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Tradition, Knowledge and Ownership: the Manamb Perspective [2000] MLJ 3; [2000] 27 MLJ 53 (1 January 2000)

Tradition, Knowledge and Ownership: The Manamb Perspective
By Lt Col James Laki[1]


The origin of the Manamb People remain a mystery to many since no written historical records have been kept. Such information is secretive and therefore could only be passed through nearest kin in either matrilineal or paternal lineage. Those that have passed the secretive down the history are said to be great orators and leaders in the men’s cult who acquired their knowledge through deeds of loyalty and through serving apprenticeship to those before them. The apprenticeship scheme involved running errands and eventually got locked away for a period of time, which may be described as initiation period. During this period other village craft and bush craft were also taught.

However, the art of imparting knowledge is not limited to youths reaching adulthood. The great orators also have a responsibility to pass down that knowledge in every way possible so that his sons if not his matrilineal nephews maintain and sustain that knowledge. In order to be effective, legends are told to young children and their mothers about real events that had taken place in the past. Real names and place names are omitted in these legends so that the value of information is safeguarded. These legends tend to be the leads upon which the orator’s immediate relatives could explore and acquire this sort of information.

The Manamb society, like many other Melanesian societies is centred on males who have in the past moulded the societies rules and norms through the ‘men’s cult’. But the men’s cult is also not for every other man. Some men may reach puberty and even be married and have children before being accepted into the men’s cult. Others may have certain rights because of their clans’ status but most of all one has to be initiated first. Women, children and non-initiates are not privy to most information and knowledge because they could not be trusted but they still have a role to play in the society. Women can tell the legends to children as bedtime stories and together with non-initiates hunt and gather food for those undergoing initiation rites and or those conducting them.

Information and knowledge is not limited to history in the Manamb ethnology. Cosmology, rituals and general norms and ethos are what these elders, come orators pass down to generations after generations. While some knowledge require some payment to acquire others like carving techniques are openly taught, sometimes becoming a center of amusement so that one learns from such humor and not be ridiculed time and again. Other knowledge is passed down through communal work practices. This may be tying rafters on a house rooftop for knitted sago leaves to eventually make the roofing.

Levels of payment for the imparting of knowledge and information are proportional to the value placed on that information. For instance, the knowledge to cast a spell over ones betel nut tree so that anyone who tries to steal from it could have some bad luck such as a snake bite. Such knowledge may yield a bunch of betel nuts. Others like the processes in which one obtained his or her name may require a good sizeable pig because it is the type of knowledge that determines the political structure of the Manamb people.


Although it is not my area of speciality the issue of maintaining traditional knowledge and ownership has interested me greatly in my studies into the social transformation that has taken place in the Manamb tradition and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The Manamb tribe comprises five villages with a population of about 5000 people that speak the Manamb language from the Ndu category of languages. They are located in the Upper Sepik Area near the government Administrative District of Ambunti in the East Sepik Province.

The aim of this paper is to highlight the existence of vast knowledge base in the Manamb cosmology. This knowledge could be categorized with the area of origin, the material, spirit beings, rituals and the symbols associated with them which I will term the cultural components. Furthermore, these components are in turn associated with other clan or sub-clan’s components that are mutually supporting, or arranged in a complex matrix that may be parading, dancing along or just being structurally supporting. The descriptive aspect of their composition and the history of the Manamb people could be other portion of information that requires extraction.

Until recently the Manamb, known as Manambu, which really is an adjective that describes the people or the language as in manambu niyan or manambu kwundi respectively. These terms are referred by the latmul tribes. The Manambs in return called the Iatmuls as Yambunai or Niyamla. But the origin of the word Manamb by the Iatmuls could have its beginning from yam growing and the ceremonies associated with harvesting which anthropologists may have overlooked or could not speculate on.

The annual or seasonal initial-harvest of the yam specimen, maiykepatawk culminates with the beating of large slit drums early in the morning. This specimen is grown on the riverbank or the levee. The other specimen grown on numbukep or dry land, accessed through the River Amoku (Screw River) is known as manambundu and does not require elaborate rituals, though the planting requires some ritual blessing by a ritual specialist or an elder of the village.

The sound of the slit drums carry far and wide in the Manamb environment as well as the close Iatmul and Kwanga villages who were able to tell the difference in sound and the time of the year the drums were beaten. Any other beating of the drums could mean a variety of things such as those relating to head hunting expedition, signaling for the early return of hunters and fishermen or even the Ndumwi rituals and ceremonies. These drum beatings were normally explained to kin-folks during trading and exchanges of gifts, ornaments and even certain magical rituals although enmity continued against each major tribes in the area.

It was the beating of the drums for the maiykepatawk rituals that we got referred to as the Manambu, or the manambundu eating group or practicing a ritual unique to Manamb of all people living along the Sepik. When Manambu was attached to the tribe the suffix ndu, meaning people, (literally meaning man as in mankind) was left out in general reference when early contacts with Europeans and outsiders came through the Iatmul people. They were generally hospitable to any new people as opposed to the Manamb people who were a closed society, hence the name Manambu which we have come to now realize and altered to call our selves the Manamb group of people.

The Manamb tribe was passed over for the densely populated and widely spread Iatmul neighbours to the East, the Abelam and Kwanga speakers to the North and the Kwoma speaking people to the West. General speculation by many anthropologists was that the tribe had similar social structure as the latmul and so was the general notion amongst the educated Manamb people who simply took for granted what the anthropologist described. The language however was clearly distinct as documented by linguists that worked and lived in Yambun, one of the five Manamb villages.

It was not until Simon Harrison, in search of documenting ceremonial wealth exchanges, a typical Melanesian ‘Big Men’ concept (Harrison 1990b), that he stumbled over this little known community that awakened some interest in the Manamb ethnicity and mythology. It has been like re-looking in the mirror and noticing features one has not been aware of previously. The general perspective for documenting Manamb culture in the form of tradition, cosmology, mythology and totemic symbols by foreigners was one of exploitation as a commercial commodity therefore there was an attitude of protectionism of the culture.

The experience of the Manamb culture once documented has become an awakening call while at the same time it is faced with the possibility of extinction in view of modernization and social transformation that are inevitable. It is more disheartening when elementary schools in the village are taught in pidgin rather than the Manamb vernacular with the argument that pidgin is a language for better learning. To not learn pidgin at home is said to be a disadvantage in the learning process of a child, which in turn, has made many young mothers, speak pidgin to their young siblings.

However, the realisation that the Manamb culture could disappear just as quickly as it was documented is not only frightening but encouraging and the interest to comprehensively document the culture, including the spoken language through a literacy programme is further challenging. Further challenges are provided by the few orators and people who are knowledgeable about the Manamb culture who are slowly getting old and dying. Much of the cosmology and the mythology are clan and sub-clan based and therefore those who may be knowledgeable may not necessarily be the relevant authority to pass on the cultural knowledge.

Further misinformation could result from the fact that each clan is said to have different origins and therefore clearly identifiable with the general direction in the Manamb physical environment. Hence the totemic symbols, myths and legends, which could be a marked contrast to the Western Iatmul culture whose social structure could be very complex when viewed from marriage and kin relationships. With the sixteen exogamous patrilineal clans and sub-clans (Harrison 1990a, 351) in the Manamb society and the direction of origin as well as establishing trading links with neighbouring tribes but with like clans having same totemic symbols, have been the major attributes for one to identify with.

For example, those of the nambul-sambelap sub clan are said to have originated from further up the Sepik River whose totemic waugw, literally an area around Yassan-Maio is called Yambunmali waugw. The totemic waugw or areas of origin have in them the totemic beings that could form the myths, legends and spirit beings with which these sub-clans identify. Identity is simplified in Avatip, the biggest of all the Manamb Villages where the houses are laid out in sub-clans together with the men’s cult houses, karamb the larger ones and sa’ai the smaller ones taking up the front.

Manamb Historic Origin

Anthropologists may have determined the origins of the Manamb through varying speculations. One of which could be that the Manamb had migrated from the East and may have been part of the Iatmul group whose language format, at least some of it, and culture seem heavily entrenched in the Manamb. The argument is supported by the fact that some sub clans of the Manamb, wuluwy-˜nyawi originated from Asiti a settlement to the East of where the main village of Avatip the mother village from which the other smaller villages of Yawambak, Malu, Apan and Yambun were settled.

Asiti was located along the Sepik River but the site appears to be further inland now as a result of the river changing its course. It was near what is now Japandai, an Iatmul village that was never there many years ago. There are also two other associate villages, Nggarakwali and Mawkambu, which produced the yimal-wuapanamb and nambul-sambelap sub-clans respectively. The village of Asiti appears to be the first known village, where old remains of pottery, crotons and others like stone axe remains could be found.

People of Asiti were said to be lawless and bad people involved in feuds, and ‘continually fighting and killing each other’ (Harrison 1993, 29). Legends tell us that Asiti was destroyed by a lightning strike through a magic spell cast by a magician. Survivors of the lightning moved on to make the settlement of Avatip. It was here that other smaller sub-clans amalgamated and may have originated form Yarakai and Galmamb to the southern hinterlands and the Kaiyuk and Gemanjui tribes to the north. People speak of their origins in flattery and much of the honorific address-forms, waiyepi, (Harrison 199b, 76) and greetings although teotemic and mythical echo the significance of their origins.

The village Avatip, which as derived from the word apatep, that literally means ‘bone village’, ap for bone and tep for village in reference to a main structure from where other villages branched out (ibid. 33). The actual site of the first village is also further inland now from the river as it changed course over time. This village was settled around about the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century (ibid. 30). Whist the old site is not so familiar, the new site where Avatip is now located is called Yanjaggaiy. It carries with it the totemic name, Tepayiambermaan that has a spirit being attached to it and in the mythical world travels and forms a village where there are more than one Manamb tribesmen.

Other villages in the group were settled as a result of population explosion and in search of other fishing and hunting grounds. The villages of Yawambak and Malu came into existence but not without tribal fights in some instances. Yawambak is said to have taken its name from a group of palm trees hence yaw, palm trees and mbak, a group, that existed near the lake or lagoon of Walmau. Malu known in Manamb as Malutep appeared to be the most ambitious choice but one that involved proper partitioning of the sub-clans which meant ‘either a younger brother left while the elder remained or the older brother migrated while the younger remained’ (ibid. Bragge 1990.36-49). Hence the clans and sub-clans are identical all along the Manamb villages.

Other non-Manamb villages that soon got exterminated through tribal fights surrounded Malu village, which took its name from the mountain, known as Malunember where the original settlement occurred. Their survivors initially taken as refuges soon got assimilated into Malutep and later moved to the levee on the northern side of the river called Yawiagaiy having a totemic name of Sembarapan. It was in this process that Yuanamb a non-Manamb village which existed on the mountain, Yuanambunembir, West of Malu became extinct while some of the survivors as refugees settled in Yambun that now comprise mainly Malu people who migrated further west along the river.

Yambun, derived from the hill called Yambunsandu was the first settlement from where they moved to the levee called Maanbajuwi. Yambun is well known for a section of the river regarded as the Yambun gate. It is a small passage at which the Sepik River flows through between the hill of Yambunsandu and Kwarmali, a large rock-slope that extends from Mount Ambunti, referred to as Makemawui in Manamb, on the northern side.

One other settlement called Apan was intended as a pig-rearing establishment by two men from Malu around about 1940, and has now grown to a village of about 200 people living on a levee called Guanyal that extends from Apan. The place name Apan was taken from what Manamb call the riverbed stone that extends from the mountain Yuanambunember to the Sepik River. The place names including the river ways and the mode of transport, each has a sub-clan with which they are attached. In so doing they are attached to their totemic names and symbols pertaining to those sub-clans.

Clan as the owners of Knowledge

The few place names as illustrated in the brief historic outline of Manamb demonstrate the importance placed on them with one main purpose. This being the ‘identity’ of the sub-clan and from which patrilineal sub-clans that one is part of in the Manamb tribe. Each of the place names has its totemic names and symbols. Asiti could be described totemically as the valaamatep and having a shadowy side called Barati, gwasamagaiy. These could be made in to life forms by the descriptive mythology thus having real side, based on val, a canoe using, tep, village and having a shadowy side name Barati based on gwus, paddle using, gaiy, village of the sub-clans in the Manamb group. Harrison confirms this:

“Clanship provides the basis for trading and visiting throughout the Manamb territory, as well as for the transmission of totemic and ritual lore, which is hereditary clan property, from Avatip to Malu and Yuanamb” (Harrison 1990, 18).

It therefore sets the stage for ownership of the rituals, mythological, and the totemic classifications attached to each of the cultural components. These names could be the subject for debate and in a matter of a generation it could alter the political structure of the Manamb group. This has been evident in Avatip, where most Manamb rituals and ceremonies have been conducted up to the late 1980s when some ceremonies have stalled, first due to modernization and some Christian teachings that claim some traditions to be satanic. Secondly great orators and knowledgeable elders have passed away at old age therefore some ceremonies could not be sustained.

However, in general term yam ceremonies are owned and conducted by the wuluwi-niyawi sub-clan that still continue to carry out the ritual of harvesting and planting yams. Another ritual that is believed to facilitate plenty of fishing and generally good food sources is the Ndumwi ritual owned by the main clan, nggla aw. These particular ritual is the most threatened as it involves the men’s cult that now face cynicism and much speculation from Christian following.

Knowledge of cosmology and the cultural components referred to earlier, are the prime property of the sub-clan therefore clan leaders go through great lengths to conceal much of the information. For instance, non-initiates who have not sworn to secrecy were not allowed to know their patrilineal great grand father’s names. The same names could have been used by one of the sub-clans sibling but this is not revealed until payment is made to the sub-clan elder who would impart that knowledge under varying degrees of control with some set criteria. Therefore any aspiring young man intending to acquire such knowledge must meet the criteria. In Manamb one who knows so much mythology, rituals and having oratory art is said to wield power, hence earn the respect and endowment from not just his sub-clan but those of the other politically rival sub-clans as well.

In order to earn the respect of the sub-clan elders who may have a variety of choices to pass on the cosmological knowledge and traditions but with the youngster from his patrilineal sub-clan having priority over a matrilineal nephew, one must first of all undergo the first stage of initiations. In some clans, ceremonial ranking could be inherited however one requirement may be that the first stage of initiations must be completed. But the notion of initiation makes one fully aware as a young adult of his responsibilities towards his sub-clan and others around him. One would have reached an understanding that emanates reciprocity from peers as well as other elders.

In addition to the mythology and cosmology as the property of sub-clans there are of course real life properties that are owned in the clan groups. This may not be as complicated as the myths and rituals therefore one is shown and taught the relevant things such as sago harvesting, their locations, and the procedures involved. This knowledge base is widened when these very things assume mythical and totemic representation.

The Knowledge Base

The beginning of time for Manamb traditions provided much for the tribe to absorb, learn and pass on through generations. Totemic beings lived in the world and soon changed their features and turned into various forms. These forms or apparitions could be used with magical powers to facilitate food source, assist in tribal wars or invoked to be destructive by each sub-clan because they have different kind of mythical life beings. Physical and environment substances like mountains, lakes and river ways also have attached to them a mythical life being with secret names.

The mythological areas of origins, wangw have in them the various sakitep, a mythical village where each clan originated from and identified with totemicly as well and is another source of knowledge base. In this sakitep each sub-clan has its men’s cult house, karamb, whose name may be a public knowledge but the structures within and the contents having their own names are highly secretive.

For instance, in the spiritual or religious context the large central posts standing as pillars have secret names and are supported by other smaller ones on the sides. These posts could also be owned by another sub-clan providing mutual support because of their special relationship, perhaps as a mother of the rafter that lies on the posts. Each of the posts have their own secret names that may be known to the initiated because they have virtually entered this karamb with some orientation but for the non-initiates these posts in a replica in his current village means nothing at all.

However, each one is aware that any posts in a karamb assumes some name and has mythical spirit attached to it. In the same understanding one is able to distinguish the differences in the fireplaces in the karamb. The karamb has a front signified by a ceremonial mount, following which the order of fireplace inside the karamb is placed. The most senior ranking sits at the fire place to the front with the most junior at the end of the karamb (cult house). The procedures of entering the cult house and the efforts taken to avoid inflicting harm to the village elders, though behavioural practices require understanding and observation.


This paper briefly touched on the Manamb cosmology and tradition-comprehensively documented by Harrison in a few publications – to illustrate the knowledge base that is available in the Manamb tribe by various cultural components. These are in life form in the environment as material beings, spiritual and religious, cosmological and mythical, and symbolic or totemic. Any false claim to the ownership of this knowledge or a challenge to the ownership, is vigorously debated in public with other opposing sub-clans mutually supporting each other.

However, the tradition and the knowledge are slowly dying out as modernization and social change take effect. Traditions, rituals, ceremonies and language were at one stage the forces that moulded the existence of autonomous tribes in the Sepik and Papua New Guinea. Unless some practices and knowledge bases are maintained by some set criteria there is a danger that the Manamb culture could be extinct because some of it has been forgotten already.

  1. [1] Senior Research Fellow, Political and Legal Studies Division, National Research Institute.

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