Randolf Stow’s Trobriand Islands by Suzanne Falkner

 CONT  from Dec issue

So now I am becoming increasingly apprehensive about my excursion to the Trobriands: with no language skills, and unable to leave the island until the arrival of the next plane in a week’s time, I will entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. The Trobriands, because of Malinowski, are a well-worn path for foreigners. Nevertheless, I feel incompetent to handle what might lie ahead… to be  continued

We take off in a De Havilland Dash 8, flying over hills that look moss-covered from the air and which quickly turn into high mountains with no visible sign of habitation. At Alotau, on the tip of the mainland, where we stop to refuel, we all get off the plane to stretch our legs. The only other European passenger, a bearded Australian in khaki, a nutrition expert, disappears into the terminal shed. I sit outside, where our pilot is gossiping with two pilots from another aircraft, a small twin-engine. It emerges that the tractor that is supposed to pull the re-fuelling tank cannot be started. A bird lands on top of their plane, and the other pilots leave. I sit alone outside the shed, accompanied by a few bush flies, as our pilot disappears to radio Moresby for instructions. Green, green grass and palm trees, blue sky, warm tropical air. Silent, sticky flies. I decide it is probably safest to keep our plane within eyeshot.

After a time we take off again: we have enough fuel to reach Losuia, it seems, but not enough for the plane to land and pick up passengers again at Alotau on the return trip. The green mountains give way to mountainous islands, then to endless flat blue sea, and long flat clouds, and flat coral atolls. Some of these are just a splinter of coral sand above a submerged reef. Now I am the only foreign passenger on board.

Kitava. Photo: Suzanne Falkiner

Losuia is quite a nice little station. Nothing there but the subdistrict office, with an ADO and wife and a cadet, and the hospital, with a doctor and medical assistant who arrived on the Yelangili with us. There are two trading families, and two missions with about four Europeans each. That’s the whole white population of the main island. At Kitava there is one old planter, and at Muwo a married planter. So it’s not exactly crowded with Europeans.

—Letter, Stow to his mother. Sent from Losuia, Milne Bay District, 22 May 1959.

The government station at Losuia, a small scatter of buildings centred on the seafront and a straight, white crushed-coral road leading inland, was regarded in Stow’s time as an attractive posting, if rather isolated. When I arrive, not much has changed.

Behind the wharf and shed, which doubles as a fish market, a handful of white-painted, breezy timber-frame administration houses remain, raised off the ground and walled with woven palm leaf and roofed with red-painted corrugated iron. At Losuia, Stow and Charles Julius had spent a few days with Bob Blaikie before a local trader ferried them and their equipment and stores in his truck some five miles inland to the village of Omarakana, made famous by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Here they moved into the village rest house, took censuses and made genealogies, had long talks with the chief, Mitikata, and other local people, and Mick set about learning the language and compiling a written vocabulary. He also made notes of local myths and spells, and ‘accidentally’ acquired a cat and a white cockatoo called Napanapa.

I have been given the names of several people to look out for on Kiriwina: Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, a Spanish anthropologist who has been doing field work here for several months; Kenneth Kalubaku, who runs one of the island’s two small guesthouses; and his brother John Kaisapwalova, a prominent local political identity and chieftain, but I had wondered how I would find them. I need not have worried: most of Losuia has come to meet the plane and I have met most of my contacts within ten minutes of landing. Also aboard the plane, unknown to me, is the District Administrator, and a choir of children has gathered at the airport to greet him. When I ask about the guesthouse I am pointed towards a parked mini-bus, where a skinny, dark-bearded individual immediately asks, are you Suzanne? It turns out that Andy Connelly, one of my ANU anthropological sources, has texted him to look out for me. Kenneth Kalubaku is also on board the bus, and it turns out that John Kaisapwalova’s elder wife Mary is currently cooking at the guesthouse.

The Butia lodge outside Losuia is basic but clean and comfortable, with wooden cabins raised off the ground—giant millipedes, about the length and thickness of a large cigar, swarm everywhere in the grass like prehistoric remnants— and a large, open-sided communal dining room and meeting area. An electricity generator runs to provide hot water and turn a ceiling fan for a few hours in the evening as you go to sleep. At the main building, young men arrive at the kitchen every morning with bundles of tightly bound, glowering black mud crabs. Others bring carvings, laying them out silently for you to inspect. Soon after I arrive, Kenneth’s young niece Naomi invites me for a walk to visit her grandparent’s village, a neat collection of pandanus and wooden houses on stilts in a small clearing.

In Stow’s time the Omarakana rest house—or ‘old story barrack’, as the local people christened it—was an elevated structure with banana-leaf walls and a pandanus roof, with a room for sleeping, another for washing, and a verandah on which Mick set up his camp bed. At ground level a cookhouse was attached. Omarakana itself, set in a grove of tall trees, was arranged in a roughly circular pattern, with an inner ring of yam houses surrounded by an outer circle of one-room dwellings, all enclosing the baku, or central place, occupied by the Paramount Chief’s intricately-painted yam house. The newcomers’ quarters were about 400 yards from the village—or about the furthest the now elderly Mitakata, Guyau (chief, or father) of Omarakana since 1919, could walk. Beyond the village and the grove were the yam gardens.

Mitakata’s approach would be signalled by the rattle of his many necklaces and the clinking of the decorative shells on his lime pot, carried by one of his many attendants, Charles Julius recorded. On arrival the chief would be offered a chair, while all other visitors were careful to sit in the floor. Mitakata’s own ceremonial seating platform, in the centre of the village, was sufficiently raised on stilts to allow his subjects to walk about freely below.

From here Mitakata, a tall, thin but imposing man, presided over his yam house, filled by custom by his wives’ brothers. Surrounded by high-ranking clansmen, he also oversaw the island’s oral traditions and magic, supervising the yam harvest festivals, or milamala, and the important ceremonial exchange circuit, or Kula, conducted by canoe among the islands of the region. Like Julius, Mick was impressed by Mitakata:

May 16th: He came forward wearing a blue laplap, a beret, the boar-tusk necklace with insignia, and the Queen’s medal. He is a very intelligent and rather distinguished old man—much more so than could be expected from the photographs of the young Mitakata in Malinowski. His mouth is most sensitive, his eyes were thoughtful and bright, his voice is dignified.

When invited, Stow and Julius could join him on his platform, in company with Vanoi, his current favoured nephew and heir, and Vanoi’s sister, Botabalu, and some of her small sons. On the ground below, several of his twelve wives and seventeen children—all of a less exalted clan, or dala—would sit. Gifts were exchanged with the guests: several coconuts and some bananas in return for sticks of tobacco. This presented something of a dilemma for Mitakata, Julius observed, as, if the gift were detected by the villagers, he would be obliged to distribute it around. This was a problem he sometimes surreptitiously solved by sitting on it.

After some discussion it is arranged that I will hire Kenneth’s vehicle, and he and John Kaisapwalova will accompany me to visit the current Paramount chief at Omarakana. In Stow’s time Mitakata’s heirs, Waibadi and Vanoi, had been favoured in turn for the succession, until Waibadi was rumoured to have impregnated one of Mitkata’s younger wives, and favour passed again to Vanoi. Vanoi was succeeded by Waibadi, who was succeeded in turn in 1982 by Pulayasi Daniel, the present incumbent, now in his late fifties.

First, I am advised, I should go to Losuia market with one of the guesthouse staff to buy betel nuts and mustard pods as a token gift for the chief. But when I return with the stem of betel, Kenneth’s brow knits, and he explains that I have inadvertently bought nuts that were picked yesterday, and not today, and so I must tell Pulayasi Daniel that it is for his wives and relatives. To him I should give instead twenty kina for fresh betel for himself; this will be more respectful.

Next morning we drive to Omarakana. Pulayasi Daniel, a man with a benign and good-humoured air, and some of his retinue are gathered beneath his wooden house, the Paramount Chief cross-legged on a chair, the others seated around him on a concrete platform. Kenneth and John introduce me, and a woven mat is placed on the concrete slab for me. I approach in a sort of half-crouch, not sure whether he will regard this with amusement or merely as his right, and present the gifts of betel, the kina, and also two colourful baseball caps, about which he looks quite pleased, although he throws them down beside him with a suitably disdainful air. I explain my purpose, with one of his relatives translating, and show him the old photographs I have brought. Through his interpreter, Pulayasi Daniel tells me that he remembers Julius coming, with another person that must have been Stow, and that as a boy of five or seven years old he had been delegated to take a gift of bananas from the Paramount Chief to the resthouse for them. No one else is left alive, he tells me, who will remember more.

Dola, who is our driver and speaks good English, shows me around the village—the current raised rest house, brightly painted, is hung with strings of white cowries and filled inside with spider webs; the tall, decorated yam houses; the carved stone memorial to Malinowski—while the men talk of more important affairs. Then it is made known that the chief has things to do, and we drive on to visit Kaibola beach, a popular and picturesque swimming spot for Europeans in Stow’s time. Here, I remember from his diary, Mick filled most of an afternoon looking for a new home for a hermit crab. The beach is still lined with outrigger canoes and sea-worn shells of various types, but suitable housing for hermit crabs, it appears, remain in short supply.

Also remembering Cam—King of Kitava, his home. Made largely of packing case boards, it seemed, and with a musty smell inside. All grey unpainted unvarnished wood, I remember, with odd bits of machinery, old wirelesses, a wall-plaque (painted wood) from H.M.A.S. Perth, a map of the world, both Kinsey Reports and a fat book called Sexual Deviants. Between the lockable living quarters and the kitchen a roofed-in open verandah where Cam ate and sat most of the day. …[He claimed] descent from Cameron of Lochill, and from Johan van der Oldenbarneveldt —in fact we did drink out of old fashioned white china mugs with the Dutch royal coat of arms on them. On the other side of the verandah was a very large and beautiful pink frangipani, and the huts of Cam’s servants. He had a butcher bird called Popu which flitted about everywhere. In the mornings the wild butcherbirds called all about & the tame one made [illegible] attempts at answering.

—Randolph Stow, diary entry, Leeds, April 1962

 

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