A New Guinea Christmas: Paul Oates

Sialum Patrol Post was situated on the north-eastern tip of the Huon Peninsular about 60 miles north of Finschhafen, the sub district headquarters. I say ‘about 60 miles’ because the Lutheran Missionary at Kalasa (Rudi) and the Lutheran Agricultural Extension Officer (Hans) always argued about how far it was. Hans reckoned it was 58 miles and Rudi reckoned it was 60. “Definitely 58 miles,” Hans maintained. “Yes,” said Rudi, “but you don’t go in and out of the ruts in the road, you just skim over the top of them!” Hans’ penchant for being a ‘leadfoot’ in his old blue Land Rover was well known and a little too fast for sedate Rudi and his wife Martha. Sadly, I heard recently that when Hans retired to Germany in 1974, he took a job as a security officer and was murdered on the job not long afterwards.

One day, during a police investigation in the Sialum station office, I asked the village ‘Komiti’ for his Village Book. When first contacted, all villages were presented with a grey-blue covered Village Book. By the end of World War 2, most villages in ‘Controlled Territories’ had been issued one of these books. A Village Book contained a running commentary of each government visit and notes by government officers on any important points to be noted or followed up by subsequent patrols. Whenever some government activity occurred, an entry was supposed to be made in that particular Village Book.

The Village Book for Gitua (a coastal village north of Sialum) contained comments going back to 1944, when the Japanese had been withdrawing towards Madang. An Assistant District Officer had written about his conduct of the first village census after the Japanese had been forced out and had signed his entry ‘Captain/Assistant District Officer’. Kiaps in those days had a military rank equivalent (either Army or, in the case of some Coastwatchers, Naval), and it was thought this might help if they were captured, that they might be treated as a Prisoner of War rather than shot as a spy for operating behind enemy lines.

The Captain/ADO’s report noted an increase in the population and recorded various misdemeanours that he had investigated. The entry also reported that the village was actively preparing for a special feast, celebrating the village collecting its share of the annual appearance of sea worms. Noting the date of the ADO’s entry was near the current date (November), I asked the old village Komiti if the feast was still celebrated (in 1974) and he assured me it was.

Later that day, I buttonholed the village Komiti from Kwamkwam, just to the south of Sialum. Would I be able to witness this feast when it was due in roughly a week’s time. After some discussion, it was decided it was possible for me to attend, given that, as a white man, any taboos associated with the celebration would not apply.

The villagers all along the coast were keeping a close watch on the rising of the moon, the timing of which apparently triggered the appearance of the worms. When the moon rose late over the sea, not until about half past seven, the worms would be caught from the time the sun went down to the time the moon appeared. Just prior to this time, everyone was warned to stay away from the nearby rivers that run down from the mountains and emptied into the sea. Traditionally, to go near the rivers at this time would court death. The village people said that it was rumoured that the worms came down the rivers and travelled into the sea. Maybe the ‘worms’ were small eels or elvers, I thought.

Not long after I enquired about attending the ceremony, the people sent word that tonight was probably ‘the night’. Towards late afternoon, my wife and I walked along the beach from our house to where the villages waited with canoes. Each dugout was fitted with an outrigger and, in the centre of the vessel, was an empty half 44-gallon drum tied to the poles joining the canoe to the outrigger. Inside the canoe was a stack of coconut frond torches and a hand net made from mosquito netting. Each canoe team consisted of a young girl to hold the lighted torch (bumbum), a young man to operate the net (umben), and a small boy whose duties included paddling the canoe and emptying the net into the drum.

In the tropics, the time between the sun going down and the mosquitoes coming out is possibly the most peaceful period of the day. The waves from Vitiaz Strait came rolling in, expending most of their energy on the reef before gently surging towards shore. Sialum station was situated on a lagoon formed by the outside reef extending along the coast for about three miles. Inside this reef at fairly regular intervals, there were islets that rose above the high water mark and, through the gaps between the islets, the worms were supposed to arrive.

Towards sunset the canoes were launched and paddled towards the gaps in the reef. Hoping to observe the complete performance closely, I asked if I could accompany a canoe and after a short discussion, it was agreed I could. I was welcomed aboard a canoe and the young occupants paddled me to the reef where the rest of the flotilla awaited. Standing on a sharp coral island I was surprised to see only teenagers and unmarried young people in the canoes. I was informed that those who are married or old should not participate in this part of the ceremony as their genitals would swell and cause their death. Seeing the look on my face, all those around hastily assured me this did not apply to white men.

These thoughts were terminated abruptly when a young man suddenly yelled out “Em nau, em pesman bilong ol” (Aha, there’s the first of them now!).

My young friends called me to where they stood in about two feet of water on the reef’s sandy top. At first all I saw was a brown thread, corkscrewing through the water. Then the water came alive. As the tide flowed in and the water reached my waist, hundreds and then thousands of worms arrived until they clouded the water. Some worms were as long as a foot and some just three to four inches. The worms were about one-sixteenth of an inch in width. Some were rusty brown and some azure blue. I could feel the worms sliding around my body and it was not a pleasant feeling. I joined a team in a nearby canoe.

The technique for catching the worms was well known. The girls would light a torch and hold the glowing end just above the water. The flickering light seemed to attract the worms and, as they formed seething mass under the torch light, the young men would scoop them up and hand the full net to the young boy in the canoe, who would then tip the squirming mass into the empty drum and quickly hand back the net. If the torch flared, the worms would corkscrew away so a steady light was essential to catching them.

It was now pitch black and all along the coast as far as I could see, lights were flickering as each village proceeded to glean their share of the harvest. The gentle waves and the rocking of the canoe helped create a surrealist picture: the torch lights reflecting off the surface in flashes of yellow, red, blue and purple. Minute water creatures emitted their own blue-green phosphorescence and this combined with the phosphorescent slime from the worms was a memorable sight. As the nets of worms were tipped into the drums, phosphorescent slime drooled down the outside of the containers and clung to the bottom of the nets.

The netting went on for about two hours before the moon arose. As each drum filled, the canoe was paddled to the nearby beach and the waiting adults tipped the worms into waiting saucepans. At about eight o’clock, the moon rose and the worms disappeared. Everyone then assembled on the beach and the worms were stuffed into lengths of hollow bamboo, which were cooked slowly on an open fire for about a day until the contents became a solidified, translucent mass. This was eaten by the villagers. The smell of cooking worms was very pungent. We politely thanked everyone and walked home. Before we left, I scooped up a few worms of each colour into a small bottle of sea water and took it to study in daylight.

The next morning, much to my dismay, the worms in the bottle had all died. However at the bottom of the bottle was a layer of blue eggs. I assumed that the blue worms might be female and the rusty brown ones, male. I also assumed that the worms were coming to lay their eggs in the sand of the beach and then die, having completed their life cycle.

Before we left the beach that night, the villagers explained that this was their Christmas, (‘Em Krismas bilong mipela’). For a week after this feast they would do no work in the village gardens or at the government station.


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