Chapter 6: Disaster in Kwangen

Kwangen is a Sausa- or Boikin-speaking village like Walanduom. It sits on a ridge with lands on both sides of the Banak river, Banagi Worɨb or Panangi Pa.1 It is northeast of Wautogig. Kwangen village is part of the Rohwim alliance, which takes its name from a species of poisonous snake.2 It shares common borders with the villages of Bogumatai, Banak, Hogi, and Walanduom. Banak village was considered unfriendly to Kwangen in those ancient times.

Banak village was considered unfriendly to Kwangen in those ancient times. The Banaks belong to the Cemaun alliance, which is named after the shark. As such, Banak is an ally of Dogur, But, and Wautogig villages, whereas Bogumatai is Rohwim.3 Yet the language of Bogumatai people is Buki or Arapesh. Bogumatai was an ally of Kwangen, sharing common boundaries with Kwangen, Kotai, Banak, and Dogur. Since Wautogig has been established as an independent political entity Bogumatai now shares common boundaries with Wautogig. Dogur was a friend of Kotai and eventually became a friend of Wautogig. But Dogur was an enemy of Bogumatai and Kwangen.

Kwangen also shares common boundaries with Kumunduo and with Baram.4 Kwangen was always a small village, yet it had some ferocious warriors who supported Bogumatai in warfare.

The events I am about to relate, which occurred in Kwangen and subsequently in Banak, would have a profound impact on the future of Wautogig. These events are determined partly by fate and partly through human actions and decisions.

According to oral tradition, a tragedy struck Ɲawia, the main hamlet of Kwangen. A hunter by the name of Meliawi went out hunting with his dog whose name is not known. His dog smelled an animal and chased after it. The animal was a gigantic, monster lizard known as giwo in the Boikin language. The Arapesh call it dumah. Meliawi chased after it and killed it.

As soon as the lizard was killed, there was stillness. The entire universe stood still. The earth shook and dark rain clouds appeared. Thunder roared, lightning flashed, and a torrential rain poured down.

Out of fear and confusion, Meliawi and his dog crawled into a stone cave and took cover. As they peeked out, they saw a tall, pale figure with long dark hair falling down its shoulders.

In the voice of thunder and through the sounds of wind and rain the hunter heard the voice of the masalai, the spirit Waləbələb, saying, “Who killed my dog? Why did you kill my dog?”

Meliawi knew then that the monster lizard he had killed was the masalai’s pet dog. He did not reply. The masalai struck the rock where Meliawi was hiding, but he was unable to penetrate the rock. As he retreated, he called out in anger.

“You go to your village and tell your people to dance and enjoy themselves. Tell men and women to produce their last children. We will visit you tonight and dance with you. The lizard you killed was not a lizard. It was my favorite dog.” The masalai struck the rock again, but he could not reach Meliawi. Eventually the masalai left.

When the rains cleared Meliawi walked out of the cave with his dog and made for Kwangen, leaving behind the lizard prey. As he approached the village, he fell unconscious. He was found on the ground just outside the village.

Some villagers picked him up. They bathed him with a medicinal brew made from boiled calat (Tok Pisin ‘nettle’) leaves and stems and gave him some to drink. When he regained consciousness, he told the villagers of his encounter with the masalai and what the masalai told him to do.

When the people heard this story, they were completely shaken. There was nothing they could do. So they beat the garamuts with disaster signals and prepared to hold a big singsing that evening.

When evening came, as fate determined, everyone gathered and began the singsing with a clear starry night. Everyone was dancing except for one woman: the wife of Meliawi, the hunter who had killed the masalai’s lizard-dog. She was confined to the cokwet, a special house that only women could enter. She was going through her monthly menstrual period. By the laws of the people, she had to spend two days in the cokwet in seclusion.

As the singing continued, the bright starry night changed. There was stillness in the air. Clouds formed up and covered the moon. There was darkness. Suddenly, the masalai struck. Thunder roared across the village without lighting for warning. Next came bright flashes of lightning, illuminating the village. The masalai demon god struck again and again. Each time he did so, he killed some people and burnt some houses. Fearing for his life, Meliawi fled into the cokwet and huddled there alongside his wife.

The masalai killed everyone. The flashes of lightning were the masalai’s torches and the thunderclaps were his axe falls. The masalai came to the cokwet, raised his lightning torch and struck the house with his thunderbolt axe. The axe came loose and fell into Meliawi’s wife’s lap. She picked it up and sat on it.

Immediately, her feminine blood cooled the masalai’s power and numbed his force. The masalai called out in Boikin language: Unəndo kunkun, unəndə tapa ‘My axe, axe, my adze, adze’. Meliawi encouraged his wife not to surrender the axe. The masalai’s powers soon dissipated, and he left.

As darkness gave way to dawn, early morning birds sang and stray dogs howled. There was no human voice, no coughing, no sneezing, no yawning, no baby crying, no laughter. Death hovered over all of Kwangen and hung in every treetop. Meliawi and his wife felt pain and sorrow. Everyone had been murdered by the masalai.

Meliawi’s wife, we are told, came from Banak village on the coast, north of Kwangen where the Banak river discharges into the sea. We do not know her name. She and Meliawi were the sole survivors of the disaster.

Without much talk Meliawi and his wife gathered up what they could of the items of value that remained: wooden bowls and earthenware, some kəburip shell money rings, bilums, dogs’ teeth, pigs’ tusks, grass reed baskets, spears, bows and arrows, and sago-making equipment. Then they made their way to Banak.

Banak village lies on the coastline between Dogur village to the west and the village of Kwohi (in Arapesh) or Hogi (in Boikin) village to the east. To the northeast beyond the shoreline are Unai, Karasau, Yuwo, Mushu, and Kairiru islands. To the northwest, beyond the Dogur-But-Sowom shorelines, are the islands of Walis and Tarawai.

It was on Banak land that Meliawi and his wife made a new home.5 A son, whose name is not known, was born to the two, but then the mother died. While Meliawi’s wife was alive, her brothers were good to her and her husband. They gave them sago and land to garden. But as soon as she died, they changed and became cruel. They gave only small parcels of sago to Meliawi and his son. They gave them no land on which to plant gardens.

One day, Meliawi complained. He told his brothers-in-law that they were greedy and they should give generously to their nephew. These words annoyed the brothers-in-law and they decided to get even with Meliawi. They informed Meliawi that they would go into the sago swamp and work the biggest sago for their nephew.

On the appointed day, Meliawi’s son and his uncles made for the sago swamps. They felled a large sago palm. They split it open, beat the sago fibre into fine sawdust-like powder, washed it, and allowed the starch to deposit in a large limbum container of water. The starch built up to a fine heap. They poured out the water which was light leaving the sago starch behind. The uncles then told Meliawi’s son to go into the bush and collect leaves and strings for them to wrap the sago for him. The uncles then told Meliawi’s son to go into the bush and collect leaves and strings for them to wrap the sago for him.

While the boy was in the bush, the uncles hurriedly collected young sago leaves. They found a large boulder, lightly covered it with a thin paste of sago, and then wrapped the stone in leaves. They stood it up to be admired. Soon their nephew returned from the bush heavily laden with the leaves and vines he had collected to parcel the sago.

They scolded the boy when he came out of the bush. “Why were you slow? We waited a long time for you. Your father often complains we do not give you enough sago. Today is your day. Come and pick up the sago and carry it to the village. Tell your father not to complain again.”

The boy stepped forward to pick up the sago parcel. But it was too heavy for him as he was just a young boy. So the boy’s uncles carried the sago parcel to the village and laid the weight to rest at Meliawi’s house.

Meliawi was pleased and he made his feelings known. “Ohoi, my inlaws. Your sister has died. I thought you had forgotten her. But it is not correct. You have been kind to us.”

With a sense of excitement Meliawi boiled water, cooked some coarse tree leaf vegetables known as kombi in Tok Pisin or agɨs in Arapesh and prepared to make sago jelly. He picked up his cassowary dagger and proceeded to cut open the sago.

As soon as he struck the sago, his dagger slipped off the rock and almost stabbed his own leg. He tried again and he the same thing happened. He unwrapped the bundle of sago and found solid rock thinly pasted with light sago patches. He cried and threw the rock out of his house. Fear gripped Meliawi, and he cried before his young son.


1 Banagi Worɨb is the Arapesh name. Panangi Pa is the Bokin name. Listen.

2 The name of the alliance is not the same as the name of the snake. Listen.

3 There is disagreement about But being a Cemaun village. Semaɲ is said to be Cemaun, but not But. Listen.

4 Baram is the name of a Walanduom clan. Listen.

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