Abelam spirits’ houses, gods and yams (PNG 2017)


A Kwoma epic tells about a powerful spirit-yam who was living in a deep water pond, up, on a tree. When a man discovered the pond, and stared into the water, the spirit-yam burst, throwing plenty of spears and killing him, turning the water pond into a waterfall and scattering animals and plants from the pond. The yams drifted down the Sepik River, ending up close to Maprik, where they spread around.
From there on, gods, legendary heroes, superstitions, ritual art-work, ceremonies, spirits’ houses, taboos, local pride and, recently, demands for governmental funding are revolving around the yam, a sweet potato, the staple food of the Abelams, and their trade-good for fish with the river people.

(Kwoma and Abelam are ethnic groups, from East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. The Kwoma are living in the wetlands at the bottom of Waskuk Hill, and the Abelam on the hills neighbouring Maprik.)

In Mai 2017, following the suggestion of Nelson Makamoi, a Kwoma artist from Tongujam, I took the road to Maprik, to meet Waikua Nera, a “big man” in the Abelam community, to record local stories.

I got a place in a canoe going down to Pagwi, where I jumped on a tightly packed PMV (truck serving as public transport) heading to Maprik, for the market-day. Thousands of people, from Sepik villages and the hills, are meeting there twice a week to trade, or to stroll aorund. In that busy crowd, it didn’t take long to find Wikua’s address by word of mouth.
He was famous for being invited to Brisbane (Australia, 2012) to show Abelam’s customs and art-work. Beside this, now Waikua was the head of the village court, on the Maprik hills. I squeezed in another PMV and one hour later I arrived in Brekiti, close to Waikua’s house. Without much introduction, I kind-of invited myself to his place, and without any fuss, he offered to host me for as long as I needed. Welcome to PNG.

Around the market-town Maprik, the economy and rural development seemed to be boosting, and the services, for which most of the Sepik people were craving hopeless, were on sight. Dangling, bumping and sweating on the back of the truck, along with school kids, market traders, church people and drunks, I didn’t make high hopes for what I was about to see at the Abelams.
The proximity to Maprik and the affiliation to churches, mostly Protestant, are impacting on the storytelling tradition. The yams, of which cult is at the core of the Abelam culture, are losing their importance. People focus now on vanilla and cocoa crops, which are bringing a considerable income. On their daily menu, the yam is gradually replaced with rice, imported fish-cans and instant noodles. The Yam Sing-Sings ceremonies still take place, but the people’s involvement is depending now on governmental funding and the scarce tour-guides.

There were left three Abelam ceremony-houses, located in the three Apangai villages.
The big koromb in Brekiti, which brought fame to Waikua was last used in 2014 and now was about to get swallowed by vegetation.
Koromb or korumbo is the Abelam’s ceremony-house, haus tambaran in PNG Pidgin. It is a powerful place, a gathering of the spirits of the clans’ ancestors. Some describe the tambaran as the mask of the clan.
The Abelam’s koromb is famous for the colourful, psychedelic paintings on the façade. The koromb, on a bamboo structure covered with leaves, is shaped to look like a cassowary.
Now, Christianized communities are building churches with the shape of a koromb. Covered with tin, and surrounded mostly by wooden houses, the tall, shining churches look like metallic cassowaries in an SF movie.

At the local liquor store, I met Keli Kandi, Waikua’s older brother, debating on the fresh electoral posters. After a couple of beers, and a few stories, Keli asked me to buy a few more beers, “to take with us”. He invited me to their clan’s koromb, next to his house.
In Apangai 1, right on the side of the main road, in a dusty park area lined with power generators, stacked tires and fuel drums, is the biggest remaining koromb. Without a regular income, a few years ago, Keli rented a piece that land to a mobile phone company for storing equipment.
Keli, a “kastom man“, did most of the ritual-art-work for the last fully featured cult-house of the Abelams. I felt lucky to meet him and privileged to see that koromb.

Both Keli and Waikua asked me to promote their place, to help them to get tourists. I got used with this request in all the places, very few though, where the indigenous are preserving their beliefs and artistic traditions. Only now I managed to post the photos which I took at the Abelams.

The koromb in Apangai 1 belongs to the Kulikum and Kandi Clans.
Outside, on the koromb façade covered with shrivelled sago barks, painted with mud are the masks of Dendwin (the lower row) and Puti (the rest). Puti “is the god”, “he gives you the power to work/succeed”.
On the right corner is a tunnel-like dwarf entrance, used during ceremonies, which forces people to bend when coming out of the koromb.
On the top, over 10m above the ground is the mask of Puti facing down, and the pots which he is using for cooking.
Inside, the loose sago barks covering the façade were allowing the sun to lit the sacred chamber of Puti. Placed in the centre, Puti is guarded by his sons (men are carved, women are painted on barks) aligned along the walls, and Kwatbil – a central character in Abelam mythology. At his feet are aligned kina-shells, still used for custom-payment, like compensation, bride price, or sorcery, and for offerings.
The koromb also has a back chamber, with a taller entrance, where are stored objects used during ceremonies.

In Apangai 2 is the smallest of the three ceremony houses. On the sago barks covering the façade, still painted with mud, are the mask of Dendwin (centre) and Puti (on its sides). On the cross-log, are carved the faces of the men represented in/by the koromb.

The most recently built one is in Apankai 3, painted using oil-paint. In the centre of the façade are the masks of Dendwin, on the left Dunien child, and the right Kutakwa.
In Apangai 3, Waikua showed me the haus-yam, a sacred place fenced with sago leaves, where the big yams, some over 2m long, are stored.

One Reply to “Abelam spirits’ houses, gods and yams (PNG 2017)”

  1. Mary-Clare Adam

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful photographs and the record of your visit to this unique part of the world. I am so glad that these haus tambarans still exist and that the customs are still being kept. I lived in this area in the mid 1970s and would like to be in touch with you. My email is maryclareadam@gmail.com

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