Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 7. Children in Melanesia

By the Rev. Dr. W. Ivens.

"I am but a little child; I know not how to go out or com in." (I Kings 3; 7.)


Children and young people in English countries may perhaps look to their uncles for "tips" and for nice presents, but they hardly expect them to provide for their education, or to pay the fees for the clubs to which they belong, or to set them up in life! And they certainly do not expect their uncles to leave them all their property; and if they wanted to marry their uncle's wife (aunt), the law would have something to say about it! Yet this is what happens in the islands called "Melanesia," the tropical islands in the south-west corner of the Pacific, east of Queensland, Australia.

In many of the islands where the Melanesian Mission works, the family is divided into two "sides," the father's side, and the mother's side, and the children belong to the mother's side of the household. And in every household the important person, so far as tin-children are concerned, is not the father, but the mother's brother, the uncle, as we call him.

In the southern part of Melanesia, the New Hebrides, Banks', and Torres' Islands, there is a society in every village to which all the men and elder boys belong; we might perhaps call it a "Social Club." It has various grades, and these grades have to be purchased from the members. The grades are called "ovens," because the members of a grade eat together, and prepare their own food at their own oven in the Club house. In these islands it is the uncle of a boy, and not his father, who pays his fees when he first becomes a member of the Social Club. When a boy is old enough to join, his father pays a pig and some of the local shell-money to his wife's brother (the boy's uncle), and then the uncle undertakes to pay the boy's footing. Again, it is the uncle who helps the boy to advance through the various [77/78] grades (ovens) in the Club, paying his fees as he goes along. It is the uncle who sees to the piercing of the boy's ears and nose, who puts on his first "clothes," who makes provision for his marriage. The father also has his part to do, and is active in providing for his son's or daughter's future, but the real head of the family is the uncle.

In those islands where the Social Club is found, a boy is entered for membership when very young, and every man and boy in the village is a member, but only a very few ever reach high rank. Not to be a member is to be exposed to all kinds of insult. The boy's life in these islands centres round the Club: he prepares his food in the Club house, and spends his spare time there with his mates.

Melanesian boys and girls do not go about together, and a boy avoids his sister, or rather she avoids him. He may go to his father's house for food, but if his sister is inside he must not enter. If a brother and sister meet on the path, the sister runs and hides. If a boy sees footsteps on the beach which he recognises as his sister's, he will not follow them, nor will she follow his. Boys and girls who are "engaged" generally avoid one another, but this is through shyness, and is not a rule of their life.

All the children have their ears pierced. Small rings or quills are inserted at first, and later on a large ring of shell or tortoise-shell is worn in the ear, and in time the ear may be pulled down in a great circle of skin. The piercing of the ear and of the nose is a religious thing; and it is commonly believed that those who are not treated thus, or who are not tattooed, will not be allowed to enter the Home of the dead when they die.

In the Solomon Islands the children's heads are shaved. In old days the shaving was done with a flake of flint; to-day a piece of a broken glass bottle is used--but no soap! The head may be shaved quite bare; or a ridge is left in the middle from front to back, and when the hair grows this ridge stands up like the ridge on [78/79] Britannia's helmet. Five tufts may be left, four round the head and one on top, and the result looks like a ship in full sail.

There are many ceremonies connected with the birth of a chief's son; in the Solomon Islands everybody has to pay who comes to see him; he is not allowed to touch the ground, and he is carried from village to village to be seen and admired, and wherever he goes money is demanded.

In the Solomon Islands the children are named after the dead and not after the living. The right name is found out by a kind of divination. A leaf is taken and a knot tied in it; the leaf is then pulled as the names of various dead people are called. If the leaf breaks it means "no," if it holds it means "yes." The ghosts of the dead are supposed to be directing the answer. When a new born child keeps crying for no reason, it is thought that a dead and gone ancestor wants it to be named after him. Various names are then called till the child ceases crying when a certain name is said. This means that the person who has been making the child cry is now satisfied. His name is the one which the child will bear.

People who have no children may adopt a child, taking care that the adopted child belongs to the wife's people. If a child who belongs to the husband's people is adopted the fact of the adoption is kept secret. When the child grows up, if he finds out that he has been brought up on the wrong "side" of the house he will leave and go and live with his father's people. Such a discovery brings much grief and bitterness.

In the Solomon Islands children are bought from those who wish to sell them. Children also were stolen and taken by sea in canoes to another island for sale. Those who were thus bought were not regarded as slaves, but were brought up as members of the family, and might even become chiefs.

To us it seems strange that children should call their parents by their names, but Melanesian children always [79/80] do. The native names are their own proper names and not their surnames. A Christian Melanesian child often has a native name as well as its baptismal name, and it is called by either name. The children both speak of their father as Mama, and also call him so. This is the same word that we English people use of our mother. A wife shows respect for her husband by speaking of him as "So-and-so" or "he"; and a man will speak of or to his wife as "Mother and child."

No Melanesian child will readily say its own name, but will freely give you the names of others. It is not easy to get an answer to the question in the Church Catechism, "What is your name?" and there is much squirming and wriggling if the question is pushed. The usual answer to the question "Who is it?" is "Me"! Shyness is at the bottom of the refusal to say one's name, and there is also in Melanesia the idea common in many parts of the world that the name is sacred, and must not be told to strangers for fear of magical practices. The "name" is the "person."

Melanesian children are usually well behaved. They show great respect for their elders. No person will ever step across the legs of another, or take anything from over his head. To do so is to show disrespect. When getting into their places in church they will not cross over the legs of anyone who is kneeling. But they laugh at anyone who falls down; and if a dancer makes a wrong step in the dance he is shrieked at, and he might even be shot at with an arrow.

Children are regularly sent on errands by those older than themselves. In the morning, if the house fire is out, a child is sent to a neighbour's house to get a lighted brand. When a man wants to smoke, and has no light, he sends a boy to get a light for him. In the Solomons the children are sent to ask for the materials for what is called "betel chewing," the areca nut, or the hot pepper leaf. Everybody has a bamboo lime box, or a gourd, in which the lime is stored that is eaten with the other two things, but the nuts and leaves have to be [80/81] gathered daily, and so may run short. Melanesians do not hesitate to beg from one another, and the answer given is not always the truth when a person is asked for a bit of tobacco or an areca nut, etc. But a light, i.e., a tire-brand, is never refused.

Every day the Melanesian women go to their gardens to get food for the day, and the older girls go with their mothers. There are no shops where they can buy food, and they have not got our kind of money. Each family has its own garden where they grow the food which they eat, yams or taros or bananas or sweet potatoes. The husbands and elder boys help to prepare the gardens, cutting down the trees, burning up, making the fence to keep out the village pigs, digging the ground with sticks, ready for planting. But it is the women and girls who do the weeding and keep the gardens in order. The men gather the reeds and slicks on which the yam vines climb, and stake the yam plants, and train the vines. The women and girls plant out from day to day the tops which they have cut off the taro plants, or sei out the young suckers. The men and elder boys dig the vain crop, but it is the women who carry the harvest vains home in bags on their backs.

The girls help their mothers in the gardens, but the younger boys fight shy of work, preferring to play about with bows and arrows, shooting birds or fish. No housework has to be done, there are no beds to make, and usually there is only an evening meal to be prepared. The house and the yard are swept daily with a stiff broom, and this is the girls' work: the girls, too, are the nursemaids, for mother often leaves her baby at home when she goes to the gardens. She may take the baby, carrying it on her back in a sling, or on her hip. And one sees women returning home carrying a bag of vegetables on their backs, with a faggot of firewood as well, and a bundle of the leaves which are used to wrap the food in for cooking, and with a baby seated on top! In old days the husband walked in front carrying his weapons, a bow and arrows, a spear, or a rifle, while the wife carried the [81/82] load. Now-a-days in the Christian villages the husband is beginning to do his share of work; but old habits die hard.

In our part of Melanesia the fishing is done entirely by men. Women and girls wade out at low tide and get shell-fish and crabs, but fishing is considered to be a man's business, and not a woman's. In some islands the women and girls were not allowed to eat any but the small fish. The men caught the fish and cooked and ate them down on the beach, and only sent the little fish up to the village! Nor did the families eat together. The men and bigger boys ate in their club houses or canoe house;, the women and girls in the homes. In some Christian villages the practice was for everybody, men and women, boys and girls, to have a meal together on Sunday, each house preparing food. But even then much of the food was taken away and eaten in private. What a revelation, a "new teaching," must the Eucharist be to Christian Melanesians!

Melanesian children have toys, tops made of a large nut, with a peg, wooden dolls, pigs, dogs, bows and arrows, toy spears, model canoes, whistles, flutes, Jew's harps, and bamboo pan-pipes. Swings are made out of the aerial roots which hang down from the banyan trees. Kites made of leaves are used for fishing; the bait, a spider's web, being tied to the tail and made to skip across the water from a canoe; in other islands kites are used as toys. The "bull-roarer," a short length of bamboo with cuts on the sides and a string attached, is whirled round and round, making a roaring noise. In Florida Island, of the Solomons, it was supposed to be the voice of the ghosts, and was used in the Mysteries.

Children play games on moonlight nights, squatting on the sand of the beach or in the open spaces of the villages--one game is like our "Hunt the Slipper." Sides are taken and a shell ring is hidden by those of one side. The children sing a song, keeping their hands closed. Then they open their hands and say, "Where is it?" If the "outs" fail to pick the ring, the "ins" [82/83] are said to give them a kasi, i.e., a forfeit. We say that the losers pay the forfeit. Children bathing with surf boards sing this song:

The wave is solid
To take me along
Take my board shooting along
My board which comes in first
Solid, solid.

The game of cat's cradle (the string game) is played all over Melanesia. There is a regular succession of figures, all of which have names, and each one has its song. Some of the names are Eagle, Fingers, Child swinging, Crab's tail, Frog, Tangle. Football is played with wild oranges. Reeds are dashed on to the ground and rise into the air and go a considerable distance. Points are counted according to the knots on the winning reed. Boys make spears out of stalks of the wild ginger and aim at one another. So quick are they to see the spear coming, and to jump aside, that it is very seldom anyone is hit. Children who see a rainbow play at cutting off its end; if they can cut it short there will be no more rain. When the new moon is seen a yodelling kind of cry is made, drumming on the lips with the fingers.

None of our Melanesians use any words or greeting when they meet, nor have they a form of words used on leaving. In some places they have adopted the Fijian form used on leaving--the equivalent of "I go, you stay," "You go, I stay." In the Banks' Islands friends on meeting "crack" fingers. The second linger is inserted between the other person's second and third fingers, and then the two are pulled apart with a crack. All the children "crack" the joints of their fingers. An English form of greeting is used to-day, but it is used "backwards," for they say "good-bye" instead of "good day" when meeting one another.

Lullabies are sung by the girls who are nursing the babies when the mothers are away. The baby is clasped to the breast, its head against the sister's shoulder, or the mother holds the child's ear and then croons a lullaby. [83/84] Every island has its songs, and there is a song-dialect, the words often being quite different from the ordinary words. A song used in kite-flying has these words, "Wind! wherever you may be, wherever you may be, Wind! come hither; please take my kite from me afar. E-u! E-u! Wind! blow strong, blow strong and steady, blow and come forth, O Wind!"

Melanesian children are not "naughty"; they do not wantonly break things, and they are not mischievous. Seldom do they have to be corrected. But the mothers and fathers never try to stop the children when they cry through peevishness or bad temper. A boy whose father has gone fishing, and who was not allowed to go with him in the canoe, will stand on the beach and howl as if his heart was breaking, and no one thinks of trying to stop him. A child at night who has wakened, and misses its nurse, (usually the grannie), will make the most terrible howling; but though the mother and father are alongside they never dream of quietening it. The children love running about naked in the rain, but when they are taken to the river or the beach to be washed you would think they were being killed from the noise they make! The mother, however, takes no notice, but goes on quietly pouring water over the child with her hand.

Throughout the Island Diocese the Mission has several hundred Village Schools, which are under the care of Native Christian Teachers. In these Schools, most of the children attending, learn to read their own languages quite easily. They have reading sheets or primers with the letters of the alphabet and syllables, and they quickly pick up the letters and join the syllables together. The vowel sounds vary very little in any of the Melanesian languages. But each language uses different consonants, e.g., some have p and no b, and some have both; some have r and no 1, and some have both; some have no g, others no h or f; some have no w; nearly all have an ng sound (as in "sing"); and when a word begins with ng it is hard for English people to sound, e.g., ngali, the [84/85] almond; and the ngg sound (as in "finger") is a difficult one to say when it begins a word, e.g., nggere, to write.

When first the children begin to read they often hold the book at an angle, away from them; or they may even hold it upside down. They often write backwards, "looking-glass" fashion; or a picture is looked at upside down. In many cases the only books they have are the translations of Prayer Book or New Testament in their language, and they use these to learn to read by.

The one thing in school which the children really do not like is arithmetic. They add up by "ones" on their fingers (and toes), and put down a stone as a tally when they reach ten. Division and multiplication are real trials to most Melanesian children.

The Melanesian Mission trains between six and seven hundred native boys and girls in central training schools. They are taken to the schools on one of the ships of the Mission, either the "Southern Cross" or the "Patteson." Their life at school is a very happy one; the boys learn to play cricket and football, and have "house" matches; the girls, too, play games.

There is, alas! much sickness amongst Melanesian children. They all suffer from malaria, and many babies die of it. Skin diseases disfigure their lovely brown skins; ulcers eat into their legs and feet, and they sometimes lose their fingers or toes through ulcers. Influenza and coughs and colds have found their way to the islands, and in most of the villages there is no one to nurse the children, or give them medicine or nice food. Can we not help the missionaries in Melanesia to save the children, by providing nurses and hospitals and medicines?

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