Derris: Paul Oates
When I was at Sialum, I remember walking along the beach and seeing a bloke from the village (Kwamkwam) nearby, busily pounding two rocks together. I’ll give the gist of what happened next and translate it for those who don’t know Tok Pisin.
“Apinun“, says I, “Yu mekim wanem?” (Good afternoon, what are you doing?)
“Apinun kiap“, he said, “Mi wokim liklik rop bilong bus.” (Good afternoon, I’m doing something with some roots I got from the bush.) (Too literal, but anyway you get the drift).
“Kam mi lukim.” (Let me have a look) I said.
Between the two rocks, one flat one about a foot in diameter (the mortar) and the other one (the pestle) a round stone about 6 inches in diameter there were some brown roots. The roots had been partially squashed but I remember they looked like mulberry roots although they were much darker in colour (rusty brown) but this could have been due to the soil they came from.
“Bai yu mekim wanem samting long dispela a?” (What are you going to do with it?)
“Bai mi kisim pis ia wantaim dispela marisin” he said (I’m going to catch some fish using this medicine – too literal, sorry) and indicated where he had put his net and where there was an obvious dark patch (a school of fish) in the turquoise blue lagoon.
“Olsem wanem yu inap long kisim pis wantaim dispela samting?” I asked. (How can you catch fish using this stuff?). He then explained how he would throw this (stuff) into the lagoon on the far side of the fish and they would swim up and away from it and he would catch them in his net.
I then remembered stories I’d been told at school of how aborigines used a poison to stun and catch fish in rock pools. I asked the bloke what did it smell like and he offered it to me to look at closely. Being very cautious, I kneeled down and I used my hand to waft some of the possible odour in my direction. No smell at all. I stood up and almost went straight over backwards. Whoa! That was a powerful substance.
Anyway, his plan worked. He got his fish and I received yet another lesson in local customs.
I understand the active ingredient is the same organic substance that they put into cabbage dust (derris dust – rotenone). I have since found out it is known, grown and used in many areas in PNG.