Tabu Breaking Ceremony: Rain, Magic and Jealousy
Updated: Apr 17, 2019
Flashback Post, originally posted 22nd February 2013.
One of the jobs my family has enlisted me to oversee is the production of the Tabu (also known as Tambu) Aripe, or the long coils of traditional shell money that is used in many ceremonies by the Tolai people around the Duke of York Islands and Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain, PNG. It is made from tiny little shells (Nassa Camelus snail) and harvested from the beaches. Thousands upon thousands are threaded onto rattan strips which are often rolled into large coils and then broken into lengths and distributed during ceremonial rituals. Our family has commissioned members of the Kuradui village to make our Aripe (the large Tambu coils) for us to use and distribute during the upcoming Matamatam of my grandparents in September. This post is about another Tabu breaking ceremony I went to that ended with an untimely downpour of rain... supposedly orchestrated by someone with a chip on their shoulder...
Today there is a traditional ceremony for one of Sila’s relatives who died about a month ago. The family are going to distribute shell money to both sides of the family and have a feast to end the mourning period.
Shell money is the local trading currency for East New Britain. Tiny little shells from the ocean are threaded onto long bits of cane. Many metres of these shell money strands are made and exchanged at traditional ceremonies.
It is a beautifully sunny day with blue skies as we take a seat on the ground and watch the shell money distribution. The women and girls are all seated on one side and the men and boys on the other.
In the middle of the grounds there are big wheels that look like they’ve been wrapped in big dried leaves. As the ceremony progresses, more of these large wheels are brought forward and are opened to reveal they are big coils of shell money from various family groups and the community.
The blue sky above is starting to turn grey with large fluffy clouds. The drummer begins to beat out a tune with his stick, a signal for the Tubuan to come out from the bushes. The Tubuan belongs to a secret men’s society. Its costume is a big round ball of leaves and a mask with a pointed head. The Tubuan costume is passed down through the father's line and represents a connection between the present and the past. Two feet stick out from the bottom and dance to the rhythm of the drums. Some of the women and children move backwards as the Tubuan enters… afraid of getting too close to this mysterious figure.
After the Tubuan leaves, various groups of people from different families stand up with their woven baskets filled with shell money and walk around and distribute small strands to all the people. The women, the men and the children all get their own piece of shell money. Even I am getting shell money thrown at me or placed around my neck. The children run with their shell money to women who have come with boxes of twisties or ice blocks and exchange their shells for treats. I am told to go and buy some twisties with my shell money, but I’d much rather keep it as a souvenir.
The white clouds have darkened and it is raining now. At first it is light and people move to sit under trees or use banana leaves as umbrellas. But soon the rain is falling heavily and it disrupts the ceremony; people run for cover under stilt houses or big trees and the voice of the man leading the ceremony is drowned out by the sound of rain.
The ceremony can’t go on, so we run to the car and sit inside, waiting for a break in the downpour so we can load our passengers into the back of the ute. Sila shakes her head and tells me, “this isn’t rain from the Gods, it is the work of a jealous person”. She tells me there is a local belief about the timing of the rain, that if it starts to fall as you are distributing shell money then it is the work of someone who knows magic and who is jealous.
Well, this person must have a mighty chip on their shoulder because the heavy rain just goes on and on. We decide to wait no more and load up our passengers in the back of the ute for a wet drive home. Sila hands me the keys and I slowly drive our loaded vehicle through the torrent of water coming from above and the pools of murky water which have quickly covered parts of the road below.
Our hearts sink as we get to the Kuradui driveway. All the hard work that (Sila’s cousin) Robinson has put in, filling the driveway with dirt to make it level, is now being washed away with the rain. I take a deep breath, make sure the car is in 4WD and put the car into first gear. I make a slippery climb up the first part of the hill and I can hear the back passengers “ooh-ing” and making little shrieks – I bet they are terrified that I am the one driving them up the hill (I know I am). I am doing well until the car slips into a hole in the road and the car comes to a stop on a precarious angle. I try to move forward, but the wheels just spin. I try to reverse, but nothing happens. Oh no, I think we might be stuck. I look out my window and observe the car seems to be sitting deep into a crevasse. Robinson and a few others get out of the tray to inspect the car; he tells me to go forward as he and the others get behind the car and push. I put the car into gear, give it a controlled rev and then release the clutch. The wheels spin and then with some help from the back the car finally grips the ground and moves ahead. Phew! We are out.
I look ahead and all I see is a muddy waterfall, not a road. This drive is scaring the hell out of me, but I keep going. We slide from left to right, tilt from side to side and rise and fall every inch of the way up the driveway. I get stuck again but manage to reverse out and keep going. Over the last hill of the road we go and onto flat ground. I park the car and turn the engine off with a huge sigh of relief. I can physically feel my heart pounding, but what a thrill, we made it!