Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tangled (Not the Movie)

Here I am, practicing my bilum-making

I looked with dismay at my hand. It was a mass of lime green string, tangled around my thumb and pinky, with a needle hanging lifelessly down the center. My was-susa or host sister reached for my hand and gently began to pull the knots from my fingers. I could see her trying hard not to smile. “No, you have to go over and then…over. Yes, here. Like this.” She manually rewound the string. “Now, try again.”

We were sitting on the veranda of my host family’s house, and I was trying to fill in the gaps of my education by learning to make a bilum, the all-purpose string bag of Papua New Guinea. I slipped the needle through the loops, tucked it behind a plastic strip, and slid the knot flat, attempting once again to imitate my was-susa’s quickly rotating hand which simultaneously pulled the string tight and kept it from tangling into a bird’s nest. I studied my efforts. Not pretty, but at least this time it wasn’t a wadded ball that looked like a diseased porcupine. Next stitch.

Bilum-making is the PNG equivalent of what quilt-making used to be in the US—an evening activity to fill spare time or socializing with other women. However, this morning, my wasfemili had graciously set aside other gardening responsibilities to help my roommate Jess and me master this art. They had pulled out half a dozen unfinished bilums, from tiny purses to gigantic bags over a meter wide, and had found a few that evidently were safe for beginners to mangle…er, practice on. Despite my rocky beginning, I soon found my many years of knitting and crocheting held me in good stead. I wonder what my County Fair judges would have thought if I had brought a bilum into the Needle Arts exhibit?

A bilum’s uses are limited only by the imagination and no self-respecting household would be without an ever-growing stash. Men carry small bilums on their chest hung from the neck or perhaps slung over their shoulder, but women rest the strap of the bilum on their forehead, letting the bulk of it swing gently against their back. Up and down slick mountain paths these women trek, often bent nearly double as they carry immense weights in multiple bilums layered on top of each other—one for firewood, one for kaikai or produce from the garden, one for water, and one for a sleeping baby. Their strength and stamina is incredible.

The colors and patterns of the bilums are beautiful!

In this part of PNG, string made from bush rope or bark and dyed with plant material is the traditional material, while in the Highlands wool is the trademark. Now, many women use plastic string in a plethora of colors found in the local stores, valuing it for its long-lasting strength and time-saving preparation. Bilums also carry untold social meaning, most of which I don’t understand yet. My host mother explained she knew which villages or parts of PNG people called home based upon the colors, patterns, and styles of bilums they carried. They could be used to mark relationship health—walk away from a conversation holding your bilum’s pattern or decorations toward your body, and you signal to the world that you and your friend have had a major disagreement that is still unresolved.

My wasmama pulled my bilum onto her lap, fingering my uneven stitches and slow progress. She looked up, beaming at me. “That’s it! Now you’re becoming a real PNG meri!”