The Sky Came Down: Social Movements and Personhood in Mekeo Society

By Bergendorff, Steen | Oceania, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sky Came Down: Social Movements and Personhood in Mekeo Society


Bergendorff, Steen, Oceania


INTRODUCTION

The young Mekeo woman Filo has been a frequent guest in studies of cargo cults (Belshaw 1951, Fergie 1977, Stephen 1977, Trompf 1994). The story of her life has been used for many purposes. First the villagers used the perceptive young woman to bring changes to village life; then the colonial administration imprisoned her to stop it. Ever since her deeds have been used to support different anthropological understandings of cargo cults.(2)

While colonizers understood Melanesian social movements(3) according to their own worldview and model of personhood, many anthropologists have argued that a western model of personhood is not applicable to the Melanesian situation. Leenhardt (1979[1942]) was one of the first to point to the different constitution of personhood in Melanesia. In Do Kamo he argues for a 'mythological' constitution of the person in which there is no conceptual difference between persons and things. Thus, Leenhardt argues for a mythological linkage of habitat, society and person which I would call ontological or existential. M. Strathern (1988) has also argued that the Melanesian constitution of personhood is different from the Western one, as it is primarily constituted in relationships. This is the difference that I wish to explore in the following discussion?

The Filo movement has had a lasting effect on the belief system in Mekeo villages. There are now several directions of beliefs. The most prominent of these is held by adherents of the traditional sorcery complex. This is opposed by another group oriented towards God and the Saints, who are called isapu-people (English equivalent for this is power-people). In the former a person can harm or heal, cause failure or success, with the help of ancestors. In this system sorcerers are special cases. In the latter, people can heal with the help of God, Jesus and Saints. To these people sickness is caused by sinful living, or by sorcerers, who by definition are sinful or have signed a pact with the Devil. In this belief system some people act as mediators between men and heaven. They have special powers to heal, and believe they can even override the influence of sorcerers. This belief system is a continuation of the Filo movement, and Filo's son has a special position in it.

TESTIMONIES OF FILO MOVEMENT

There are several accounts of the Filo movement. There is an official report from 1941 by the Resident MagiStrate W. H. H. Thompson. Belshaw (1951) provides an account of the movement based on an interview from the same year with a man called Aisa. Sister M. Martha, who witnessed the movement, wrote her recollection of it in 1969. Filo's own explanation was given in an interview conducted by Fergie and Aitsi in 1974. Lastly, there are the villagers' recollections of Filo isapu as told to me.

These testimonies show some remarkable differences and the accounts given by the government representative and Filo have very little in common. But on certain points both stories agree: Filo had a dream. She then gathered the village people to pray and build altars. One afternoon the villagers congregated in front of the church and a priest was hit by a man in the crowd. Thompson then came and arrested some of the leaders. A few months later Filo also was arrested and the movement faded away.

From the discrepancies between the narratives of the European observers and those of the Mekeo participants it is obvious the events do not mean the same to Europeans and Mekeos. Let us take the case of dreams: to Westerners dreams can only say something about the individual dreamer, e.g., as explored by Freud. Thus, the frequent references to dreams in Melanesian movements give Westerners a tendency to equate dreams, ancestors and strange practices with prophets (led by their dreams), the supernatural (waiting for the ancestors) and rituals (e.g. the building of airstrips). Mekeo have another understanding of dreams. …

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