Tuma: The Trobriand Heaven

A Study Towards the Value of Traditional Trobriand

Understanding of Tuma as Heaven

By Ignatius Towabu Ketobwau

A thesis submitted in partial fullfilment of the requirements for the

Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree
Rarongo Theological College
Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
25 August 1994



Problem of The Paper

         There is no society, however primitive, without religion. Religion to most societies is the way of life. This way of life evolved around the spirit world. The life that is lived in the world of the living is just a little portion of the total life that extends even beyond death. Many, if not all Melanesian societies believe in the life after death where a person continues his life in the spiritual form for eternity. Nearly all Melanesian societies have a certain dwelling place where the immortal spirits live. This concept is similar to the Christian idea of Heaven.
         Before Christianity brought the concept of Heaven, all Trobriand Islanders "bweiowa" - the native of the Trobriands, lived their lives that was very much influenced by the life lived in the spiritual world of Tuma. Tuma became the 'highest point of achievement where the spirit (baloma) of the person is free from toil and hardship of the "upper world" to live a happy life forever. Because the concept of life after death was already in the belief systems of the Trobrianders, the Christian Heaven was accepted without much questioning. The question now is, Is Tuma the same as Heaven?
          The acceptance of Christianity today has drawn the Islanders' attention away from Tuma. After almost 100 years of Christian influence, Trobrianders have somewhat lost the value of Tuma in their discussions. However, when one dies or is about to die, he is dressed and prepared for Tuma. Christianity and its influence in some instances has infect alienated Trobrianders from their original culture, but not necessarily from the basic set of cultural assumptions they are so familiar with.

b. The Aim and Purpose
         The aim of the thesis is not to dismiss or question the Christian concept of Heaven, but to rediscover the value of Tume for the Trobrienders, and how Tuma can be seen as the highest achievement, a goal for harmonious living. I will also aim at indegenising the concept of Heaven and identify Christ's place in the Trobriand society so that the Islanders will not confuse the two paradises, and view the Christian religion as foreign. The aim is to make Trobrianders wake up and recognise Christ in their culture so that they will believe in Him for salvation.

c. The scope of the Paper
         In general, the scope of this thesis is not to argue that Tuma is the Heaven the Christians talk about. Rather, it is aimed at identifying the concept with the Trobriand belief of Tuma as the place of rest and happiness. Heaven is an abstract concept that can be accepted by the mind that is speculative. The Trobriand mind, like all Melanesian minds tend to support and accept things that can be actualized. Tuma is not an abstract concept, but the physical form is seen. Therefore, the spiritual form in its depth can also be accepted easily. This paper will theologically explain the place of Tuma in the Christian life of Trobrianders. In addition, Christ's place in the Trobriand society will be identified so that Christianity is not seen as foreign but part and parcel of their total life.

d. Limitation of the Paper
         Though the thesis may attempt to identify Heaven with Tuma, this identification may not be true for all societies which have their own heavens. Therefore, this paper will be confined to the people of the Trobriand Islands, known as the "Bweiowe people. Furthermore, it is evident that very little is written about Tuma in the theological perspective, although Anthropologists and Ethnologists have a great collection of materials about it. The idea of Christ been identified as a local has never been suggested before. Thus, my suggestions may be viewed negatively by the holders of the Traditional Christian view. In addition to this, the paper may be of value to theological students and scholars, but may be regarded as misleading by extreme Methodist Conservatives and fundamentalists, who find it hard to value culture in Christianity. It may also be appropriate for today but will not be the same in future.

e. Methodology
         Each chapter of the thesis will begin with an Introduction. Brief mentioning of what is to be discussed in the text will also be stated in the introduction. At the end of every chapter, 1 will summarise the discussion. The reader will be led into the following chapter by a brief introduction of the next contents. There will be a Table of Content placed before the introduction to guide the reader and to relate to the points discussed. In the first three chapters, the descriptive view of the subject will he discussed. The final chapter will discuss and analyse the subject pursued.

          My sincere gratitude to the people of the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; the Kiriwina Circuit Group of the Papuan Islands Region; Luba Circuit; Tukwaukwa Village; Kiriwina Community Ekalesia in Port Moresby; the Principal, Rev. "Chief" Vasi Gadiki, the Faculty, the Staff, the Students, Wives and Children of Rarongo Theological College, without whose support I would not have completed this paper.
          My family and I express our deepest heart-felt thanks and gratitude to you all for your moral and financial support, as well as upholding us in your prayers. In particular, I salute the following for financial support, moral encouragements and academic assistance given to my family and me during the course of writing this paper:
1. Rev. Kore Mavara, my supervisor, for his suggestions, comments and his tireless work in guiding and encouraging me. ! Thank you also for the support of the whole family.
2. Rev. Vasi Gadiki and Marama Kaia, Rev. Kari Gabe and Marama Mairi, Rev. Tim Hatah and Rev. Miriam Hatah, for financial and moral support.
3. Bernard and Wendy Siai, Alfred and Harieth Moabi, Michael and Dorothy Kuebo and John Katlin, student of P1R and their families for moral and prayer support.
4. The Chairman, Executive, leaders and all members of Kiriwina Community Ekalesia in Port Moresby for financial support and prayers.
5. Coburg Baptist Church in Melbourne for financial support.
6. Charles and Julie Semwakesa and family for moral support, financial assistance and prayers.
7. Patrick Tob gabweia Tomausi for financial support and materials for the paper.
8. Diakono Deere Lakani of Tubumaga Clan, Poreporena United Church for the purchase of the dictaphone.
9. Kaia Vele for her tireless work in typing the paper. Thank you to Lohia Vele and young Suzie for their understanding and support given to Kaia.
I also would like to acknowledge the support given to me by my family.
1. My beloved father (Ketobwau) and mother (Ibwatasi) for bringing me up to be what I am today.
2. My beloved guardians (Dadavana) and aunty (Ibodem), who supported me ever since I was adopted by them.
3. My Uncle Patrick Tomausi for financial support and materials for the paper.
4. My beloved in-laws (Tupetupa and Bomw"nauri) for their support to my wife, children and me.
5. My beloved brothers; Onesimos, Inosi, William, Gilbert and Amos, and sisters; Anne, Unice, Cathrine, Rahab and Dorcas for sharing their life with me.
        Finally, the completion of this paper was made possible by the love, support and understanding given to me by my beloved wife Grace and children, Freddy, Priscilla, Matthias, Dorcas and Vasi. Without their support, 1 would have aborted this paper. The laughter and joy of my children brought back new life into me when I was discouraged. My wife's love and support "cemented" the confidence in me of God's love and care through my family. I owe my life to God who had shown me more of His love and care through my wife and children.
(Thank you in Kiriwina)
Ignatius Towabu Ketolt...Rarongo


a. Problem of The Paper
b. The Aim and Purpose
c. The Scope of The Paper iv
d. Limitation of The Paper iv
e. Methodology
1. Trobriand Islands are low-lying flat coral atolls 6
2. The major island of the Trobriand group 7
3. Trobriand children showing variety in physical
appearance 8
4. Location of Labai village where Trobrianders emerged 9
5. The migration of the Kabata subclan of Lukulabuta totem
from Mt. Kabata in Woodlark Islands to the Trobriands 10
6. Young Trobriand girl. with body decoration 11
7. Inosi and Ibodem 11
8. Boitalu and Bwadela 28
9. Journey of the malicious being from Normanhy to Kwadagila 29
10. Women of Tukwaukwa performing the "Sigiliyawali" 30
11. Artist impression of "Vayaba"... 31
12. Bomatu point where the Tokesivila start their journey tt. Tuma
34 58
13. The boundaries and the months when "Milamala" is held
14. Chief Pulitala's Yam house
15. Rev. Lepani Gumagawa...

         No man has ever lived without some experience of religion, be it highly developed or primitive. Every living man has some acquaintance of religion in one way or another. Thus, the Trobriand people (Bweiowa) have lived a religious life ever since they were born. Their total life revolved around the world of the spirits, who control their life's total activities. Their religious experiences were born with them from the very beginning. Their emergence from the ground was caused by the spiritual gods of their individual clans. Those gods gave them their culture and autonomy in terms of their relationship, and charged them with the responsibility of maintaining and promoting that spiritual and religious order. Departure from that given order meant certain death or other misfortunes. Therefore, immediate action had to be taken to restore the relationship whenever it was broken.
          Trobrianders did not hold onto the secular belief that man existed of his own power for his own ends. They perceived man as been born either as man himself, or birds animals as strongly held in their myths of origin. Upon his birth or emergence he was endowed with a sense of purpose, a set of values and a vision of his cosmology, by which his life was to be guided. His cosmology had him as a physical being, controlled and guided by higher spiritual beings. His cosmology also included a place where his physical being could achieve a higher level of existence. This place was called Tuma, believed to be underground. The reason for it been underground was that Trobrianders emerged out of the womb of mother earth. Therefore, Tuma was believed to be the core of mother earth, the origin of the Islanders. Although, the physical form of Tuma was visible by the presence of an Island of the same name, it was not an abode of the gods and spirits, but an entrance,where Topileta lived.
          Because Tuma was a place where a higher existence was to be lived, it was perfect in itself. It was not seen merely as a place of rest, for the spirit did not rest by becoming idle, but continued the pattern of his earthly life without the limitation as experienced by human beings. Tuma's existence was never questioned because people had gone there. Their stories of the happiness and of a struggleless life attracted
          Trobrianders. Tuma, became the highest achievement for every Trobriander. While living in the land "above", every Trobriander looked forward to the day when he would return to Tuma. "Return" is the correct word to use here because the Trobriand life cycle originated from the ground. His desire to go to Tuma was like wishing to return home after been away for a long time.
          When Christianity was introduced to the Islanders a new place called Heaven was taught as the real paradise to aim for and not Tuma. In addition to that, the Islanders had to live according to how the white missionaries wanted them to live in order to reach Heaven. They had to believe in a new God, whose name "Eaubada" did not have any significance in their life. A new thing called "Tapwaroro" was also something they had never experienced before.

          Their idea of Tuma was now confused with Heaven. They began to raise questions such as, Is Tuma Heaven? Does the new Cod live in Tuma? This was because while they strived to end up in Heaven, Tuma was still within their lifestyle. They could not relinquish Tuma, so many carried over to Christianity their basic values and beliefs. Although they appreciated the God who became man through Jesus Christ, they could not comprehend how this foreign Jesus could understand them in totality. Nearly every Trobriand Christian had within him the struggle of harmoniously marrying the two belief systems.
          Today, many educated Trobrianders have taken a negative stand against Christianity as a whole after realising what it did to their culture. The problem was not within Christianity, rather it was how Christ was presented. The European approach worked in the past when Trobrianders were not exposed to the white man's way of living. Now that they have been educated, they saw Christianity as nothing but Western imperialism.   That, of course, is not correct. Christianity is the message of liberation and salvation for all humanity. However, how it was presented did not really show liberation but destruction.
          In this paper, I will attempt to suggest ways of rediscovering the true message of liberation and salvation in Christianity. I aim to do this by identifying Christ as a Trobriander who can enable Trobrianders to experience a higher existence not in Heaven or Tuma onlythut here on earth first and finds its fullness with God wherever He is.
          In the first chapter, the paper will present the Socio-Anthropological and the Historical Background of the Trobriand society. It will identify the place, the type of people, the organization and structure of the society, the religious beliefs of the people and their total life systems.
          Chapter Two will discuss myths of death and of the recurrent cycle of life, the causes and rituals of death, the journey of the spirit to Tuma, communion between the spirit and the living, the return of the spirit during Milamala, and the belief in reincarnation.
          Chapter Three will highlight the effects of changes brought into the Trobriand society by internal and external influences. The chapter will also discuss the Christian concept of Heaven as a great influence in the belief systems of the Islanders.
          Chapter Four will concentrate on the question of whether or not Tuma is same as the Christian Heaven. This chapter will also analyse the current trend of Christianity experienced by the Islanders, their attitude towards Christianity and need for a new Christianity that is appropriate and just to the Islanders.
          The thesis will conclude with more analysis of the need for a new Trobriand Christianity. Recommendations and suggestions will also be offered for consideration and discussion by the Trobriand Christians, in particular.
          May this thesis be a vehicle by which you may enter into the inner being of the Trobriand society, and may God's Spirit enable you to understand the cries of Trobriand Christians who desire to identify Christ as someone of their own flesh and blood so that He may be the means of their salvation.

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