Fast forward many many years and here I am today, living between two worlds, in the land where my ancestors lived and where their stories continue to be breathed in and whispered about through local folklore. The journey of bringing my grandparents home to the family mat-mat became a journey of coming ‘home’ for me also. I’ve never lived outside of Australia before, or had a desire to set up anywhere else… until I arrived here.
After more than a year of organisation and many months of pre-preparation, members of the Uechtritz family started to arrive on the remote island of East New Britain from the far-flung corners of the world. They came from places as close as Cairns in Australia, and from distant destinations such as Dallas, Texas and the United Kingdom. And they arrived in hoards. In fact our family booked out one entire resort at the Kokopo Beach Bungalows and spilled over into a few of the other resorts and airbnb accommodations across Kokopo. There were more than 90 international visitors in our contingent of family and friends, many with their own pikininis and bubus in tow, amongst them many who were visiting this land for the very first time. And for some, an aching return.
After a few days of last minute preparations and some local touring of the beautiful Gazelle Peninsula: a harbour cruise swimming with the dolphins, a must-do walk up Mount Tarvuvur (an active volcano), trips out to the Duke of Yorks, the Uechtritz’s and the Diercke’s, all descendants of Richard and Phebe Parkinson, gathered together to lay to rest our loved ones at the family mat mat at Kuradui. Chris Diercke and Alf and Marylou Uechtritz. Following the burial, two days of ceremonial kastom took place, with the Uechtritz and Diercke families being officially adopted into the Tolom clan and the men of age being invited to take part in the first level of initiation into the male only Tumbuan secret society.
As a woman, I wasn’t able to take part in this sacred initiation, which I respected (but if I’m honest, I was a little envious of). Despite being forbidden from the inner sanctum, this was one of my favourite parts of the ceremonial weekend as I watched my uncles and cousins wrap red lap-laps around their waists and remove their t-shirts, exposing their bright white chests, which were then painted, along with their faces, by the other male clan members. I could sense the anxiety and the excitement from my male relatives as they were about to head off into the bush and into the unknown… When they returned, they were joined by the Tumbuans who leapt and beat their feet as the men struck their chests and raised their arms into the air, all the while roaring out indecipherable masculine cries to the large crowd of spectators gathered at the site of the old Kuradui homestead. I remember I was in the middle of an interview for the documentary film I am making about this story when they began to arrive back from the bush, and I couldn’t help but turn away from the cameraman and his questions, the sight of the returning initiates and the tribal sounds making the goosebumps rise on my skin. A huge sense of pride ran through my bones, and as I looked up, large birds circled above the grounds, and I felt our ancestors were with us in that moment and they too were proud of this occasion that bonded our many families together as one clan, a tie that had been established between our common ancestors more than 140 years ago.
On the final day of kastom, our family was presented with traditional sing-sings, some that included the names of our ancestors, the names of my grandparents and even my own name. What an honour. One of my favourites to watch was the Longoron dance. Prior to the ceremony, some of the male dancers are sent into the bush where they fast for weeks in preparation. When they reappear, they are in a seeming hypnotic trance. This particular dance is only performed by the Tolai people of East New Britain on occasions of deep significance, such as burials. The men in the trance-like state are said to be guided by the spirits. Sitting close to the dancers, I was in no doubt these men were in a deep spiritual state.
By the end of two days of ceremony, we are exhausted, but our hearts are full. My heart is full. The wishes of my grandparents have been fulfilled, and all the generations of our family will forever be connected to the land and the people of ENB, our new clan family and our extended Kuradui community. For many, it was only a few short days before bags were packed and planes were boarded, whisking each of us back to the familiar modern world from whence we’d come. But for me, the feeling of home had changed. Something within me had changed. A long submerged sense of belonging was starting to run through my veins, and although one chapter of this story had just been completed, I felt that for me, this was just the beginning of something entirely life-changing. I was called home for a reason. I know it. I feel it. Dispela ples, em asples blo mi. Mi wanpela tolai meri stret! ;-)
After landing back in Sydney, I found myself feeling oddly lost walking around beneath the shadows of skyscrapers, with the whir of traffic blitzing past me on concrete freeways and commuter trains of people glued to their phones… “Home” had changed. Something in me had changed. Something was calling me back. Although scheduled to get back to where I had left off before departing for the unknown, two weeks had not passed before I was back on an Air Niugini flight, throwing myself into the exploration of a new life path; one that is found amongst the cocoa plantations and kokonas trees, in a land where ancient spirits stir and call your name, where new feelings blossom and vision lengthens with the evening light, where the sight of the volcano across Blanche Bay brings comfort and the quiet rumble of a guria that shakes one awake in the middle of the night reminds me to be grateful for every day I get to live and discover the magic and the mystery of this ples blo mi.