- The Haus Tambaran of Bongiora: A View from Within of the Tambaran and Yam Cults of the Abelam in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea by Godfried Johan Marie Gerrits
The origins of The Haus Tambaran of Bongiora are arresting. Between 1972 and 1977, Godfried Gerrits was a doctor and the provincial officer for leprosy and tuberculosis control at the hospital at Maprik Town in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). In early 1973, people from Bongiora village, a few miles to the northwest of Maprik, offered to sell him some carvings associated with a korombo (haus tambaran in Tok Pisin) that had been built in Bongiora in 1965. In 1972, these carvings had been used in the Utmandji and Kimbi male initiation sequences, and in offering the remnants to Gerrits, Bongiora people appear to have been hoping for a novel recycling of their art production. Instead, Gerrits negotiated a deal through which they would reconstruct and restore the two initiation chambers involved in the 1972 initiations. Subsequently, he had these reconstructions removed to European museums: the Putilaga chamber, in which the Kimbi sequence was staged, went to the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, and the Lungwallndu chamber, used for the Utmandji stage, to the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. Anyone who has been fortunate to see either of these truly breathtaking displays will know how indebted we are to Gerrits for his efforts in documenting Abelam culture.
Following an introduction, the book’s second chapter provides an extremely detailed description of the Bongiora korombo, which was still standing and in relatively good condition in 1973. As many readers will know, the Abelam became famous for these remarkable structures. Their enormous, cantilevered facades, painted with row upon row of looming, ritual faces, constitute a civil engineering triumph and, together with the profusion of other graphic and plastic art that adorned them, an exemplar of just how spectacular artistic production can be in small-scale societies.
The greater part of the book, though, is taken up by the topics mentioned in the subtitle—the initiation sequence associated with the Abelam Tambaran and yam cults, both of [End Page 574] which had their ritual “eye,” so to speak, in the haus tambaran. Abelam initiation sequences were some of the most elaborate in New Guinea. Based largely on participant accounts, supplemented with some firsthand observation, chapters 3 and 4 describe each stage of the sequence as it was conducted in and around Bongiora. Exceptionally close attention is paid to the Utmandji and Kimbi stages that were conducted in the Lungwallndu and Putilaga chambers, respectively. The Abelam were also famous for producing exceptionally long yams. Chapter 5, billed as a “brief summary” of long yam cultivation and the yam cult, is in reality a detailed description of both.
Gerrits is not an anthropologist and makes no attempt to analyze the data he furnishes. His aim is “purely” ethnographic, an extended and detailed description. In chapter 6, however, he does attempt a quasi-theoretical point, arguing that the urungwall represented “the tangent plane where the Tambaran and the Yam Cult intersect” (368). Materially, the urungwall were referred to as the “backbone” of the haus tambaran (281), three- to fourfoot-long, carved wooden cylinders that served as resonant cavities for bamboo trumpets. On a spiritual plane, they produced the uncanny voice of the ngwallndu—the so-called Tambaran spirits. The notion that the ngwallndu are intimately involved in both the initiation and yam cult is hardly new, but Gerrits provides a quite comprehensive account of the evidence connecting them.
One cannot help but be impressed by the sheer volume of data that Gerrits presents in this volume. His textual descriptions are meticulous, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, and they are complemented by an extraordinary range of photographs (some...