A STORY OF THE PADDLE, THE SPEAR & THE CROCODILE

30 NOVEMBER 2020

ANDREW MOUTU

Paddle – In its origin, a paddle is understood as a lever that is operated by the foot and by its scale of thought, it was a foot in length. In music you encounter pedals on the piano and on foot switches that bring a sustained effect or a blending of sounds that create a certain harmony. On floor boards, the press of pedals give you speed and acceleration or brakes and de-acceleration. On bicycles, paddles are attached to cranks that are connected to the front wheel. Paddling becomes a faster way of walking or running. While the steer keeps the bicycle in lane, the pedals helps with acceleration and de-acceleration. A paddle is essentially a foot in motion. When you come to riverine or seafaring communities, you find that the paddles are connected to canoes. Paddles become a necessary and a complementary device that accompanies the use of canoes. If you see the analogy at work: the shift is from the foot to the hand. This time the hand is in control of your directions and of speed and of acceleration. Paddles afford us a sense of control, of speed and of direction or destination. If canoes contain images of a family, a clan, or a village then paddles give us a sense of the energy and drive, of rest and motion. The paddle is a symbol of the people of the islands as well as the rivers and estuaries of the Sepik River where the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare comes from. As much as paddles are paired to our canoes, we are surprised to note that all of our islands are paired too: Ruprup Kadawar, Koil Vogeo, Muschu Kairiru, Yuo Karasau, Walis Tarawai and Ali Tumleo.

Spear – In its origin, the spear is immediately seen as a weapon, made with a shaft and a sharp pointed tip at one end. Some of them come with barbed prongs and lances. The spear is hand held, it is launched, thrusted or thrown. The spear takes off from a position of rest and is then thrusted forward with lethal ambition. In Sepik societies, and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, certain kinds of spears evoke and convey ideas about the command and incisiveness of leadership. Amongst the Kwoma people of the Waskuk mountains, a spear is often imagined as a brother to the hunter. As a brother, it keeps by the sides and lends a hand of dexterity to the prowess of a hunter. When a spear comes into the hands of a leader, it changes its utilitarian function of hunting and transforms it into an insignia that commands and organises, aligns and discharges power, authority and responsibility. From the Abelam to the Araphesh, where Sir Pita Lus comes from, for instance, you find an intriguing association between leaders and spears. Spears organise a gathering of people and only those with the prerogatives are able to take it out in its position in the ceremonial grounds to make their speeches. The spear stands at rest and is mute in a vertical position. When a leader picks it up and holds it out horizontally, the spear has a voice, it has a future and it points to a direction like an arrow’s path of flight sharpened with lethal precision. The positioning of the spears, vertical and horizontal, exemplify the lateral and axial coordination of leadership that is sharp, pointed, lateral and axial at once. It is little wonder that the idea of the spear appeared to name a sub-regional group, in organisational terms, the Melanesian Spearhead Group. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the designs of the National Parliament was being developed, you find that the spear appear at its highest summit as the tetrahedral A-shape structure. As a spear of twilight, it was intended to represent the launch of a nation with a future and a destiny. Imagine our prayers and yearning for a country with a cutting edge leadership, sharp and pointed as a spear!

Crocodile – This reptilian creature has been around for centuries and in the Sepik River, it is the labyrinth of its cosmological imagination. The stories of crocodiles one could make of them are as endless as the scars and impressions they have created since time began. In its mythopoeia, there are two kinds of crocodiles. One has a light underbelly and the other has a darker belly. The light skin crocodile is associated with debris and floating detritus. It is lazy and sleeps around doing pretty much nothing. Over time, the debris and sedimentation accumulate and these kill off water ways, lakes and lagoons. Like the white mud that is rubbed on people’s faces in their expression of loss and mourning, the colour of the light belly crocodile is connected to waste, destruction and death. In contrast, the darker belly crocodile is a highly productive animal. He works and works and works. He digs waterways, lagoons and lakes. He digs into the foundations of the waters beneath and secures the depths of the waters from the penetrating heat of the sun. The waters beneath become cooler and cooler and this provides an attractive place for fish, tortoises, and eels to come and lay their eggs. This hard working crocodile creates the preconditions for the proliferation of a diversity of life forms.

The mechanical and the organic – The cultural ideas of a pedal and spear presented here carry a common principle of partnerships or complementary relationships: paddle with the canoe; spear and the hunter/leader. One depends on the other to bring life and its purpose and values forward. They are presented as mechanical devices built up and around an idea of analogical relations. The crocodile on the other hand moves about with a head and a tail. You may sometimes encounter a crocodile who has a limb amputated but in most cases, a crocodile moves by its whole body intact, leading with a head and following with a tail. It is easy to separate a paddle from a canoe, a spear from a hunter but one has to kill a crocodile in order to separate the head from its tail. As the East Sepik Provincial Government was preparing to host a Sepik Cultural and Agricultural Show, after decades of hibernation, I was drawn to the fecund combination of the “Cultural” and the “Agricultural Show”. Incidentally as it happens, the notional idea of “culture” finds its etymological roots in the Latin verb, “colere” which is drawn from the image of cultivating or tilling the soil. As it developed over time it drew on other progressive ideas of domestication and refinement. To see how a province in Papua New Guinea is working towards similar ideas make us take a glimpse again about how appropriate leadership can help till the soils of governance and prosper the character and spirit of its peoples. The black belly crocodile is in the waters digging and digging to create the preconditions that will allow for the proliferation of life in all of its diversity. This crocodilean metaphor is a prospective image that fits the wisdom, energy and enterprise of the Governor of East Sepik, Allan Bird. What is more, the crocodile moves with its head and tail, it thrives with an organic unity, that makes an animal singular with an integrity intact.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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