Ngavalus - Custom & Culture


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The community at Ngavalus is a matrilineal society, meaning an individual’s lineage is traced through their mother and the maternal ancestors. The definitions of the roles of men and women in the society span many generations. With the onset of modern times, there has been a blurring of the lines determining what men and women can or cannot do, but there are still distinctions of the roles played by either gender. Apart from being an important part of the family descent system and determining the inheritance of land, women primarily do the cooking, cleaning and washing, but often these chores are a combined effort by everyone in the community. The weaving of baskets, de-spining of Sago leaves in preparation for roofing, building of Sago troughs and washing of Sago are few among the many things done exclusively by women. The men, on the other hand, go out for shark calling, fish, dive for lobsters, build canoes, gather Sago leaves and sew them for roofing, cut down Sago trees and extract the pith. Men and women contribute equally in bringing up the children and their education as well as general maintenance of the village.

Children in the community are provided with a basic education at the school located across the street from the village. The school follows what they refer to as an outcome-based education curriculum, meaning the children are taught basic math, science, and language skills which are integrated into daily activities in the village teaching them social responsibility as well as school subjects. For example, math is taught while weaving to hone counting and math operation skills while at the same time passing down the knowledge of how to weave baskets and mats. The village leaders believe this will encourage the children to integrate all that they learn into responsibility in the community.

Community responsibility not only includes such things as maintaining the well-being of the community, but also in preparation and provisioning for ceremonies, festivals, and for families or individuals who need extra help providing for themselves. An example of this occurs when the community comes together to prepare for ceremonies. Usually, ceremonies and festivals in Ngavalus are centered around a feast and can end up being somewhat expensive, as is the case with funerals. So, when there is a death in a family, the entire community helps to organize the funeral providing the family with aid in anyway they may need it. Often times this includes either monetary support to pay for the funeral or by offering to provide some of the food for the feast. When preparing the food for a large ceremony like a funeral, the community comes together to cut and wash sago, which takes a full day to process requiring as many sets of hands as can be found. Members of the community do this willingly because there is a deep understanding that, should the same thing happen in their family, the members of the community will do the same for them.

The leaders of the community are called Mai-Mais. Usually Mai-Mais are men, but there have been some instances where a woman has been given the title. The community of New Irelanders, the ethnic group the Tolai of East New Britain came from originally, consists of seven clans, each with its own Mai-Mai. All seven Mai-Mais make decisions in the community collectively. Before any individual does anything involving multiple clans, they must appeal to their own Mai-Mai and then get approval from the Mai-Mai(s) of the other clan(s). The selection of the lineal Mai-Mais is conducted through a consensus decision making process in which the entire family of each clan consults to choose their respective successors. All members of the family discuss at length who they believe is fit to become the next Mai-Mai and the successor is only announced when the entire family agrees on the choice. The family elects a successor based on the candidate’s leadership qualities and level of individual integrity. The chosen individual then goes through a number of rituals which prepare them to take on the role of leader of the community. At the final ceremony, the village makes known its acceptance of the selected individual’s authority, making the appointment official.

Every Monday morning, the community holds a community-wide meeting, called “line”. This system of organization was introduced during the time of German occupation, but the community continues to hold the weekly meetings to make necessary announcements and to keep every member informed about what is going on around the community. Every member of the community is required to attend; those who do not attend must pay a small fine. At this gathering, various issues are discussed, ranging from the general welfare of the community to the preparations for a festival or special occasions. There is a set structure each meeting follows in which representatives of various committees get up to make announcements. These representatives head committees on health, youth affairs, education, law and order, as well as committees created to deal with planning specific events. At line, the representatives keep the community up to date on happenings, present proposed reforms and discuss general awareness of various concerns. Children are often encouraged to be part of this process to ensure their exposure to issues like hygiene and good morals.

The community of Ngavalus has a long-standing tradition of understanding and living in harmony with the sea. Many of the customs and legends of Ngavalus are focused specifically on the shark. In fact, their creation story is centered on the origins of the shark and one of their central customs is shark calling. Shark calling has been part of the customs of Ngavalus for the past 200 years. Russell explained how shark callers are required to do a great deal of preparation before actually doing the ceremony. Men must stay in the hausboi (the house in every village that is reserved for the education of the men and boys in the community) for an entire day before going out to sea. They should not eat food which has been prepared for a funeral feast or anything that has sadness or evil attached to it. They should not step in excrement and should have a dreamless sleep. These examples are just some of the many things the shark callers must do in preparation. These rules are followed very strictly because it is believed that the sharks are very sensitive to even the slightest deviation which may result in the sharks becoming violent or not responding to the calls at all.

The shark callers use an instrument made of dried coconut shells strung on a ring made of cane. Once out in the ocean, they shake the ring for roughly 20 minutes alternating between shaking it in and out of the water. Under water, the instrument sounds like a school of fish and above water, like a flock of birds, which attracts the sharks who mistake it for a feeding frenzy. Sharks up to 40 kilometers away can hear the sound and are attracted to it. Shark calling ceremonies generally occur during the months of September and October.

In Ngavalus, children are exposed to music at a very young age. There is a strong influence of gospel music and hymn singing resulting from the introduction of Christianity to the communities. Every Sunday morning, many members of the community go to the United Church service located a short distance from the school. There are fellowships and smaller Bible study groups held throughout the week where people read scripture verses, have devotions, and sing songs while someone strums the guitar. It is common for individuals in the village to gather around a table after dinner and sing gospel songs as well as songs composed by community members and popular Papua New Guinea songs as well as some popular songs from the United States.

Date Entered: August 2011