Papua New Guinea Blog 5: Fire Dance

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Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She
was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in
Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining
people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua
New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

On Tuesday, March 6, we drove up to Gaulim to make arrangements for the Baining Fire Dance. This is a traditional dance that is performed at night. The dancers wear big masks and dance around a big fire. From time to time one of the dancers will run into the fire and start kicking logs and embers and sending sparks flying across the area. The dancers are accompanied by a male chorus. The members of this chorus sing in a rapid staccato style and pound a piece of bamboo tubing on top of a large piece of wood. The music is very energetic and the dancers also move energetically–and sometimes frantically–around the dance ground. The shadows of the mask, the sparks of the fire, and the pounding music make this a very dramatic performance.

The village is about an hour from Kokopo, the capital of East New Britain. The road to the village goes up into the mountains and then about halfway down the backside of one mountain. The road is good until about 6 km (3.7 miles) before the village, and then turns into a very rutted track. On Tuesday, the road was dry so we could bump along it up to the edge of the village, but on Friday, when we went back for the actual dance, the road was all mud due to a recent rain.

Because we had called ahead and said we were coming, there were a number of people (men, women, and children) waiting for us in the village. Normally, everyone would be out in the gardens at this time of day. Having cell phones and cell phone coverage is a recent, and very welcome, change in this region. As I found out later, coverage is not available in other parts of the Baining territory.

On the way up to the village, we stopped at a small roadside stand to buy betel nut, the fruit of the areca palm that is widely chewed in Papua New Guinea (and elsewhere in the Pacific and Southeast Asia), and often combined with the fruit of a pepper plant and powdered lime. When mixed together, these three components turn bright red in the mouth and give a slight burst of energy, or buzz. Betel nut is used as a form of greeting among the Baining. Instead of a handshake, people exchange betel nut with one another, and if they have time, chew it together. People say that conversation goes better with betel nut (called “buai” in tok pisin, the local lingua franca). You should not swallow the betel nut, so people spit the red juice that collects in their mouths out on the ground. In many places in town there are signs forbidding the spitting of betel nut, but in the rural areas where the ground is dirt or grass, people just spit wherever they want. When you see people with very red mouths like bright lipstick, it is because of the betel nut.

We came up to the village and James and I (James was our driver) exchanged betel nut with the people in the picture below. The Australians with us did not understand this custom until they saw us do it. When I chewed betel nut with the residents of Gaulim, everyone laughed and the children ran around telling others. It is not common for non-Papua New Guineans to chew it.


villagers outside one house.  Photo by
Jane Fajans.

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