Academic journal article Oceania

Growing Knowledge in Bolivip, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

Growing Knowledge in Bolivip, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

SUNG MIIT--PROBLEMS OF KNOWING

My first impression of researching knowledge practices in the Angkaiyakmin village of Bolivip was of being presented with a kaleidoscope of dislocated imagery. Each time an understanding seemed to be settling, my knowledge was disrupted again, and was constantly being shifted. The turns in conversation were often such that one moment my friends and I might be talking about a red parrot, then the blood spilt in a fight with Seltamanmin neighbours long ago, then a snake in a tree whose butchered lengths were unequally distributed so that Angkaiyakmin men had little success in satisfying two wives; topics appeared (and reappeared) as if from nowhere and disappeared without trace in a spray of disparate and complex details. The effect was confusing, as effective in limiting my understanding as any other technique in the repertoire anthropologists might take as 'secrecy'. I only ever seemed to have half the story.

Often I was given another example to help me see what the previous example might mean, as if the inside of one were revealed by the other, the implications only being made explicit by the juxtaposition. Each prospective addition to the sequence of conversation revealed retrospective implications; settled images began to sway. This practice of juxtaposition was reiterated every Sunday morning during the Catholic church services which began with the telling of a popular ancestral story that everyone might have heard (gulak sung--unimportant story). This was then followed by readings from the New Testament, portrayed as Jesus having translated this ancestral story from Bolivip and put it into his own words. The gospel had first to be revealed as Jesus' turn on their own Angkaiyakmin example, otherwise people's skin would feel 'tired' (kal kakan) as they wondered why they were hearing someone else's story.

My concern in this paper may in hindsight appear to be about elucidating some fixed conventional imagery of Bolivip, an unfashionable attempt to settle upon some structure of shared understandings perhaps. And indeed, Angkaiyakmin are overtly concerned with convention themselves--there are paths (leip) of ancestral precedent, example (kukup) and advice (sawa) that should be followed 'straight' (turon) and strictly adhered to. But such concerns seem not to present the barrier to a diversity of shifting multiple perspectives that we might imagine. Paradoxically, these seem rather to enable it.

An early introduction to this process came when I was offered names for the parts of a taro plant, the most important staple food. Taro, Colocasia esculenta, is a member of the Aroid family, known to Angkaiyakmin as iman. A teenager's description had the heart-shaped taro leaf as a face--with ears, eye, nose and tongue. One man placed his hand over the leaf and said they were the same--with leaf ribs as bones, and leaf veins as muscles. Another suggested the plant had a complete body--buttocks, hips, ribs, backbone and leg. Another that the stalk was an umbilicus. Yet another suggested that the spot on the leaf surface where the stem joins from the back where rain water collects in globules, was called aukum--fire hearth. Joan (1) suggested that the top edge of the leaf (which dips between two lobes) was amgu ga--mountain edge, and the dip wok tem--'water channel'. The most intriguing set of names though, was from Keith, a senior man, who emphasised that his names were awem sung--important knowledge from the male cult; the dip between the lobes was the vulva (abuk) of Afek (the mother of the Min peoples), and the point of the leaf her clitoris (ning). In telling me this, Keith had turned his back on the mixed company with whom we shared a garden shelter, and held up a taro leaf with a mischievous smile. He teased me, asking me what I thought the leaf looked like. More specifically, which part of a woman did it look like? He added that the name for the leaf point was the same as the reed of the mouth harp (taram), but as I did not know that either at the time it was of little help. …

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