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CHRISTMAS IN THE TROBES

 

‘Goin’ to the Trobes, are ya?’

Wink, wink, nod, nod, dirty leer.

‘Better watch out for yerself there, mate…’

Thank you, Malinovski.

Don’t know what a Malinovski is? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that. It’s a very interesting topic. When you find out about Malinovski you find out about Anthropology and when you find out about anthropology – life changes. The scales will fall from your eyes.

Malinovski was a rather unusual young anthropologist who famously ‘went native’ in the early 20th Century. Up till then his was a rather effete, distant science, clouded by attitude and condescention. It relied on second hand materials collected by missionaries, explorers, or colonial officials, known rather pointedly as ‘arm-chair anthropologists’. Trapped by WW1, Malinowski holed up in the Trobes; in a stroke of genius and practicality the poor sod ended up living with the locals. In the process he re-invented the profession and uncovered some very juicy information about the sex lives of these ‘savages’ on the way.

Well, even the least anthropological of us gets interested at the comings and goings of dusky maidens on distant islands – it’s a sure fire attention-getter. Built in to all of us is that Pacific island fantasy; all palm trees, warm seas and hot tropical love – a rather attractive mix of ‘South Pacific’ and  ‘Sex in the City’. By the time the Chinese whispers were finished, the Trobes had a full-blown reputation amongst the cognoscenti; they had become ‘The Islands of Love.’

The travel agent’s voice was tight and strangled.

‘Er, you do-o-o understand that the Trobes is not… err… not…’

‘Not what?’

‘Not the err… islands of Love…

‘Wha…?’

I was enjoying her discomfort.

‘Not a place to go… err… looking for love…

She thinks Dogster is an elderly sex-tourist, looking for that dusky maiden.

Thank you, Malinovski.

*

 TAKE A DIVERSION

If you’re hungry for some brain-work these three ten minute excerpts from a BBC4 doco on Malinovski are fascinating viewing: some rare images of the Trobes a century ago, some footage from the 70’s and a great deal to think about.

The full piece can be viewed here:

 

 END DIVERSION

THE LONG ROAD TO CHRISTMAS

A long dirt path led to Christmas. Not a bend, not a car, not a bike. No need for any of that. Every so often it ran straight through a line of neat houses. Everything was clean, cultivated, ordered. No rubbish, no crap – just a neat palm fronded community, their doors wide open, families perched on the porch, gazing calmly at the intrusion. Six white faces, probably the first for a year. Nobody cared where we had come from, nobody cared where we would go – we were ‘dim dim’; the local words for fat, old, white and ugly. Kitava ain’t on the tourist trail; a couple of small cruise boats a year, a pod of anthropologists every now and then asking intrusive questions; the occasional fisherman – there was no particular excitement. The lives of old, fat, white dim dims was of no interest at all.

A nod, a wave, keep walking, don’t intrude. No need for excitement: we were all going to the same place.

Thank Christ it wasn’t the Yam Festival.

 

‘They chased me!’ he gasped, still amazed at his adventure, ‘they chased me, about five of them. I had to hide up a tree!’

The Trobes have a bit of a reputation. It’s all about yams.

Dogster is no anthropologist; he only knows what he is told. Culturally, the Trobrianders are not radically different from many of the surrounding island communities – it’s just that they got the good press first. Had Malinovski gone to the **, or the ** groups instead, they would be the famous ‘islands of lerve’ – but history was never fair. Now the Trobrianders have had to endure generations of keen anthropology students on a mission, clumping their dumb dim dim way around the place, getting in the way. Of course, the missionaries found the Trobriands too. They weren’t too keen about this ‘lerve‘ business. Obviously it was too good sinning to stop; even their best efforts didn”t quite manage to destroy that part of the culture. Here it was, neatly co-existing as it always had, twin worlds colliding over Christmas.

‘I was up that tree for an hour until they went away. They wouldv’e killed me. Five!’  He laughed. ‘Even I can’t do five!’

He was a brawny kid, full of life but he knew when he was a loser. Even the most willy fixated of the crew couldn’t deal with a Trobriand island-full of randy dames. The Yam Festival is when the sexual roles are reversed; the girls chase the boys. Literally. This is no meek courting dance – this is rape.

MORE

Dogster’s appendage, tragic as it is, has a mind of its own. I’m not sure whether, faced with five salivating teenage girls, it would choose to fight or flee. I think little Dog would be climbing up that tree too.

*

*

About a kilometer inland we were in a village caled Ishikel. Clumps of people sat around doing nothing. They weren’t overly crazed at our appearance. More dim dims. Neat houses surrounded a grassy area dotted by trees; this was the Village Green; on one side a shop, on the other a church. Yup, those missionaries should be proud. Another culture bites the dust. Our first job was to stand and be looked at.

 

 

The crowd, such as it was, was in church. We wandered in, sat quietly by the back wall, swamped with the sweet sound of Pidgin hymns.  An old dim dim distinguished himself by becoming emotional. He was tasken outside, comforted and patted and sat down on a leaf.

The Village Green was full of people. We were ushered to a special sitting spot just in time for the feast. From every corner of the clearing a procession of islanders wound their way to a central point. Each separate community had come together. They all carried food; pigs dangled from poles, piles of yams and a clutch of a thousand bananas swung by, fruit and stuff I didn’t recognise. All made its way to a certal drop-off point staffed by missionary men, each with a short-sleeved white shirt, a prayer book and, bizarrely, a tie.

Five of us sat as honored guests in a clearing on an island in the Trobriands as five hundred people gathered for the feast. Pigs and chicken, sago and yams –  weep and long for the opportunity. A picture is worth a thousand words. 

Then, entering slowly from a distance, the dancing began. If you watched the Malinovski documentary, you’d have noticed women with flowers in their hair dancing. This group of lads are doing the same dance – very seriously and very, very well. Co-existing with the Christians, a dance from the edge of Trobriand time. Of course, we were all besotted by cuteness, our anthrological hats fell off and we all took hundreds of pictures, like starving dogs let loose at the meat.

 

 

 

 

 

In the midst of this, one blond missionary daughter sat unconcerned, I-pod jammed in her ears, reading a book. Dogster made a friend for life with this exchange:

‘Well, that’s about the rudest thing I’ve ever seen, young lady. Did you come here specifically to insult the locals?’

You know those sullen sixteen-year olds you just want to beat to a pulp? Here she is.  

She deigned to look in my direction. ‘Wha…?’

Dogster leant over, smiled dangerously and whispered in her ear:

‘If you’re bored, you stupid girl, then just fuck off.’

Dogster chose his expletive very carefully; it was designed to shock and, for this sallow missionary child, seemed to have the desired effect. She huffed, she puffed and was off down the track in an instant.

I learnt later that her family led prayers for me that night.

It was Christmas on Kitava and everything was fine. I was just a speck on a speck in a blue, blue world –  a dim dim struck dumb in the islands. 

PART THREE

THE TROBRIAND DOG TAG

Mid-Dec 1943 landing on Kiriwina Island, Trobriands. Covered by USS Ralph Talbot

Operation Chronicle June 30 1943 Kiriwina.

 

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