Preamble: In a society free, until recently, of books and magazines and electronic media, oral literature was the medium through which children were taught manners and customs and were imbued with the attitudes and values basic to their culture.
Ancient myths served to entrench foundational values: while animal stories, in which virtues and vices were attributed to particular species, influenced character development -- much like fables and fairy tales in other lands. Most, therefore, had a moral or two which the audience could readily identify.
While animal tales focus on human qualities, using species stereotypes, other stories deal more directly with human relationships, beliefs and customs. They, too, usually have a moral, and justice triumphs in the end.
1. The Origin of the Niaui Moiety*
Long time ago there was a woman who gave birth to a strange baby named Niakodoma. The baby's face shone so brightly that anyone who looked at it was certain to die on the spot. Only his mother and her brothers could look at him or touch him, and they used to hide him in a secret place, in a dark corner of the house where he could not look upon other living creatures -- not just human beings but animals of any kind -- for they would all die if they looked at him.
One day his mother hid Niakodoma in his usual place and went to scrape sago in the swamp. On that day the other people in the village were out hunting wild pigs and bandicoots -- burning the tall savanna grassland to drive the animals from their cover into the open -- where they could be killed. To make things easier for himself, an uncle of Niakodoma went to his sister's house and took the baby from its hiding place. Covering the child's face while he walked through the village he took it to the edge of the grassland. Here he re-arranged the cover so the baby could look out. The man knew that animals running from the flames would drop dead when they saw the child's face, and he would not have to chase after them. And he was right. Soon animals were dying all over the place!
Unfortunately, the uncle was careless. He ceased to pay attention, and the grass fire raced away faster than expected. It reached the child, who burst into flames, and in a loud explosion was blown up high into the sky -- where he became the first sun. His mother was so upset that she left behind the rest of her family, the relatives who had stolen her beautiful son, and went away to form a new clan -- a whole group of clans in fact. These called the "Niawi", which means family of the sun. Niakodoma is the great god of these clans, and people still make offerings to him for good luck.* Tribes are divided into moieties and moieties into clans. The moieties of the Sawos tribe who live in and around Torembi are known as the "Niaui" and the " Nieme " (who are the family of the earth).
2. Why Wallabies Hop and the Cassowary Cannot Fly
Long time ago the cassowary used to fly, just like other birds. He also had short legs like them; but he was big, and proud and greedy, and very strong: and all of the other birds -- both the big ones and the small ones -- disliked him. They were all scared of him: he caused so much trouble. At night, for example, when the other birds had found nice places to roost among the trees, the cassowary would chase them away so he had the forest to himself.
The other birds were so annoyed that they called a big meeting. They all came. They were determined to find a way to punish Mr. Cassowary. The problem was they were scared.
Parrot spoke first: "I'd love to help but I can't fight".
"I cannot fight either" said the kingfisher.
One by one the other birds spoke up too: but they were too scared to do anything. They all had good excuses why they should not be the one to take action -- even though they all wanted something done!
Eventually, late in the evening, after talking all day, they decided they would try to get help from the beetle. "Please help us Mr. Beetle" they said: "Mr. Cassowary is a menace".
Now Beetle was small, but he was cunning, and he said: "Yes, of course I will."
Before any of the birds went to sleep he found the tree where the cassowary always slept, and he crawled up the trunk till he got to Cassowary's favourite branch. Here he chewed through the wood -- not all the way through, just far enough to weaken it, though it looked strong from above.
That night, after the other birds had gone to sleep the cassowary flew to the forest and woke them up. He drove them all alway, as he always did. This time, though, when he flew to his favourite branch he got a surprise: it broke the moment he landed on it. And he fell, down, down, down all the way to the ground, where he broke both his legs. Unable to move he lay there all night, all alone and feeling sorry for himself.
The first animal that Cassowary saw the next morning was Mr. Wallaby. Now wallabies in those days had four legs of equal length and they walked and ran like dogs. From the ground beneath his tree the Cassowary cried out piteously "Please Mr. Wallaby I have had a terrible accident and have broken both of my legs. I cannot move: but you have four good legs. Could I borrow two of them for a while. That way I can find someone to help me."
Now Wallaby, as you know, is not an intelligent animal: he has a generous heart but he is also stupid. "Of course you can" he replied. "You can have them while you seek help: but please, be sure to bring both of them back before night time. I need all of my legs then to search for food".
Cassowary thanked Wallaby, promised that he would indeed bring back the legs on time; and walked away happily -- on Wallaby's legs!
You can guess what happened next. Cassowary was so happy running over the ground on the long legs he'd borrowed from Wallaby that he decided to keep them for himself. And with legs like that he no longer needed to fly. He is a selfish animal as you know, and he broke his promise without a second thought.
Wallaby waited and waited, but Cassowary did not return. Poor Wallaby, he did not know what to do. He was helpless. He wanted to go home, but he could only move on four legs and two had been stolen by the Cassowary.
After two days, though, when he was cold and hungry, and also very lonely, being far from home, he knew he must do something, however drastic. He decided to use the legs Cassowary had left behind: but since these were shorter than the ones he'd lost, and had also been broken, he could not walk properly. Instead he had to hop using the two good legs he had left.
This is why to this day wallabies hop instead of walking and cassowaries walk instead of flying.Editorial Note: Another version of this tale deals just with the cassowary. In this case when he falls from the tree he breaks his wings, and the story ends with the comment: "This explains why the cassowary cannot fly: and why, to this day, the cassowary is the enemy of all other birds, and hunts them down, seeking revenge".
3. Kwatit - the River of Tears
Long time ago in a village called Torembi there lived two brothers. They really were very good friends, and they did everything together.
In those days it was dangerous living at Torembi because in a cave at the bottom of a small hill nearby there lived a great monster who first killed, and then ate, children who went outside the village to play. People were really scared and parents would not let their children out at night. Instead they kept them safe at home, or tried to.
This situation continued for many years. The monster terrorised the village. And though parents tried to keep their children safe, boys and girls disappeared night after night. So many families were distressed that the chief decided something had to be done. If things continued like this there would be no children left: and if that happened who would scape sago and care for the gardens in years to come? The killing had to stop.
So the chief called a meeting, to which he invited all the young men in the village. He knew that everyone was scared of the monster, so he decided to offer a reward to those brave enough to fight it. He said: "Any one of you who is brave enough and strong enough to kill the serpent can marry my daughter, my youngest child". Now, she was a beautiful girl, much admired by all the young men. They were much excited at the thought of such a reward, but none of them seemed brave enough to hunt for the serpent -- for they knew it would kill them if they attacked it.
The only men with courage enough to do anything were the two brothers I spoke of earlier, and they set off early the next morning in search of the monster. They travelled in the direction of Maprik*, to the hill where the serpent lived, and when they came close to the cave they heard the great snake snoring. He had eaten a really fat child the night before and was resting after such a big meal.
Knowing that they might never see each other again the brothers said goodbye, and embraced for one last time. They then crept into the cave. It was dark inside, and they could not see where they were going: all they could do was listen to the sound of the monster's snoring and head in that direction.
The monster had been hunted for many years, however, and he too had learnt to listen carefully, even when he was resting. He heard the brothers approaching and prepared to attack them. The older brother struck the snake first with his sharp spear: it pierced the middle of its body, but the snake had a long neck and was able to twist itself around and bite the boy's head. He died instantly, because the snake was poisonous. While this was happening the younger brother saw his chance: seizing the opportunity presented by this confusion he struck the serpent in the head with his spear, killing it. And to prove that he had indeed killed the monster, and so could claim the chief's daughter in marriage, he cut off the monster's head and carried it with him as he returned to Torembi.
Though he was happy to be marrying such a beautiful girl, the younger brother was sad, very very sad, at having lost his brother. All the way home he wailed, and wept, and shed great tears continually, crying because of the death of his closest friend. In fact he shed so many tears that the forest path he followed was turned into a river: not a big river like the Sepik, but a river nevertheless -- a river of tears. And that is what the Kwatit is. It runs through the middle of Torembi and so reminds us each day of the many tears shed by the younger brother for the friend he lost, the friend who saved the village from that horrible monster, long ago.* The village of Maprik (now a town) lies 45 kilometres north of Torembi.
4. Why Mosquitoes Buzz
Long time ago two friends lived together: one was a Heron, the other a Mosquito. Seems a strange combination, doesn't it? In fact they were well matched, complementing each other. The Heron flew faster than the Mosquito, so it was his job to go hunting, in search of food. The Mosquito, who was slower, stayed at home and did the housework. So they lived together happily -- at least they did for a while.
One night, however, the Heron failed to catch anything, and returned home without any food. Having nothing to eat, the Mosquito became angry, very angry. He was an impatient individual, also greedy and selfish. He shouted: "I have been working hard at home all day. And what have you been doing -- nothing, absolutely nothing! You don't care about me. All you have to do is gather food each day, and you can't even do that properly! You're useless!"
The next day the Heron failed again. He searched throughout the forest and all along the river, but without success, and he returned home empty-handed. "I'm very sorry", he said to the Mosquito, "I really did try, honest I did. I have looked everywhere: but I found no food at all."
Well, you can imagine what the selfish and impatient Mosquito said in reply. This time he was even more angry than before, and he screamed: "You stupid animal: you aren't searching hard enough. It was foolish of me ever to trust you: you can't do a thing right. Go on, clear out. Go back and try again!"
The Mosquito went on and on, shouting and screaming at the top of his voice. He was selfish, and impatient, and had no idea how hard the Heron had worked looking for food.
By now the Heron was frightened, really scared; so he ran out of the house and hid in the bush: he wanted to give the Mosquito time to calm down. He waited an hour or so, giving his friend plenty of time to think things over. He then flew down from his hiding place, knocked on the door of the house and tiptoed inside. He tried to say how sorry he was that he had failed yet again: but the Mosquito was in no mood to accept an apology. Instead he started to shout and scream all over again: "You stupid bird: you're absolutely useless! What I ever saw in you I can't begin to understand: my mother was right. Living with you is a complete waste of time. If you died tomorrow no one would miss you!"
The Heron was now really frightened, really really scared: he was sure the Mosquito would kill him. He needed to do something in a hurry, but it is difficult to think clearly when you're being shouted at. Suddenly he had an idea: "I know what I will tell him", he said to himself. "I'll send him off on a wild goose chase, down a trail which will lead him nowhere -- only away from here. And while he's out of the house I can gather my things together and escape." What he planned to say was a lie, of course, but the Mosquito never believed him when he told the truth, about working hard looking for food: so what did a teeny weeny little untruth really matter?
"I have hidden the food in a house by the river", he said. "If you go there now you will find food enough to feed you for a week -- lots and lots of it." Since the Mosquito was greedy as well as selfish and impatient, he rushed off immediately, in search of the food. And as he disappeared down the path, the Heron flew around the house, stuffed his possessions into a large billum, and escaped.
When the Mosquito reached the house on the river bank he looked for the food. He hunted in every room and searched in every cupboard, and in all the dark corners where something could have been hidden. He even looked underneath the house where the pigs and the chickens lived. But he found nothing; nothing at all, absolutely nothing. Boy was he mad! As mad as it is possible for anyone to be!
He stormed off back to his own house, where he was determined to fix that Heron once and for all. What a stupid thing it was to hide food in someone else's house, where no one could find it: Heron hadn't even told him where to look! This time Mosquito would teach him a lesson he'd never forget! But when he got home the Heron, needless to say, was nowhere to be seen.
Now you and I know that the Heron had made up the story, about hiding food, to give him time to escape. But the Mosquito did not realize that the story was false. So, he went from house to house, searching for the food which he believed the Heron had hidden. Again and again he asked: "Hazzzzz the Heron hidden my food in you houssssse? Izzzz it here?" But the response was always negative: no one knew what he was talking about. So he continued looking.
That is why to this very day mosquitoes buzz around people's ears at night. They are looking for the food hidden by the Heron. "Where hazzzzzz he hidden it? Izzzzz it here?" they ask, again and again. And if they bite you, you know why -- they are hungry!
5. Why Snakes Crawl
Long time ago snakes walked on two legs. In fact they were the tallest of all reptiles, taller even than the tallest animals. But though they were tall, they were not popular -- not because they were tall but because they almost never told the truth. Instead the snakes made up stories and told tales about other animals. They were not true : they just made them up. They told lies all the time, and caused trouble in the animal kingdom. Every day there were arguments and even fights as a result of things the snakes said. I'll give you just one example of the trouble they caused.
One day the Snake said to the Wallaby: "Guess what the Kingfisher told me. He said you can't walk properly, not like other animals. You can't walk straight, because your legs are useless. One day, though, the Kingfisher is going to fix them for you. He's going to sort you out once and for all!"
As you would expect these words hurt the Wallaby's feelings and he was really annoyed with Kingfisher when next he saw him. The problem was the Kingfisher had said nothing of the kind. The Snake had made it up, just to cause trouble. And tales like this caused lots of different animals to turn against their friends -- when the Snake invented and repeated things they were supposed to have said.
Eventually, though, the animals realized who was causing their unhappiness: it was the Snake telling lies. So, one day, when the Snake was asleep, sunning himself on a rock deep in the forest, the other animals held a meeting. Something had to be done. Things could not go on like this, and two animals -- the Pig and the Dog -- said they knew how to stop the Snake running around telling tales. His legs were the root of the problem you see.
When the sun went down and the Snake walked back to the village he met a crowd of people gathered together beneath the coconut palms. He did not, of course, know why they were having a meeting and, before he could ask, the Dog and the Pig jumped on him -- and broke his legs. "That'll stop you spreading lies" they shouted.
The poor Snake did not know what to do. He was taken by surprise. He could no longer walk, but he had to get around somehow -- otherwise he would starve. Luckily for him there was a Fish at the meeting: and fishes, as you know, move around easily without legs. So the Snake asked the Fish if he could borrow some of its scales.
That is why to this day snakes slither around on scales like those worn by fish. They cannot run like a dog or a pig: but they can still move quickly. So watch out when you meet one: he can no longer spread stories about you, but he is mad at losing his legs, so he may bite!
6. The Very First Fire
Long time ago the people of Torembi knew nothing about fires. Instead they prepared food by drying it in the sun. This was the closest they ever came to cooking -- because, as I say, they had no knowledge of fire.
One day, though, a young woman went fishing in the river -- you know, the Kwatit or "River of Tears" that flows through the middle of the village. No sooner had she cast her line than she heard someone cry out. To her ears the sound was only faint, but it was a piteous cry for help -- a cross between a scream and a prayer. And because the woman was kind she stopped fishing and hurried away. She wanted to help, and hoped to find whoever was in trouble.
The plaintive cries for help continued, and she tried hard to track them down. But though she scoured the riverbank, and searched behind every bush and tree, she found nothing. She looked and looked, but she saw no one.
When she returned to where she'd been sitting, though, she realized that whoever was calling her was actually close-by. This time she looked down, into the water, and to her surprise saw a teeny weeny little man crying for help. He had been caught by a big fish, and looked as if he would be swallowed at any minute. "Help me", he cried; "Please help! Please..."
The woman jumped up and hit the fish with a stick, driving it away. It was so surprised that it let go of the little man; and the woman picked him up immediately, holding him between the finger and thumb of one hand-- for, as I told you, he was very small. He told her that his name was "Samaldu", meaning "one inch long".
The young woman was so excited about catching such a wonderful creature that she wanted to take him back to the village and show him off: but he did not want to go. He pleaded with her to let him go; and being a kind and generous person, as I told you, she agreed to do so. She did not drop him, but put him down on the ground gently, so he would not hurt himself falling from such a great height. And she wished him well. "Good-bye", she said, "I hope you get home safely. Make sure you stay away from the river bank."
Samaldu was most grateful. He wanted to give her something as a way of saying thanks: so, being a master of magic, he pulled out one of his tiny finger nails and gave it to the woman. "Take care of it", he said. "It is only small, but if you rub it against dry wood you can start a fire." "Fire? What is fire?" the woman asked. "Fire is like the sun", the man replied, "like a little piece of the sun. It is hot, very hot: and you can use it now whenever you prepare food. This is my gift to thank you for being so kind and helpful". And as he said that he disappeared inside a great tree, leaving the woman to walk home alone -- with the precious gift of fire.
This explains why people cook food today: and why they always keep a few ashes burning in the hearth so the gift of fire is never lost. It also explains why when people travel they carry smouldering embers, which burst into flame when you blow upon them.
7. The First Sugar Cane
Long time ago in Torembi there was a woman who lived alone with her grandson. She was old, but she worked hard still, taking care of the boy. One day they went together to her garden in the forest, where she weeded energetically among the vegetables she had planted. In doing so, however, she cut her finger badly on a sharp blade of grass. The first drops of blood fell into a hole and were buried, but the blood continued to flow. There was nothing the woman could do to stop it. Soon there was blood everywhere, and the old lady knew she could not live much longer.
She cried out to her grandson: "I'm losing a lot of blood. I cannot stop it, and I am bound to die soon. I can take care of you no longer, but there is one more thing I can do for you: listen. See that little hole in the ground over there: that's where I buried my first drops of blood. Remember that spot. Please, do not forget it -- for your own good."
Having spoken these final words the old woman leaned back against a tree stump and died quietly, at peace with herself and the world. And her grandson buried her body nearby.
In the days that followed he returned several times to the garden, to examine the spot where his grandmother had shed her first drops of blood. He saw nothing unusual at first, but a few weeks later he noticed that a tender green shoot had emerged from the soil which had soaked up the first drops of his grandmother's blood. It was not a plant that he recognized, but he had promised to take care of this special place; so he watered the plant and weeded all around it.
With careful attention like this, the plant grew and grew. It was soon taller than the boy himself, and it was crowned in time with a white plume that waived in the wind. Many, many people came to look at this strange plant: but no one knew what it was, or whether it was of any use. So it was left alone to grow -- taller and taller.
One night, however, the woman appeared to her grandson in a dream. She told him to cut down the plant, to suck out the juice and leave the rest. He did this the very next day and discovered to his surprise that the juice was sweet, and good to taste.
He did not keep it all for himself but took some of the plant back to the village to share with the others. Everyone thought it tasted wonderful -- and before long everyone was growing it. Every garden soon had a clump of sugar cane -- the final gift of a kind old woman.
The chief of the village was absolutely delighted. His people were healthier and happier. To show how thankful he was he gave his only daughter in marriage to the grandson of the woman who had given them their first sugar. And, as it turned out, she too was very sweet!
8. The Lizard Man of Namangoa*
Long time ago in one village near Torembi there were only women -- not one man lived there, and the future of village was uncertain to say the least. It wasn't that the women there disliked all men as a matter of principle: rather that they had never been able to find even one who was good enough.
One day a great feast was held in a village nearby, and everyone went -- including the women I referred to earlier. It was wonderful party, with the usual singsing: but among the dancers was a man who danced in a strange way. He moved his body in a manner unlike that of anyone else, and he caught the eye of the crowd -- especially of the women present. Women from many different villages wanted him to go home with them!
Even the women from the village without men were fascinated by him. They found him especially attractive and urged him to join them. He refused -- not because they were not beautiful, for they were, but because he wasn't a real man: he was a lizard.
The party went on all night, but shortly before sunrise the lizard man managed to escape from the clutches of his admirers. He ran off down the path, and as he did so he changed himself into a lizard and crawled into the log where he lived. However, one of the women from the village without men had seen him slip away and had followed him at a discreet distance. She had seen him change himself into a lizard, but that did not discourage her; and she crawled into the hollow log after him.
Sadly she was too big: she managed to crawl half way, but could not reach the section where the lizard man was hiding. So she backed out of the log and ran home to her village to tell the other women what she had seen. The next day they called a meeting to discuss the situation at length. They were determined to do whatever was necessary to capture the lizard man for their village.
Early next morning two of the women walked to the hollow log where the lizard man lived. Hiding themselves carefully among bushes they kept a close watch on the entrance. Shortly after they arrived the lizard crawled out of the log and headed down to the river for his morning wash wash. Lizards of his type dislike water, so he shed his leather jacket on the riverbank and turned himself into a man -- a very handsome man -- before having a swim. While he was in the water the women snatched up his lizard skin coat and buried it, before hiding themselves again close by.
When he had finished washing himself the lizard man climbed up out of the water and reached for his lizard skin coat. He was surprised to find it had disappeared: and, before he had time even to think what to do next, the women jumped out from behind the bushes and grabbed him -- so tightly that there was no way he could have got away. Singing happily as they went, they took him back to their village -- the one which had never had a man living in it before -- and, believe it or not, he became the husband of every women who lived there! This is how the village of Namangoa came into being. Its people are descended from the lizard man and his many wives -- women whom no ordinary man could ever satisfy.
*The village of Namangoa, alias Namagua, is east of Torembi, 4 kilometres from the Mission.
9. Why Women Do Not have Beards (but do have periods)
Long time ago in and around Torembi the women of the Sawos tribe had beards just like men. This annoyed the dogs in particular (I'll tell you why in a minute) and they were determined to get the hair off women's faces once and for all.
The problem was that women were proud of their beautiful beards, and took good care of them --unlike the men! In fact they spent so much time playing with their beards (or so it seemed to the dogs) that they often neglected to prepare enough food either for their families or their dogs! These were left to starve. It simply wasn't fair!
One day a hungry dog tried barking for food. It barked and barked, hoping to be fed: but the woman simply chased it away with a big stick. That, the dog decided, was the last straw! He would do something about those bearded and thoughtless women, once and for all. So he got hold of an old and very dry sago pancake, hung it round his neck like a necklace, and went from one village to the next seeking the sympathy and the support of other dogs.
All the dogs in the area were soon stirred up; and they called a big meeting -- a very big meeting, down by the river, and a noisy one too. They simply had to find a way to get rid of those beards, the ones worn by women. They talked and they talked; they argued and they argued. They barked; and they growled; they snapped and they snarled. But no one really knew what to do. So they went to talk to the wise old frog.
The frog knew what to do. He told them to collect blood at the time the women had their monthly period, and to paint this on the women's faces -- covering their beards. This, he promised, would get rid of their beards for sure.
Now in those days, during their monthly periods women were not allowed to cook any food: they always had to move out of their family home and live in a special house away from their husbands. So the dogs watched and waited for an opportunity.
One day, at this place of seclusion, a woman allowed some of her blood to fall on the floor: and, quick as a flash, the dog who was keeping watch wiped it up and rubbed it into the woman's beard. That night all of the women lost their beards. Only one woman had been trapped by her dog, but her carelessness affected every women in the tribe.
This is why today women do not have beards -- thanks to a hungry dog and a wise old frog – but they still shed blood!.
10. The Flying Foxes of the Sawos
Long time ago in the area around what we now call Torembi there was one village which was different from all the rest. The men who lived there were great hunters but they were also very greedy; and they never brought meat home with them. Instead, every time they killed an animal when hunting they would eat all of the meat themselves, secretly in the bush. They did not for one moment consider the needs of their wives and their children. They were, as I say, very, very greedy.
But there was one exception, for one of these hunters was kind-hearted and considerate: he gave thought to the welfare of his family, and somehow always managed to smuggle home some meat for them. He didn't tell the others: he did it in secret, so no one else knew -- except, of course, his wife.
This situation went on for years and years. The men grew fat and healthy because they were well-fed: but their families had to eat sago, every day; they never had any meat. The women knew something was wrong, but they did not know what. So they met together one day, to discuss the situation, while the men were away hunting.
The woman who had called the meeting spoke first. She said: "Something is wrong for sure. I don't know what it is, but somehow we women must discover the truth about our husbands. What are they really doing when they disappear into the bush each day?"
It so happened that the one woman whose husband did give her meat came to the meeting with the other women. She was pleased to have such a loving husband, and she did not want to get him in trouble: but she was also angry at the way other men treated their wives. So she told them everything she knew -- namely that the other men were not unlucky (which is what they told their wives when they came home empty handed). Instead they were always successful. The problem was that, with one exception, they were selfish and greedy.
Well, when they heard this the women got angry, as you might expect: to think that their husbands had been cheating them for years! They were fair-minded though (unlike the men) and they wanted to check the woman's story first. What she said made sense: but they were prepared to consider their husbands innocent until proven guilty.
So they went to an old woman who lived on the outskirts of the village, to ask for her advice and help. Her husband had died long ago, so she had no direct interest in the matter which now concerned the other women. However, she had magical powers -- I guess you would call her a witch -- so she knew what to do. She offered to change the women into flying foxes so they could fly to the hunting grounds and spy on their husbands -- what people today call "aerial surveillance”!
The next day, after the men had left to go hunting, their wives hurried to the house of the old woman, where they were all turned into flying foxes -- except for the woman whose husband always gave her meat. After all, she knew what the men were doing.
With much squeaking and flapping of wings the women then took off and flew away in the direction of the hunting grounds to which the men were headed. When they got close to them they took special care, to make sure none of the flying foxes was shot down by an arrow from the men below. Instead they hid in the trees and watched: and they saw everything. The men had killed a pig, a cassowary and a possum and they were stuffing the meat into their faces as fast as they could. It was sickening! And, goodness me, were those women mad!
So they flew home and waited patiently for their husbands to return. As usual they brought no meat with them and were full of excuses: only this time it didn't work -- for the women knew what their husbands had been doing. And boy did they have a row! The women told their husbands exactly what they thought of them. In future the men had better make sure they always brought meat home: and, since women clearly needed to control the food supply, they would look after the men's gardens while their husbands looked after the house and the children.
The men did not like this at all, but there was nothing they could do about it now that their greedy and selfish habits had been exposed. They knew they could no longer hide in the forest feasting on meat. They would need to keep moving, searching for food to keep their wives happy, and for wood to repair their houses. And between times they would have to care for the children. They'd have no chance now to sit still for long, so they called themselves "Sawos" -- which means "nomads" -- because they were always on the go.
This explains why the people who live around Torembi today are called "Sawos". It's the name of our tribe. It also explains why to this day men build the houses here and help care for children. And it is also the reason why flying foxes sometimes feast on crops growing in the gardens which belong to the men-- it is their wives in disguise, making sure they get a fair share of the food this time!
11. Why Dogs Cannot Talk
Long time ago at Torembi dogs used to talk like human beings: they all did. After all, dogs are supposed to be man's best friend and what's the use of a friend who cannot talk to you? As you'd expect they had gruff voices, as if they were barking: but they spoke clearly nevertheless. At least they did for a while -- till they made one fatal mistake.
The people then worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, as many still do. They believed that it was through men that ancestors spoke, not women. Wives were expected to listen to what their husbands told them about the wishes of their ancestors. Many great secrets were entrusted to men; and the special artefacts used in religious ceremonies were kept in the Men's House -- which is also known as the Spirit House or Haus Tambaran. These included magic flutes together with the great masks worn on special occasions by men who were possessed by the sprits of their ancestors. These masks had painted heads and long skirts of leaves, so that no one knew who or what was inside them when the spirits revealed themselves during ceremonies beyond the walls of the Spirit House. In fact the masks were so very special, so sacred, that anyone who saw what was inside the mask was certain to die, or would at least be severely punished by the spirit whose secrets had been exposed.
All that I'm saying is an introduction to what follows -- because you have to understand how precious were the secrets of the Spirit House and how important it was to protect them.
Women, needless to say, were never allowed inside a Haus Tambaran; and even today the Spirit House is closed to them: it's for men only, for they alone have been entrusted (so they believe) with the necessary religious understanding. And to add insult to injury, though women were excluded dogs were allowed inside. They saw everything that went on there in secret and they talked about it among themselves -- until that fateful day I referred to earlier.
What happened was this. The men were spending so much time in the Spirit House, playing on their flutes and drums and caring for the spirit masks, that they ceased to help their wives in the garden. And the women complained about this bitterly. "Our husbands are always at the Men's House" they said. "What on earth are they doing there? What is keeping them from their gardens?"
However, although they might ask questions like this, they could not answer them. Their husbands were never going to tell them what went on inside the Haus Tambaran; and if the women themselves looked inside they knew they would die -- or something just as terrible would happen to them.
One day, though, one of the women had an idea: it was true that she could not look inside, but the dogs could: and maybe they could be persuaded to talk. You can guess how, for dogs are as hungry in Papua New Guinea as they are in your country. Remember, too, that dogs could talk to people in those days.
Her dog had returned hungry. It had been with the men all day, but they had been too busy to look for food in the forest so there was nothing to eat in the Haus Tambaran and the dog was starving. It pleaded with the woman for food: anything would do. It didn't have to be meat: even a sago pancake would help.
The woman refused to feed him at first: she waited till he was desperate. Then she bargained with him: if he would tell her the secrets of the Haus Tambaran, and what the men did with those spirit masks, she would feed him.
What was he to do? The poor dog was terribly hungry and here was a woman offering him food in return for information. So he told her all the things he'd seen.
You can guess what happened next. The spirits were angry. The dogs had to punished. They were not put to death as you know, because there are hundreds of them in the village still. Instead, because they had shown themselves to be untrustworthy and unable to keep secrets, they were silenced once and for all. Henceforth they could bark and growl, and even snarl, but they would never be able to talk again. Women could still feed them, but dogs would never again be in a position to tell them the secrets of the Men's House.
That is why to this day dogs sleep beside the fire in the Men's House and never say anything; why they are fed by women who never get to see inside a Haus Tambaran; why women complain about husbands who are never home; and why men guard the secrets entrusted to them by their ancestors.Editorial Note: The man who shared this story with me added a short postscript: "I won't even tell the secrets today. Hope you don't mind. Not for kids."
12. Why it Does Not Rain All the Time
How would you like to live in a place where it never stopped raining? I'm sure you would hate it. Well that's what it was like at Torembi a long time ago. It rained continually. It rained all day long and throughout the night. Day after day, night after night. It simply would not stop. It poured down without a break.
Can you imagine what it was like? The floors of the houses were above water level, as they were built on stumps just as they are today, but everything inside was soaking wet. The mats on which the people slept were horribly soggy and so were their clothes: their grass skirts were damp and mouldy and they smelt terrible -- as if they were rotting away!
Worse still there was no dry land for vegetable gardens, so people were unable to plant crops in those days. Instead they lived on fish. There were fish everywhere of course: and people ate them day after day ... fish, fish, and more fish. This may seem appetizing to you, if you're a person who likes fish; but believe me it got to be terribly boring after a while. And remember, with water covering the land there was no firewood to be had then; so the fish was eaten raw, day after day.
Eventually, though, the people decided they'd had enough: something had to be done to stop the rain. So, as you 'd expect in New Guinea, they called a meeting to discuss the situation. They needed to share ideas and decide on a course of action which would give them relief from incessant downpours. The problem was, nobody knew what to do -- none of the men could think of anything that would work: and though the women also wracked their brains they could not suggest anything either. They talked and they talked, all day and all night, but they felt helpless. No one had a solution to offer -- that is until they involved the animals. For the people were so desperate they sought help from their furry and feathered friends.
The noisy parrot then stood up and announced to everyone present that he, being the most colourful, and the most intelligent creature present, and having the sweetest of voices could solve the problem in no time at all. He could stop the rain easily. The rain had not bothered him much personally as he could fly above the water, but he was willing to help the people of the village.
However, they would have to do something for him in return. He was getting on in years, and was not as fit as he once was. So he wanted someone to look after him in his old age. If someone was prepared to care for him and feed him, and provide him with a warm perch on which to roost at night, he would perform the miracle required. In short, if someone could guarantee him a life of luxury he would use his special powers to drive away the clouds.
People were a bit apprehensive: they knew how much the parrot ate and how noisy he could be at times. But they were fed up with the rain, and after a minute or two's thought, one man in the crowd volunteered. He gave his word: if the parrot could stop the rain he would care for him -- regardless of how hungry, or lazy or noisy he was. It would be worth it to have dry weather for a change.
The parrot liked this idea. It sounded good to him. His life henceforth would be one long picnic. And all he had to do was stop the rain. That would be easy. With a cry of joy he took off and flew across the flooded forest to the far side of the jungle. As he flew he sang, at least he sang as sweetly as a parrot can: "squawked" and "screamed" would be a better way to describe the sound he made. And sure enough, the clouds were torn apart by the noise. Blue sky appeared. And the rain stopped -- for a while.
This explains why to this day, although it rains much of the time, there are days when the clouds break up and the sun shines. It also explains why you may sometimes see a parrot in the village living a life of luxury: for he has earned it.
13. A Champion Fisherman
Long time ago near Torembi there lived a man called Gawi who was a great fisherman. His success was spectacular, and his skill incredible, or so it seemed. He returned home always with baskets stuffed with the finest fish imaginable. None of the other men in the village was anywhere near as successful: all they could catch was a few small fish after several hours’ effort. They were jealous of Gawi, and longed to discover his secret: but like most men he always fished on his own. No one knew his favourite fishing holes nor did they know how he managed to catch so many fish.
However, one man in the village was determined to find out what was going on. He was a cousin of Gawi's and he was tired of his wife complaining about how few fish he caught when Gawi's wife had plenty to cook. One day, therefore, he kept a close watch on his cousin, and when Gawi left the village and headed for the riverbank on his own (carrying very little equipment I might add) his cousin followed him -- keeping to the shadows.
When Gawi got to the river he took the path which followed the bank of the stream till he reached a point some distance from the village, beyond a bend in the river, where he could not be seen -- or so he thought. His cousin was actually hiding in the bush, a short distance away, and he could see everything.
Gawi then looked all around him, as he always did, to make sure no one was watching -- the way people do when they have something to hide. Confident that he was alone he then took off his head and walked out into deep water, where he stood for a short time in the middle of the river.
His cousin was amazed, of course: but then something even stranger happened. Crowds of fish jumped down the man's throat -- or what passed for a throat now that his head had been removed to make more room. Large fish and small fish, and prawns too, soon filled up his stomach, right up to his neck. It was really weird. They seemed drawn by magic to Gawi's headless body.
Gawi then walked back to the riverbank -- slowly this time, because he was carrying a heavy load inside his stomach. Headless still, he then leant over and poured the fish into his basket-- lots and lots of them. Next he put his head on again and set off home, confident as usual that no one had seen him.
As you now know, though, he was wrong; for his cousin had seen everything, and he ran home (having no fish to carry). He got there ahead of Gawi and told everyone what he had seen. He explained to his wife that she had been unfair in comparing him with Gawi for the latter was some sort of witch, and did not fish in the usual way. He told his neighbours too; and he told the village “big man”.
Everyone was angry with Gawi for the way he had tricked them and made them feel stupid in comparison. And when he, too, returned to the village, laden with fish, some men wanted to kill him. They were angry with him, and they were afraid of him, for he clearly had special powers.
But the big man intervened to save Gawi. He said that it made no sense to kill a champion fisherman. It made more sense to learn from him, and fish in the same way. He said: "Remember what you were told when you were growing up -- use your head! Well, now is your chance!" Thereafter all the men fished in the same way as Gawi, with similar success. And everyone was happy, especially their wives.
This explains why to this day fishermen are always coy concerning the secret of their success. You can if you wish search the river bank for headless men filling their stomachs with fish: but you are unlikely to see any because fishermen like to work in secret. They never tell you where the best fishing holes are, nor will they tell you what bait they use. These are trade secrets. If everyone knew how it was done there would be no fish left!
14. A Family of Ghosts
Long time ago near Torembi there lived a father, a mother and their baby son. They lived in a house all by themselves in the middle of the forest, close to a river. It was a nice new house, which the man had built for his wife after their marriage. And it was a good place to live, in many ways. There was land for gardens close by, plenty of sago in the swamp, and fish in the river.
However, it was a lonely place with long shadows, and strange noises which no one could explain. This was something that the baby felt instinctively, for every afternoon it was bothered by a ghost that lived in the forest nearby. When this happened the baby would cry for hours. It was too scared to sleep.
No one, of course, likes to hear a baby crying all the time: but there is also a limit to what most people will do in return for peace and quiet. And it is usually good to think before you do anything. Better still, find the cause of the disturbance before you do something you may regret later.
One afternoon, however, while the mother was feeding the baby inside the house, it was troubled by the ghost and started to howl. Neither of the adults felt this special "presence" but the baby was terrified. It cried it s eyes out. In fact it howled so loudly that the man lost his temper. He was so annoyed that he ordered his wife to take the baby outside and leave it there, and then come in and eat dinner with him. The woman knew that if her husband got really angry he would beat her, so she did as she was told. She left the baby outside, in the shade of a tree and went inside to eat with her husband. They had sago pancakes and a few vegetables.
When they had finished eating she went outside to check on the baby. The crying had ceased some time ago and she was keen to discover why. She found out soon enough -- the child had disappeared! It was not at the place she left it: in fact it was nowhere to be seen. The woman was panic-stricken, and searched every part of the clearing which surrounded the house. She looked in hollow logs and behind bushes. She peered up into tall trees and she even checked the onion patch -- which had been fenced to keep out pigs. But her baby was nowhere to be seen. It had vanished into thin air. The ghost which caused all this trouble had snatched up the baby as soon as it was put out of the house, and had carried it away to a cave deep in the forest.
As you would expect both parents were greatly distressed. The father felt particularly guilty, since it was because of him that the baby had been put outside. He was ashamed of his impatience and his selfishness. The baby's mother also felt terrible. She knew she should have stood up to her husband, or found some other way to quieten the baby. They both realized now that something had been troubling the child, something supernatural may be: and they suspected that if they had been a little more sensitive to spiritual things this would never have happened.
Years passed. Whenever they went outside, and wherever they went, the man and his wife kept a look out for their baby: but he was never seen again. They continued to live alone in the forest. They were so full of grief they had no more children: they missed their first little boy too much: and, having failed as parents the first time around, they dared not try again.
Eventually the child's mother died of a broken heart, for it was filled to overflowing with sadness. And her husband died a short while later. He was alone in the world, with no one to love, and life had lost all meaning. He faded away to nothing, and was buried by his friends beside his wife, at the edge of the forest.
It's a sad story, of course: but it does not end there, for when the mother died the ghost took her to live with him, and he did the same when her husband died. So the story has a happy ending after all -- for the mother and the father and the baby with whom I began this story, were brought together again as a family of ghosts living deep in the forest. And they are still there -- in the area beyond the gardens where the trees are never cleared for cropping, and where the spirits of our ancestors can live undisturbed.
15. Traditional Razor Blades
Long time ago the men of the Sawos tribe at Torembi knew nothing of shaving. They had long beards, all of them, though some were black and some were grey. How they looked was of no concern to them as they had no mirrors in those days, and no one had any idea what he looked like.
One day, however, a man named Jubuigil was clearing bush for a new garden in the forest and was working with a bamboo knife. (It's easy to make a knife from bamboo, and you can even harden it in the fire so it can be used to cut more bamboo.) Well, while Jubuigil was working away busily in the forest, slashing at the undergrowth, his knife bounced off a branch and actually shaved off part of his beard. He had no idea what he had done, as he had not cut himself, just the beard: and he carried on working.
An hour or so later, however, he left his garden and walked to small creek nearby. He needed a drink; and he also wished to cool off by splashing himself with water. However, as he knelt on the riverbank and lowered his face towards the surface of the stream he got the fright of his life. He saw someone looking at him from the water, someone who had a long beard with bare patch from which the hair had been removed. Suddenly he realized that he was looking at himself, at his reflection in the water, and that bare patch must have appeared when his knife had slipped that time when it bounced off the tree. He had shaved himself by accident -- at least he had in part.
Having made so great a discovery he thought he should complete the job he had begun. So he picked up another sharp piece of bamboo and shaved off his beard, all of it. Originally it had reached halfway down his chest, and was grey around the edges: but now this grey hair lay on the river bank, and he felt a new man -- for when he looked at his reflection in the crystal clear waters of the stream he saw the face of a teenager -- a boy of 16. He was really handsome!
He rushed off home to show his wife. She did not recognize him at first: nor did his neighbours. He seemed so much younger and so much better looking. Even his neighbour's wife found him attractive -- which was of great concern to her husband, and also to Jubuigil's wife!
When he told everyone what he had done the men of the village called a meeting to discuss the issue. It was a serious matter: you couldn't have tribal elders running around with young mens' faces, while their neighbours looked much older! There were bound to be problems. So the men chose to follow his example. They all shaved off their beards -- so none of them would have an advantage over his neighbour. They all looked a lot younger as a result, and their wives were a lot happier.
From that time on they all shaved using pieces of bamboo, while staring at their reflections in the water. Today, of course, we use razor blades and mirrors, so it's a lot easier. All men shave now -- with one exception. Men in mourning following the death of their wives grew beards. They have lived a long time and no longer think of themselves as young or handsome.
*The man who provided me with the outline on which this story is based, described it not as a "legend" but as an "historical event". Jubuigil was an ancestor of his; and my friend's family name, which is "Tapi", means (so he says)"a sharp piece of bamboo".
16. How the Sawos Got Their Name
Long time ago there were two witches who lived together as man and wife in a village near the Sepik River. They were called Maim and Nako, and the very mention of their names sent shivers down the spines of the decent people who lived nearby. Villagers here would die suddenly for no apparent reason, for Maim and Nako used magic to kill them.
They were not cannibals: they simply got rid of people who annoyed them. If, for example, a neighbour's garden had better crops than their's, he might die without warning. Or if a girl in the village seemed more beautiful than the rest she might disappear in the forest never to be seen again -- though months later her body might be found beneath a tree. At first the people in the village thought these were isolated incidents which happened by chance: but they realized eventually that magic was involved, and that Maim and Nako were witches.
Things reached a point where the villagers decided they'd had enough. Too many people had died, and it was time something was done. So a meeting was called, as is our custom, to discuss the matter and determine an appropriate course of action.
They talked for hours, the men especially, and they decided eventually that the witches should be driven away. Then men would attack the house where the couple lived, and force them to leave and never return. It was a violent solution, of course, but desperate situations call for desperate remedies.
The decided to attack the next day, and the men arrived at the witches' house in the late afternoon. The frightful couple were resting inside, as they had eaten a big lunch -- from a neighbour's pig that had somehow turned up in their yard by magic! The weather was a hot and sticky and both of the witches had simply nodded off.
Because they were resting they did not see the men approach with their spears and their axes and war clubs. So they were taken by surprise and had no time to defend themselves by means of magic: it takes time to cast a spell as you know. The couple had to run for their lives; and the men who drove them from their house then burnt it to the ground. The villagers also killed all the pigs owned by the witches, and destroyed their gardens, their fish traps, their tools and their weapons -- to make sure they would never return.
What happened next was a miracle -- for as the power of the witches was broken those who had been killed by magic were restored to life again. Parents recovered long-lost children and husbands were reunited with wives they thought they'd never see again.
Another wonderful thing happened, too. The witches who fled from the Sepik made a fresh start in a new home in the forest further north, near where Torembi is today. After such a terrifying experience they decided to reform, to turn over a new leaf, and cease killing people. They decided to settle down and live ordinary lives -- scraping sago and growing vegetables, and killing pigs instead of people!
They also chose to start a family: and their children were the original members of the Sawos tribe who live in the area today. "Sawos" means "people of witchcraft, violence and anger". That's not what we are like today, of course, but it does explain where we came from in the beginning -- for we are the descendants of the witches Maim and Nako.
*The man who shared this tale with me described it as a "true story" but noted in a footnote that "the real meaning of Sawos is 'stupid', or 'longlong' in pidgin". Yet another explanation of “Sawos” is presented in “The Flying Foxes of the Sawos”.
17. Story of a Giant
Long time ago there were five brothers who lived alone in a house near Torembi. Their parents had disappeared several years earlier, and the boys looked after themselves. They grew their own vegetables and hunted and fished. They had no idea of their parent's fate but assumed that they must be dead by now.
They had been killed by a giant who lived some distance from the village; but the boys did not know this until much later. The giant used to lure people away from their homes and kill them. Giants have to be fed, like anyone else: but unlike the rest of us they eat people -- tender young children if they are available, otherwise young men and women like those boys’ parents. Old people must be too tough to eat.
One day the oldest of the five brothers was hunting deep in the forest, where he had never been before. The trees were tall and the ground beneath was shaded, so that he moved carefully beneath the great vines that hung from the branches above. It was cool and damp here and there was a spring of fresh water and a small stream. And, much to his surprise, there was a cave here too: and all around the entrance of the cave there were bones, many of them now covered with moss. Among them were many human skulls, so the young man knew that these were the bones of men and women -- and that he had by accident stumbled upon the cave of a monster. "Who knows", he said to himself, this may be where my parents died long ago."
So the young man beat a hasty retreat. Moving very, very quietly, so as not to disturb the creature in the cave he withdrew to the edge of the clearing and ran home as fast as he could -- stopping from time to time to ensure that the monster was not following him.
When he got home he told his brothers what he had seen, and what it might mean -- that this might be why their parents had disappeared mysteriously. They were all brave young men and angry at the idea that this creature, whatever it was, could have killed their mum and dad. So they agreed to accompany their brother on his return to the cave the next day -- always providing he could find his way back.
He was sure he knew the way, and so the five of them set off early the next morning and headed in the direction of the cave. They were armed to the teeth, with spears and spear-throwers, plus bows and arrows: and they moved forward carefully, to make sure they did not meet the same fate as their parents.
When they reached the small clearing in which the cave was situated they hid in the shadows and behind tree trunks -- many of which had great buttresses -- and they waited. But they did not have to wait long, for the ground soon shook around the entrance to the cave, and the air was torn asunder by a terrible howl as the creature emerged. It wasn't an animal; none of the usual monsters you hear about. It was a horrible giant, tall and ugly. He was four metres in height, and covered with body hair (which was terribly dirty) and he had only one eye -- in the middle of his forehead.
Most men would have run away when faced with such a frightful creature, but the oldest of the brothers jumped out from behind a tree and threw his spear. He did so with every ounce of strength he could muster; and the spear reached its target -- hitting the giant in the shoulder. He was taken by surprise, and before he could defend himself each of the other brothers ran forward and speared him also.
The brothers were shaking in their boots as they stood there beside the giant's body. He sighed gently as he died, and the brothers buried him beside the cave -- with great difficulty, as he was twice the size of a normal man.
As they turned to leave they heard a strange rattling sound as the old bones which were scattered around started to move. The giant had been slain and his power destroyed, so the people he had eaten came back to life. Heads were joined to necks and arms and legs were joined once again to their bodies. Finally their flesh was restored and the people whom the giant had killed came to life again. Among them were the mother and father of the five brothers who had killed the giant -- so the family was brought together again and, with a whole crowd of people who'd been rescued, they returned to their village singing.
18. A True Story of Witchcraft
This is a story about witchcraft, of a woman who made a magic image of herself. One day this woman went by herself to scrape sago in the heart of the swamp. She needed food for her family, especially for her husband -- who would beat her if she did not feed him properly. When she had finished scraping she took her scraper, her sago bilum, and the coconut husk used in washing the sago, and she cast a spell over them. She commanded them to form themselves into a replica of herself -- into a person like her in every detail -- so like her that no one would ever be able to tell them apart.
Leaving behind in the swamp this ghostly reproduction of herself, she retuned to the village to collect her husband, to teach him a lesson. When they reached the place where his wife had been working the husband was confronted by the ghost of his wife. He didn't know what to do: the ghost and his wife were identical: he could not tell which was which. They were so very much alike.
His wife then pointed to the ghost of herself and told her husband to kick it. The moment he did so, the moment he struck the ghost, the spell was broken. The scraper, and the bilum and the coconut husk resumed their normal from. They collapsed in a heap on the ground in front of him.
Needless to say the husband was terrified: and he never hit his wife again.
(Editor: this is what I was told, anyway!)
Text, photos and recordings by John Tyman
Intended for Educational Use Only.
Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, 2008.
Contact Dr. John Tyman for more information regarding licensing.