Luluai*: Adrian Geyle

(Published in Una Voce, September 1998, page 14)

Adrian Geyle was CPO for two years at Lake Murray, Kiunga, Gaima and Daru, Western District; PO OIC Green River, Sepik District; PO H/Q, Madang District. (1951-1955). Field and liaison work on two 7-month field expeditions to the Upper Sepik. Oil search operations. Gravity meter work. Supervising labour (1956 – 1957). Field work with Australian Petroleum Company, Gulf District. Oil search operations (1958). Recruitment Officer in Dept of Public Service Commissioner, Konedobu; Regional Taxation Officer, Lae. Assisting New Guineans grapple with the introduction of personal and business taxation into their lives, with the approach of independence (1966-1970).

Green River Patrol Post had not been manned by a patrol officer for the best part of 12 months when I arrived there in 1954. I had been warned that there was a huge backlog of work to do around the station and nearby villages: the store’s accounts were in total disarray and the compilation of an inventory was the number one priority. Of course nothing much in the way of patrol work could be organised until the mess was cleaned up, until things were made stret. Without going into detail of how this was approached, it must be mentioned that administrative control under the police had at least ‘kept a tab’ on things. Around the station, which sat on, but didn’t cover, an area of four or five hectares, there were about 10 substitute belos (bells) in the form of mattock heads suspended from rafters in various buildings including the police barracks, the prison, the hospital and the store. The usual practice on a station was for the police orderly on duty at the office to ring a bell at set times, eg at 8am, 12 noon, and 1 and 4pm. Public service office hours were generally adhered to for routine purposes, which suited everybody occupied with the more mundane duties of outstation life. The mattocks and other sundries all had to be called in – they had served their time!

A police lance-corporal had managed the station with his detachment of eight constables, and he was my main source of information as to where things were, why there were shortages and what was on order. Nevertheless, the matters of most concern for the police and myself were our relations with village and hamlet communities around the sub-district. Problems came out one by one for discussion as I came to be trusted and accepted as being there to stay. To the concern of one particular constable there was a Luluai headman in a village only thirty kilometres away who was ‘married to his sister’ and had three children with her. My lance-corporal confirmed this and we decided the man should be asked to come in with his ‘sister-wife’ and their three children. A constable was sent down to the village on the Sepik to accompany them in.

The Luluai was a tall, impressive man in his 30s and his younger sister of about 27 had with her their three bright, healthy-looking children of about 6, 3 and 2 years respectively. Their hair was peroxide blonde and they were really handsome children. The mother was confident and positive, and was obviously proud of them. I asked the Luluai if he and his ‘wife’ had the same mother. Yes, he said, and the same father too. Was the practice of marrying one’s sister common in the village? No, it wasn’t. Was it a good practice and if it was why didn’t it catch on? Why was it not popular? The conversation by its very nature had to be respectful of personal feelings if it were to achieve anything.

Through an interpreter we slowly sifted through differences of behaviour and attitudes to taboos passed down from one generation to the next, both in his society and mine. We came to a very strong agreement, a comfortable consensus, that the marriage of a man and his sister was socially and personally a dangerous and potentially destructive arrangement indeed. I wasn’t able to tell if he saw it that way because he’d probably seen deformed children resulting from incestuous marriages; in traditional societies many abnormalities in newborn babies are attributed to demonic forces. Dangerous also were sexual relationships between adults and their offspring, we agreed.

Well then, why did he do it? The arrival of white man’s government was to blame, nothing else, he told me. “I was a big man before you people came. You changed the way my people looked up to me. I was a strong leader because I was a brave warrior and had many, many heads to my credit.” “How many heads?” I asked, and he said there were so many he couldn’t count them unless he thought for a long time and tried to recall them one by one. He was brave and was respected for it, he said, and that had made him the big man whom the government recognised also and even made him a Luluai. He accepted the government’s hat to represent his people to the government and help his people, but something went wrong. Suddenly the killing of other men that got him his status was not only taboo but punishable by years in gaol! Not only did he have to stop killing, but people started to joke about him. The government’s hat did not make up for his loss of status and he didn’t feel good telling his people that they should obey the new laws brought in by the white man’s government. These laws made a fool of him and he would not go along with them at all but for the power of the government with its police with rifles. (He didn’t understand the mail and radio facilities but knew of the ‘magic power’ they gave the government.)

The government was there to stay, he could see that. The rationale which followed amazed me, as it was ingenious and was probably never articulated by this ‘primitive’ tribesman before. He said that to regain his position of leadership he had to do something no-one else would do, something that would make him ‘different’ – as his prowess as a warrior had done. Sleeping with one’s sister was against a very strong taboo, one that was never broken. He could do it, and would do it, and no-one else would follow him. People again saw he was strong because he was gamer than all the rest.

The children had turned out to be normal, fortuitously, further enhancing the status he had regained. He stood there in the office proud but worried as he shuffled and looked apprehensively around the thatch-roofed office with its strange-looking paraphernalia, such as a typewriter, a two-way radio, filing cabinets and papers. Here, well away from his own village folk, he was confronting the very ‘gavman’ he blamed for his predicament, with a presence I hoped would not turn into defiance when I told him what we, the government, wanted him to do. An important outcome of this meeting had to be reinforcement of the Luluai’s self-esteem, plus support for him as he wrestled with the conflicts colonisation had dumped in his lap. I gave him tokens of respect and support in the humble forms of an axe and a machete and some calico laplaps for himself and his wife. At the same time I warned him that he would be liable to many years in gaol if he continued to live with his sister as his wife.

We both seemed to appreciate the complexities, as cultures clashed. I certainly felt respect for this grand man, as well as humility in the ineluctable irony of being a 24-year old foreigner laying down ‘new’ laws and moralising in a black man’s country, one steeped in culture and tradition. Whatever the Luluai’s thoughts as he left that strange meeting and headed down the plain towards his village on the Sepik, he never slept with his sister again. At least all reports I received confirmed that. He found another wife. In my next life I would like to return to that Luluai’s village as an unknown anthropologist – a black New Guinean one – to explore the inside story of that Luluai as he lived on with all the new laws, as well as in-laws!

* Luluai. A policy of the Territory government was to appoint village headmen to positions of liaison, to facilitate dealings between the Administration and the local people. They reported lawlessness and assisted patrol officers with census, health and magisterial matters. It was their role to see that government directives concerning village improvements were carried out.


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