August 30, 2012
The current of excitement rose throughout the village as the month progressed. Stanley's sisters had been preparing for the circumcision ceremony the entire time Tenaya had been anchored in Port Resolution. It is a kastom event for the women and children, and one of the biggest ceremonies of the year on Tanna. It is certainly the most colorful!
The women weave baskets and mats and make different types of skirts. One style is made from the fibers inside the branch of a particular tree. The wood is peeled away and the fibers separated, soaked in seawater, then dried. This takes more than a week.
Then the long fibers are woven onto a waistband to make a skirt and the bottom cut to the proper length. Finally it is dyed with several colors in elaborate patterns.
Another skirt is sometimes worn over the first, colorful skirt. It is made of long, narrow leaves that curl when they dry. They give a nice shape around the womens' hips and flutter in the air as she jumps while dancing. It's all very alluring. This is the one time each year the women can primp, pamper, paint themselves up and party. And boy do they!
Stanley had his work cut out for him. Two of his sisters, Meriam (top) and Dulcie (middle) had boys being circumcised. Merian (bottom) was the mother of the other boys so I imagine her brother and her village chief were also busy.
Stanley shares the duty as chief of Yatukuri nakamal at Ireupouw village with his brother, Johnson, but Johnson is a nurse as well as a kastom medicine man so was in the bush with the boys for many weeks. That left Stanley to build the needed structures, transport kava and other necessities to Manuapen, an hours walk to the south.
Yachties gave him petrol for his chainsaw to cut down coconut trees and bamboo to build storage structures high off the ground. Others gave him diesel to fuel a truck to move the wood and other supplies to the ceremonial grounds.
Several days before the ceremony the women gathered in a small group of houses with a large cooking area at the corner of Manuapen to get ready. The day before, Anneth, another of Stanley's sisters, asked Lori Lynn to go to Lenakel and buy a few things. No problem said LL, she was happy to help. I wanted to take some photos of last years circumcision ceremony to Monik or one of the ladies from her village that sells baskets at the market so I went along too. So did Marie and Carolyn.
When we got to town I headed off towards the large open air market, Carolyn went in a different direction and Marie and LL went shopping. LL explained they were on a shopping spree, shopping for a special purpose without the normal budget constraints. Marie was all for that! They bought bags and bags of clothes and miscellaneous goodies.
Unfortunately for Carolyn, she eventually hooked up with me. I'm on a budget and Jim and I are careful not to just give people things, especially when they ask, as we feel it sets a bad precedent. When she asked for earrings I said LL had already bought her a pair (which she had) and that I had some on the boat I would trade with her. She wanted coconut oil so I bought that. Then powder. I bought that too. When she wanted something else, I hesitated and she put it back. That was the end of our shopping. It was not a spree.
The next morning Jim and I walked over to Manuapen carrying our packs and a chocolate cake. We had booked a night at Sunrise Bungalows because the dancing would last all night long. Lori Lynn was already there and I found her with the women having her face painted.
An eternity later, when all the women and children were dressed and painted, we made our way down the road to the nakamal area where the ceremony was beginning.
Each mother of the circumcised boys and the closest female relatives from her village, and their children, stood in front of a shelter that would be their home for the next 24 hours. Mats were laid inside with food, changes of clothes and decorations. When we first arrived, Stanley waved us into the shelter for Meriam and told us this is where we were to stay. He made sure the cake was in a safe spot.
As the colorfully dressed women and children looked on, men built three great piles of stuff beneath tall, transplanted bundles of cane. First laplap, then baskets of taro and yams, followed by mats, layers of lava lavas, and topped with pretty baskets.
Once the piles of gifts were erected, the mothers and other women sprayed them with purfume.
Soon afterwards the men began to disappear into the bush. A hush fell over the grounds. Stanley came to tell the yachties congregated in a group to sit quietly until further notice.
Men and boys emerged from the bush and walked slowly into the clearing, mostly in single file. Along the long line there were three clusters of men and older boys huddled together. It was soon apparent that the newly circumcised boys were hidden among them.
When we spotted Johnson walking with a cluster we knew that Ron was inside. That was when the wailing started. The mothers cried loudly for a few minutes as the procession wound around the piles of presents. Then the medicine men presented the boys to the villages.
Party time! The men formed a ring and the women came out and circled them. This is how the dancing goes. The men move anticlockwise in the center and the women skip, jump and run around the outside of them, also anticlockwise. All the while everyone sings and stomps.
The dancing went on for a while until it was time to dismantle the piles. Men took turns carrying armloads of gifts away until only smoldering bundles of laplap wrapped in banana leaves remained. Lunchtime! The laplap was unearthed, unwrapped and distributed. The warm, glutinous meal had a layer of meat in the center and was quite tasty.
Johnson had brought Dulcie's boys over and they sat in front of the shelter along with Ron. People came by to offer congratulations and presents to the boys. Stanley presented the cake. After their laplap, the boys and Johnson were given large pieces and the rest of the guest received tiny bits.
Once the boys are circumcised they may to go to the nakamal in the evenings. They are not allowed to drink kava until they are 18 but now they can help prepare it by chewing the roots. That is how kava is made on Tanna. Boys chew it into pulpy wads and spit them onto leaves. These piles are put in a strainer of fabric and water is poured over it. Then the strainer is wrung over a half a coconut shell to capture the slightly intoxicating, fairly awful tasting potion.
In the late afternoon we walked back to Sunrise Bungalows for dinner and to sleep for a while. We returned after dark and settled in at the shelter for the Ireupouw clan for a few hours to watch the dancing. Most people stayed there, the women and children sleeping on the mats inside the shelters between dances with their calicos (colorful cotton wraps) drawn over them as blankets.
After the final dance, just after sunrise, men took turns walking to the center of the clearing to make speeches. Eventually breakfast was served. That is when we headed back to the bungalows to get our packs and walk back to Port Resolution.
Stanley told us that in a couple of years there will be a circumcision ceremony for Richard and Ruben, two more of his nephews. This time it will be in his village. He said we must come. We agree.
The ceremony was delayed one day because the man that was helping Stanley with most of the work suddenly died. It was odd, Stanley said, because after a long day of work and kava afterwards, he and his friend reached the point in the road where their paths veered and his friend said goodbye three times. They do not usually do that and Stanley gave him a hard time for it. They both laughed, waved and walked to their villages.
According to Stanley, after kava men need quiet time but his wife talked and talked. He had a stroke. His wife felt terrible but it was too late. He was gone.