Unlike much of Papua New Guinea, the autonomous region of Bougainville Island is matrilineal. Each of the distinct language groups on the island (population: 200,000) have their own ways of celebrating life, but the majority of them pass land down from mother to daughter. It is collectively owned by the women of a clan and distributed under their direction.
In 1989 an ecological revolution was initiated under the direction of Perpetua Serero, a female landowner in Panguna, a region that was heavily mined by a Rio Tinto subsidiary. Taking issue with how the site was managed, she directed actions to shut down operations, which initiated the Bougainville Civil War and a fight for independence.
The people of Bougainville endured a years-long blockade enforced by the government of Papua New Guinea, which prevented supplies of food and medicine reaching them; it's estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Bougainvilleans died. The resulting Bougainville Peace agreement requires that a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea be held in 2019, but there remain significant issues that must be addressed no matter what the political future of the region.
In 2013, a UN survey found that 58 percent of women in Bougainville reported having been raped by a partner at least once in their lifetimes. This high rate of sexual violence is at odds with the region's traditional respect for women, which is most visible during customary celebrations of a young woman's coming of age. I was invited to photograph a feast thrown in honor of Edwick Tangkaona, who lives in Topinang, a hamlet in the mountains behind Panguna. She had her first period a few months before, and as her father Chief Tony explained, this was cause for a celebration unseen in the valley since the ceasefire was declared in 2001.
"During the crisis we were hiding in the bush. No one was in the villages. We were hiding from the PNGDF [Papua New Guinea Defense Force] because they were shooting anybody they could find. If they met [you] on the way, they'd just shoot [you], so we didn't do anything like feast," he explained. Tony wanted to record the feast, as it might have been the last one presided over by a generation born well before the fighting began.
Today, Topinang is tranquil. A river runs from higher ground, spanned by a fig tree root bridge that links pathways between tidy lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, and clusters of houses. Clouds of swallows race around betel nut trees as children climb them to harvest the mildly psychoactive fruit.
"Food isn't ready overnight—it takes about a year before it is harvested to do a big feast like this," Tony told me, standing before two enormous bamboo structures constructed to hold coconuts, taro, tapioca, yams, bananas, and betel nut harvested in Edwick's honor. Some of this had been turned into tama tama, a sticky ceremonial pudding shared by Edwick and her closest female relatives.
"All her relatives will be coming to enjoy the day tomorrow, and the people will be happy, gathering together and sharing all the food," said Tony. "Tonight we are expecting people to come and blow bamboo pipes till tomorrow morning." As the sun set, women gathered in front of the structures with bows and arrows, signifying their power in deciding how land, pigs, and food would be divided up the next morning. The bows rattled as they danced in closely knit circles, singing out that the youngest member of their clan had come of age.
By sunrise, the dancers had formed clusters around the village. Some were in the kitchen, singing as they stirred pots of bubbling coconut milk. Others were scraping coconut flesh to make the milk or stripping leaves from huge bushels of plants. These herbs were central to Edwick's initiation into womanhood. Her auntie Pauline explained, "The smell of the herbs makes young girls grow fat and healthy. If she is skinny, she's not strong enough."
In this part of Bougainville, a young woman would traditionally be kept indoors for the full month of her first period. During this isolation period, her older sisters and aunties would feed her tama tama and a diet rich in medicinal herbs. This had been the experience of some of the older aunties who directed the ceremony, and there was much discussion amongst the elders about the proper way to perform the ritual.
Although one school teacher I spoke to shared the observation that students who follow the traditional herbal diet in adolescence tend to have better reproductive health, there was no expectation that Edwick should adhere strictly to the old way of doing things. Whereas her aunties would not even have left the village at her age, she was in school and didn't want to take a month out from her studies. She didn't see her fertility as something to hide: It was a cause for celebration.
I watched as her aunties showered her with water, scrubbing her with fists full of herbs. Amidst all this, Albina, another one of Edwick's aunties, arrived. Acting as a cheerleader for the event, she parodied Edwick as a younger girl, preening herself in front of a hand mirror. Then she imitated me by staring through a disposable camera and using bamboo pipes like binoculars. People threw food at her as encouragement, and she grabbed a massive stick, wielding it like a macho revolutionary threatening the crowd with gunfire, before collapsing into a wheelbarrow. Everything she did sent shrieks of delight high into the canopy above us.
Then, led by Pauline, dancing nimbly like the pied piper, Edwick was paraded around a long platform covered in baskets of food. The crowd gathered at the base of a food tower, where Edwick's closest relatives spoke to her of new responsibilities and what to expect of life. They split a betel nut and dipped it in lime, touching it on her skin. A banana leaf with rows of tama tama materialized; the sincere ritual soon broke out into a food fight. I retreated through waves of Edwick's extended family and friends, all women, all singing and swaying in unison, facing towards the heart of the congress. Amongst the men—who receive no equivalent honor—I found Tony, looking on from the sidelines. He was smiling.
"My daughter, when she gets married, we will do the same thing again. And when she has a child, we'll have another ritual," he said. "We will do it later on. That means we have to look after pigs and do more gardening. That doesn't stop—we've got more to be done later on."