Saturday, April 26, 2014

Learnng From Folklore

I am interested in a story collected by an early Catholic missionary anthropologist working in the Passam area of the East Sepik Province. The story “The Good Spirit Woman” represents the experience of nuwayafa kwa rombo (knocking on ancestors’ doors) as a near death experience. The story goes:

In the bush of the Tumurau area is a cave whose name is Yawei and in this cave an old spirit woman used to live. The Passam people made a garden near this cave. One of the men named Ropuiperi climbed a tree to lop off the branches, but he fell down and was badly injured. He was carried home and lay there in great suffering.

The spirit woman had seen what happened. She took the man’s soul=horu with her into the cave where she watched well over it. The man who was lying in his house without his soul did not die. The spirit woman built a house in her cave and put the man’s soul in it; she fenced his soul in for about three months. She worked very hard preparing food for herself and the man’s soul. After these months she decorated the man’s soul gave him an opulent dinner, then she carried the man’s soul to his house and put it back in his body. The sick man was cured right away.

With all his decorations he appeared in the village square and beat the log drum. The people wondered what was going on. Stealthily, they came from the bush and looked around. They saw the man, who had been so very sick, wearing cassowary feathers on his head; he had painted his whole body pitch black and his head was red like the sun; he had a new net bag. They thought he was a man from another village. Then they recognized him as one of their own who had been lying in the house like a dying cripple. They rejoiced and [and] performed a great dance. Ropuiperi told the men about all he had seen in the spirit house. They decided to build a spirit house for themselves and gave it the good spirit woman’s name, Suaheintakwa (Aufenanger 1975, 199).

Striking similarities exist in “The Good Woman Spirit” and the story of Lomo’ha told to me by Fehimboli Ramasua of Ulighembi village. Both stories have the same structure of a human body possessed by spirit.  Lomo’ha story goes like this:

A Ulighembi man, Lomo’ha went down to Salimba Herimongo (place name). There he collected okari nuts. To crack the nuts he looked for a rock. He pulled out a long shaped rock nearby. However, thinking it was just a rock he unplugged the door into the wali (earth spirit) world. He followed the passage into the earth until he arrived at their place. The wali seeing that he was a stranger took him to their chief. He stayed there. Meanwhile the people in the man’s village looked for him everywhere. They searched for Lomo’ha in every village. Everyone they asked replied that they had not seen or that he had gone to another village. In that village too the answer was negative.

The villagers came back home and mourned Lomo’ha’s disappearance. They staged a funeral or bapmu hua ritual, paid the dues to his relatives and removed his name from those living. They washed off dirt from their days of mourning and went on with their lives.

When they had forgotten Lomo’ha, he appeared. They first heard him as he came out of the passage that took him into the wali world. He called out in the language of the wali. The wali had given Lomo’ha, a string bag and a piece of pork thighs. They had feasted and farewelled Lomo’ha before he returned to the human world. He carried a piece of pork on his hunting spears. His attempted human language, but spoke the wali spirits’ language.

The villagers heard him and said, “Which village’s wali is out there crying.” The women fled the village into the bush. The men quickly went to the road on which the wali’s voice came from. They hid along the road and to their surprise saw Lomo’ha. They decided to close in on Lomo’ha when he had came closer. They came out, grabbed him and pulled him down. The pork and spears turned into tree roots and the string bag turned into a black stone. They realized he could not speak their language--(described as mlingre wangre yente he mangi buliye). He could not explain to the villagers. Every time he tried the words came our in wali language. The villagers gave him ginger roots and bark to chew. This cured him and he described his experience.3

The above story was recorded in 1989 in Ulighembi village. Though I have always thought of the story as a metaphor of the experiences of the Nagum Boikens during their time of contact, the Lomo’ha story has served well the purpose of forming narratives to explain the conditions of displacement and disillusionment.

The narratives on Lomo’ha and “The Good Spirit Woman” reveal that the knowledge learnt from the spirits who have possessed the person becomes the knowledge shared by the entire community. The spirits take possession of human body in a light or deep trance in these kinds of stories. In “A Good Woman Spirit” the man is in deep trance whereas the children possessed by spirits in the second story experience a light trance whereby they are doubly aware of the condition of their possession. They are physically present, but are mentally removed from their physical environment.

Working with folklore materials from my area has helped me to research further on different elements of the society I call home. I have learnt a lot about my own people through some of the materials used as folklore materials to tell stories about themselves and to explain the complex world between what is present and what is not present. It’s a complex world.


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