Words by Moale James Photography by Ranu James
Living in Australia as a mixed-race Papua New Guinean-Australian certainly has its difficulties. It can sometimes be like a tug of war, only I’m the knot in the middle, where both cultures are forcing me to come to one side. However, I strive to show my mixed culture through my speech, actions and dress.
My first bilum was woven by my Bubu Kiri when I was first born. In PNG, babies are placed inside bilums and swung by various members of their family while singing traditional lullabies. As a baby I had various family members, both Papuan and Australian, who would sing me to sleep in Motu and English, while rocking me in the bilum.
I’ve only realised now how significant the bilum has been in connecting both cultures. Even the simple task of putting a baby to sleep has allowed both cultures to work together and learn from each other. I now have Australian family members who use bilums for their own children. Having my Australian and PNG family swinging me to sleep shows that two cultures can be a part of each other’s traditional practices and work together in harmony for a greater purpose.
A bilum is a traditional PNG ‘handbag’, as many would refer to it, and is the perfect example of how I as a ‘Zebra’ show pride in both cultures. Crafted by the hands of Bubus (grandmothers), Mothers, Aunties and Sisters, the bilum is a symbol of life for many Papuans. In particular, a bilum is a symbol of Papuan women – their lives, their strength and their stories.
Motuans often use a phrase to describe a woman as the ‘work beast’ of her family. The term ‘Bilum Mama’ describes these women. Mama is not a regular modern-day woman – she is an artist, warrior and source of comfort.
Bilum Mama lives in a small village, working under minimal light. Water rushes onto the shore, palm trees swing in the wind, while drunkard lullabies enter the night.
Weaving her bilum, her hands have felt more pain than a regular modern-day woman. Her hands are a sign of strength and wisdom, creating a product of identity and inspiration for men, women and children around PNG.
Bilum Mama sits on the dusty floor at the market, selling betel nut, shells, flags and her intricately handwoven bilum. “What a lovely bag,” tourists say as they pass by. Little do they know that her bilum is not just a bag; it’s a story, an expression of creativity and strength.
Mama went on a journey to find a sisal plant before the sun rose and her family awoke. Removing its spikes, she cuts the leaf in half with her bush knife. Her hands begin to sting as she comes into contact with the sap. Protecting her arms and hands, she continues with her work.
As her children run across the platform over the water, she prepares breakfast by making a fire. Her hands are tarnished with wooden splinters and burns from sisal plant sap. Her back aches from the heavy loads she has carried in her bilum from market, to river, and back home. But she doesn’t complain for she has carried out this work since she was a child.
Mama taps the sisal plant with the traditional stone until it becomes white fibre. After placing the fibres in water, she hangs them from her clothesline alongside her tattered meri blouse. Her Bubu taught her how to sew; she is able to repair it, along with her children and husband’s torn clothes. She is a woman of many talents.
As her family eats breakfast, she pulls out her string and begins to roll it on her leg, twisting it back and forth with the palm of her hand in preparation for a new string bag. She knows that she is about to weave a source of comfort for her children and security for a stranger.
Mama was created by an artist. She also is an artist, creating a masterpiece – something unique to be shared with the world. She takes into careful consideration the colours she uses and the patterns she designs. She has been taught unique and specific patterns for her village and her family.
Mama’s tears have fallen onto the string after a beating from her drunk husband. She enjoys the control she finds in creating her bilum. She has placed her body in the path of the oncoming fist to prevent her children from suffering the same abuse as her. She is more than a beast for her family; she is a warrior, and protector of her family.
Mama’s babies have been rocked in a bilum she has made with her own hands. With the sound of her voice and the comfort of her weaving, children fall into a slumber without fear. She is the rock and comfort for her family.
Tourists find the ‘bag’ beautiful – evidence of it being ‘handwoven’ adds uniqueness to the product. When they depart this country and return to where they have come from those who understand the uniqueness of the bilum will see it and recognise it, and may even compliment them with, “Nice bilum.” However, unless they approach the artist herself, and have a conversation with her, they may never fully appreciate that this bag holds more value and uniqueness than any machine-woven product they find in their own country. The hands that have made this bag are not from just any woman, but an artist, warrior, comforter and provider for her family.
Papua New Guinea has an estimated 2.3 million women; 68% of those women are affected by abuse daily. There is an estimated 21,000 women 15 years old and higher who are HIV-positive. In a country devastated by these shocking statistics, women find strength and expression in weaving bilums. The Mt Hagen Handicraft Group is a grassroots program for HIV-positive Papua New Guinean women. They spend countless hours creating and selling bilums as a source of income for their families. Time spent preparing the thread and weaving the bilums allows women the luxury to reflect on their own lives and their experiences of abuse, while also finding comfort in weaving and being surrounded by women in similar circumstances. Although the above story doesn’t represent every Papuan woman, it reveals some details about Bilum Mamas and Papuan women in the modern world.
Moale Jones is a family orientated, Christian, headstrong, young and confident. “I’m not afraid to speak out against injustice, and will fight for the minority to achieve their best. I’m a mixed-race, Papua New Guinean (Motuan) Australian young woman – AKA a zebra, and proud!”