Yam harvest ceremony

A true Pohnpeian has three things: pigs, yams and sakau.

——–

On my first day in Pohnpei I went for a walk around Kolonia, the main town on the island. Being a newcomer I was not yet aware that people simply do not walk around here, thanks to which I stumbled across a very unassuming tourist office. I thought - why not! I came in and successfully befriended Loys, a native Pohnpeian. Loys gave me a pile of leaflets describing all the exciting adventures I can embark on, outlining all the hikes, treks, dives, historical sites. All the treasures that anywhere else would draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors, in Pohnpei are seen by barely 1700 tourists per year, I’ve learnt. I was about to leave as I asked Loys about the cultural activities - how do I get to know the local culture? You are in luck! Loys’s eyes lit up. The yam harvesting celebrations are about to begin and my village is the first one to set them off! You can come with me on Saturday! Give me a call and I’ll pick you up!

——–

I tried to put on a seatbelt when she gave me a funny look. You’ll learn. Loys has spent the whole evening preparing the food. She was a senior in the community because of her brother and her father, who both hold important positions, which meant she had the responsibility of bringing the food on behalf of her village. A few things were still missing so we drove manically from one store to another, buying boxes of dried chicken soup, noodles, bread buns, plastic trays with food… A lot of food. And then came a couple plastic chairs, a laundry basket, umbrellas, and yet more food.

We arrived in her house, which had a large a communal space. We took out all the items and her daughters and nieces started to help out with arranging the food on the plastic plates. Rice, a chicken leg, a piece of fried fish, a sausage, a little bit of salad, half a tangerine. It has to be pretty, not tasty! she laughed, while I just stared at the heaps of food and wrapped the plates in cling foil.

The first plate was placed together with 12 boxes of dried noodle soup, 3 cucumbers, a pack of bread rolls, chocolate crisps, a tin of condensed milk. All together wrapped in foil, the whole package went to the side. We wrapped up the remaining plates and carried all back into the car in a giant laundry basket. 

We got in the car and travelled through the jungle to the event venue. When we arrived the land was covered with cars. The party was on!

Straight away all the food was given to the king, nahnmwarki, who was sitting in the building in the background. The biggest package was for him, the rest was redistributed amongst the crowd, so that everyone got a meal prepared by someone else.

I must say I was quite happy we exchanged the plates (please don’t tell Loys). I started to nibble, trying not to think about food hygiene, while listening to the music played through the speakers. The best way I can find to describe it is by comparing it with the fluorescent, flashing, often tacky decoration that you can sometimes see in the shop windows, screaming “open”. It may be tacky but also somehow liberating. It was a happy place and I just sat there observing all the people around me.

Suddenly, in between the tunes I heard some noises coming from the jungle. Oh yes, the pig slaughtering, said Loys. Maybe you want to go see?

It was gruesome. It was worse, way worse than any photos can convey. The pigs were running around with blood streaming from their sides, squeaking in agony. The music was playing loud, separating the ritual from other people, with women dancing on the grass and enjoying their food. The pigs, 10-15 of them, suffered over long minutes of painfully slow death. Eventually they started to fall over, with spasms and jerks going through their bodies less and less frequently. Individual pigs were next tied to a wooden pole, some still twitching, and carried upside down over to another area. Others were left there, on the ground, as people dispersed.

The men went on a break, while I stared at the abandoned creatures, lifeless though still warm. After a while the men came back and the processing part begun.

They were very skilled at the craft and soon all was done. No parts got wasted and all the insides were collected in big bags. The men again left the pigs, their insides and the bloody puddles. The heat was tough. Big black flies started to approach the flesh, and so did the smaller boys, digging their hands in and splashing themselves with blood. Only having reached a certain age can they assist with the slaughtering, so for now they proudly collected the hearts and brought them to the fire for roasting.

I kept staring at the flesh and the growing flocks of feasting flies. After a while, the men started proceeding with part two: the yams, the main reason behind this gathering. 

The yam harvesting season has just begun, but the yams cannot be eaten until they are blessed by the king and all the respective village seniors.

I must explain a basic community unit at this point.

——–

The main island of Pohnpei has 5 municipalities and each municipality has a king, a nahnmwarki, and sort of a small royal family. The municipality is further divided into sections, overseen by a similar structure headed by a chief. King and chief is a lifetime appointment and in order to be considered for the position, one must come from a specific family clan, which is passed on by the women. However, being born well is not enough to take up such a position. Each village has a ranking system, defined by the person’s contribution to their community life. In order to become a king or a chief, one must also do a good job in their community. The kings and chiefs must also be quite rich - Pohnpeians believe that it is not possible to look after others if you cannot look after yourself.

——–

The yams were brought in on long wooden poles, like the pigs earlier on. They were carried over to the king for blessing, piled up and then taken over to the fire, where they were covered by banana leaves to cook with the pigs.

Finally, after yams came the third offering: sakau. Sakau is a pacific island plant of a very strong cultural significance. Its narcotic juices are extracted through a ceremonial procedure, to be shared amongst those gathered.

The sakau roots are first heavily pounded with rocks, to make a pulp. Next, the pulp is rubbed into a water soaked bark of the hibiscus tree, which is then twisted like a wet towel to squeeze out the sakau juice. This is repeated multiple times, until the men are satisfied with the consistency of the nectar, which should be slimy and viscous. At that point the first bowl can be prepared. The coconut shell is brought and the sakau juice is squeezed to drip into the bowl. The first cup goes to the most senior person - in this case the nahnmwarki. The cup is then refilled and shared with other senior men and their wives.

“Would you like some?”

…!!

Not sure I was more apprehensive about taking drugs in a jungle or the question of hygiene (what was the incidence of TB again…?), but that was not a question. I took a sip; the texture was a bit like pudding, not a strong taste. After a moment I started feeling my tongue becoming numb. Sakau is a downer, relaxes and numbs the body and mind. 

“In USA you drink beer, here we drink sakau”

——–

The next item on the agenda was the status upgrades for the selected members within the community. As I have mentioned earlier, by being active and benefiting the community, one can move up in the social hierarchy. The acknowledgement of one’s achievements is usually announced at major gatherings, such as this one. Names were called and men come in one by one, taking off their shirts on the way. The assistants covered the men’s bodies in oil, while nahnmwarki placed a wreath on their heads, as well as the accompanying them women, the colour of the wreath depending on their new position.

Once this was done, the time has came for the final part: donation of the gifts. Men and women started bringing to the nahnmwarki the most bizarre gifts - from wooden poles full of clothes, through bags of shampoo, sets of coat hangers, and… duvets. After this came all the pigs and yams, and all were dumped in front of the king.

I came back to Loys, only to find her in the same chair where I left her 3 hours earlier. “I am SO bored…! This is so boring! But it’s over now, we can go… We just need to get some meat. You don’t want any I guess? I didn’t think so…”. She explained that the gifts would be distributed amongst everyone present, the most juicy pigs and the best pieces of clothing going to the most important people.

“Outside, the wealth is measure by how much you have. In Pohnpei, by how much you give.”

We took two slabs of meat, the chairs we brought and got in the car to drive back home. 

——-

I was surprised  by how much the past traditions have been infiltrated by the western world, manifesting through the food, music, dance, gifts. One can be disappointed that the culture is not more “authentic” or “traditional”. But the reality is that this is their culture as of today, as authentic as it gets, and there is no coming back. The world’s biggest economies have supported the country (and other Pacific islands) over the past decades, but also introduced new problems, such as obesity, inactivity, tobacco and alcohol abuse.

Nevertheless, the core of the culture persists. The kindness and generosity of the locals is present at every corner and their strong family bonds still hold together strong. The culture is very fragile though and we should put in our efforts to try to preserve it.

1
Using Format