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Bilum – a souvenir to promote PNG’s tourism industry


While PNG is focusing on its upcoming general elections in a few months’ time, the world over has celebrated the International Women’s’ Day last week to give significance to the existing our womenfolk, motherhood, sisters, aunties, wives, daughters and female colleagues. Women have been somewhat regarded as second class race in the male dominated world although some significance contributions have made by women in many facets of life. In traditional PNG, women’s primary role is bearing children, looking after domestic animals, making food gardens and household chores. These responsibilities are tough especially when the mother is to feed a good number of domestic animals and many small children. In the midst of their daily struggles, they virtually constructed the concept and skillfully netted strings bags known as bilums which were used make their ease the loads in their chores.
To date no-one knows and can confidently explain how and why those ropes were twisted and looped to obtain a robust string bag which was very handy even today in the contemporary society. Prominent British anthropologists and couple Marilyn strathern and Andrew Strathern whom spent years in the highlands of PNG have thought that bilum was made through ritual practices in spirit worships, and woman loop the ropes while singing ritual chants. Moreover, Marilyn in her book titled The Gender of Gift never denied that Melanesian women were strong and equal to men, a point she compared with the European perspective on gender and feminist issues and later attracted a new dimension of perception on Melanesian women.
Many other articles written about bilum say PNG women first started to make bilum to relate to the womb, bilum is the ‘outer’ womb when a baby is born from the ‘inside’ womb. This conception is evident today in the Tok Pisin language when womb is described as “bilum blo pikinini”. Having said all these one would wonder where would be the origin of making a bilum in PNG. Who was the first woman to have the idea and started to teach other women the knowledge and skills of looping and making patterns and passed on? But that’s not the purpose of this article to investigate it’s originate. The origin of making the bilum remains mysterious and the first PNG woman to curve the knowledge into twisting the ropes is unknown.
Melanesian woman have been physically strong, jam-packed with courage to conquer and fearlessly contest in the male dominated world.
Weeks ago, we learn that 30 courage PNG women will contest the 2017 general elections. Politics in PNG has always been a men’s willing. All the best to these mamas.
In some areas, they are unbeatable when it comes to label against menfolk. Such is the toughest job of caring and love giving in their homes. Not only they are hard at work but also unrecognizably acquired with special skills and knowledge. Sometimes, their creativity puts them in a special place within the society. Unarguably, this is where the creator placed and blessed them.        
 Turning their imagination into creativity is what makes them uniquely special. This is so, when it comes to looping and twisting the wool ropes into a cultural material, connoting their attributes of care and love. The aesthetic qualities of their bilum and its uniqueness has transformed greatly finding its way into the cash economy. Undoubtedly, bilum resembles the courage and determination of PNG women.
Pretentious and exceptional words to describe women are not easy to find on the Mothers’ Day or the International Women’s Day. But those are words they deserve every day.
In Goroka and Karkar Island in Madang, every year round bilum festivals are held. These events hosted not only to recognize the cash-value of their creativity but also acknowledging and displaying their adorable self-taught looping skills.
In Madang, festival chairman Pholas Yongole says activities include a bilum show and the process of how Karkar bilums are made. In Goroka, festival chairlady Florence Jaukae said the festival is staged to celebrate ancient skills and designs of bilums and also about preserving, protecting the skills and designs.
These annual events held respectively in Madang and Goroka not only to display the colorful woven bilums that attracts tourists and by passers but they hold the events hold the meaning of bilum making and creativity from womenfolk.
Changes can inevitably occurred in any given society and in PNG society development took place since the island was first discovered in 1526-27. Bilum is believed to be centuries old from then on until it was formerly first recorded by G. Landtmann in 1933, a record found in the Museum of Finland. From traditional to contemporary, the patterns, designs and selection of colours to make bilum by women have changed. Today it is a souvenir serving as a national identify to the international community. In 2005, supported by the Australian government, an association known as PNG Bilum Export and Promotion was created to help PNG women export the bilum product. This organization is helping PNG women to export bilum products to Australia and other parts of the world. The bilum has also find its way into the fashion world.    
            Today the weaving of a bilum is a skill that is commonly shared by women across the country; a skill or traditional knowledge that is passed from one generation to the next generation. It is knowledge that is learnt from Grandmothers, Aunts, Mothers and friends.

Bilum designs vary from one to the next – no two bilums are identical. They can be seen on the streets of Sydney, New York, London, Suva, Apia or anywhere in the world – just a simple indication of how far this unique product travels.

In all these places, they still remain as a PNG souvenir and a national identify. To the PNG Government, this is only a cultural material but it plays a greater role in the arena of tourism promotion with its aesthetic qualities and uniqueness to the outside world that needed to be emphasized.

The End………….

Photo captions: Different bilum patterns and designs sold in Tambul, WHP. Photos by Bianca Barry.

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