My driver and my administrative assistant decided that I needed to attend the Sogeri Singsing yesterday in order to get a taste for some of the cultural diversity of PNG. I had an absolute blast!
Although almost all of the holidays here are Australian holidays, Remembrance Day, similar to our own Veterans Day, is one that actually touches the PNG culture in a real way. Yesterday was Remembrance Day here, and all of the offices and businesses were closed in celebration. Although I had originally planned to work, when the boys invited me to attend the Sogeri Singsing on this holiday, I just couldn't resist.
Sogeri National High School boasts student populations from all over the country. Most (if not all) of the 19 provinces are represented in the student body here. Yesterday's singsing was much like a band, dance, or cheerleading competition that you might find in the States. Not only is it the source of tribal pride for the students, but for the entire community as well.
In spite of my best attempts to have a decent camera on hand for the even, I ended up with only an iPhone to take photos on. The photos aren't great, but hopefully they'll give you a good idea of the types of things the celebration involved.
We arrived early to the event. My hosts were worried that it was "too early", but I was glad of it as it gave me a chance to get my bearings and to watch the groups prepare and the crowds arrive. The first group we saw escorted the dignitaries to the platform in front of the performance area, then went to one of the smaller "tents" to watch the rest of the proceedings and rest out of the hot sun.
The area in front of the platform was roped off but had an opening in the back corner. It was in this area that each of the groups performed their best moves. The crowd was relatively thin at the start of the competitions, and many of the attendees did not actually pay the fee to come into the performance grounds but waited along the roadside outside watching the dancers come and go from the grounds, shopping for betel nut, cigarettes, vegetables and fruits from the roadside vendors.
For the longest time, I thought I was the only white in attendance. As the day progressed, however, I did see three others in the crowd. Two of these were older men who appeared to have native wives or girlfriends, and the third was a young white man who looked to be participating in the singsing activities with other students. I saw no other white women in the crowd. My whiteness is generally not a problem here, and tends to encourage people to want to talk to me, an experience I relish. One older woman who spoke little or no English shook my hand and commented on my bilum. I pointed out how much I liked her dress (meri blouse) and we smiled at each other before going on our way. I always feel free to interact with the children, some of whom smile and speak to me, largely in a way that their friends notice their bravery, and others who hide behind their father's legs, embarrassed that a white woman has acknowledged their presence. Only occasionally am I treated with the rudeness of a young man who pushes me out of the way as he passes or unfriendly looks in return to my smile. These I can understand, and do not take personally. Why should they be expected to "like" me or be polite to me simply because I am white?
I did wonder a bit about some of the student dancers as I took their photos. While many of the groups smiled for the cameras and laughed together, others took a much more serious view of the events. Occasionally unsure whether the seriousness was directed at me or was part of their role-playing, I was reassured on occasion with shy smiles from participants when no one else was looking. At first, I was shy about taking photos myself. Again, in an event where there were few whites in attendance, my presence seems to stand out. I also knew it was a hot day, and brought my pink baseball cap with "Texas" written across the top as protection. Add to all of this the fact that I stand taller than most of the people I encounter here (which is funny to me as I am the shortest of my siblings), well, let's just say my presence there was noticed.
The early announcements from the stage were all in English with just a touch of pidgin thrown in. As the day wore on, the comments switched over to being predominantly in Tok Pisin and I struggled a bit to catch all of the implications. Some of the comments surprised me, such as the mentions of "groups you may have never seen before". My hosts seemed well versed in which tribes were which as they answered my questions and pointed out details I was missing, so I assumed everyone there knew them all. Then I remembered just how many different groups there were [although not all represented here] and understood. When another group of some ten elaborately dressed young men were accompanied by twice as many students with nothing more than painted faces to identify their association, there seemed to be a bit of murmuring in the crowd. I got the idea they thought it was inappropriate. However, when the MC remarked about how expensive the costumes were and lamented about the number of students who were prevented from participating simply because of economic reasons, the crowd applauded and all was well again. Still, while I found many of the comments made humorous enough to laugh out loud, I missed out on just as many, as the day wore on, because of my unfamiliarity with the language.
- There was one group from the Gulf province that had girls with wonderfully thick grass skirts that hung to their ankles and had shells around their waists. Many of the girls used a side to side movement that gently swished the grasses and made the shells sing out as they moved. There were two girls in the group, however, that had a little more swing in their hips, and I stood among a group of spectators (men and women both) that sounded out their approval for such moves. It was from these two that we learned, simply from the "swishing", the painted designs on the backs of their legs extended all the way up to the tops of their thighs.
- There was also one small girl in a group from a similar grass-skirted region that had moves of her own. The more the crowd responded, the more she put into her dance. She was so very cute, I almost felt sorry for the older girls who had put so much into their costumes and moves only to be outdone by this youngster. It was a great presentation.
- One of the island groups had two scantily clad young men enter the arena first, to a wonderful trio of hollow log drums. These boys had some moves that Michael Jackson would have been proud of, and elicited encouraging hoots from the men in the crowd as well as appreciative laughter from the girls and women.
- The dancers from the Sepik region put on a wonderful performance simulating the killing of a crocodile as they danced. Then one of their young men moved slowly about the edges of the roped off area with a live young crocodile secured to a piece of wood, thrusting it at audience members as he moved. The young people merely jumped back and laughed, while young children ran for their mothers, and more than a few of the older women nearly trampled people trying to get out of the way.
- The Asaro mudmen were another crowd favourite in their distinctive clay pot masks, and bodies white with dried mud. These boys played their parts very seriously and even the two younger boys, mudmen in training it seemed, were serious and cautious about their duties in the festivities.
Gosh, there is so much more I want to share with you, but already this post is so long that I know I've lost many of you. So, I'll bring it to an end now. But I did enjoy this day, and this glimpse of only small pieces of PNG culture, so very much!