A Bit of Culture (Rich)
At the end of August an event took place that we’d been looking forward to for some time – the “Back to My Roots” Festival. This was a three day festival showcasing North Ambrym’s unique and rich cultural history and custom – a chief’s grade-taking ceremony, some custom magic, and the famous Ambrym Rom dance.
The festival’s main organiser is a clever and, it must be said, opportunistic man, who initially decided simply to invite tourists to observe his own grade-taking ceremonies. This has since expanded to become a festival, but the original concept remains – the ceremonies are real. Unlike, say, the land-diving in Pentecost, which is now done only for tourists, these ceremonies actually mean something in Ambrym society.
A chief’s grade-taking is a dramatic affair. Rising up through various ‘grades’ is the way in which Ambrym chiefs increase their chiefly standing. Nowadays the grades are largely symbolic and convey little day-to-day power, but there are still certain sections of society that see them as an important part of life and custom.
The ceremony begins with dancers stomping and jumping around a tam-tam, which is struck in a rhythmic beat. The dancers gather pace until they are swirling around the tam-tam, and as they do so the chief climbs a six-metre high platform and begins a dance of his own. However, while he dances he must keep a close eye on the goings on below, as men periodically break out of the dancing pack to throw stones at the chief above. This, I’m told, is to remind him, as he progresses up the ranks, that he is still just a man. When he has survived the onslaught he climbs down and the dancing ends.
The grade-taking is finalised by the killing and payment of several (very large) pigs. This led to a minor kerfuffle as many of the tourists were quite uncomfortable with seeing a pig clubbed to death. It didn’t help that the pig chosen for sacrifice was determined not to go quietly, and it took an unusually large number of strikes with the club before it died in the dust. We both think that, here, clubbing a pig is generally the fastest and most effective way to kill a pig, but on the next day of the festival it was done somewhere else.
The following day featured a famous and distinctive Ambrym tradition – the Rom dance. ‘Rom’ refers to the elaborate and beautiful masks worn by the dancers – I would tell you how they’re made, but I was told that this is custom information and I’m not allowed to know. The men behind the masks are completely covered by a costume of banana leaves, feathers and other plants, so that they appear as dancing, leafy monsters.
The dance itself is long, complex and intense. The masked dancers jump and run and their costumes make a rhythmic swooshing noise, while the unmasked men dance around the masked men and lead them on the correct path (it’s hard to see out of those masks!) The dance goes for a long time and is very physically demanding, such that periodically the men will change out of the costume and another will take their place. It’s a very intense and powerful dance, filled with history and mean – the highlight of the festival.
The festival, of course, brought with it a whole lot of tourists – probably 40 or 50 people. When you consider that in 6 months on Ambrym we have seen 5 or 6 other ‘white men’, to now be seeing groups of 5 or 6 walking down the road on a regular basis felt quite bizarre. Most had come on yachts and 20 plus boats were anchored in the bay at Nobul, a couple of villages away. It was such a novelty that we felt we should go talk to some of them. Luckily, the first people we met were two couples from Australia. They were lovely, down-to-earth people who were interested in what we were doing. They also asked us plenty of questions about North Ambrym, which we were happy to answer, but in return for acting as their ‘unofficial tour guides’ they insisted on having us to dinner on their yacht. We had cheese and biscuits (!), an ‘Aussie BBQ’ (!!) and sushi (!!!). Oh, and they had cold beer (!!!!!!!). It was so awesome.
Along with the Australian couple there were plenty of Americans, French, Germans and New Zealanders. All were yachties, except for a few – in particular one couple who we were told (by the yachties) were too fat to be yachties and had to have come by plane. The yachties turned out to be great company, and we were surprised to find many similarities in our lifestyles. Although they had some extra comforts (oven, fridge etc), we were both concerned about the lack of rain for our water supplies, lamented the lack of food variety, and could spend a good deal of time discussing the relative merits of solar panels without anyone getting bored. I came away with a new respect for yachties – to sail with just one or two people in open seas you have to know how to sail, navigate, service your boat and take care or yourself in an emergency. It’s really a very adventurous way to travel.
The tourists provided days of conversation for the locals. Particularly amusing was the wife of a French guy, who, during the ‘public dance’, insisted on dancing with her small fluffy dog. We cringed, but most of the locals found it hilarious. While most people were too scared to talk to the tourists directly, they still wanted to know where they were from and what they thought of Ambrym. Although tourism has the potential to damage communities such as this, this locally-owned festival seemed to be a great success with real benefits coming to the community.
So we’re having something of a water crisis here at the moment. Our water, and that of the community in general, comes from concrete water tanks that are filled by the rain. Normally we don’t have a problem, this being the tropics and all, but it hasn’t really rained here for more than 3 weeks. Yes, by Australian standards that’s not too long, but here it’s enough to cause quite a problem.
We officially had a water problem last week, when I realised that the water in the tank was so low that I could no longer reach down far enough to scoop it out. To drink, we are filling up a bucket and straining it through a handkerchief into bottles (the dregs are a bit dirty!). We are lucky that my family has a private well as the large community wells have long since dried up or the small amount of water left has gone green. Many people are now boiling water from the creek nearby.
To wash our hands and clothes we draw water from a half salt/fresh well near the sea, while the ocean now functions as our very own bathtub. (On a side note, did anyone know that you can’t use regular soap in the sea? It doesn’t foam up and just feels sticky! I am still flabbergasted as to why this should be so – anyone?) The lack of water is not great for cleanliness. It is so dry that dust is swirling about everywhere, and our house is constantly invaded by it. Despite our best efforts, and sweeping ten times a day, we can’t seem to escape the dust attack. So we’re dirty from dust, sweaty (it’s getting hotter) and can’t use soap, which all together has us feeling rather stale and sticky. So for now we’re waiting for rain, and drinking lots of extra coconuts!