Archive for the month “October, 2015”

So how come you are the big expert on Bilums?

Ok, I admit it.  I’m a fraud. I’m not as well travelled as the previous blog entries on the Bilum might have suggested.  Most of the information came, not from my own intrepid journeys into the interior of Papua New Guinea, but from a book called Androgenous Objects, by an author called Maureen Mackenzie, which I found in the university library.

So, why, you may ask, was I reading a book on Bilums (or is it Bila?) in the university library?  Good question.  I’m glad you asked.

Divine Word University is very keen that all staff should do some work that could be considered as ‘Community Service”.  Well, my contribution to this has been to work in the local museum, known as the Haus Tambuna.

The museum is housed in an impressive wooden building that is meant to suggest a Haus Tamburan, a mysterious village Men’s House.  Inside the museum there is a wealth of carved wooden figures, large statues representing spirits of various kinds, scary masks for use in village ceremonies or tribal fights, totem poles with weird inscriptions, in fact all kinds of things that would interest a visitor spending the day in Madang having been disgorged from the ample throat of a cruise ship.

There are sections devoted to the German colonialisation of PNG, the Japanese occupation in 1942 and some of the early anthropologists and explorers who started to open up this country to the outside world.

The problem is that the whole exhibition has been put together without taking into consideration the visitor who might want to visit.  Many of the exhibits were not labelled at all and other had labels that were so old and faded that they were no longer legible.

And then there was the section on the Bilum, which consisted of a few pictures of bilums  poached from Wikipedia and then page after page of instructions on how to make, or, more properly, how to loop a billum.  Now, call me old fashioned but I think it is more than a little unlikely that any refugee from a cruise ship, or indeed any dust-encrusted back-packer, who happens to rock up in Sunny Madang, is going to stand in front of a display and learn how to loop a billum.

So I decided to re-do the bilum display. This involved a bit of research in the library and a great deal of fun taking pictures of different people’s bilums.  “Excuse me.  You don’t know me, but would you mind if I took a picture of your Bilum?”  Much to my surprise, no-one slapped my face or called the police.

I then found myself with a sixty pictures of bilums, so the next problem was to find someone who could tell me where the various bilums came from.  This proved remarkably easy.  Every woman, and many of the men I spoke to could distinguish between a bilum from the Highlands or one from the islands. I was not short of advisors.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself having coffee with my good friend Father Garry, who will, in the next few weeks be the subject of a blog entry of his own.  Father Garry has lived in PNG for over forty years and has the stories to prove it.

I was telling him about my billum project and he suddenly disappeared into another room and reappeared with a photo of a group of women wearing bilums, that put all of my pictures to shame.


Father Garry is almost Papua New Guinea’s institutional memory.  What he doesn’t know about the last four decades in PNG is not worth knowing. The picture above was one of a series that were taken by a photograher called Camilla Darwin, (yes, a distant relative), in the 1980s.

Camilla Darwin, now Camilla Loveridge, is  a photographer and visual artist, living in Fremantle, Western Australia. (If you have a minute, look her up on the internet.  It’s worth it.)  Anyway, with my display in mind, and encouraged by Father Garry, I wrote to Camilla Loveridge, explained what I was doing and asked if she had any more pictures that she could send me.

To her credit, and after a considerable time broggling through her records from thirty years ago, she sent me three more photos and gave me permission to show them.

woman with wood     Woman with bilum smiling

Highland group1

All four photos now have pride of place in my display.  If you ever find yourself in Madang, go and have a look.


Bilum, bilum, bilum…

The Bilum:  Much more than just a string bag!

The closest bond between mother and child:


In many parts of Papua New Guinea, as soon as a baby is born, it will be cradled in a bilum.

If the mother needs to go anywhere, she will carry the baby in the bilum on her back or around her neck, keeping the baby safe and secure.

It is not unusual to see a woman walking to market with several bilums on her back containing the vegetables that she is seeking to sell. Sometimes, her baby, safely in its own bilum, will be slung on top of these bags.

When she gets where she is going, if she hangs the bilum from the branch of a convenient tree, the cradle becomes a sort of hammock and the baby can be gently rocked to sleep. 

An item of ceremonial importance:    In some parts of Papua New Guinea, young boys who have passed through the initiation ceremonies into manhood will be given a special string bag by their Kandre, their maternal uncle.  Inside the bag there will be powerful ingredients that are intended to make the young man strong, wise and sexually potent. (I haven’t yet found out what exactly these ingredients are.  Perhaps I am wise enough!)

The Kandre makes all of the important life decisions regarding future of the children in the family, for example, when a boy is ready for initiation or a girl is ready for marriage.  The parents of the child have no right to question the judgement of the Kandre in these matters and the consequences of their doing so can be very severe.  It is said that if the parents defy the wishes of the Kandre, sorcery might be used against them and it is likely that their child will die. (Interestingly, when we were in South Sudan, we learned that the ‘uncle’ within the family had exactly the same power and authority in that society and that the consequences of going against the wishes of the uncle were equally severe)

multi-purpose hall 006

A symbol of status:  The Haus Tamburan, or Men’s House, in a Papua New Guinean village is a place of great ceremonial significance and mystery.  That is where the bones of ancestors are stored and all the  important decisions are taken. It is where young boys will be initiated into manhood, tribal fights will be planned and bride price agreements will be made.  No woman is allowed to set foot in such a place.

In coastal areas, where betel nuts are common, a man taking part in an important ceremony would be expected to bring a bilum full of betel nuts or tobacco, not only for his own consumption but also to be shared with others.  A man who enters the Haus Tamburan with an empty bilum would be instantly discredited and forever referred to as a ‘pipia man’, literally a ‘rubbish man’.

A link with the spirit world:  In some communities, it was thought that the bilum could provide supernatural protection to its owner.  Amongst the Kapauku people of the Central Highlands, it was believed that a bilum, filled with spiritually charged wood, would give the wearer supernatural powers and rendering him invulnerable in warfare, thus making an ordinary shield unnecessary.

The Huli people of Southern Highlands Province are said to use string bags for ‘divining’ or making contact with the spirit world.   Certain women are believed to have the power to attract the ghost of a relative who has recently died and this power is keep it in a tiny string bilum.  When animated by the ghost’s presence, the ‘diviner’ can put questions to the deceased person, who can answer by making the bag sway to the right for ‘Yes’ and to the left for ‘No’.

Spirit Carved Figure, complete with Bilum.

Spirit Carved Figure, complete with Bilum.

Spirits are often depicted carrying bilums.  In East Sepik Province, the Arambak people provide their carvings of their ancestors with bilums, which contain powerful substances associated with the fertility of crops.

As in life, so in death:  The cultural significance of the bilum is everywhere.  Among the Eipo people of the Eastern Highlands, for example, when a man dies, he is thought to have been carried away by a Spirit Woman in her ninye tomolim aleng, (the net bag that collects men).

In other cultures,  a bilum containing some of the deceased’s personal belongings may be hung over the grave.  When a woman dies, a bilum may even be buried with her, for use in the afterlife.

In other cultures, the bilum serves to indicate that a person is in mourning.  A bereaved woman will wear old, blackened bilums around her head to show her grief.

And in the Gulf Province, a widow will traditionally carry some of her deceased husband’s personal possessions in a small string bag around her neck. At the end of the period of mourning, this bilum will be ceremoniously burned, thus helping the woman to emerge from the grieving process.

And I thought it was just a string bag that people used to carry their shopping!   

…bili, bilo, bilo…

The Bilum:  In friendship, marriage, courtship and France.

Bilums are often given as gifts, either as a token of friendship or as a way of honouring visitors and guests.  We have been given several bilums while we have been in Papua New Guinea, and we have given several  away.  They are a bit like an informal currency.

          Bilums yet more 006

They also have considerable cultural importance in many parts of the country.  For example, according to the marriage tradition of the Melpa people who live in the Highlands around Mount Hagan, a new bride, when moving to her husband’s house, will take a dowry of new bilums made by her mother, her sisters or her brothers’ wives. She will give these to her new sisters-in-law in the hope of establishing friendly relations with these women as she joins the new family.

There is another ethnic group called the Foi people and, according to their tradition, on the day when a young bride moves to her husband’s longhouse, the women of the village will accompany her to the house in a demonstration of moral support.  Each woman will carry a string bag containing various household items and clothing for the bride.  These gifts form part of the bride’s dowry but, more importantly, they express solidarity and continuing support for the woman as she starts her new life.

In some areas, saying to someone “You have a nice bilum” may be regarded as the beginning of a courtship approach.  Since I learned this, I have been very careful about complimenting young women on the design, style or attractive colour combinations of their bilums.  That way, serious trouble lies!

A few years ago there was a major furore when a French company registered the name “Bilum” as a trademark to cover their products.  The reaction in Papua New Guinea was, perhaps understandably, not very positive.  Indeed in some parts of the internet it was positively vitriolic.  How dare a foreign company lay claim to the PNG Bilum?  The Managing Director was called upon to account for herself online.


It turned out that the new “Bilum” company consisted of three people and a little workshop.  Their aim was to ‘up-cycle’ plasticised advertising banners, the kind of banners that you might see outside a museum or an art gallery advertising a special exhibition.  Once the exhibition is over, the banners are no longer of any use and are thrown away.  (Up-cycling, for those of you, like me, who have never heard the word, means making something valuable out of scrap material that has little or no value –  like out of date advertising banners.)

monet Lovely banner, but what do you do with it when the exhibition is over?

Well, the Bilum company set about cutting up the banners and stitching them into new handbags and other accessories.  If a shoulder-strap was needed, old car seatbelts were used.

IMG_0901           bilordi400x400

The whole business became a bit of a fashion sensation and today the company has a workforce  over 70, many of them people with disabilities or people drawn from groups described as “socially excluded”.  These workers are now are able to make a living, in some cases for the very first time, by cleaning the discarded banners and then cutting out and sewing bags, that are rapidly becoming fashion icons.  Gradually, the criticism about the ‘theft’ of the name started to die away.

When old banners are your raw material, it is almost inevitable that every bag you make will be unique, which, for many people, was part of the appeal.  It has now reached a stage where some companies, like Air France, for example, will only release their discarded banners on the understanding that the resultant bags will be sold back exclusively to Air France, for their own promotional purposes.

As Michael Caine might have said, “Not many people know that!”

… bila, bila, bila…

                 bilums more 006

Bilums come in all shapes and sizes and all imaginable designs.

A traditional bilum is made by a process known as ‘looping’ or ‘knotless netting’, and the tightness of the looping determines how large and flexible the bag will be.  Unlike a knitted fabric, a ‘looped’ fabric will not run, if it is torn.  The looping technique prevents the bag from unraveling around a break or tear.  Looping a bilum with a complicated design might involve the use of up to 14 needles as the same time and is a highly skilled operation

bilum2 075   bilum2 052

These days, bilums can be knitted, crocheted or even woven, although looped bilums are still found in many areas.

In some rural areas of Papua New Guinea, your status in the village is, to some extent, dependent on the extent to which your wealth is visible to other people.  For example, a woman might want her neighbours to see how productive her garden is and will use a loosely looped bilum to carry her produce home.  In that way, everyone will be aware of how successful her garden has been and the prestige of her family will be increased.


When people move into the towns looking for work, however, they often go from an environment of security, trust and mutual support to one of uncertainty, isolation and suspicion.  The ‘settlements’ around Madang, for example, are not places you want to be on a dark night – or any other kind of night, come to that!

In an urban setting, a rich man will fear robbery and will keep his wealth hidden, preferably in a bank account.

When you are in town, it is not wise to draw attention to your possessions and this is reflected in the style of bilums that you find people carrying.  The looping suddenly becomes much tighter, the straps shorter and the contents of the bilums are no longer visible.



And, of course, in this day and age, you might need a rather special bilum to keep your mobile phone safe.  No problem.  Traditional bag-making skill can always adapt itself to cater for a more modern market.                                                                                                Bilums yet more 014OK, I admit it, this is, strictly speaking, not a bilum, but I think it comes into the category of “inspired by the Bilum”.

… bilorum, bilis, bilis.

The Bilum:   An indispensable part of life in PNG.

Bilums are string bags, usually hand-made by women throughout Papua New Guinea.  Originally, they were made of natural fibres twisted into string, but in more recent times, imported yarns have started to be used and this has enabled women to experiment with a much wider range of designs and styles.

Traditional string bilum

Traditional string bilum, made of natural fibres

Modern bilum, more colourful and more tightly 'looped'.

Modern bilum, more colourful and more tightly ‘looped’.

The bilum is much more than just a useful bag. It is a cultural icon which has great significance for the people of Papua New Guinea, both culturally, socially and spiritually.

It can be a lady’s handbag, a man’s ‘man-bag’, a shopping bag, a sack for carting vegetables around, even a sling in which to carry your baby and a hammock  to lull the infant to sleep.  In some parts of PNG, a women would not want to be seen out without her bilum.  She would not feel properly dressed!

Although bilums are usually made by women, ( a man would only make a bilum for a particular ceremonial purpose), theys are worn or carried by both women and men.  Alongside their purely practical uses, they are important in a range of social, cultural and sometimes ritual circumstances.

The design, choice of colours and style of bilums varies from region to region and even from village to village. People are easily able to distinguish between a bilum made in the Highlands and one made at the coast and many people can trace the origin of a bilum down to a particular district or even to a village.  The patterns and colour combinations, the shape of the bag and the size of the strap are all important clues to identify where the bilum was made.

For this reason alone, the bilum becomes a tangible and visible link between the wearer and the village or region from which he or she comes.

For those who leave their native villages, the bilum is a constant reminder of their place of birth, their heritage and the people that they have left behind.

Sandaun is a region of Papua New Guinea. It is in the west of the country. Where else would you have a region called 'Sandaun

Sandaun is a region of Papua New Guinea. It is in the west of the country. Where else would you have a region called ‘Sandaun”?

The Revolutionary Calendar and Anglo-French ping-pong

You can trace the military and political rivalries between Britain and France over the past six or seven hundred years through some of the more obscure corners of the English language.

Throughout the centuries, during which England laid claim to great tracts of French lands and French kings sought to take over the English crown, the English language was enriched by some very colourful expressions, … none of them very complementary.  For example,

To take French leave means to abscond from the army, to go AWOL.  Just the sort of thing that ‘foreigners’ would do!

An agent provocateur is a particularly sneaky individual who tries to trick someone into committing a crime and then arrests them.

A double entendre is a phrase that is deliberately intended to have two meanings, one of them innocent, the other rude.  The irony is that the expression doesn’t exist in French.  It is a completely invented Franglais expression that the French would have difficulty understanding.

Then there are a whole list of expressions connected with that area of life that no decent Englishman would ever discuss, but which, over there, they talk about all the time.  I refer, of course to … shhh … sex.

The French disease was for many year a euphemism for syphilis.  (The French used to call it la maladie anglaise, which is, of course, outrageous!)

A French kiss was the sort of thing that was talked about in hushed tones in the playground when I was at school, particularly as it was a boys’ school, and French knickers… well the least said about those, the better!

And a French letter?  Amusingly referred to by the French as une capote anglaise, this was an item of intimacy that one could not discuss in polite society, until the HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s.  Then, faced with Armageddon, we all grew up a bit, and the word ‘condom’ came into the language.  I wonder where that word came from?

So what has this to do with the Revolutionary calendar?

Well, as soon as the news of the new calendar reached British shores, the English chattering classes were quick to exploit it as another excuse to ridicule our Gallic cousins across the Channel.  One such wag proposed that Britain should follow the French example and rename the months in a similar way, complete with the poetic element of rhyming.

He suggested that the new months should be called:

Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy,

followed by Slippy, Drippy, and Nippy,

then Showery, Flowery and Bowery,

and finally Hoppy Croppy and Poppy.

Just a thought!

Summertime, an’ the livin’ is easy.

And so we come to the final three months that make up the summer:-

Messidor 19th June - 19th August

Messidor                                     19th June – 19th August

Thermidor 19th July - 17th August

Thermidor                              19th July – 17th August

Fructidor 18th August - 16th September

Fructidor                                 18th August – 16th September

“Ah, yes, but!” I hear you say, as if in one voice. “If you have 12 months, which are, conveniently, all 30 days long, that only adds up to 360 days.  What happened to the other five, (or six) days?”

“Well spotted!” say I.  “Gold star for that person!”

Well, the ingenious Revolutionary Committee had thought of that.  They simply added five extra holidays at the end of the month of Fructidor.  Well, why wouldn’t you?  They were:-

Fête de la vertu  (Celebration of virtue)

Fête du génie   (Celebration of genius)

Fête du travail (Celebration of labour)

Fête de l’opinion   (Celebration of opinion)

Fête des récompenses   (Celebration of rewards)

and then every four years a very special

Jour de la  Révolution  (The Day of the Revolution)

Oh, and by the way, our illustrious Revolutionary Committee were not too happy at the idea of naming days after Saints either.  So all the days of the year were simply renamed after flowers, plants,vegetables, farmyard animals, anything as long as it didn’t relate to the Church.

I will spare you the full list of 365 day names, but just enjoy the following;

28th September would have been “Day of the Carrot, the 7th of Vendémiaire.”

31st January was “Day of Broccoli, the 12th of Pluviôse.”

16th April was the “Day of the Anemone, 27th of Germinal.”

and Christmas day was the “Day of the Dog, the 5th of Nivôse.”

I’ll bet you feel enriched, knowing all that.  Perhaps it’ll prove useful one day, perhaps when the deciding question in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”  is all about the impact of the French Revolution.

In the springtime, inbetween time…

One thing I always look forward to in Britain is when, after the gloom of February and March, the days start to lengthen and the daffodils start to push their way out of the ground.

In Revolutionary France, if my head and my shoulders were still connected, I would have been looking forward to:-

Germinal 1st March  -  19th April

Germinal                                    1st March – 19th April

Floréal 20th  April  -  19th May

Floréal                                          20th April – 19th May

Prairial 20th May  -  18th June

Prairial                                      20th May – 18th June

In the bleak midwinter…

Still on the subject of the Revolutionary calendar:-

Nivôse                           21st December  -  19th January

Nivôse                                       21st December – 19th January

Pluviôse                        20th January  -  18th February

Pluviôse                                  20th January – 18th February

Ventôse 19th February  -  20th March

Ventôse                                   19th February – 20th March

Not many people know this….

… or, at least, I didn’t.

In the early optimistic days of the French Revolution, as aristocratic (and many other) heads were rolling off the guillotine, there was a tremendous appetite for reform, for breaking away from the ancien régime of feudal monarchy and thinking things through differently.

One positive result of this was that France became the first country in the world to adopt a metric system of measurement.  Before the Revolution, France had an estimated quarter of a million different units of measurement.  In many cases, the value of a unit would vary from town to town and village to village, which left plenty of scope for cheating, duping and general skullduggery and was a serious barrier to the development of trade within the country. So it was high time that some standardization was introduced, hence the metric system.

(I should point out, at this point, that the metric system was originally proposed by an Englishman, John Wilkins, a Fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1668.  Unfortunately, nobody else thought it was a good idea and poor Mr Wilkins died a disappointed man.)

The length of a métre was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator on the meridian passing through Paris  – Are you paying attention at the back there?  Sit up straight and listen!  There will be a test at the end of the lesson.

This enthusiasm for sweeping away the old and getting rid of everything that was connected with the monarchy and the church, also led to a reform of the calendar.  So a committee was formed to produce a new calendar more suited to the new secular France.  The committee included prominent mathematicians and poets!  Well, it would, wouldn’t it?


The new calendar was adopted in 1793 and was in use until Napoleon abolished it in 1806.  The new Revolutionary year still had twelve months but each month now had a standardised 30 days.  Weeks were abolished and replaced by three units of ten days each month, known, confusingly, as décades.  The tenth day of each décade was a day of rest – not a popular change for people who were used to Sundays coming around every seven days.

Each day had only ten hours, but each hour had 100 minutes and each minute 100 seconds.  So each day was, tidily, 100,000 seconds long.  The mathematicians must have been hugging themselves!

The days were renamed as:

primidi, (first day);  duodi (second day):  tridi (third day);  quartidi (fourth day);  quintidi (fifth day);  sextidi (sixth day); septidi (seventh day);  octidi (eighth day);  nonidi (ninth day) and finally décadi (tenth day).  How sweet is that?

“OK, bye!  See you next nonidi.”

So what has all this got to do with the good ship, Vendémiaire?  I hear you cry.  Be patient, class.  I’m coming to that.

Having reorganised the weeks into decades, the revolutionary poets were now set to work on renaming the new 30-day months.  They turned to nature for their inspiration and divided the year into four new seasons of three months, and within each three month period, the names of the months had to rhyme! Go, poets!

So, starting in the autumn, they invented… wait for it….

Vendémiaire, (yes, there it is at last)  – from the French word vendage, meaning ‘grape harvest’.

Brumaire  –  from the French brume meaning ‘mist’.

Frimaire  –  from the French frimas meaning ‘frosty fog’.

Then comes the winter with:-

Nivôse  –  form the Latin nivosus meaning ‘snowy’.

Pluviôse  –  from the French pluvieux meaning ‘rainy’.

Ventôse  –  from the French venteux meaning ‘windy’.

And on into Spring with:-

Germinal  –  from the French germination.

Floréal  –  from the French fleur meaning ‘flower’.

Prairial  –  from prairie meaning ‘meadow’.

And finally reaching the Summer with :_

Messidor  –  from the Latin messis meaning ‘harvest’.

Thermidor  –  from the Greek thermon meaning ‘summer heat’.

Fructidor  –  from the Latin fructus meaning ‘fruit’.

So we had drinks on board the French Frigate “Grape Harvest”.  How cool is that?

Also part of this illustrious committee was an artist, because the new months had to have an identity.  See below:-

Vendémiaire - 22nd September to 21st October

Vendémiaire – 22nd September to 21st October

Brumaire - 22nd October to 20th November

Brumaire – 22nd October to 20th November

Frimaire - 21st November to 20th December

Frimaire – 21st November to 20th December

As Obelix might have said, “Ils sont fous, ces gaulois!”

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