Suau: the sons of seafarers by Konetero (Ronnie) Dotaona

Suau: the sons of seafarers by Konetero (Ronnie) Dotaona

Winner of the 2015 Crocodile Prize Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing.

Every Suau-speaking lad is fond of the ocean. Ask him. And ask him about his dream. ‘Go to Maritime College, join the navy or build a workboat.’

If a Simbai is born with all the secrets of the forest, then a Suau is a born seafarer. Infant boys are carried by an uncle or grand-uncle to the beach. He is made to face Tupo Yalasi, the direction of the west wind. The old man will make the infant to dance and perform the ritual song calling on the Yalasi wind to inundate the infant with strength. And the baby will be taken to the front of a sailing canoe in rough storms and the waves will spray his face while uncle or grand-uncle sings. Later, young people reaching manhood or womanhood undergo rituals connected to the sea.

Our fathers sail kemuluwa or amuyuwa, ocean-going canoes with sails made of dam, woven dried pandanus leaves.

The craft remind me of the skill it took, and the tragedies experienced, on the part of my ancestors in crossing thousand miles of ocean to reach the land we call home. I do not know if the seas were pacificus in that era. The names Kemuluwa and Amuyuwa signify that these voyages journeyed across the Muruwa or Muyuw seas near what are now the Woodlark and neighbouring islands. They built and sailed wolibote, workboats without motors, driven by sails.

I asked my grand-fathers where the name originated. I came to understand that these boats were similar to whaleboats, thus the name Wolibote was coined. The arrival of marine motors motivated them to share the dream of a white man, Reverend Charles Abel, to build boats. Our fathers were trained at Kwato Island by Australian boat builders. Some were trained at Wako Wakoko Slipways and at Sariba Island, while others pioneered the Salamo Slipways on Fergusson Island. The quality of work our fathers did in the boatyards was comparable to Australian and British boat builders.

I recall the stories of my grand-uncle. When he sleeps on the deck at night, he feels the pattern of currents and waves hitting the boat. He tells the tiller man if they are approaching a reef or nearing land. He uses the stars to navigate. He knows all the current patterns and uses them to his advantage. His clan totem is the sea eagle. I had a chance to travel the coast between Milne Bay and Morobe. On many occasions, I spotted Kubona on the ship at dawn. The first thought that entered my mind was, ‘I’ve seen the same star, my Lapita ancestors have seen.’

We hear stories of our fathers meeting sea monsters and storms and the parts of the Milne Bay waters where one is not allowed to utter a word. They tell us the different names of ocean waves and describe the areas from Milne Bay to the Motuan to the Gulf coastline that we need to know.

Suaus take pride that their sons were some of the pioneers to sail the oceans of our country. The songs of our forefathers were composed and sung on these journeys, songs of leaving their loved ones behind, coming ashore on foreign soil and of young lasses eloping. Our fathers taught us the lives of sea birds – sea eagle, sea hawk, frigate bird, tern – and what we can learn from them. Sayings like: ‘being shark-eyed and not of a stingray’ or ‘sleep like a turtle’ or ‘wake up like a tern’ were coined.

Around the evening fires, we have heard stories and legends of the sea and its monsters: sineligusi salasala, sineboudalili, polepole, bolisaielo, sasalutu gwanegwane. If that was not enough, our mothers created games:  string figures such as the Amuyuwa, Kubona the dawn star, the ocean tides and currents, Taubodidi the seafarer. When kids play these figures, they are drawn closer to the spirit of seafaring.

A Suau man knows the look of a strong workboat; boats that can load at the same time and withstand the storms. As lads, we were taught the names of hardwoods that resist the naval shipworm, hardwoods that will last. Suaus are a headache to the provincial maritime authority, because they breach strong wind warnings. They take pride in riding on the waves, even though they know that the ocean does not keep memorial headstones afloat.

May the Suau lads sail the waters and build hardwood boats out of love, respect and character, boats that will stand life’s stormy seas. May they, in future, cross oceans with outrigger canoes. May their sails be filled with the trade winds. To our forefathers who have already sailed away. You’ re a mariner.

Fair winds!


NOTE: Ronnie, 33, is from Milne Bay and is a science teacher with a deep passion for indigenous knowledge.

‘I carved my profession out of a childhood hobby for the love of arthropods,’ he says. ‘I’m a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, a prankster and love telling stories with kids. My spare time is occupied by gardening or woodworking or a bit of melody therapy. Never keep me away from the sea for too long.’



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