Saturday, April 26, 2014

Customary Obligation

I participated in a bridal ceremony during the holiday period I took between December 2013 and January 2014.

As a member of my tribe I had customary obligations that I have to fulfill. I could not opt out of this customary activity because it was too close to my family.

I participated in was the bridal payment ceremony, which took place in my village of Ulighembi. The bridal payment involved my aunt, from my mother’s side, who married a man from Rofundogun village in the Kubalia area of the East Sepik province.

My aunt gave birth to many children in this marriage. Two of them live in Port Moresby. Her son, Thomas Ponjam is the Commander of the Langron Naval Base, who was awarded the 2014 Logohu Award for Distinguished Military Service Medal.

A daughter, Anna is the Deputy Principal of the Paradise High School in Port Moresby. The other teacher is Juliana, who has been living in Nissan Island for most of her adult life.

Commander Thomas Ponjam initiated and let the occasion of the bridal payments. In the Kubalia custom if bridal payments were made for someone late in life it was often done so as to fulfill our customary obligations. In this case the children, together with the relatives from both Ulighembi and Rofundogun villages had to stand behind the children of the groom (their father) to pay for the bride (their mother). This is an uncommon experience based on several factors that are purely cultural and economical.

In this year’s bridal payment I was obliged to stand behind my cousin Commander Ponjam to support him in fulfilling the customary obligation. His mother and my mother are cousins, which makes me a brother to him and in customary activities such as bridal payments I have to support him and his siblings.

The event took place on the second week of January 2014 in Ulighembi village. It took two to three days for the event to take place. The first day involves discussions on who should be receiving the payments and how much was given. Other elements of the payments involve transactions of goods during the day and night, which involves a lot of eating food and drinking of alcohol and most important of all singing traditional lyrics about the ceremony right through the day and night.

The second day is the most important day when all the money was brought out of the ‘house’ to be given to the bride’s kins and for other payments to be made. Usually the moment in which money is laid out in the middle of the village speeches are given by the tribal leader on both sides, beginning with the groom’s people followed by the bride’s people. After these speeches a dry coconut with new leaves is split in half and the juice is poured around the money.

The bride’s relatives whose names are indicated with the single spine of a coconut leave, referred to as the ‘sen’ (Nagum Boiken language) or ‘knok’ (Tokpisin) are called to come forward to receive their share of the money.

In this bridal payment two of my uncles, my mother’s younger brothers, refused to accept the payments, arguing that they received half the amount than other relatives. They left the money where it was placed.

Not all relatives on the bride’s side were happy with what they received that day. The aunties argued that they received less amount for what they are worth as the ‘bilum’ and garden for the children of their sister. This metaphor signifies the importance aunties as the nurturers of the children of the tribe. The aunts play a key role in looking after all the children in the tribe. During the customary events such as bride price payments they must be rewarded for their role as nurturers of the tribal children.

It was an experience for me to absorb. Most times I have been away from the village that I never had the opportunity to witness a bride price payment ceremony in my village.  This customary practice has never ceased among the Nagum Boiken people or more generally among the Kubalia people of the East Sepik Province. Bridal payments are part of our customs.

My wife and children witnessed this cultural event in the village because it was an educational experience for them. Since my wife, Christine, is from the Milne Bay province, this Kubalia experience was different to her own where groom’s payments were made instead of the bridal payments. We have two different customs needing a lot of understanding in dealing with the intricacies of cultural pathos and significations.

Bridal payments are common in many PNG societies. Where as groom’s payments are only observed in matrilineal societies such as those in Milne Bay, Rabaul, and Bougainville, and some parts of New Ireland provinces.  Many of us come from patrilineal societies that we forget that cultural variations are part of our lives.

As amazing as it can be the custom of bridal payments among the people in my area are becoming another form of cultural economy. People save their money not for school fees or other emergencies, but for customs. During customs villagers are able to contribute towards fulfilling the customary obligations. When people are asked to contribute to other non-customary activities in the village people express their ‘poverty’, but when it comes to customs the monies hidden all over the place seem to come out.

The other side of the custom is that people observe custom as an economical enterprise where social contracts of marriage or other customs are given effect through various transactions of money and goods. Those who give must give and those who must receive must receive what they are obliged to receive. One can refuse participation in these customary activities, but must be willing to face the negative consequences.

I would never have valued my people’s culture and social way of life had I not returned to the village for holidays this year 2014.


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