BENSOZIA/ON THE DEAD

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


The Parents

The Miyanmin of Yominbip in New Guinea live in a miserable swamp that supplies inadequate protein for their diets and is so disease ridden that most of their children die in infancy. They used to solve both problems by raids on neighboring groups, such as the Atbalmin:

The head-man and his wife were very fond of their son Oblankep. We often sat together and talked. One day the head-man announced, to my great surprise, that he would tell me the story of how he had found his son.

It was, he thought, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the year of the last great raid in the Yominbip area. The Yominbip people had planed this raid for years. They secretly built a cane suspension bridge across the Sepik [river]. A large party of warriors crossed the bridge by night and surrounded an Atbalmin village.

On a signal, they descended and slaughtered every one of the fifty-odd inhabitants of the place, sparing only a few young girls and children. The party was kept busy dismembering the bodies and making the pieces into convenient packages until the following morning. The head-man, who was then young, set off with the gutted torso of a male victim tied to his back, a severed arm and a leg slung over each shoulder and a head wrapped in a palm-leaf package hanging by his side.

On the outskirts of the village he was stopped by a faint, persistent sound. It was a crying baby, less than a year old, hanging in a 
bilum, or net bag, on a tree by the path. Its mother must have rushed from her hut when she heard the raiders and, in a desperate attempt to save her child, had hidden it there before being cut down.  He took the string bag and slung it over his shoulders. After a few steps the child, comforted by the warmth and rhythmic step of its new stepfather, quieted and fell asleep. It did not know that it was being carried between the severed limbs of its real parents.

While relating this extraordinary story, the old man took  Oblankep's hand in his own with great tenderness. When he finished he added, in Pidgin, in a quiet voice. 'I knew then that my son would be a good man. He did not cry, but was good and quiet when I carried him.'

Oblankep was looking into his father's face, smiling. I was still shocked and confused by this account of familial love, when the head-man's wife joined in.

'We ate his Atbalmin parents. They were fat.  They gave me all the milk I needed to nourish two children.  Oblankep grew strong on them.'

Histories such as Oblankep's were perfectly acceptable in Yominbip. Indeed, they were the norm, and telling the story of a person's origins in this way seemed to reinforce their sense of belonging in Yominbip society.

Now that the government has put a stop to raiding and cannibalism, the Miyanmin are dying out.

From Tim Flannery, Throwim Way Leg
 

February 11, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

--L.P. Hartley

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