Bhungwane and Sipho

There was a period in the 1980’s before my elder relatives grew actually elderly. I was living then in cheap accommodation. So whenever Tim announced another trip in the offing, I would start packing.

Tim had become friendly with a gentleman who was involved with expedition cruising. When a particular cruise was not sold out, the vacant cabins were offered to people like us at an “industry” discount. It was too good to pass up.

One trip we took stopped briefly in the Trobriand Islands (now Kiriwina). The people there are master carvers and they had all kinds of beautiful things on offer. It was astonishing what some of our wealthy cruise-mates brought back to the ship. Once someone actually purchased a full-sized outrigger canoe.

It was hard to picture these people attempting to check-in at the airport, but I imagine the tour company arranged shipping for oversized items!

Us poor folk could only afford the more modest carvings and there was a system you could follow if you had the stamina. If you saw something you liked, you would stand on the beach negotiating the price with the bloke who had put his life-blood into it. As the tour leaders began rounding us up to go back to the ship, the prices began to drop until we finally began to climb into the rubber boats at which point it all became quite frantic.

I have never had the stomach for bargaining, even in situations where it is expected. Either I like an item enough to pay the asked price, or I don’t buy it. I purchased a bowl and some small carvings, but as the rubber boat was being pushed back through the surf a young lad waded out next to us brandishing a long, elaborately carved piece and thrust it into my lap. Tim and I quickly grabbed our left over funds and handed it over to the happy, smiling child. No doubt that was also part of the “system”, but who cared.

In consequence, I became the owner of this long carving which was difficult to pack and as it turned out, extremely fragile. That carving, and the smaller ones which are less fragile, have been with me now for 33 years and they have moved six times. Each time repairs have been necessary and each time it has become more of a challenge.

When I finally unpacked after my move from Washington, my poor carving was in numerous pieces. Even the broken bits were broken. Hard to tell which piece went where. I’m sure there are people who could effect such repairs easily enough, though I doubt they would consider it worthwhile for such a humble item.

Why is this piece of such importance to me? I am really not sure but I have always thought of the person who carved it, tried to imagine what they were like and what they thought of as they chipped away at the wood. Did the person who carved also polish the piece? I would love to have seen someone actually working on their carving but we did not go to that part of the island.

Also, those carvings were once part of a tree. It would in fact pain me to just discard the bits without at least trying to put them back together.

So once more, out came the glue and the various items I used to prop the sticky bits together. I should mention that with 13 cats in the house, it went without saying that at least one would come to help.

Grant had witnessed the previous repair of this carving and chuckled to see me at it again. He refers to it as “Bhungwani”, after a young Zulu friend he had in South Africa. The smaller carving has only so far ever needed it’s left ear stuck back on. That one is called Sipho, which Grant says means “gift”.

The dolphins in the picture below also came from the Trobriands. The other item is a nose plug which came from a remote part of Irian Jaya (now Papua). We went there on a different trip. I felt sad when I met the people there. Not sad for the way they lived but for what I imagined their future was likely to become. I didn’t think tourists ought to have been allowed to go there, but ultimately, I suppose, it didn’t make a difference.

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