Kitava Island, Papua New Guinea
Today we are spending the morning at Kitava, one of the fabled Trobriand Islands, a culturally rich group of raised coral islands made famous by the Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. His 1922 book, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, established his reputation as a superb fieldworker, and made the Trobrianders world famous for "the Kula Ring," a complex ceremonial system of exchange of shell valuables that links many groups of islands off the eastern tip of mainland New Guinea. The enterprising Trobrianders are justly proud of their culture and consciously seek to maintain and perpetuate many of their major traditions. Songs and dances are integral to school curricula, and their magnificent, endlessly innovative carvings in wood have an appreciative clientele worldwide; no Melanesian artefact collection worth its salt would be without some representation of their unique work. They are also the subjects of one of the best ethnographic films ever made, "Trobriand Cricket" which depicts how the English game was radically transformed (once the European missionaries had left) to bring it into line with local cultural themes and practices, most notably intervillage competition and intricate webs of individual and group exchanges.
Mercifully, this morning dawned both dry and cool, and our anchorage is calm, so the short Zodiac trip to shore is quick and easy. We assemble on the beach opposite nearby Uratu Island, whose pearly white beach and turquoise waters are a delight to the eyes. Some locals have arrived early to display their carvings, in the hope of teasing some kina out of their guests. From the cover of nearby bushes there is a sudden rush of black-faced warriors, a dozen or so youths (who have walked an hour from their village, Okaburura, on the eastern side of Kitava), and entertain us with a traditional threat-welcome dance, todubiyoyu, followed by the highly suggestive wakoya, with its pelvic thrusts that leave no doubt of its association with fertility – or of the fact that these performers know that we know what they’re on about!
The walk up to the large village of Kumwageya (c. 800 people) is on a wide track that is bordered alternatively with gardens and hamlets, and it is humid, yet as cool as I can ever remember it in my dozen or so visits over the years. In the grounds of the Kitava elementary school, where the dances will be held, many carvers are awaiting our arrival, ever hopeful of winning some kina – for school fees and other necessities in life that their carvings play a huge part in providing. I tell them that lots of kina have been changed on the ship yesterday, and wish them well. Teacher Robin, the Cultural Director, has an excellent 45 minute program organised, and we see colourfully decorated dancers assembling behind the school buildings, very excitedly waiting to get their turn. The distinctive, short grass skirts worn by the girls are either red (from Kiriwina) or white (Kitava), and their decorations are most attractive. The majority of the dancers today come from Okaburura Community School, but a few of the groups comprise women and children from this village, Kumwageya. As always, an enthusiastic crowd of islanders is in attendance, so screams of delight at the antics of their young relatives will surely be a feature of the event.
We sit on benches taken from the classroom, and the dance program is announced. It will consist mainly of traditional dances centered on the use of rattles or pandanus leaves that are artistically moved in time to the music and mellifluous singing of the girls and women. A highlight is the first public performance of a dance by some kindergarten aged boys and girls, who are introduced by their proud instructor. These little kids are absolutely delightful and not a bit timid in their spear thrusts and war cries. The buying continues after Bud has thanked the performers for their great work, and we disperse, some to do part of the shaded walk through the village in order to see the lovely yam storage houses, most of which are now full after the harvest competitions and feasting are over, though some gables still have new yams hanging from them, awaiting transfer to the distinctively Trobriands storage and display structures.
The sun is out for the (easier) walk back down to the beach, and there are lots of local people on the track, going down to see some of their compatriots just back from the ‘mainland’ (Kiriwina, the larger island and administrative centre for the group). I have never seen such excitement on the beach; not only fresh news and gossip have arrived, but also tobacco leaves, which are a major reason for the excitement, it seems. It is time for hasty farewells as the last of the Zodiacs sets off from the beach, pushed out by a noisy crowd of small children. It has been, as always at Kitava, a memorable morning. Nowhere has quite the same feel as here; part of this sensation comes from us knowing we are in a famous place, culturally, and part from the local people’s quiet confidence in their own cultural achievements. It is always a mutually satisfying experience, as we, through our obvious appreciation of their artistry, confirm their own positive views of their distinctive heritage.
Bob Tonkinson, Anthropologist; Photos: Martin Enckell and Bob Tonkinson