for the hidden bride appears to be the highlight of the community experience. Once the search parties locate the bride, they bring her back to the location of the Warkulkul. Several women from the husband’s clan create a curtain around her and change her clothes. They remove the clothes she was wearing, return them to her clan, and replace them with new clothes they have made for her. This new outfit symbolizes her acceptance into the groom’s family and the beginning of her new life as a wife. After the ceremony has concluded, the bride returns with the groom’s family to his community where they will live until the next ceremony.

The matrilineal system in Tolai communities also affects the family structure common in most Western societies. Since it is matrilineal and everything passes through the women of the community, there is a high degree of respect shown toward females. The son of Eunice, our host in Raluana, explained the intricacies of the Tolai family structure. According to William, the term “grandmother” is used to refer to any woman who is highly respected in the community. This woman would be seen as very wise and would have a lot of influence on community matters and decisions. Children refer to both their birth mothers and biological grandmothers as “mother” out of respect. Similarly, children refer to their birth fathers and the brothers of their father and mother as “father”. In addition, an individual is given a higher degree of respect depending on their relationship to the mother of the family. Two individuals we interacted with, Leba and Alan, were technically cousins. However, Leba referred to Alan as his uncle out of respect, because Alan was the son belonging to the mother’s clan while Leba, the son of the husband’s brother, was from the father’s clan. In this case, whoever is referred to as the uncle is also responsible for their relations should anything happen to their families.

Date Entered: June 2010