Wednesday, October 20, 2010

They’re making money in Rabaul -- literally!

by Geoffrey Heard

If you made your own money in Australia then used it for a large public exchange, you could expect the Feds to come thundering through your door in pretty short order and a judge to give you a substantial thick ear for your temerity in threatening the financial security of the realm.

Not so here in paradise, aka Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. Here, you make your own money and you are applauded as a person of substance and worth. Always provided that the money you make is the traditional shell money, tambu, of the Tolai people -- tiny cowrie shells perhaps 5 mm long threaded on param (fathom, about 1.8 metres) length strips of cane.

Shells on cane? You make your own? How can it be worth anything? Anyone could whip up a bunch of the stuff, you might think, and devalue tambu overnight. It’s not that simple nor that easy, of course. If it were, the canny Tolai people -- as lively a bunch of traders and entrepreneurs as you’ll find in any day’s march -- would have rendered tambu valueless long ago.

The shells themselves are pretty common but you need hundreds for each param of tambu and when you look at the production process, you quickly realize there are easier ways to make your fortune.
Tambu has survived 150 years of European contact, the exploitation of cheap shell supplies, and a total reconstruction of the local economy which has seen Tolais climb to the top of the cash and consumer tree in PNG. Today, tambu holds firm with a cash equivalent value of perhaps K100 (about $40) per fathom and if you don’t see it used as often in daily market trading as it once was, this is more a recognition of its worth than any loss of value.

Here in my patch of paradise, Vunakabi, a new bride is being welcomed to the family. That means the traditional marriage settlement is in train and that, in turn, means tambu. Production is in full swing and everyone puts in -- men, women and children, including the bride and groom.

The tambu cowrie has long been fished out in the Tolai area so people as far afield as the northern Solomon Islands can make a useful dollar collecting the tiny molluscs as they roam the sea floor, or harvesting them from coconut shells distributed in favoured spots -- the little creatures cluster in the shells. The next step is spreading them out to die and dry in the sun -- an olfactorily disturbing process. At this point, prospective users buy the shells in stubby beer bottle or rice bag lots (a stubbie bottle full of quality shells from the Solomons currently commands a price of about K25 ($10).

In addition to new shells, old ones are constantly recycled. Our household went into the market with “brus” (home grown and cured tobacco) and “buai” (betelnut), accepting only tambu as currency. This resulted in mostly short lengths of tambu which they’re stripping off the cane, inspecting for quality, and threading on to new, longer lengths.

Stripping down the cane and threading the shells is a family operation. First, every single new shell must be carefully gripped in a pair of pliers to crack the back out of it leaving the rim to be threaded on to the cane. In our house, two pairs of pliers are in action, another person is stripping the cane down and smoothing it at what looks like terrible risk to the skin of her arm, and two others are threading -- no easy job, the canes are sized so that the shells grip. A full day and half a night of intensive work produced about five param of tambu and there is no question that this was pretty good going.

The full settlement seems a long way off but no-one is fazed; contributions are filtering through from the farthest reaches of the extended family network to make up the total.
Still and all, there will be lots more days and nights of intense work for everyone here.

The marriage settlement or bride price is often disparaged by Australians as degrading the woman to the status of work unit or chattel. Sure you can see elements of that in it, but there is much, much more -- including providing the children with the priceless benefit of access to the bride’s clan land (this is a matrilineal society) and a lot of fun and bonding for all generations on both sides of the exchange.

It is one of the more visible parts of a whole bunch of very important, formalized, and inclusive stuff that has developed over millennia to support a marriage and the children.

It all makes an Australian “traditional wedding”, bride looking like an over-inflated meringue, groom doing his stunned penguin impersonation, merely a remnant of England’s Victorian era, look like very thin stuff indeed. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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