Book Reaction Paper on The Gebusi: Lives Transformed in a Rainforest World ...
To the Gebusi and other peoples of New Guinea, the simplest gift to be given ...
Alexandria Appel Prof. Routon ANTH 1010 Book Reaction Paper on The Gebusi: Lives Transformed in a Rainforest World Knauft first arrives and is presented with a pile of starchy, smoked bananas. He and his wife, Eileen, are unsure what to do or how to properly receive the gesture. They eat. They have “passed their first test”. Bruce Knauft begins the ethnography by talking about “the gift” and his own personal experience with this gesture. Particularly in Melanesia, the gift is frequently noted by anthropologists. The gift’s value and crucial importance in social constructs is the hard work individuals undergo to produce it. A gift is a physical good that is given to a guest to forge an alliance. It says a lot about the way humans connect. Gift giving is an emotional, materialized bond between gift givers and recipients as well as a factor of social economy. A relatable example Knauft offers is that of Christmastime here in the US. The correlation being the value of the gift we give to a recipient is reminiscent of our emotional investment in that person. To the Gebusi and other peoples of New Guinea, the simplest gift to be given was that of what was regularly produced and also nutritional staple for the tribe- hot, starchy bananas. This was not the only good given, however. Relationships in Gebusi society are founded on what one person gives another. The good you shared with someone was an identifier of the nature of your relationship with them. During his time in the village, Knauft acquired an array of “exchange names” with men he befriended there. He called Gusiayn “bird egg”, Iwayb “Tahitian chestnut”,
Halowa “salt” and Yuway “fishing line”. This is a direct identifier of the reasons that initially formed their friendship. When looking for a village to settle in before deciding on Yibihilu (the village of the Gebusi), Knauft elaborates on the gestures he and his wife Eileen received stating, “The other features of traditional welcome were not yet on our horizon- the calling out of gift and kin names, the hearty snapping of fingers with each host, the dramatic sharing of smoke-filled tobacco pipes among men, the drinking of water from twelve-foot long bamboo tubes, and the palaver that lasted until the hosts arrived with great whoops to present more food.” Probably more important than the giving/ receiving of material goods is the Gebusi theme of “kogwayay”. It embodies their lifestyle, traditions and beliefs characteristic to the tribe. This includes on a surface level, their songs, dancing and ornate garb. But Knauft breaks this down even further: “kog” expresses the ideals of “friendship”, “togetherness”, and “similarity”- a very appropriate identifier for the community oriented Gebusi. This can be boldly stated further that the Gebusi hate being alone and enact activities with as many people as possible. “Wa” or “wala” to talk- is representative of their amicable conversations, and “yay” was just the emphasis on excitement to add on the end. Combined they form the themes of “talk, togetherness and cheering.” (Knauft 2008:18) But with every beautiful upside, there lurks a grimaced downside. There was a very obvious lack of gender equality in Yibihilu. As Knauft describes it, “Culture is a double-edged sword of beliefs and representations. One the one hand, it emphasizes values and ideals that are often, if not typically, good and healthy (speaking of the theme of kogwayay). On the other hand, trumpeting these values downplay or deny less pleasant realities.. It is good to appreciate the
values of other peoples.. but it also important to recognize the underside of culture- realities that are neglected by cultural ideals. Both sides of this coin are important.” (Knauft 2008:19) Gathering for talks on the longhouse porch were men. Men would “whoop” freely while women were restricted to whispering in their sleeping room, set away from the men. Men made the most important decisions concerning matters such as what house the family would live in and which members of the village his family would be closest to. Men led the séances and feasts, male initiations and dances. Men even fostered boys along to manhood, not their mothers. Not only did men lead séances, women were completely excluded from them. Men were even permitted to beat their wives if accused of being flirtatious. One of the most interesting sections I read was Chapter 3 “Lives of Death”. This chapter identified and revealed how the Gebusi cope with and manage the death of village members. A friend told me yesterday “Anthropologists study people to better understand themselves” to which I replied, “You are absolutely right”. This chapter strongly made that point clear to me. Knauft discusses his very sheltered experiences with death at traditional open casket funerals. This contrasts severely with what the Gebusi face. Knauft describes his encounters being on the frontlines of death and how his new friends lay to rest their comrades. Babies were the most common victims of rainforest life; in fact only a third survives during their first year. Mourning the loss of a child was left to women. Surprisingly so, men seemed apathetic to the death of their kids. In Gebusi belief, babies are not “fully human” until about seven months of age. Before this time, their soul is not firmly entrenched in their body. For this reason they are not given a name until their first teeth come in. For the sudden death of an adult or older child, however, the news is received much differently.
During Knauft’s fieldwork, Dugawe killed himself. The repercussions of this event were far-reaching from the death of a newborn in Gebusi life. Dugawe had poisoned himself with poison tubes for fishing. His anger and shame stemmed from an affair his wife was having with a young man. Before killing himself, he fought with his wife and with an arrow, she ripped his shirt- his most prized possession. On a stretcher, the men swiftly trudged the body back to the village. Upon returning to the village with the body, villagers slated his widow and wailed loudly at the arrival of the corpse. They laid his body in the family house where women soon attended it, sobbing, wailing, and mourning all through the night. In the morning, the rate of decay was rancid. Equivalent to the rotting stink was the mourning response of family members. Knauft describes what he witnessed in this excerpt: “With unearthly sobs they draped themselves physically over the corpse, lovingly massaged its slime and peeled its skin. Then they rubbed their own arms and legs with the ooze of the body.” Now before you run to the toilet in complete repulsion, let me clarify their purpose in doing this. Knauft explained that by coating themselves in “death” itself, it created a unity between them and the deceased person. It’s like when family members go stand on the pulpit and tell stories of their loved ones at a funeral- it makes you feel more connected to the deceased person by remembering the times you shared together. It’s this shared experience that draws that same feeling out of Gebusi mourners just in a more physical way. For the Gebusi, death was raw. There was no hiding it, so they embraced it. “But I also began to realize that this raw transformation- of a human being into a decomposing natural object- presented an emotionally and physically honest view of death.” (Knauft 2008:42) Let’s talk about sex. This taboo topic seems very appropriate following close behind “corpse bonding”. The first indication of Gebusi sexual nature appeared in male joking at events
such as séances and feasts. The sex joking was surprisingly toward each other! It turns out, the jests are not homosexual, but “homosocial” and the acts joked about were not followed through with. But the question arises, are Gebusi men sexual with one another at all? Questioning Hawi, Knauft soon learned about male initiation practices and the sexual role enacted during them. He informed Knauft that during male initiation, young males stimulate their elder’s penis to climax and consume the...well… “results”. The shock factors never seem to cease do they? Again, before you quickly rush to the happy place in your mind, let me explain their reasoning. The cultural role this act plays is that of direct initiation. The Gebusi really get straight to the heart of the point their trying to make. The consuming of male ejaculate is believed to literally give the uninitiated young man the “male life force” for his maturity in manhood. There were male trysts that took place though among men who were yet to be initiated. Men are not to engage in sex with women before marriage, so male initiates find relief from one another. An example of this type of pairing is with Hawi and Doliay. Knauft describes them as always joking and sometimes leaving séances to return “spent”. This made me a little uncomfortable with the lighthearted description of this behavior. Knauft writes, “Hawi and Doliay made no secret of the fact that they consorted with each other sexually. Swelling with bravado, they even told me one day that they would never get married to women because they had each other as sexual partners.” The Gebusi re-entry chapters did not interest me nearly as much as the opening chapters. It was a unique transition from being very traditional and spending 45% of their lives in the rainforest to 1998 growing more centered around the Nomad Station, to only see it closed in 2008 ultimately reaching a lovely mix of old tradition and new. Christianity became a part of their lives, while still acknowledging aspects of their historic culture. I feel it was a great
outcome for them. If traditional people could adopt modern infringing influences and still retain vital traditions, I think there would be a lot less conflict between the two opposite worlds.