My Friend Maia Awak by Mary Mennis MBE

Maia Awak was one of the few old New Guineans who knew the year of his birth. He was born in 1904 when Madang was part of German New Guinea.

Maia Awak: photo by Mary Mennis

It was the year the people revolted as they were tired of losing their land for the plantations. Called the Siar Revolt, retribution was swift and some ringleaders were shot by the German officials. Maia’s family and many other Bilbil people fled from their island village.

His mother was pregnant with him and she sat trembling on one of the canoes as they sailed to Rimba where they hid in the bush. She called him Maia after the Rimba chief who helped them in their exile. The family eventually returned to Bilbil Island and Maia remembered the village singsings when the men lined up at the rock pools to preen their feathered headdresses in the mirrored water.

When he was young his father, Awak, took him over to the mainland and they walked through Modilon plantation where he saw Chinese and Malay workers collecting the coconuts and getting rubber from the trees. He saw cattle grazing where Modilon road is today. After they bought a knife in the German town they returned home. The Australians took over Madang in 1914 and the Germans left soon after. As a youth Maia began to crave adventure and from 1926 – 1927, he worked in Rabaul handing out the rations to workers. He was there during the time of the strike by the Sepik workers over a pay dispute.

In the 1930s Maia worked as a cookboy for Ludwig Schmidt, a goldminer and travelled with him to the Bulolo goldfields and then through the highlands looking for gold. Maia was not above hiding some of the best pieces of gold for himself as he knew their worth. When Ludwig Schmidt was arrested for shooting some of the highlanders in the 1930s Maia was called up to court at Salamaua. He and some fellow village workers realised they could be hanged alongside Schmidt if the court discovered they had shot some highlanders during their travels.

Before the court session, Maia told his fellow informants he would give his evidence first. “Listen to my story,” he told them, “and say the same when it’s your turn.” They were outside but could hear Maia arguing and saying, among other things. that it wasn’t his fault he had shot people as Schmidt had ordered him to do this. His friends then gave the same story and the judge concluded that the evidence of the local informants must have been correct because they all said the same thing!! The patrol officer told the villagers they were free to return home. After another court appearance, Ludwig Schmidt was found guilty and hanged in Rabaul. He was the only European to have been hanged in New Guinea history.

After the court case, Maia returned to Bilbil village near Madang and life continued. A few years later, he married Kobor and had several children. During the war Maia was forced to help the Japanese unload their ships and some of the cargo was hidden in the village houses. After the war, Maia became headman of the Gapan Clan. He took a hand in fixing bride prices, feasts and burials and liked to regale his grandchildren with the stories of brave warriors of the past.

I first met Maia Awak in 1973. He was about 70 years old and I was half his age. Despite this he insisted on calling me “Mumma”. His face was the face of an old warrior of many battles, but he was a kind man and eager to speak of his people and their customs. I thought it would be good to record his memories before they faded and spent many an interesting day beside his fire listening and recording him on tape.

I was able to gather information about the traditional trading trips which he had undertaken in the past. The Bilbil women made clay pots which the men used to trade for food and other items. Maia remembered these trips clearly although the last of them occurred in the 1930s.
He said:

Once we went on a trading trip. There were about ten canoes, lalong and palangut. We went ashore at Rimba then Kul and Mindiri. We sold pots to the people there, then we sailed to Singor and Biliau and did the same, then we went on to Galek, Yeimas, Wab, Mur and Sel. Next we sailed to Bonga where we stayed about three days because the people wanted to shoot a pig for our new canoe. After the pig feast we lined up all the pots. Bonga was our last point of call and from there we turned for the homeward journey with mal, galip, and wooden bowls that we had exchanged for the pots.

We returned along the coast to Yeimas to get galip and mal and to Biliau for mal and plates. Here we stayed a couple of days to cook a pig and have a feast. Then we returned to Singor to collect mal and plates, finally we arrived back in Rimba where we rested for two days. While there we killed some wild pigs, cut them up and boiled them in clay pots. We then put the pieces in baskets and innards in bamboo. After Bogati we headed home. We decorated ourselves, adjusted our feathers, applied the red paint and then we danced all night (Interview 30th August 1976).

Maia described the canoes that his people once built and sailed in. They were large two-tiered constructions with mat sails. I asked him to build a model canoe and he toiled over it for weeks. Later it was bought by the Australian Museum in Sydney.

In 1978 Maia and some other men built a full-sized canoe. I went to the jungle with them to gather materials and wrote a manual of its construction so the information was not lost. This was published by Queensland University and called Mariners of Madang. In 2013, the next generation built a large balangut canoe which is still there in Bilbil Village.

Maia with the model canoe he built

Maia told me that when people died, their spirits went to the Rai Coast where Tinigai, the guardian of the underworld, would inspect them to see if they had the right holes through their ears and noses. He worried that Tinigai would never let me enter the underworld as I had no large bone-hole through my septum. He offered to burn one through my nose with the ‘shit from the fire’ but I reneged. Sorry Maia.

By 1978 Maia was growing old and weak. One day he knew he was dying. He gathered his people around him and said goodbye and then he thanked Kobor for all her work looking after him. Then he just lay down and died. His funeral was different. Our friend Pall Tagari came into town to tell us Maia had died and would we bring a coffin to the village. My husband Brian and I hastened to do just that but by the time we arrived at the village, Maia was already in a make-shift coffin. What was to be done? His village friends had a solution. Maia would be buried in the coffin we had brought along but the other one would have to be buried as well.

So the funeral procession meandered through the village with the two coffins down to the cemetery where the yellow daisies and golden crotons bloomed and he was laid to rest. Sometime later I listened to one of the tapes and there was his voice telling me about his own death and how he would thank Kobor and then just die exactly as had happened. I wonder if Tinigai was there to help him along in his after-life.

My friend, Maia Awak, led an interesting life and I thank him for his memories.

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