Courtship: Past and Present (Traditional Melanesian and Western Modern Courtship)

Semi-Autobiography of Late Sir Ignatius Kilage

From the book ‘My Mother calls me Yaltep’ by Sir Ignatius Kilage

My dictionary defines Courtship as ‘A man’s courting of a woman; seeking the affections of a woman (usually with the hope of marriage)’. Is courtship same as dating? Let’s see, my dictionary defines date as ‘Meet with a lover or potential lover’.
When dating, a couple may not have expectations for their relationship whereas a couple courting intend to get engaged or married.. 
Here we will see how courting was done in the past and how courting is done today? 
In Sir Ignatius Kilage’s book, he paints vivid pictures of how courting was done in the past. One of the main activities during courtship when young men were courting young women was “the singsing”. There was no courting without singsing. This was the traditional custom which has been practiced for generations among the Simbu people. 
In Simbu, this is called “KUANANDI”, a courtship custom of youth whereby they hold hands and sing songs. Dating begins with a young women setting up a date with a young men from another clan by giving him a string with knots. She keeps a second string for herself with the exact same number of knots. Since they had no calendar or even names for days in the past, they used strings and knots to record the days. Say a string had five knots, the ‘date’ would then take place after five days.
Dating in the past was not among just two young people of the opposite sex, it was rather the young men of one clan going on a date with young women of another clan. Dating was not held in secrecy or away from public eyes, they were held in Kuanandi House (Courtship houses) under the watchful eyes of the clan. 
The young men would send word to all the clans telling them that their tribe would be giving them a Kuanandi. This way, all the clans knew their young men and women were going into courtship. On the day of the date, the young men were dressed in their traditional bilas, adorned with fine colored plumes, sweet smelling leaves and ferns by their clansmen to prepare them for the Kuanandi. 
This was a proud day for most parents, as this was where their sons would find their future wife and vice versa.
In front of the Kuanandi house, the young people were made to stand in two rows facing each other with the men starting the songs and going into the house first, followed by the women who go in in response to the men’s songs. The young women had to be graceful in order to attract the most handsome young man from another clan.
In the house, the singing continues. After certain number of songs, the young men move from one girl to another. When a young man moves on to the next girl, they interlock their arms, sing and laugh, and then move on to the next person. 
Many millennials will not understand this so I’ll illustrate it with your favorite cartoon “Angry Birds Part 2”. Remember the scene where Red and his friends go on “speed dating”? after the bell dings, the birds move to the next bird to find out their interests and so forth to see if they can make a pair. It’s exactly like that speed dating scene. 
While all this is going on in the house, the little children and some young men who are not taking part in the courtship ceremony keep watch and keep the fire burning all night. This is to keep everyone in the light so nothing happens as there might be some cheeky boys who will sneak a touch in the dark. 
When the Kuanandi comes to an end, it is up to each girl to pick the young man who captured her imagination and move off with him to her home or stay in the Kuanandi house and continue the singing. The custom forbids the girls from going to a man’s home for singsing, it is the man who goes to the girl’s house for singsing. 
In girl’s home, her parents and some clans members would be in the house to keep the fire burning and keep watch while their daughter sings with the young man she took home from the Kuanandi. Everything was done under the watchful eyes of the clan and the girls parents.
It was during the Kuanandi that the young men had to choose their brides, but had to make sure they chose the right one. In some cases, it was the older people who decided the future of the young men.
The young men would visit the young women whom he had found appealing, he would visit her home every second day for singsing, for it was forbidden by the custom for a man to visit the same girl for singsing every night. 
The young man was also at liberty to visit other girls home for singsing but never a girl from the clan or tribe of the woman he loved. 
There is a ceremony called Kaungo Iungua, which means to bring home a girl. The girl repays the young man for visiting in all weather. Kilage calls this a complicated and delicate ceremony. “The girls decides the date and gives the young man the knotted string, which stands for days. At the appointed time, the young man goes with his friends to the girl’s house to sing songs to please the girl’s mother, then the girl leaves with one or two young girls as ‘ladies in waiting’. They are obliged to escort them to the mother of the boy and the boys announce the good news to the clan. Then a few days later, the girls people come and escort them back with gifts.”
When a young woman repays a man’s visit by visiting his home, she is to be decorated and showered with gifts and sent back to her home after three days. If she refuses to return to her home, that means her mind has been made up and she intends to marry the young man. The ‘ladies in waiting’ who escorted the young woman to the man’s home are decorated in plumes and oiled by the man’s clan and sent back while the young woman remains with the man’s family to get acquainted with her tambus, this is the engagement.
This is where courtship ceremony ends and the clan prepares for the marriage ceremony. 
Courtship is important as it is the period in which the two young people get to know each other and decide if there will be an engagement or if they will get married. It is during courtship that a man comes to know the qualities of a girl, a girl had to carry herself with grace and had to be diligent as she was under the scrutiny of the elders and her future parents in-law for it was them who would persuade the young man to marry her or let her go.

Modern Courtship:
Unlike in the past, courtship and dating is not open for discussion between young people and their parents in this age. Young people therefore take upon themselves to explore and find someone they like. This leads the young people to court and date without their parent’s knowledge. The people in the past were prepared for the stage in the children’s life before marriage which is courtship, courtship is crucial in the young person choosing a right partner. They built houses for them to court in. This was an important part of the young people lives so their parents, clans and tribes were heavily involved in the ceremony, directly and indirectly, sometimes influencing their children’s decision on which partner to court. In this age, parents have no influence over what type of partner their children choose. And since most children in this age are brought up rebellious, they refuse to take advice from their parents which leads to their predicament later in life.
The parents in the past were part of the courtship ceremony, watching everything closely to make sure their daughter or son chooses the right person. 
With transition from the stone age to the age of technology in the past decades, we have seen that modern courtship bears little resemblance to the traditional ceremony. Courtship in itself was a ceremony in the past. Technology and education has changed the rules, expectations and the rituals leading to marriage according to Gray Miller in his article “How to practice Modern courtship”. Young people wanting to court in the past informed their family and clans, the modern generation keep it a secret and date or court in secret, communicating through the use of technology such as phone or social media. The concept of courtship has always been the process of rituals that lead to marriage. That is why it was an important ceremony in the past. Traditional courtship is a process needed to create a loving relationship that results in the growth of two people together.
In the traditional courtship process, two people come to know each other well and grow together and eventually get engaged and later married. The young man spends at least 3 out of 7 days at the girl’s home singing with her and being acquainted with her. Under the watchful eyes of the girl’s parents, the boy is to conduct himself with respect in order to win the girl’s parents and the girl over.
Modern courtship lacks this, it is in the boy spending time at the girl’s parents home that the parents come to know the boy well and advice the girl on whether she should take him or let him go.
In the age of technology, young man barely go over to the girl’s parents house to stay for a while with her. The young couple spend endless hours on the phone confessing and expressing their love to each other without actually showing it on Facebook, etc. 
While many say courtship has become easier with technology, it is not effective because it allows technology to replace face to face interaction, as someone said ‘there is no soul in technological communication’.
The young man today do not visit girl’s in their home but take them to around at Ela Beach, go to the Cinemas or Vision City or go partying at night clubs. The parents are unaware of their child’s love interest and courtship. They do not know who is courting until she comes home pregnant one day and the next, she’s married off or the father of the child runs off and leaves the young mother hanging or in an abusive relationship.
Foregoing the traditional courtship has led to failed marriages and teen pregnancy among young girls or young girls end up in abusive relationships, as they have no idea who they are courting.
In traditional courtship, young man went to the girl’s home to visit her and her parents and sing with the girl. Modern courtship is all about the young woman visiting the boy’s home to spend the day in his bedroom doing god knows what.
It is never a girl’s place to visit the boy’s home, well maybe only when the time’s right.
Most young people have skipped courting and gone straight from dating to marriage, an early marriage that is without knowing well their partner. 
In the traditional courtship ceremonies, to my knowledge, I do not think there was sexual relations among the young people courting. Sexual relations was established after they were married, and the girl and boy now a young married couple move into their own home so they can start a family of their own.
In my view, though we cannot bring back the old ways, we need to embrace the traditional concept of courtship whereby the parents know who their child is courting. The young man is to spend time with the girl and her family so the family can come to know what kind of person he is. It is important that before making a commitment to get married, the young couple must know each other well, their flaws and strengths, their interests and most importantly, their character. It is through intimate courtship that one identifies another’s character.
Before marriage, there are steps you have to take and courtship is the most important step which will allow you to choose the right partner. 
Courtship allows you to peel a person like an onion, layer by layer and with each, you discover something about that person which you will like or dislike, that is when you will make the most important decision in your life, whether to keep them or kick them.

Sukundimi Tribesman: Guardian of the Mighty Sepik River

Sukundimi Tribesman. Art by Caleb Hamm

The mighty Sepik River has existed since the dawn of time, twisting and turning, forming a wide belt of active meanders and fish populated great lakes, depositing vast amounts of fresh water into the ocean.
The banks of the river is adorned with Lianas, sago palms, and Pandanus 
Who put it there, I do not have the faintest clue, all I know is that the river was placed there for my survival.
My father navigated this great river before me, and his father before him. I was brought into this magnificent world on the banks of the river, nature welcomed me with open arms for the river was calm that night, my first
bath was in the mighty Sepik. I cried when I was dipped into the river, my father held me and called for the spirits to protect me. He called upon the Sukundimi to watch over me so that no evil may befall me.
My early childhood and teenage years were spent on the river, like every young Sepik boy, I learned from the great men of Sepik to fish and hunt on the river, to revere the river, not only because it provides for me but for it is also a living entity. The river has sustained and ensured the survival of my people for centuries. They say the river holds memories, the history of my people is not written in ink on pages, the river is my history, the river holds the centuries-old history of my people. I read the river like the scrolls. Our culture and history is intertwined with the mighty river. The river and the river God gave us our unique culture and identity. 
They gave my ancestors the inspiration to paint, to carve, and to build. 
I went into the Haus Tambaran as a boy, I came out of the Haus Tambaran a man bearing the markings of the Pukpuk. I know the history of my people, I learned the intricate and complex cultures and traditions of my people, I am a Sukundimi tribesman. I am the protector of the river and my people. 
Of Gods and men, the river is the link between the spiritual and physical world. The river is the gateway to the afterlife.
Where the Supreme Sukundimi glides through the water, fish multiply in numbers. Where the Supreme walks on the banks, the
sago palms spring forth. I am one with the river, she takes care of me and I take care of her. 
But now, I see the foreigner with his foreign ways and lifestyle on the banks of the river, he wants me to forsake the Gods of
my fathers, to forsake the practices of my people.
Now I see the foreigner coming to look for minerals buried deep in the earth, he wants to dig it up and take it away.
He wants to dig at the head of the river. I know the destruction they will bring, I see my people living their simple lives unaware of the demise that awaits them. 
What do I do?
I am the Sukundimi tribesman, I will protect the river. I will fight to ensure the survival of my river and the survival of my people, I know I do not fight alone, the Sukundimi walks before me. I have his strength. I have his razor sharp teeth, I will tear the flesh of my enemies. He is me and I am he.
I will fight with the spirit of my ancestors beside me. I have their knowledge and wisdom.
I will fight with my people behind me, they look to me for protection. I look to them for guidance.

Pukpuk Wokabaut lo Ples

Sumboruman Haus Tambaran in Korogu Village, Middle Sepik River.

“Law and Order in Melanesia”
Moral Decadence in Melanesian Societies.

When foreigners first arrived on our shores, they called us primitives because of the absence of clothes. The absence of Western clothing in our Melanesian societies gave them the idea that we were still in the stone age and were living primitive lifestyles, that meant no education, no form of governance systems, no law and order, etc. The imperialist view of the world was that the absence of their fashion, way of life, governance, and religion in the lands they landed on meant that those lands and their inhabitants were primitive and pagans, who needed to be converted to the supreme religion of the day before the colonizers imposed their will and lifestyle, systems, laws, etc. on them.
The superior complex of the colonizers made them ignorant and led them to disregard the sophisticated cultures and civilizations they came across. They were the ultimate beings, appointed by God himself and with the blessings of the church, sailed and navigated the vast open seas bringing light (Gospel) and civilization to primitive people who were lost and feasting on human flesh, who had no sense of morality or government systems and no laws to govern them.
On the 16th of December, 2020, the “Save the Sepik” campaign team of volunteers departed Wewak Town to begin our one-week patrol to the Upper Sepik river to talk to the people about the Frieda Mine issue. We arrived at Pagwi waterfront at about 3pm and from there, got on a motor canoe and headed down towards Korogu, a village built on the banks of the mighty Sepik river, Korogu is about 30 minutes’ canoe ride downstream from Pagwi. Korogu is Niyaura speaking tribe of the Middle Sepik who like the other tribes of Sepik river, still hold onto the old ways of their ancestors, honor the Haus Tambaran, the gods and practice the scarification initiation. It was five noon when we arrived at Korogu in a 20meter 40 horse powered dug out motor canoe, long enough to hold at least a minimum of 20 people. Some elders of the village upon hearing the motor engine came running towards us, when we stopped beside the big logs used as docks, they hurriedly ushered us to Collis Pinga’s house without explanation.
The atmosphere was tense, nobody was seen walking around. Out of curiosity, I asked one the elders to tell me what was going on. He looked at me and went “Lukluk go lo Haus Tambaran”, I looked, and lo, the Haus Tambaran was fenced. He said “something terrible has happened in the Haus Tambaran and in the village, this has angered the elders of the village so they fenced the Haus Tambaran and in about 30 or so minutes, they will call upon Sukundimi to walk through the village”. I gulped, I wanted to know more. What happened, what did they do wrong that made the elders want to call upon the river God to walk through the village. For a river God to walk among men in the village is bad for the village.
Now the Haus Tambaran is only fenced on two occasions, when the young men are brought into the spiritual house to undergo the initiation ceremony, and when the Haus Tambaran has been desecrated. This time, the Haus Tambaran was desecrated by two rogues.
Some elders joined us a few minutes to clear to us the visitors of what has happened in the village and what will happen in the next 20 minutes. It was said that a couple of days ago, two young men from the village heavily intoxicated with alcohol walked into the Haus Tambaran and removed the sticks for beating the Garamut. The sticks for beating the Garamut is one of the most sacred objects in the spiritual house. It is said that the Garamut drum cannot speak without its tongue. The Garamut drum in Melanesia is a talking device, used to communicate with the people in and between villages, and in the Sepik river spiritual house, it is the most important object.
One of the elders said “The tongue of the Garamut was removed, without its tongue, it cannot speak”. The Garamut was not just viewed as an object, a hollowed-out tree trunk. It was personified, it was given the attributes of a living person, that it can speak, but not without its tongue. That is how the objects of the spiritual house are revered.
The elder continued “They no longer respect and revere the Haus Tambaran”, I could hear frustration in his voice, he sounded dismayed. He carried on a long face as he chewed the betelnut that was given to him. “They have broken the laws that our ancestors have followed, the laws that have kept peace and order in our society”.

“Where are our values, young people no longer value and respect our cultures and traditions”, he carried on.
What I heard brought me 60 years back to how Late Sir Ignatius Kilage described and painted a sad state of Melanesian society in the highlands of PNG in words. I remembered by heart the words he spoke in his book, “My Mother Calls me Yaltep”. I could hear Sir Kilage’s voice in my head when I first read his words, “Moral decadence has swept over mountainous Simbu and is driving our gallant youths into mire and misery”.
Kilage said, as a result of civilization, the young gallant men have lost their way. Kilage described moral decay in Simbu in the pre-independence era but it was happening everywhere and it is still happening today, that young men no longer respect the elders and the sacred spiritual houses and objects, they no longer respect the laws of the land. Alcohol as a result of civilization has numbed down our young gallant men into mire and misery, young men no longer have a moral compass and values in life. The elders try to talk to them and teach them the old ways but as Kilage said “with shining faces and clean clothes, the result of civilization, the young, both educated and non-educated, become proud”, and thus think that they can do whatever they want without someone to be held accountable to.
But they had forgotten that even in the civilized modern Melanesia with everyone professing to be Christians and worshipping foreign Gods, the Gods of the old still walk among men. The elders said a compensation had to be paid by the rouges who desecrated the scared spiritual house, a pig had to be given to the Haus Tambaran before the fourth call of Sukundimi, the river God, only a pig could appease the angry river deity. Normally the punishment would have been far worse but the elders took a more diplomatic approach to the problem and gave the rogues ample time to get a pig and have it slaughtered in the Haus Tambaran before the crocodile walks.
While pondering on the moral decay in Melanesian societies and the loss of respect and reverence for our ways of life, the first call for the River God to rise was made. The elders said that it was the call of the crocodile. The sound was nothing I have ever heard, not even the foreigner with his complex and high-tech audio making devices could duplicate or make the sound I heard. From what kind of instrument, the sound was made from, I had no idea for the sound came Haus Tambaran. The call was out of this world, it gave me goosebumps and made my skin crawl.
I whipped out my phone and wanted to record what was happening but the elders told me to put my phone away, as a young person born in the age of technology, I developed a habit of recording and documenting everything I came across. I did not know what I was feeling, was it a feeling of excitement? To be in a village on the Sepik river and experience something I have never heard of? I do not know for due my limited vocabulary, I cannot express my feelings in words.
All I know is that I was a proud Melanesian that afternoon, to see Gods and men holding rogues accountable for breaking the ancient Melanesian laws of the land.
The laws of Melanesia are not written on papers and passed in parliament after debates like the introduced Western laws. The Melanesian laws are not written in ink on papers, they are written in the hearts and minds of the people. They are carved on totem poles and sung in poetic songs. That without documentation, these laws have survived because of the sacred Haus Tambarans, gods and the men who stand to enforce them, to bring order in societies.
The Haus Tambaran is not just a spiritual house, it is a government system. A system older than the Western systems of government. The Haus Tambaran is the place where the ancient laws of the land were enacted, it is a place where issues are debated and problems resolved. It is the place where young men are brought into to learn the ways of their fathers and are taught philosophy.
The Haus Tambaran is a temple/church (a place of worship), a governing body, and a school. The spiritual house houses the old gods, it has three arms of government (Legislative, Judiciary and Executive), and is a library, a university of Melanesian wisdom, politics, philosophy, wizardry and magic, and fine art. An established system that has served us too well for centuries.
While still pondering and acknowledging my ancient Melanesian systems of governance and law and order, I heard the squealing of a pig in the distance. I could hear the reluctance in the pig’s squeal, if pigs could talk, that pig would be saying “Why do I have to die? Why do I have to sacrifice my life for someone’s stupidity? Why should I pay the ultimate price for someone breaking the laws on the land?”
By then, three calls had been made, the fourth call would be the final. After the final call, every women and child including those young men and a few adults who have not been initiated in the Haus Tambaran will have to be in their houses. None of these people are allowed to even spy out their windows to see what was happening outside when the last call was made. By then, the river god had already left the river and is walking on the land.
Before the last call was made, we all rushed into the house, and waited for the crocodile to walk.
If the compensation or fine for breaking the law is not made before the final call, the god walks in the village, and this is when the Initiated men of the house Tambaran taking anything and everything they find valuable, the items when taken into the Haus Tambaran will never ever be brought out again. And the distance near the Haus Tambaran, I heard the last squeal of the pig. The pig has been slaughtered, the spirit god came and feasted on the flesh of the pig and left appeased. The spirit did not actually eat the pig but it was symbolic. The village was safe.
We were allowed to come out of the house again, and everything was back to normal. That afternoon, our discussion was based on the event that took place an hour ago.
In the midst of our discussion, an elder from the Haus Tambaran was sent to invite us to go into the Haus Tambaran and eat a flesh of the pig. Zephaniah kindly refused the offer and said we were good.
The “custom pig” as they say it, when offered to the god, is not to be eaten by women and children, and those who have NOT being “Bitten by the Crocodile”, meaning those who have not been initiated and do not bear the markings of the crocodile. The pig meat is never to be brought outside the Haus Tambaran, it has to be eaten and finished inside.
So, respecting the old age customs and laws of the Haus Tambaran, we declined the offer to join them in the sacred house. A few minutes later, another elder was sent to invite us again. When he spoke, he sounded frustrated that we had declined the offer.
To not disrespect them, we said we will be there in a few minutes. That was, we would wait until they had finished eating, then we would go to sit down and talk with them.
Our work as volunteers fighting to protect the Sepik river has earned us respect among the elders of the village, we even though have not undergone initiation have been invited into the sacred house and to stand among the elders and speak.
Me, young and coming from another province, out of respect for my heart for the Sepik river, I was given the okay to be in the Haus Tambaran, and to speak to the elders of the village. There are also talks of me being initiated in the Haus Tambaran so I can bear the mark of the crocodile, but I do not think it is a good idea.
After an hour, we went into the Haus Tambaran, the elders welcomed us, I shared my plastic buai with them and we chatted for a while before we departed the house and went home. That night, I lay and bed and while battling mosquitoes, I tried to analyze the ceremony/event I had witnessed.
Colonizers came and told us we had no proper systems of governance and laws in place, they imposed on us their systems of government and laws which only benefited them and the elites. They imposed their Christian religion on us and cursed and doomed our traditional religion. They told us to abandon our gods and deities and embrace a Jewish God who looks like an American in portraits. White Jesus, the powerful image of white superiority. The image of colonization and subordination of other religions and cultures.
The more I thought of this, the more angrier I got, so I closed my eyes and thanked the ancestors who watch over us, the gods who still walk among men to maintain law and order in the society.