||Many of them knew little about other islanders of the New Hebrides. Using a battery wired projector, I showed my films of the Nambas and Small Nambas—tribes of lekula—and the people of the Espiritunto "bush," as well as footage of a land re performed for tourists by Christianized habitants on the west coast of Pentecost. "What em something in here?" a startled youngster at the first showing asked, trying determine if little people were performing behind the viewing screen. "Ee got small fella inside?"
As each scene unfolded, the villagers grunted, exclaimed, whistled, laughed, or made clucking noises. Afterward I was bombarded by questions: Are these other people real? Where do they live? Why do they dress differently? I showed the films at least ten times, and they always wanted more.
While we were filming the villagers, we lived in a small house they had built for us and shared their food. Their staples are yams and taro, with variety provided by such delicacies as ten-inch praying mantises, brochettes of metal-green crickets, and other insects (page 801). They're quite tasty, if you don't think too much about what you are eating. With a little imagination, you might believe a cricket is caviar on a slice of slightly burned toast.
|Our diet also included laplap, a native pudding made with yams, tare, or maniac; a wide assortment of fish; and such tropical fare as purse crab, flying fox, octopus, and wildcat. We brought a few food items with us, including Chinese noodles, which so amused the villagers that, trying to eat them, they laughed so hard they couldn't swallow.
During rainy periods I conducted classes for five young boys and two adults. Using a simplified Roman alphabet, I taught them the 17 most common sounds in their language and the letter equivalents. Within four months they could read and write simple words, and knew some arithmetic and New Hebrides history and geography.
After school I turned on our transistor radio. At first the students wanted to break it open to see the people inside. Eventually tines grew used to it.
Usually we listened to programs from Vila, seat of the British-French government in the New Hebrides, where broadcasts are given in French, English, and pidgin English. At the end of a program, when the announcer bade farewell to his audience, every villager, taking his remarks personally, politely replied, "Tata —goodbye."
The villagers went out of their way to make life pleasant for us. Women brought fresh water in bamboo tubes daily and regularly provided yams, taro, bananas, papayas, and watermelons. Every night we met with the men to discuss, over orange-leaf tea, their traditions and practices.
For the agricultural people of Bunlap, the yam provides more than subsistence; it lies at the heart of the villager's ceremonial life. The land dive, a ritual to ensure a good yam crop, plays an important role in this society.
|The origin of the land dive is legendary. Tradition holds that once a man, Tamalie, so mistreated his wife that she ran away and climbed a banyan tree. He found her and climbed after her. She had tied lianas around her ankles and, just as Tamalie reached out to grab her, she jumped and he followed. The lianas saved her life, but he died. The other men, determined that no woman should trick them, began practicing dives with lianas around their ankles.
The land dive serves several psychological purposes: It gives the men a chance to demonstrate their courage, to show off in front of women, and to get a public hearing of their troubles. Some men, before jumping, discuss their marital difficulties. And the wives must stand there and listen.
||Laughter and Song Lighten Labors
For two weeks I watched the 83-foot Bunlap tower rise, a marvelous feat of engineering. More than 22,000 feet of vines bound together 1,000 logs and thick branches. Not a nail, not the smallest piece of wire, nothing that belonged to the white man was used in the construction (preceding pages and above). The atmosphere of cooperation was wonderful. While some men gathered materials, others toiled on the tower, laughing and singing in unison. As the tower took shape, I felt it almost come alive, acquiring an independent existence that was more than the sum of all the care the workers put into it. When the project was half-completed, the people told me that the spirit of Tamalie had come to live in the tower.
|As tradition demanded, women were excluded from the site during construction and in fact were forbidden to cross areas where building materials were accumulated. New paths were cleared so the women would not come close to the tower, which stood in a garden area about half a mile from the village.
The dive site offered a flat area where viewers could congregate, and a sloping place for the landing spot—to give the divers a better chance of survival if the lianas broke.
During construction, the workers joked with me as I climbed into precarious positions to take pictures. Although I had said I would jump, many villagers were not convinced. "Kal, bambai [by and by] you think you savvy jump?" one asked. "Me no think white man he savvy jump, bambai you fright too much."
I usually contented myself with smiling and suggesting they wait and see.
Construction of the tower was a collective effort. The tower itself was completed in 10 days, and the numerous log platforms took another three or four days. Each jumper built his own platform and selected his lianas. Since I didn't trust my own skills, I accepted the offer of two Bunlap friends to construct my platform and choose the lianas.
Boys as young as 5 or 6, preparing to dive from a lower part of the tower, built their own platforms.
For Bunlap youngsters, learning to land dive begins early in life. A lad first practices by leaping headlong off the shoulders of his father, who holds the boy's ankles. On several occasions I watched small boys build model towers, some seven or eight feet high, complete with platforms, and drop pieces of wood from various levels as if they were divers.
The day before the dive, workers cleared the surrounding area of plants, trees, and stumps, and softened the sloping ground of the landing spot to a depth of about ten inches. That evening every male villager guarded the tower lest a "poison man" plant evil things in the ground to make the lianas break.
Before dawn the next morning the men underwent a ritual wash in the sea, anointed themselves with coconut oil, and decorated their bodies according to rank and fancy. All the men and boys wore boars' tusks around their necks (pages 803 and 811). And every woman and girl donned a new fiber skirt before gazing on the tower for the first time.
Quietly, the men slipped into the jungle as the women gathered near the base of the tower and started to dance back and forth. Then the men charged into the clearing, singing, shouting, and waving old war clubs. They danced toward the women, and the intensity of noise rose to a higher pitch. As everyone worked himself into a frenzy, the dives began.
A few of the youngest boys leaped from the lowest platforms, some 20 feet above the ground. These youngsters making their first jump showed plenty of courage and pride. But sometimes a slight shove from behind helped send a young diver on his way.
Then came the diving by the men. At each jump the spectators shouted. Then, as the diver hung head down, men rushed from the audience to cut him loose, and his relatives congratulated him. If he jumped well, the older men gave him a frond of cycas.
A few balked, making a last-minute decision not to jump. Their places were quickly taken by others, and they were in no way ridiculed. One man particularly enjoyed diving; he jumped five times.
The platforms stood on 15 levels. As the divers jumped from higher levels, the tension mounted. A few minor accidents did occur.
Sometimes one or both lianas broke, but not before safely took up the shock of the dive.
The dive even provided a comic incident when a young man about 16 years old jumped from a 70-foot-high platform. Both of his lianas broke, and he lay face down on the ground, seemingly dead. His mother and sisters started sobbing, while the men rushed up to help. Just then the boy jumped up with shout and a laugh and embraced his family. He had been pretending.
Last to Go Falls the Farthest
The divers jumping from the highest platforms displayed supreme skill and coordination. Because the tower's front starts slopping back around the 50-foot level, they must jive outward as well as down (pages 808-9). Their helpers, stationed below them on the lower levels, keep the lianas from tangling in the previously used and broken platforms.
The excitement reached a crescendo for the final diver, a powerfully built 24-year-old man named Lala. Just a month earlier Lala ad returned from the nearby island of Aoba after a year-long absence from Bunlap. Because he cut the first large trunk used to support the tower, he enjoyed the privilege of jumping from the highest platform—more hen 80 feet above the sloping ground near the base.
Lala performed beautifully. He seemed at first to be floating, then was hurtling earthward, displaying perfect form. One liana broke as he touched the ground. When the other ankle was cut loose, everybody rushed out to congratulate him and to dance and sing around him.
That evening everyone still was talking bout the successful land dive. Some of them congratulated me again, and asked if I could come back another time to jump with them— this is time from the top of the tower.
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