Tuesday, 11 April 2006

anthropology and today

I’m talking to M at work today when the phone rang for her. It’s someone she knows, calling from Wabag to get her to pass on a message to someone who had come down from Wabag to Goroka for a holiday. The visitor’s brother has been knifed in a tribal fight and is dying; she has to go back quickly and see him in the haus sik (hospital) before he dies. The fight was a bad one; several men had already died. They are lucky to have this time at all.

**

Going into town at lunch, I pass a group of women who have white mud or ashes smeared over their faces (a sign of mourning). This makes for a funny contrast as they eyeball me and call out hello with cheerfulness and curiosity.

**

It has been wet and cold all day. When I go home from work I have toast and tea, and pick up the book I’m reading – an excellent “true novel” by an American anthropologist about witchcraft in a remote African village, written in the 1950s – and I determine to finish it tonight. It’s a gripping read, and I’m soon yanked back into village life and the approaching death of a heavily pregnant woman and accusations of witchcraft begin flying and –

**

A neighbour is going to be away when it is my birthday, and she unexpectedly comes over in the evening to present me with several packages “not to be opened until the day”. Very exciting, but I can’t open them so I return to my book where counter-accusations of witchcraft are being thrown back and –

**

A friend who’s on holidays interrupts, dropping off some movies I’d leant her, and as we’re talking, someone who lives in the next building also comes out onto his balcony, and we all stand on the little jutting platforms that are our balconies, half-shouting pleasantries. A big project has finally been completed (today) at work, and he invites us over for drinks tomorrow. Strange – he doesn’t usually entertain – and you can never tell if this means cordial or alcohol – but, plans made, we all go inside.

**

And it’s back to the book where the woman is made to drink many different traditional herbal potions to bring on childbirth and to give her strength and to ward off evil spells, and she has to drink more and more because no one can agree on which one is the most potent, the most fitting; and then the accusations start up again and all the men decide to go off and consult the community’s diviner to find out who the real witch is and then it is night and silent and the woman is comatose with grossly distended belly and an owl hoots several times and she convulses and dies. And then –

**

A girl comes over, someone I have only met a handful of times; she’s just moved down here, from Rabaul; her aunty lives and works here. I can’t quite get used to her: she laughs manically at very unexpected moments, and never at the times I think she is making a joke. She peers at me as if fascinated, and yet is partly scornful as well. She’s a fiery one, for sure. And she has come round to ask me if I would like to be involved in a local school’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. It’s the school I visited last week. I made such an impression pretending to be a princess that she is here to invite me to come back and officially present gifts to the school, in front of even bigger crowds. This time I have to appear dressed as a Tolai. She is a Tolai, and has been teaching girls at the school a special Tolai dance. She will provide me with a laplap, meri blaus, and some type of basket to wear on my head. I will present the gifts, and she and the girls will dance. And the Tolais will be the best performers of the day.

What can I do? Tell her I’d laughingly made a bet with someone last year that I would never wear a meri blaus? And that although I’d been laughing, I’d kind of meant it? Tell her that she doesn’t need a whiteskin dressed up as a Tolai to make an impression? Tell her that I am nobody?

No, I cannot tell her those things. My princess mask comes down. Mi hamamas tru, I tell her; I am very happy. I am honoured to have been asked. And this is true. She is deadly serious and quiet for a few moments, and then squeals and says that she too is very happy. She keeps alternating between the squeals and the intense, serious looks.

**

I pause before I pick up my book again. I wish I could gain the objectivity and insight of the anthropologist, and write a witty and yet insightful novel about experiences in today’s PNG. But a logical narrative thread eludes me. More and more, this is just life: some things are understood, some are not. What I learn does not add up; it just contributes to this vary varied thing I am living. And in this sense, all anthropology and ethnography is as if a novel; artifice trying for more coherence than the unfashionable real provides.

1 comment:

CreditDude said...

Reading your blog makes me truly sad. Why did I quit graduate school? I could have been somewhere in Africa or LAtin America by now, studying, researching, discovering...