A bit of custom - Belabelaguan or Gitvudu at Karavia

© Geoffrey Heard 2014

Belabelaguan

P1180353

The banded sea snake strikes!

This is one of the most dramatic performances, ceremonies, call it what you like, that I have witnessed. The dancers have been fasting for up to two weeks as they rehearsed and prepared their costumes for this performance. At least a couple of thousand people crammed into the village to see it -- making a solid wall, an impenetrable wall, of spectators around a narrow strip of ground on which the dancers stamped to and fro. The dancers were totally focussed on the dance; a spectator too close was simple trodden on or roughly pushed aside. I know, it happened to me and I could not get out of the way because no-one behind me could give way -- the human wall was so solid.

Half the dancers collapsed at the end of the performance, to be revived by their families dragging them to their feet and forcing water down their throats. They tottered away on wobbly legs between their helpers as the next singsing took over the "stage".

It was a great singsing staged that day by Bapu Pius (Grandfather Pius, Elder Pius, Leader Pius -- "Bapu" indicated all three and then more) and sadly, it turned out to be his swan song. He was a sick man already, TB was involved, but whether it was resistant or he just didn't stick to the prescribed drug regime or there were other factors involved, I don't know, but after this effort, he was to fade away and die in January 2015.

I had known him for only a year when he died, but in that time had found him to be one of the most gentle, loving, thoughtful, loyal, and staunch men I have known in my life. Of limited formal education since he had chosen tradition as his way fairly early in his life, yet he was a most untraditional Tolai man in many respects. A Tubuan, a member, that is, of the Tolai men's secret society, and an influential one at that, he had not used the power that gave him for personal aggrandizement or gain. Instead, he had used it for good. It sounds trite, but it is true.

He was very intelligent but due to his lack of formal education, suffered from a lack of information to which to apply that intelligence as his traditional world was being beaten back by something more "modern" -- greed and power not constrained by traditional social mores and bonds. There were a lot of things he knew were wrong but for which he had no counter.

In many ways, in ways beneficial to society, Bapu Pius was more modern than anyone around him. In a country where women's rights are under constant attack, Bapu Pius was a safe haven and defender for women and girls. While men cherry picked tradition and the Bible (particularly the followers of the more recent Christian missions to PNG, the born agains, the pentecostalists) to keep women down, Bapu Pius quietly denied their nonsense and quietly intervened to stop violence against women and girls.

Arguing for a different way, he never raised his voice, but quietly set out his argument, always argument for balance.

When he died on 19 January, 2015, I learned his age. "Bapu" I always called him, rather than "Tambu" (or in-law) out of respect. It turned out this wonderful man was born in 1963, the year I came to Rabaul for the first time, so he was almost 21 years younger than me.


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