Canoe Paddles and Culture

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Some months ago, I broke my ankle. Although it is still healing and eventually will be just fine, I know that when I return to PNG, I may have difficulty standing and walking for long distances while it’s still mending. I am so glad that I now live among people where the women sit to paddle their canoes, unlike some places where the women stand. I am blessed that Kiku, Dorin and the other ladies of May River have been teaching me how to paddle well, and I look forward to renewing my lessons when I return. The following is a conversation we had prior to us coming back on furlough.

“After women’s prayer meeting, we are going to visit a family across the river to pray for their new baby twins. Would you like to come with us?”
“Sure!” I agreed. “I am always ready to go with the women, regardless of where the adventure will take me.”

“You will ride with Kiku,” one of the women told me. Then, turning to Kiku, she added, “Stop by my house and pick up an extra paddle for Keren to use.”

Soon, I was seated on the floor in the front third of the dugout canoe and, once I had a paddle in my hand, I quickly pitched in.

“You know how to paddle strong!” women from another canoe with the same destination remarked as we traveled alongside them.
“Yeah, but Kiku is making sure we go where we are supposed to go and that we stay balanced,” I explained.

Later, when talking to my friend Dorin, I asked, “Can the ladies teach me how to steer a canoe and keep it balanced?”

“Yes! We can.” Dorin answered, then explained.

“The women who were born in May River can easily handle a canoe, steer, keep track of changing and sometimes dangerous river currents, avoid floating debris and logs, and get from place to place easily. But, women from elsewhere who married river men and moved here as adults have had to learn how to control a canoe properly just to survive. So, several of the women here understand about not knowing how to maneuver properly.” Dorin is an outsider who married a river man. She was clearly speaking from her own experience.

Thankfully, in May River, the women sit to paddle, generally in the back of the canoe. The men traditionally stand in the front to better see and potentially stand and fight an enemy or kill a wild game animal for food. A woman might stand if her back is sore, her canoe is overfilled, or she is in a hurry and feels she has more paddling power standing up. But, mostly, she will stay seated.

How different this is from when I was a student missionary among the Gogodala, where both women and men stand to paddle. Only the old and sick sit down. I enjoyed my few canoeing lessons among the Gogodala a lot! I will admit that I mostly fell and got wet. In hindsight, I think that my friends purposely didn’t volunteer to stay in the canoe with me because they didn’t want to fall in, too.

Canoeing is part of the culture of the river people—they take pride in knowing how to do it and do it well. Even the shape, size and ornamentation of their paddles all have meaning beyond their basic function. When I purposely try to assimilate, it gives them joy that I want to be like them, which is part of the glue that binds me to the river people.

Listen to my adventures in the Frontier Missions Journal podcast, #117 “Let’s Pray!” You may also point your browser to:

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