Living with Strong Women

By Llolowen Robinson, Xavier University

Gender roles are well-defined with regard to ceremony; however those lines blur when it comes to daily living. There are certain duties and roles that the men and women have on a daily basis. For instance, in farming, hunting, food gathering, and even in death, men and women have their certain tasks they must attend to. The Mek tribe undergoes an initiation process for boys to become men. Village politics and relationships between tribal members are vital if one wanted to coexist in the tribe. Even in the way the Meks’ get married, they have their own styles and rituals for marriage.

In every culture there is some form of right of passage, but for the Mek’s they use an initiation process as their right of passage. The initiation is for young boys going into manhood and new members can be considered worthy of being in the tribe. The Mekmen do not have to perform extreme acts to be initiated like neighboring tribes in New Guinea. However, in the Mek tribe after being deem worthy of initiation by the Elders they start the ceremonial gourd fitting. The gourds represent a transition into manhood and a form of acceptance within the tribe. The gourds range from five to twenty inches in size depending on the male’s age and also, the larger the penis gourd is the higher the man’s class and therefore more respect.

After receiving the penis gourds, the actual initiation takes place in a designated spot in the jungle. In that spot is where the Tribal Elders and the men being initiated huddle in a tiny shelter and get instructed in ways of the Mekmen. Olly Steeds, a young explorer/journalist off of ‘Living With the Tribes on Travel Channel says “It was more of a moral instruction, the code to be a Mekman and a Mekman of Merengmen- the knowledge of their territory, to work hard in the fields, to hunt, to build huts and bridges, to look after your parents, not to kill people, and not to steal another man’s wife (Travel channel.com/living with the tribes).” So even though the Mek tribe choose to live outside of what I would consider to a civilize life, they still teach good moral values and standards.

Marriage is another type of ceremony that the Mek’s handle in a unique manner. The Mek tribe usually has arranged marriages where the Chief’s son marries the daughter of a Chief from a neighboring tribe. Demands for the price of the bride have to be met before the marriage is finalized. A woman’s value is dependent on her breeding and the bride must be paid for in the currency of pigs, string bags, shells, bows and arrows. Over time, the bride’s value hopefully increases, with the more children she bears and therefore the more the woman’s family can demand from the man’s family.

Traditionally there should be a celebration, but it is not similar to the white fanfare that we are used to in the United States. The in-laws meet to feast together bringing vegetables, fruits, and depending on the size of the wedding, a pig is slaughtered. At the ‘wedding’ the gifts that the bride’s family receives are accepted as a down payment for their daughter. In essence, the groom can never own his wife because as the wife’s values go up, the more the bride’s family can demand from him.

On a day to day basis the men as well as the women have certain tasks that they must complete in order to maintain survival. Both the men and women provide for the tribe and their individual families. The men make sure to open up new fields for farming, cut down trees for building and fires, and partake in game hunting. The women also take on many of the physical activities like the men. It is ironic that the women do the harder and more time consuming labor because in this tribe women are equal when it comes to labor, but not in gender. For example, the men were cutting down trees which took about an hour, but the women had to sit there and beat the bark off the trees for hours at time.

Hunting for Mek males was a way to prove themselves capable hunters, and also true men. There are three key skills that one needed to hunt like the Mek men: stealthiness in deep jungles and on steep slopes, ability to shoot an arrow (without arrow flights, the killing distance was about a little more than 10meters), and produce an orchestra of varying birdcalls. The women are sent on foraging missions looking for small frog, grasshoppers, wild greens (spinach, and ferns) for their families. Hunting for the men represents true masculinity even if they share some of the same reasonability with the women.

The women usually do majority of the hunting, gathering, farming, and end up being far more productive and hard working than the males because in the Mek culture the women must support their families at all cost, even it mean taking on masculine roles. It is estimated that the women output at about 80 percent of the family’s productive capacity. Also, it is custom in the Mek tribe if a person dies, the daughter of that family has to take care of that ill family member.

Relationships between tribal members place order and understanding into the lives of the Mek people, and neighboring tribes. The most appropriate gift and form of money for the Mek’s and neighboring tribes is a pig. As a piglet grows it increases in value and can be used for a bride, price, settling disputes (including tribal war), but also it carries the added benefit that when fatted, can be sacrificed for ceremony or just eaten. Within the Mek community the men have their own huts which are called ‘yaowis’. The women also have their own huts, but one rule remains that the men can enter the women’s huts, but the women cannot enter the men’s huts. The yaowis are like our modern day mens’ clubs.

The Mek people use village politics to govern themselves in a court system. For instance, in the Mek tribe a girl by the name of Ester was abused by this man Filipus that was put on trial. Qarang and Mariam (two tribe men) went to the fields and found Ester’s skirt ripped and strewn across the grass, the soil churned up as if there had been a violent struggle. The case was reopened, the jury of the Elders reconvened and Ester was recalled. This time she explained that Filipus had hit her as she tried to struggle free, but he had not forced her to have sex. The jury of the Elders retired to the privacy and darkness of the yaowi, and after hours of deliberation, agreed that for the crimes of: 1) ripping Ester’s skirt, 2) hitting Ester, and laying to the Elders the punishment must be increased. So to Ester for her demands it is custom that she get ten times she was asked and ten times she replied ‘Pham’ (pig). So it is not hard to see Mek politics in action, and women being treated fairly.

In knowing how isolated the Mek people are from other places in New Guinea, they still form relationships with neighboring tribes, and use politics and reasoning. For example, the Mek’s Chief Markus finally decided to build a bridge across the great river Inba to re-establish links with the neighbors of Minai and asked them to come there because of the food scarcity. The Minai are the land of plenty compared to the Mek’s, but why would the Minai come to the aid Mek’s was unclear to some. Throughout their history, relations with their neighbors have not always been peaceful. Conflict has been commonly triggered by stealing, jealousies, debts not being paid, men competing for the love of a woman or even murder, rape or assault. Chief Markus knew that rebuilding the bridge inevitably bring the villages closer together and with it a solution to the current food shortage, but it could also enliven the opportunity for conflict to reappear.

Far from Hollywood set designs, the reality of construction is for both Merengmen and Minai to build half the bridge each, joining in the middle symbolizing togetherness and settlement. At 100ft long, the bridge is going to span one of the narrowest stretches of the river, and stand 30ft above the rocks and current that at times of spate, make this river uncross-able on foot. Like all suspension bridges, the strength largely comes from the supporting lines above, on which the walkway of the bridge is tied. The lines here are a particular type of rattan (jungle vine), that grows to over 200ft long and over two inches in diameter. That type of vine is rare and grows in a few places of only the thickest jungle, and in these parts, it appears to only grow in the land of Merengmen, and not of Minai. Also, to collect the rattan requires the help of the men, women, and children. But the women could not take part in building bridges because the men had to have something to try to consider masculine and only for the men.

In most cases the male plays a dominant role and always wants to be the one in control by fully providing and take care of his family, as is expected of a man. The women are given certain tasks that are considered to be feminine, but the women of the Mek community have to do both, feminine and masculine labors. Whether it is a tedious activity such as foraging for little animals and greens, to more strenuous labors like beating the bark off trees for hours, the women take them on. The women have been put on both sides of gender roles going against what’s considered to be the ‘norm’ for gender performance.

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