Kastom is a Tok Pisin word that is used throughout PNG to refer to traditional customs, activities, beliefs, and values.
In Lihir, when people talk about kastom, they are generally referring to the series of feasts that celebrate the lives of different clan members. These events often include the exchange pigs, shell money (a le, or mis in Tok Pisin), garden produce, cash, and traditional dance performances. Through these exchanges individuals and groups form complex and enduring relationships with one another.
These events are very important to Lihirian society. They help to bring people together to create and maintain social unity; they are an expression of Lihirian identity; they provide a key way for men to achieve or display their leadership within the clan; they are crucial to the transfer of land and other resources between generations and groups; and they form the basis of the traditional ceremonial exchange economy.
The host group will often rely upon assistance from clan members and other allied clans. Assistance that is given in the form of pigs, shell money, garden produce, or cash must be reciprocated, or returned, at a later date in similar feasts. In this way individuals and groups become mutually indebted, or obligated to one another through traditional forms of exchange.
There are over twenty different custom feasts in Lihir, all of which celebrate different stages in the life-cycle. Some of the more important feasts include:
Katip siasie – this small feast symbolises the cutting (katip) or removal of the grass breast covering (siasie) traditionally worn by women. This signals that they are pregnant for the first time.
Kale kiak daldal – this feast is held to symbolically wash the new born child and clean the mother’s blood (daldal) from the child so that her brothers are now free to hold the child.
Kapit kah – this feast marks the first hair cutting ceremony for the first born child signalling their importance within the clan.
Minakuets – the marriage feast that include the exchange of bride wealth between the two clans of the new couple.
Rarhum – the sacred men’s feast held in the men’s house in honour of an older clan member when they begin to lose their teeth. This signals their decline towards death, and also marks them as people of status. This is a highly significant feast for members of the men’s house. This feast carries many taboos; for instance, guests are expected to remain quiet and show great respect throughout the event, and all of the pork that is cooked for the feast must be consumed within the confines of the men’s house.
Katkatop (also known as Pkepke on the outer islands) – this is the first major funeral, or mortuary feast, usually held not long after a clan member has died. This is a sombre feast. Traditional rangen songs are sung to accompany the spirit or soul of the deceased to the afterlife, which is reached through the Ailaya rock. This feast will be attended by many clans who come to pay their respect to the deceased. The exchange of pigs and shell money in this feast are highly relevant to transfer of clan leadership, land and other resources.
Tutunkanut (‘cooking the deceased’) – this is the final large-scale funeral, or mortuary feast. It is the pinnacle moment in the feasting cycle. This event is attended by many clans who come pay their final respects to the deceased. It may be held several years after a person has died, and it will often celebrate the lives of several deceased clan members.
Different clan groups will exchange of great amounts of wealth (pigs and shell money and cash). Some of these exchanges repay existing debts from previous feasts, while other exchanges set up new cycles of reciprocity. These groups will also bring colourful dance performances, which must also be reciprocated, or returned at later feasts.
The climax of the event is called Rohriahat. At this moment clan members and allies mount a specially prepared stage and announce their assistance for the feast (rohri – to walk; ahat – the stage structure). Traditionally a special round men’s house called a balo was constructed and men would mount this to make their announcement (called Rohiabalo).
Generally this announcement will take three forms: tele (help that is given to another person that will later be returned); yehbi (putting out the fire, a metaphor for paying off outstanding debts); or saksak (which similarly means to pay back shell money that has been given previously). At this point they may also call upon the name of their clan spirit, or tandal, as a demonstration of the power of their clan.
(Courtesy of Nick Bainton)