Kilivila, the language spoken by the people of the far-flung Trobriand Islands in eastern Papua New Guinea, is broken up into 12 language families. Some estimates note that as few as 200 people speak the Budibud dialect in the Lachland Islands, making it fairly certain that before visiting the remote islands of the archipelago often described as the ‘islands of love’ you’d be well advised to brush up on your sign language skills.
Watching the outrigger canoe launch from the beach towards our anchored yacht, we prepare for visitors. With his canoe loaded with yams and three good size fish, the lean, muscular young man grins widely as he approaches. Holding up one of the fish, a questioning look on his face, I nod my head, laughing, beckoning him to come closer. Our trading had begun. Now all I had to do was find a suitable item to exchange with this affable entrepreneur.
Sign language breaks the ice
Gaining in confidence with his first ’sale’, my new friend laughs encouragingly towards the small crowd of villagers forming on the beach, as I realize that more canoes are being launched. Knowing nothing of the Kilivila language I try some basic Pidgin English. “Laik wan pis,’’ I repeat, in the hope of not offending by only wanting to buy one fish. Holding up one finger and pointing to his fish and then to my chest, we seem to reach an understanding.
The Trobriand Islanders have a long tradition as seafaring traders. An outlying archipelago of the Milne Bay Province in the Solomon Sea, the region straddles a major shipping route. Traders travel long distances across open water by sea going canoes, bartering for essential produce and supplies as well as partaking in the traditional custom of Kula, or Kula Ring. A traditional form of today’s networking, this is a ceremonial exchange system of valuables, which are traded for the purpose of enhancing one’s social status or prestige. It’s an important custom that forms lifelong partnerships, stemming from a respect based culture where saving face and dignity are highly regarded. Valuable Bagi (red shell necklaces traditionally made from the Chama Pacific shell) and mwali (white arm shells) are traded to form prestigious, long term associations. These treasures are not held onto for long; rather they are gifted to other associates in an effort to achieve higher status or to exchange more valuable Kula in a complex system of wooing potential partners. Traders and their precious trinkets travel amongst the islands ‘networking’ in a circular direction, hence the name Kula Ring.
Where did the Islands of Love tag come from?
Polish born English anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski seems to be responsible for the ‘islands of love’ tag often attached to the Trobriands. Exiled in the islands as World War I broke out, he penned The Sexual Life of Savages in North West Melanesia, the second in his trilogy on the Trobianders. A study of courtship, marriage and family life based on his first hand immersion into village life, he observed that sexuality dominates almost every aspect of their culture. Amazed that islanders freely indulged in premarital sex without stigma, often at a young age, he noted that marriage was still highly desirable, with females from a young age seemingly pro-active in courtship rituals.
In a mainly matrilineal society, women enjoy a status unknown in other parts of mainland PNG. Land ownership passes through the female line, with women considered to be peacekeepers, conservationists as well as guardians of traditional customs. Yams, somewhat like a sweet potato, are another important aspect of life in the Trobriands. Not only a staple food of their diet, the yam harvest is the trigger for the annual Milaa Mala, an ancient and colorful festival with numerous rituals and ceremonies conducted. The festival culminates in a ritual that sees off the spirits sweeping through the island villages. While harvest festival time varies each year due to environmental factors affecting the crop growth, and ostensibly at the whim of the Chief, as a concession to tourism, each July a Yam Festival on Kiriwina Island enables visitors to experience the traditional culture and colour of the celebration.
Back onboard the yacht, and rummaging in a locker for something suitable as a trade, I come up with an (almost new) rather large white t-shirt. Passing it over the side of the yacht and into the young man’s hands, his enthusiastic grin indicates that I’ve come up with an appropriate item in exchange for his fish. Giggling delightedly like a child, my new friend paddles back to shore, his powerfully built upper body proudly emblazoned with our yacht’s logo across his back. Waving enthusiastically from amidst the crowd of villages that surround him, he points proudly to his t-shirt covered chest, which I understand to mean that our trade has been a success. Onboard, we decide to anchor here another night, a steady supply of fresh fish now assured, but more importantly, we look forward to more guests arriving, and perhaps learning a little more of their lingo.
Milne Bay Tourism Association
Getting there: Fly into district capital Losuia on Kiriwina Island, the largest island in the Trobriand Islands.