Kiki: All These Changes

Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, Albert Maori Kiki with Ulli Beier, 1968

  • Papua New Guinea, #1
  • Borrowed from SF Library
  • Read September 2016
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: self-starters in search of inspiration

This is the fascinating life story of Albert Maori Kiki, who was born into a semi-nomadic “stone-age” (as per the jacket blurb) Papuan tribe, and later became Papua New Guinea’s first native pathologist and a politician who helped move the country towards independence. He spend his early childhood with his mother’s people, the highland-dwelling Kukukuku. His mother was the first person in living memory to marry outside her tribe; she was mourning the death of her second husband when a colonial patrol officer visited her village and, afraid that she would be punished if she wasn’t attached to a man (girl, I feel you), she glommed onto Kiki’s father, an Orokolo tribesman who was accompanying the patrol officer as a guide and interpreter. Kiki’s descriptions of life among the Kukukuku are fascinating. Their only tools were gourds, string bags, stone axes, and bows and arrows. They spent their lives traveling through the mountain jungles of Papua New Guinea, staying in one place until game became too scarce and then moving on again. Despite their supposed primitiveness, the Kukukuku used birth control and practiced family planning (women having no more than two children each, with children spaced at least three years apart) so that they would be able to support their families on the limited resources available to them.

When he was older, Kiki went down to live with his father among the Orokolo, a settled coastal tribe who had more contact with Europeans and Australians. Though the difference between the two tribes was already quite significant, over the course of Kiki’s lifetime he experienced even more massive changes across Papuan society as it was molded by Australian colonizers (the cruelty and injustice of whom he chronicles repeatedly in this book). For example, he witnessed the destruction of the eravo, the men’s house that had been the center of Papuan society before western colonization. He completed his first initiation ceremony in the eravo as a young boy, but by the time he was old enough to undergo the second initiation, the eravo no longer existed. Similarly the hohao, sacred talismans that were kept in the eravo, were largely destroyed or lost:

A hohao is an oval-shaped wooden board, carved with the image of a face. In the old days each clan used to have one or more hohaos, which represented important ancestors. They were kept in the eravo and in times of danger or before important hunting expeditions they were asked to help. When the eravos were burned most of the hohaos were burned with them, but a few were saved. They then had to be kept in the uvi, the women’s hut. But many people found that the hohao was a powerful magic object and that without the eravo they did not know how to handle it. The eravos had been prepared with much magic and they could contain and control the power of the hohaos. Now in the uvi there was nothing to counterbalance the hohao. People became afraid of them, and when frequent deaths occurred in some family they often thought that it was the hohao that was causing them because they no longer knew how to treat it properly.

Later he accompanied the anthropologist and writer Ulli Beier–to whom he dictated his autobiography, and about whom I will have more to say in a future blog post, as he had a major influence on the literature of both Papua New Guinea and Nigeria–on an expedition to try to recover some of the hohaos, he found that most of them had been burned or buried, as they were believed to be too powerful to be kept by individuals. He came across one from his own Orokolo tribe in the Port Moresby museum, a piece he remembered his uncle carving when he was a young boy.

Of his friendship with Beier, Kiki says:

At first my family felt that I was very cruel to Ulli.  A European had to have his water brought to him, he could not be expected to go to the river. He also had to have special food and services, and so on.

But soon they had made up their minds about him: he was not a real European, he was in fact my dead father Kiki, who had come back to see how I was getting on with my people. I tried to argue with them, but they said: ‘You don’t know who he is. If he does give away his secret, he will have to go back to his own country immediately.’

Though this may strike the Western reader as totally bizarre, this is more understandable when couched in the context of the cargo cults that flourished in Papua New Guinea at the time. The followers of these cults believed that their ancestors had come back to them on European ships in order to bring them western material goods. As Kiki explains it,

Our people had strange notions about Europeans in those days. They were supposed to be our dead relatives who had to change their appearance when they returned to live with us. Seeing us, their former brothers and children, they would often cry in their houses, but they could never show their emotion in the open…for there was a big man always watching them. The slightest mistake they made, or any attempt on their part to betray their secret, and they were sent back to the island of the dead.

This book was the first time I’d heard of such a phenomenon. Kiki writes at some extent about the Vailala Madness, the first documented occurrence of such a cult. According to him, it started as a curse by a magician, who was taking revenge on Vailala for the killing of his nephew:

Next morning a woman from Vailala village called Orohave went fishing. Suddenly she saw a large ship coming down Vailala river. In it were all the dead people from the village. She went back to the village and told everybody about the vision. She told everyone to listen to her. She said: ‘If you want to see your dead, you must start a new life. You must destroy the old customs. You must bring your men out of eravo. You must cut your hair short. You must destroy Hohao, Hevehe, and Marupai, all the magic objects that stand between us and our dead.’ Then everybody in Vailala went mad, and the madness spread along both sides of the river, and then it began in Arehava as well. Only Orokolo remained untouched by it all, because it is in the middle between Ioku and Auma and both times, when Kukuhae uttered his curses, he was facing away from Orokolo.

Looking back over this post, I see that it is not so much an essay as a collection of book excerpts loosely tied together with text. I’m just going to embrace that, and leave you with one last one, which I found rather poignant and expresses one of the book’s running themes (and, in fact, of much of the literature of the colonized that I’ve read in the past two years):

What have our people gained from the cultural contact that has destroyed our customs? We now have better wells in our villages, there is a mission hospital and a fair proportion of the people have learned to read and write. We have a rough road linking us to some other villages, but no cars can drive on it, only the local government tractor, the co-operative society’s tractor, and the mission Land Rover…People now earn some cash from planting and drying copra. What luxuries can they buy for their money?

Of course we also have Christianity now, but it does not fill the gap left by the destruction of our own culture. Many of our people are Christians and good church-goers, but they put the Bible aside on week-days. When they go hunting and fishing and gardening they still rely on the old magical incantations they have learned from their forefathers. We have been made to abandon all communal religious activity: initiation, masks, and the rest. But we cling to our private and personal magic. We still fast, chew bark, speak the sacred words as in the olden days. I cannot imagine Orokolo people ever giving up these things.

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