Daily Archives: 18 April 2005

Living Off the Fat of the Sea in Kiribati

It was common rumour in the Gilbert Islands that certain local clans had the power of porpoise-calling; but it was rather like the Indian rope-trick; you never met anyone who had actually witnessed the thing. If I had been a reasonably plump young man, I might never have come to see what I did see on the beach of Butaritari lagoon. But I was skinny. it was out of sheer pity for my poor thin frame that old Kitiona set his family porpoise-caller working. We were sitting together one evening in his canoe-shed by the beach, and he was delivering a kind of discourse on the beauty of human fatness.

“A chief of chiefs,” he said, “is recognized by his shape. He is fleshy from head to foot. But his greatest flesh is his middle; when he sits, he is based like a mountain upon his sitting place; when he stands, he swells out in the midst, before and behind, like a porpoise.” it seemed that in order to maintain that noble bulge a high chief simply must have a regular diet of porpoise-meat; if he didn’t, he would soon become lean and bony like a commoner or a white man. The white man was doubtless of chiefly race, thought Kitiona, but his figure could hardly be called beautiful. “And you,” he added, looking me up and down with affectionate realism, “are in truth the skinniest white man ever seen in these islands. You sit upon approximately no base at all.”

I laughed (heartily, I hope) and asked what he thought could be done about that. “You should eat porpoise-flesh,” he said simply, “then you too would swell in the proper places.” That led me to inquire how I might come by a regular supply of the rare meat. The long and the short of his reply was that his own kinsmen in Kuma village, seventeen miles up-lagoon, were the hereditary porpoise-callers of the High Chiefs of Butaritari and Makin-Meang. His first cousin was a leading expert at the game; he could put himself into the right kind of dream on demand. His spirit went out of his body in such a dream; it sought out the porpoise-folk in their home under the western horizon and invited them to a dance, with feasting, in Kuma village. If he spoke the words of the invitation aright (and very few had the secret of them) the porpoise would follow him with cries of joy to the surface.

SOURCE: The Calling of the Porpoise, from Chapter 6, “Strange Interlude” of A Pattern of Islands, by Sir Arthur Grimble (John Murray, 1952).

So, do they come when they’re called? Does the skinny white man eat them or not? The rest of the excerpt is online at the wonderful and wide-ranging EclectiCity.

Prompted by Doug Muir of Halfway Down the Danube

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