Above- Multi-coloured Sailau ready for sailing         Below - Rabaraba Dancers                      

Milne Bay province is well-known for many reasons. Situated at the southern-most tip of Papua New Guinea, its breathtaking seascape dotted with emerald islands makes it a natural magnet for marine sports lovers such as divers, fishermen and sailors.

The people are seasoned seafarers who traded in the traditional Kula expeditions, travelling miles in magnificent sailing canoes to barter for food items, clay pots and other necessities. With every gesture and act of friendship was born a link in the Kula ring. Shell money known as “bagi” and “mwali” were the legal tender in those days. A “bagi” or “mwali was used to even buy land or a bride. The shell money continues to be used, albeit rarely, for certain exchanges particularly of cultural significance.

To commemorate the Kula voyages and to keep their customs alive, the Milne Bay Canoe Festival was born seven years ago. And what better place to stage this annual festival than on the northern shore of Milne Bay in Alotau, the provincial capital! From November 6 to 8 last year (2009), the township’s population of about 12,000 was boosted by people who flocked to the sleepy little town to witness and participate in an event that is gaining popularity every year.

The canoe festival is not just about canoes nor is it about racing. The need to weave the significance of the cultures of the Kula trading ring into the three-day event was obvious. Visitors were not disappointed to see traditional dance groups performing side by side with youth theatre and string bands.

In the festival program distributed to visitors, the organizers explained that; “The Milne Bay Canoes were traditionally used for purposes other than racing and this has got to be reflected in this year’s festival. It is very important that we display and reflect not only an experience during this festival but also shed a bit of light on the way we live and do things when it comes to canoeing; because that in essence, is who we are.”

A whole week was spent assembling canoes that sailed from the islands and various villages along the coast plus two from other provinces. The Epepeoa (Epoi) from Esa-ala; decked Sailau from Dawson Island; non-decked Sailau from Samarai Island; Sailau from Paneati; Kukakuka from Wedau; Lopo from Alotau and the Nagega were amongst the notable canoes. Many of the participants lodged at the Festival Village which was built with thatched sago roof and timber near the Alotau market.

A total of 50 canoes and about 1000 participants registered for the festival including one canoe from Tufi in the Oro Province and another from Buka in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. A traditional welcome ceremony began in the early hours on Friday 6th November in accordance with the canoe culture of Milne Bay. Like other societies in PNG, Milne Bay  province is steeped in rich ritual environment bound by strict protocols. It is one of the few provinces that has a matrilineal society with land owned by women and passed down the generations through the female lineage. However, men lead the way during festivities, ritual and ceremonial practices.
The haunting sound of the conch shell beckoned the transportation of pigs from nearby Rabe village to Alotau. The pigs were presented as gifts by the host villagers on the mainland to the visitor canoes that travelled from afar to participate in the festival. After that the conch shells remained silent while the traditional Kula canoes were welcomed in the Kula way strictly under the Kula protocol and custom.
The other canoes followed suit and pig distribution as a gesture of appreciation was conducted by the Rabe dancers under their own protocol.

The highlight of the morning was the arrival of the dignitaries led by the Governor General of Papua New Guinea Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane on a Nagega canoe escorted by the Lopo (dugout war canoes) from Cameron club. Highly animated dancers greeted the dignitaries at the Festival village with enthusiasm and spear throwing, daring the visitors to a challenge. The spear lodged itself in the thatched roof of the VIP hut proving that the rousing welcome had indeed left an indelible impression.

Speeches marked the official opening of the festival before the day’s events unfolded. With the strong south-easterlies blowing onshore, sailors grappled with masts and skillfully dodged the white caps to announce their arrival. The long dug-outs seemed equally as fierce as the charcoal-painted warriors who paddled them in rhythmic synchronicity to race to the shore.

The significance of a canoe is recognized from the time a tree is selected, felled and dug out; to the way it performs on the ocean. The Panaeti islanders demonstrated this aptly in the “Waga Hilugwale”, an initiation ritual done to christen a newly built Sailau. Re-enactment of a war raid on a coastal village; exhibition of various paddling techniques; exhibition of loading procedures for a Kula voyage; laments and chants of the Kula voyage; and canoe races from Alotau to Gwalili village on the southern side of Milne Bay were also the order of the day.

At K5.00, visitors could get a joy-ride on specified canoes. As is the custom of certain areas, women and children were not allowed within close proximity of some of the canoes.

On Saturday evening, those who were able to, attended the Canoe Festival Ball at the Alotau International hotel to taste the local cuisine prepared in traditional claypots and served in coconut leaf baskets. Heavy rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the party revelers who moved into the Conference Room from the hotel waterfront.

Meanwhile back at the Festival Village, the Totem Night took place under the cover of thatched sago palm roofs. Every Milne Bay person belongs to a clan and every clan has a Totem in the form of species of trees, birds, sea life or reptile. Each totem is associated with rituals and taboos. During the Totem Night, people were invited to meet and greet others who may share the same Totem species such as a bird or a tree.

The final festival day was dedicated to exchanging of gifts and food baskets between traditional Kula trading partners and between new found friends. The charm of such age-old traditions is quintessentially Milne Bay, and makes the Canoe Festival a must-see event. Undoubtedly it is also the genuine warmth and generous spirit of the people that make Milne Bay a magical place.

Published in Paradise magazine - Feb/Mar 2010 copyright Euralia Paine



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