Rotorua, in Aoteroa/ New Zealand, has one of those aromas that you can never forget and which is hard to escape. For me the strong smell of the sulphur is overtaken by an experience that has represented a watershed in the process of doing my thesis. Something I could never have foreseen.
The program in front of me has the words- “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder,” and the speaker is described as an American born Anthropologist whose major study has been in the Mekeo of Papua New Guinea. The theme of the conference is “Arts and Spirituality” and I am presenting some creative writing and story telling workshops on the theme of personal and cultural identity.
I want to meet the speaker before he find out whether he knows much about the village, my mother is from. I have no expectations this will be so having met a Tongan Anthropologist who has studied the Mekeo, but a different group of the Mekeo before. A friend introduces us. He is very interested to know where I am from, who my kin are, and my family name. It is a very brief talk as he is about to present. Between his presentation and talking to me he has worked out how I fit into the village’s structure. To my surprise, he begins his talk by referring to “meeting a descendant of old Malolo”, which I know is me as that is my grandfather’s name. As I listen to his talk, I find myself listening carefully as this is the culture my mother grew up in. This is knowledge that I have not heard presented this way but have been immersed in to some extent. I am unsettled.
After our first meeting, a mutual friend organizes, for me to get a lift back to Auckland with the anthropologist and his wife. It is quite a drive, a windy road, filled with many speeding drivers. The anthropologist is a somewhat scary driver. I am wishing his wife was driving and silently hoping that I survive the trip. I keep my mind off that aspect though by chatting to him and his wife. They tell me stories about Aunties and Uncles that I have never met, and inform me they have photographs that I might like, of the village. My grandfather did not really talk to this anthropologist much, but he allowed himself to be photographed. My grandfather was apparently a “notorious figure”- a medicine man and sorcerer. I already knew a little bit about this from my parents, but have never had specific details as to what this means.
My mum’s response to my questions about this after visiting the anthropologist is, “Yeah there were a lot of stories, but not all of them were true, and they were spread by a lot of people who he had helped cure.”
I tell the anthropologist that my mother’s camera was broken when she last went back to the village, shortly after her father passed away. Therefore, we have no photographs my grandparents, only those relatives who lived in the city before this had happened. My mother has given me a voice recording of my “bubu” chanting. She has tried to alert me to which voice, but I am still not absolutely sure which one it is when I listen to the tape.
I am excited at the prospect of seeing a photograph of my grandfather. They also tell me that my mother’s sister has fairly recently been killed by a snake. They witnessed the spoken report of her dying and were very upset about it. My mum has always loathed snakes, and this is one of the major causes of death in her village. It’s perilous sit next to her on the couch when a documentary about snakes comes on or she will pinch your arm until it almost bleeds. [My husband has had this experience]
As we are talking somehow I find myself telling them about how my mother always gives me a gift when she is upset about things in the way that we relate to each other. And about how she gave up tea for a year when one of my nieces died of cot death. I learned that the latter is called ”bafu” and that the anthropologist has studied this custom in the village. Of the former he informed me that there are really complicated protocols associated with gift giving, and that would have been “custom” way for my mother to resolve any issues she had to me, either to say sorry. I remember always feeling that some obligations came with the gift.
The anthropologist relates that he has heard a story of my father getting lost on the way to come and visit my mother at the village. Finally it turned out he had to be rescued by the local villagers.
As we arrive back in to Auckland they let me know we are making a detour. We stop in a car park at the University and I am left in the car with the Anthropologist’s wife, a very chatty blonde haired lady who I had spent a bit of time with at the conference. He returns with something for me- it is a family tree- something I have never before had possession of. I have a very vague picture of that side of my family. Snatches of photographs- a wild uncle, a sweet Aunt- sister my mum was close to lots of cousins she visited when I was ten.
By the end of the journey, an invitation is given for me to come with my family, waiting back in Auckland, to a lunch. The Anthropologist is sure that he has some photographs I might be interested in.
Getting to the lunch our trip is full of a series of windy hilly roads. The Anthropologist lives perched at the top of a mountain with a splendid view. It is quite a house. It has high ceilings and lots of windows. It is full of artifacts, such as sculptures and string bags. He and his wife lead my family upstairs to see some slides- and there is my mother’s village twenty years ago, and then today, followed by a photograph of my a woman, who I know immediately from looking at her is one of my Aunties.
I can see it in her eyes and nose- she looks so like my mother. Especially in her eyes and nose. This is the first time I have seen my grandfather. He’s sitting down- a picture of concentration. I can see my brother in him. I realize I have always known what he looked like. The anthropologist’s collection also includes photographs of his wife. She is dressed in a grass skirt- pictured with her “sisters” and “aunties”. She speaks to me about her experiences in visiting the village. They have been there regularly over the years- each time learning new customs. They were adopted in by one family, and knew some of my family. Although my “bubu” was a very reserved man they did not get close to- they knew him through stories. To them he was as a notorious medicine man of who it was even said to have killed people.
Later I was to query some of their stories with my mother. She commented:
“He was adopted by a rival clan. You can’t trust everything a rival clan says now can you”
The anthropologist speaks about how he has given copies of all the photographs to the village so they have a record of their history, and about the emotional responses to the capture of the spirits in the photographs. They tell me the fate of the village over the years; making lots of money and then losing it through gambling. How the young people are drifting to the cities but the women are coming back, and bringing their partners with them. So the village has become more matriarchal, even the previous chief has been lost to urban drift.
During the visit they ask to photograph my family-so as to send the photograph to the village archives- thereby giving my family there the fate of some of the children who have left that village. It is moving to think that a part of my spirit has already been sent there, prior to me visiting. I am presented with a string bag, made from synthetic material, as they rarely use grass materials now, and a copy of the book that eventuated from the Anthropologists field- work- with an inscription.
I remember my mother’s tears as I gave her photographs she did not have. I think about her ambivalence about this anthropologist. “Yes, we heard about him being there…”
As I contemplate my mother’s reactions, Anthropologist Dianne Bell’s words jar my senses,
I would rather sign my name on the front sheet of documents in AIATSIS or State Archives and thereby, agree to be bound by their conditions of use and access. I would rather be subject to any number of codes of ethics, than have the spectre of Milerum, Henry’s grandfather, Annie Rankine’s father, Grandfather Clarrie to this generation of elders, Tindale’s major source, the “last initiated man of Coorong,” looking over my shoulder.
I am struck by a realisation of a major difference in our attitudes. For me I would rather know that ancestors were looking over my shoulders, that they were guiding and protecting me in my journey. I can see them speaking to other people’s ancestors in this country. I do not see this recovery of my family tree as a mere coincidence. My mother has told me that my Bubu will always be there, looking over my shoulder, standing behind me, making me stand taller. I can call on her whenever I want and wherever I am.
(First Published in the South Coast Writers Anthology)