New Guinea, 1949:

Ibuso pushed the twig up through the small hole at the base of the skull, then moved it in a circular motion around the inside of the man's cranium. A thin grey paste began to drip from the skull into the bowl. It had been easy to remove the Shaman's head from his neck using the broad steel knife. The last time Ibuso had performed the funeral rights had been on her own husband, just under a year ago. Then, she had still used the stone tools copied from those which her family had used for centuries. It was good to use the old tools, which had honoured so many Ancestors, but the task was much easier with the knife, especially since Ibuso no longer possessed the strength she once had.

She paused for a second to suck the liquid from her fingers so that she could keep a firm grip on the skull. It would dishonour the Shaman's spirit and might anger it if she dropped the skull in the dust. Ibuso looked across to the men's hut and saw Kiguda sitting beside the doorway. It was Kiguda who had brought the knife back the village after a raid on a distant village to the North. Normally, the men would not have gone further than the adjacent villages a few miles away, but Kiguda had persuaded the elders that they were stronger than the distant tribe. Three men had died in the raid - the other village had put up much stronger resistance to the surprise attack than expected. Because of the distance, it was not possible to bring back any prisoners from the raid, although Ibuso suspected Kiguda had become scared and run away from the fight after stealing the white man's metal knife. Even the powerful spirit in the knife had not been enough to change the course of the skirmish, which was soon lost. Kiguda led the survivors back to their own village. He walked into the centre of the village shouting about his brave deeds during the raid, and held up the knife so that everyone could see it. Some of the elders were angry with Kiguda for bringing the white man's magic into the village, but it was generally agreed that the raid had been a great success. Ibuso had left the feast early that night when she could not listen to Kiguda's boasting any more. She knew he was a coward who should not be allowed to sleep in the men's hut.

The loss of the three men had greatly weakened the village, and then the Shaman had been possessed by evil spirits. The Shaman had been powerful in his time and good for the village, which had prospered under his guidance. His magic had been powerful and the men's hunting trips were successful. Attacks on the village by neighbouring tribes had been repulsed because he marshalled the spirits of the Ancestors which guided village life. But after the raid he had changed. He became listless and sat in his hut for much of the time, shivering. He began to forget key elements of the rituals he performed whenever the men went hunting, or when a child was born. He had stumbled and dropped the skull of the most powerful chieftain the village had ever had. Ibuso was afraid when this happened, for she knew the Ancestors were angry at this sacrilege. After a few months, the Shaman did not emerge from his hut any more. The women were not allowed into his hut because the magic there was too powerful, but the men took him food the women had prepared. Yesterday he had been found dead in his hut, sitting propped up against the wall, his hand still gripping the talisman he always carried.

Ibuso had nearly finished carefully scooping the liquefied brain from the Shaman's skull. The other women watched her in silence, afraid to talk and pensive about the powerful spirit of the Shaman which might be angered if the funeral rights were not performed with due deference. When she was satisfied that she could not extract any more of the brain, she set the skull down carefully beside her on the mat, careful that it did not touch the ground. The bowl was half full of a thick grey liquid, in which some intact pea-sized lumps of jelly-like brain tissue could still be seen. She began to add the herbs that the Shaman himself had gathered from secret sites in the valley and stirred the mixture. After a few minutes, it became smooth and she began to pour it into hollow bamboo tubes. She sealed these by tying leaves around the open end, then the other women placed them in the embers of the cooking fire.

The women sat in the hut while the brain was warmed by the fire. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the heat from the embers warmed the greyish soup to a temperature of 94oC. Because of the low atmospheric pressure, it began to bubble gently, but did not get any hotter. After an hour, Ibuso stood up and called the children. They came slowly towards the hut, aware that the women were pensive and uncertain of themselves at the liberation of such a powerful spirit. The children had always been afraid of the Shaman when he was alive and gave him a wide berth. Now, with the women, they would honour his spirit by consuming his brain. The eldest boy was eleven years old. Ibuso's youngest son was a few months older and had gone to live in the men's hut after his father had died, so could not participate in the funeral rites any longer.

The bamboo tubes were passed around the group, who received them and drank in silence. For the infants and babies in arms, the mothers poured a little liquid into their hands and fed them. They also smeared the liquid on their faces in the approved manner. After half an hour, the funeral was over and the mood lightened a little. Nothing untoward had happened and the Shaman's spirit had been honoured. The children ran off to play and women began to drift away to other tasks. Ibuso began to clean to Shaman's skull so that it could take its place on the Ancestors shelf in the men's hut. Kiguda's eldest son sat close by, watching Ibuso. He seemed to be quiet these days and no longer ran through the village with the other children. Well, perhaps he was just getting tired of children's games. He was, after all, nearly ready to go and live in the men's hut. But Ibuso had seen him stumble as he walked. Maybe he was going to get kuru - the shivering.

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© AJC 1997.