Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Singsing Toktok

The comforts of the village are not to be decried when compared to what I have just been thru. The past week I’ve lived under the same inadequate roof with about 2 dozen men, women & children without adequate bathing facilities and a latrine in the bush that no one dared venture into at nite for fear of snakes. You had to save your shits for the day time and piss on the beach (10 feet away) at nite. We didn’t have a floor so we had to shake out sand before laying out our mats at nite.

The compensation for all this was the sam (< Jabim) (= Nu. bada Eng. ‘festival, market’). I performed in a war singsing (mock) when our guys singsinged our way down the beach before maybe 1000 people encamped in about the same style we were (but most with floors). During the day there were other singsings, people to meet, stores to spend money carefully reserved for the occasion, church meetings. But most of all, at least for the younger people it was singsing time. There was almost always one going on somewhere until the Saturday of the major meeting word went out that singsings were prohibited until the meetings were over. People who joined the Numbamis from town were disappointed but they managed to squeeze one in between the end of the meetings on Sunday and the time the [M.V.] Sago came to carry them to town.

After my initial frolic I had had enough of being stared at and sat out the rest of the singsings, especially after I burnt my foot, broke the blister singsinging and then tore off the skin & washed it in methylated spirits (for starting Coleman lamps) & had difficulty walking on it for several days. I began to suffer from lack of privacy and quiet after about 3 days and it got acute before we left the sam. All the time I was hearing Numbami spoken around me. It wasn’t the language so much as the vast quantity of it. If the culture is aperture-oriented [referring to the fact that the names of body parts with holes all end in awa ‘hole’ (> -owa), as in tanganowa ‘ear’, nisinowa ‘nose’, etc.], it’s mainly concentrated on the oral one. Everyone was in a festive mood and the time not actually spent singsinging was often spent singing the lyrics & beating the drums.

When I was informed we wouldn’t go back directly but that we would stop at Kela (with whom we helped host part of the visiting delegates) for a post-celebration singsing and feast, I was in a foul, foul mood. Constant noise is something I don’t endure well in any culture. It’s odd how my feelings toward the people I was with changed. At first, and usually, I felt the greatest affection for them all and consider them a remarkable bunch in general. But, after being worn down a bit, I began to dwell on all their bad points: their compulsive talkativeness (with some notable & much appreciated exceptions), their demandingness, the persistence of some in addressing me as bumewe ‘masta, whiteman, foreigner’ rather than by name. [And here I was doing the same to “them”!]

When compared to the Kelas, who were unfamiliar with me, the Numbamis interact with me much more naturally–sometimes I’m even allowed to blend into the woodwork. One time, I was even forgotten when food was served out and didn’t get the first plate as I almost invariably do. Believe me, for two or three days I was doing my best to blend into the woodwork. What happened at Kela (Kila, Keila) was that they said they wanted to buy the #1 favorite Nu. singsing–the baluga, a slow, somewhat stately, and very impressive singsing that the Numbamis perform very well. It’s a favorite of mine too. The Numbamis bought it (for the price of a feast–and no ordinary meal either) from the Garainas (some of whom performed it at the Lae Show and of which I have photos). They, in turn, sold the rights to perform it to the Ya (also Kela speaking) people (who were said to perform it badly) and now the Kelas bought it for vast quantities of taro and two pigs–enough for all of us and the people left back in the village too. It’s kind of like a royalties payment so that performances will be official and, supposedly, of better quality than just a singsing nating [‘nothing singsing’].

Funny thing about the sam–a meeting of the Yabim district–where Yabim should be the lingua franca if any–is that all the program was in Tok Pisin. Yabim was only unofficially the lingua franca of the older set.

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