Kwoma - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Although nominally Christian, Kwoma have a traditionally oriented ritual and aesthetic life. They believe in a complex pantheon of spirits. These fall into two categories: "bush" or "water" spirits occupying streams, boulders, or other natural features, collectively termed (in pidgin) masalai; and clan spirits depicted by ceremonial carvings.

Ceremonies. The three major contemporary Kwoma Rituals focus on the harvesting of yams; in each, men display different styles of painted and decorated wooden sculptures depicting powerful clan spirits (the agents thought responsible for the continuing fertility of yam gardens) and dance around these sculptures singing complex song cycles that celebrate incidents of note in the histories of individual clans. Previously, Kwoma performed a separate yam-planting ceremony that focused on the display of a distinctive style of carved female figure, but this ritual has now been abandoned. Women's participation in rituals is limited to dancing and singing outside men's houses on specific ceremonial occasions; women know the songs men perform and enthusiastically join in the choruses.

Arts. Like other Sepik peoples they are famous for their plastic art, principally wood carvings and paintings on bark. The bulk of plastic art decorates ceremonial buildings. The ceilings of these structures are lined with hundreds of paintings of totemic species, and the posts and beams are lavishly carved with sculptures depicting mythological personages and spirits. Kwoma men's houses are among the greatest of all artwork in the Pacific region.

Medicine. All serious illnesses, and deaths other than those from direct physical violence, are attributed to sorcery. Kwoma believe that serious illnesses (e.g., tuberculosis) can only be cured effectively if the initial conflicts that gave rise to the sorcery that caused them are resolved.

Death and Afterlife. Kwoma do not dwell on the afterlife and have no notion of a person's actions being punished or rewarded in the hereafter. The souls of the dead are thought to live in ghostly villages deep in the forest or, in the case of the most prominent men, in a subterranean world entered through lagoons. Kwoma practice double burial. The second burial, which takes place a year or more after the first, coincides with the complete decomposition of the body and marks the formal end of the period of mourning and the Permanent departure of the deceased's soul for the land of the dead. Corpses were formerly exposed on platforms; today they are buried in cemeteries. Although now illegal, a traditional practice persists in which various bones are recovered during the second burial and fashioned into daggers and other items of traditional adornment. Skulls of outstanding warriors and debaters are buried beside the main posts of men's houses to give added "strength" to the buildings.

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