Sunday, March 17, 2013

Meeting the In-laws (Doubled)

I raised my eyebrows at my roommate. “You’re going to have some explaining to do!”

She laughed as she looked down at the various bilums (traditional string bags) hung about her neck, “Yup, my future husband has no idea what he’s getting into…!”

Lucy and Jessie

This past Saturday, Jessie and I were invited to one of our national friends’ houses in a local village. Lucy is a single mom who is employed at Ukarumpa and has become a good friend over the past six months. Now that Jessie is only two weeks away from heading back to the US for a year and a half for a home assignment (some of you may know of this as furlough), Lucy and her family wanted to send her off in style with a traditional mumu (method of cooking food over stones buried in the ground).

Before long, we realized that this was not merely a going-away party. In Papua New Guinean (PNG) culture, it’s not uncommon for unmarried individuals to return to their home communities (if they had spent significant time away) in order to find a mate. When this happens, it is important that when the host community send him or her away, they show that this person is a part of the clan and strengthen family relations, especially in the area of brothers and uncles (who often hold more sway than fathers over familial decision-making). In most areas of PNG, when a woman is married, her new husband and his family must pay a “bride price” to the woman’s family, and specifically to her brothers and uncles (sometimes this occurs at the marriage ceremony, sometimes years later when the first children are born).

Jessie with one of her new "nieces"
The bride price helps establish good strong ties between the families (which can mean a difference between life and death in some cases), acknowledge that the woman’s family is losing an important member of their clan and compensate them accordingly, thank the family for raising such a good daughter and pouring resources into her, and finally show that the woman is valued and important.  Bride prices often include pigs, chickens, garden produce, money, and other useful items. As this is Jessie’s first furlough back to the US, Lucy and her family decided they ought to prepare for Jessie’s potential marriage (note—she currently does not have a boyfriend, so this is all purely hypothetical), and, by adopting her into the clan as Lucy’s sister, then the brothers, would be the recipients of the traditional bride price! (They reassured me over and over that when it’s time for my furlough, I needn’t worry—they’d adopt me into the clan too, and then my future husband would also be responsible for my bride price as well.)

So, as per their custom, they prepared an elaborate mumu, which is a traditional Highlands method of cooking that involves digging a hole, heating up a bunch of stones, pouring all the food into the hole, and then covering it over with leaves and potentially more stones, and leaving it to cook overnight. Yum!

Here's the mumu after it's been cooking all night covered with dirt

Then they dig off the dirt and peel off the banana leaves.

Look at all that food! Now it's time to start dividing it out among all the guests!


Then, lots of friends and family in the village were invited and Jessie was instructed to change into a new laplap (wrap skirt) and meri blouse. She was then presented with several bilums (string bags), symbolically from her new parents, brothers, and sisters, as well as various wooden artifacts, including bows and arrows and bamboo flutes.

This may not look like much, but it was bigger than a watermelon!
Then, we were seated with honor in the house and the two of us were given a mound a food bigger than a watermelon—various kaukau and taro (types of tubers, like sweet potato), bananas cooked in bamboo, chicken, pig fat (a treasured delicacy!), sausages, kumu (cooked greens), and some vegetables! Thankfully, our “nieces” and “nephews” were eager to help us with this gargantuan culinary mountain, and we spent several hours visiting with the family and friends. Finally, clouds started to pile up over the horizon’s mountains with threat of the daily afternoon rain, and we soon gathered our things to slide back down a muddy track, wade through a river, scramble through several muddy gardens, and finally return to Ukarumpa before the downpour.

As we stood in our living room, reminiscing over the day, we couldn’t stop chuckling over the induction.  They say meeting the future in-laws for the first time is traumatic enough, but in our case, our poor fianc├ęs will have to do it twice!

Names have been changed.


Can you believe it? All that food was eaten and only banana leaves are left!