© Geoffrey Heard 2014
My wife, Louisa, needs shell money, tambu, for a forthcoming commemoration of the death of the father of Ben, a cousin of about 20 who has been living with us during the week this year while he trains as a welder at a technical education place near us. Ben is really good value, hard working, honest, a contributor, and trying to do his best for himself and everyone else, and it is a pleasure to have him with us. His mother is a very nice lady and enormously proud of him, and she and the dead Dad were especially close to Louisa.
This means Louisa wants to be prepared to be generous at the distribution of tambu that will be part of the commemoration.
So she has to make every post a winner in amassing tambu.
There was a brukim tambu (breaking of shell money) the other day following the death of a cousin last week. The brukim tambu is a ceremony where shell money is distributed to members/sections of the family who contributed to the do-it-yourself funeral (that's normal here; there are no funeral businesses, just the odd coffin maker). One group provides the coffin, another digs the grave, another lays out the body, another organizes the service, another organizes the choir, and so on and so forth. At the breaking of the tambu, shell money is distributed by the family to all these people in recognition of their contribution. Often, there is lots of overlap -- the same people are both givers and receivers in different capacities.
It is called "breaking the tambu" because the tambu, shell money, is tiny cowrie shells strung on strings of cane and when you are paying out the stuff, you break off lengths of it.
Now Louisa was a very genuine mourner at the funeral last Friday; she was pretty upset over the death of the young mother, a cousin, who died of kidney failure, we believe. She had gone to the hospital for help and received medicines and been told to return, but then some of those around her had convinced her that she was suffering from "sik bilong ples", a village sickness, sorcery or some such, not something that could be dealt with medically. She had died with unopened medicines in her room. Sad, sad, sad.
But, while genuinely mourning, life goes on and in a subsistence society this means that when an opportunity presents itself, you take advantage of it because you don't have reserves in the bank, you pay as you go.
So yesterday Louisa went along to the breaking of the tambu, a large family gathering, carrying a couple of boxes of Twisties (kids here love Twisties) which she sold to those attending, accepting payment only in shell money. No cash wanted!
Nobody saw this as amiss -- the only criticism was that she should have taken at least three boxes instead of two!
Louisa came home with a BIG bunch of shell money, making a significant profit on the cash investment. She spent about 40 kina (= $18) buying the Twisties; looking at the amount of tambu she collected, I suspect she came away with at least 100% profit. Most importantly, though, she transmogrified cash into tambu because cash is totally unacceptable in traditional ceremonies even if there is widely recognized equivalence between the two currencies.
The tambu she received was all in short lengths, so he then set about the next step -- pulling the shells off the cane (using a slot cut in a half coconut shell as her gripping implement) then rethreading them on new, longer lengths of cane she bought from the market, and joining them to make one long rope of tambu. Tambu is measured by the pram (fathom) and is measured out by someone with a good arm stretch as shown in the picture below of the tambu offered in a marriage exchange being evaluated. Eventually, if Louisa can put together enough of tambu, she will make it into a wheel.
At which point, she will start on another collection!
But in the meantime, her store will wax and wane as she collects tambu and contributes some on various customsary occasions. If she needs some tambu in a hurry, we can buy some in the market -- a stubby bottle full retails at about K50 (= $20).
I chuckle whenever I see something like this -- mourners at a funeral or participants in a family wedding or whatever trading among themselves. It demonstrates a kind of pragmatism I rather like. It is real life; life at the coal face of living.
I noticed it particularly at the breaking of tambu for another mother who died too young last year, in her case of antibiotics-resistant TB, a woman I had known as a child back in the day. Quite a few women, genuine mourners, turned up at the funeral or brukim tambu with their little esky full of ice blocks made with cordial selling for the standard price of 50 toea (= 40¢). Others had plastic containers of homemade donuts for sale, or a big dish with some karimap (= cover it up -- banana leaf packages) of food such as cooking bananas, sweet potato, rice, greens, and perhaps a little fish or chicken, all cooked in coconut and selling at two or three kina (a meal for under $1!). Still others put down a little sheet and laid out their betelnut for sale.
Sellers on these occasions gather only a few kina, but every little helps offset the costs of the day and it provides a needed service where there is no corner store or fast food outlet handy. It is also a demonstration of how people live in a subsistence economy. They earn and pay as they go -- little or no cash reserves.
I happened to witness another example of this at a meeting at a government office. By rights attendees should have been provided with transport to the meeting. Some weren't, but they attended anyway. One arrived with a container of doughnuts she had cooked that morning -- and proceeded to sell them to her fellow attendees and staff in the office for morning tea. She covering her bus fare! Talk about a dedication to getting the job done. She had sold her doughnuts and was well into the meeting in about the time it would have taken an Australian counterpart to finish her first round of whinging.
Here among the Tolai, many people have small bank accounts (and some have many, very large accounts!) but the only significant cash reserves the vast majority of people have is tambu. Louisa is busy building our account.
But bloody Twisties! LOL!
P.S.: Even as I was writing this, news of another brukim tambu came in by text (everyone texts here -- you can get 50 texts in a day for K1 (= 90¢)). More Twisties for sale!