Academic journal article Oceania

Great Ancestral Women: Sexuality, Gendered Mobility, and HIV among the Bamu and Gogodala of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

Great Ancestral Women: Sexuality, Gendered Mobility, and HIV among the Bamu and Gogodala of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


Faced with a potentially devastating epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea (PNG), sexuality and mobility have become a focus of national research and prevention programs. In Gogodala and Bamu communities in the Western Province, gendered mobility and sexuality intersect with ancestral narratives that form part of a wider series of Hero Tales found in the southern regions of PNG and Irian Java. In this paper we highlight the way these stories detail the travels and activities of female ancestors known as Sagalu among the Bamui and Sawiya among the Gogodala. We outline the way such ancestral figures are now linked to understandings of contemporary STIs such HIV/AIDS as well as gendered mobility and sexuality more generally. Among the Bamu such links are sometimes directly asserted, with Sagalu represented as the origin if not cause of a uniquely defined variant of HIV/AIDS. Among the Gogodala, however, HIV/AIDS is predominantly understood as something external to the Gogodala and unrelated to ancestors like Sawiya. To explain this difference we note that, historically, Gogodcda women have been less mobile and less transactable than their Bamu counterparts who have continued to enact unique understandings of the intersection of heterosexual marriage, gendered mobility, and illness. We argue that the mobility and sexuality of gendered ancestors is salient to understanding these contemporary enactments and their potential implications in light of the HIV epidemic in PNG.

Keywords: ancestral women, gendered mobility, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, Papua New Guinea.


Papua New Guinea (PNG) is facing a HIV/AIDS epidemic, in which understandings of sexuality and what has been referred to as 'sexual networking' have become increasingly important. Papua New Guinea has a history of complex webs of sexual practices, marriage exchanges, and relationships that predate colonial contact and the establishment of colonial administrative structures and mission stations in the early 20th century (Hammar 1998). Some of these practices have continued into the present, albeit in often radically different contexts and forms that range from 'customary' marriages to temporary marriages between women and expatriates, landowners or men employed in resource extraction industries. Also involved are both informal and more formalized forms of sex work. Increasingly these forms of sexual contact and connection blur the categorical and experiential boundaries between marriage and sex work (Hammar 2010:123; see also Haley 2008; Wardlow 2006, 2007,2008). In this paper, we argue that understand the basis of such practices and interconnections, we need to explore the associations between gender, mobility, and sexuality articulated in mythic narratives. (1) In doing so we are responding to Parker's (1995:266-7) earlier call to examine the 'fuller social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of sexual experience' in order to develop a basis for 'policies and practices that may ultimately enable us to respond to the spread of the HIV epidemic'. We examine the social context of gendered mobility among the Gogodala and Bamu through the imbrications of sexual behaviour and movement in ancestral narratives with recent discourses and practices concerning sexuality and HIV/AIDS.

The Gogodala and Bamu share a common history and imaginary of gendered mobility with other groups in the southwest coastal and gulf areas of PNG. In an article on Papuan Hero Tales, Wagner (1996) traces the pathways of the Sido/Siodo myth along the south coast of New Guinea from the Marind Anim of West Papua, the Torres Strait of Austrzalia, and the Western and Gulf Provinces of Papua New Guinea. Such myths, he suggests, say 'something about the contacts and historical affinities among those cultures' (Wagner 1996:286). While this is certainly the case, such myths also say a great deal about the relationship between the nature and pathways of gendered movement and sexuality of not only these wandering heroes, but also the men, and women, of their communities of origin, who continue to enact elements of what their ancestors established as 'custom'. …

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