Exaggeration and Reversal:
Clowning Among the Lusi-Kaliai

David R. Counts
McMaster University

Dorothy Ayers Counts
University of Waterloo

1992. Counts, David R. and Dorothy A. Counts. Exaggeration and Reversal: Clowning Among the Lusi-Kaliai. In Clowning as Critical Practice: Performance Humor in the South Pacific, William Mitchell, ed., pp. 88-103. ASAO Monograph 13. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

The Lusi-Kaliai people(1), living along the coastal fringe of the northwest part of West New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea, are physically isolated from the main centers of Papua New Guinea. Their five villages are buffered by about 100 kilometres of sea from the nearest roads or airstrips. One result of their isolation is that they, along with many other rural peoples of the world, usually must provide their own entertainment. At least this was the case until recently. A village correspondent has recently informed us that a local entrepreneur bought a generator, VCR, and monitor for a new business where, for a small fee from his audience, he shows rented videos.

We anthropologists often write as if the people among whom we live and study go about their whole lives--working in gardens, building houses, holding ceremonies, exchanging wealth, rearing children--with deep seriousness. After all, if our accounts of their lives are to be taken as serious business (and our careers depend upon it) then those lives must themselves be serious matters. But, of course, it isn't so, or at least it isn't so that they spend their whole lives that way. They also spend a good deal of time and energy amusing themselves. There are a number of ways that the Lusi-Kaliai provide their amusement. One way is the telling of Aesop-like folktales, called ninipunga in the Lusi language (Counts 1982). Ninipunga are literally stories that are told for fun--a form of pure entertainment. They often feature animal characters whose actions burlesque the behavior of objectionable or stupid humans in such a way as to make high comedy of low behavior. A visit to a village by a person who has a reputation as a skilled storyteller is a notable event, and a large crowd will gather in the evening to call for their favorite stories or ones for which the visitor is renowned. Since storytelling form among the Lusi-Kaliai requires that the narrator quote the actual dialogue of the characters, each performance becomes a local theatrical dramatic event that is entertaining and exciting.

Events staged for the primary purpose of entertainment are not the only ones that provide it. Serious events also entertain and amuse. The ceremonies to claim a first born child are an important and serious matter for the parents as their standing in the community for years to come rests on the successful performance of the ceremony (Scaletta 1985). Similarly, sponsoring a visit to the village by a set of spirit beings is a major undertaking for the organizers. Yet, for others and for visitors to the community, such events may be a welcome form of entertainment. Outsiders attending the festivities bring with them news and gossip; there are public performances that break the routine of day-to-day life; major ceremonial events often involve dancing and singing from dusk until dawn with the attendant satisfied exhaustion of the participants afterwards. On the periphery of these activities, tied only loosely to the central purpose of the ceremony, clowns often entertain and offer social commentary. Clowns are entertainers, often hilarious ones, but there is frequently a solemn undercurrent to their performance for, like medieval jesters, they also address serious business.

There are two kinds of Lusi-Kaliai clowns: those who participate in ceremonial events and those who perform outside a ritual context. The distinction that we make between them is a heuristic one for our own analytical purposes, and not one that our friends would recognize as culturally significant. The remainder of this paper is concerned with the two sorts of clowns that operate in different contexts and vary in the style and content of their social commentary.

The Lusi-Kaliai

There are approximately a thousand Lusi-speaking people living in hamlets and villages along the north-west coast of New Britain in the Kaliai political subdivision. Lusi is an Austronesian language that is part of a patchwork of related Melanesian languages that constitute the Bariai family of languages stretching from northwest New Britain across the Dampier Straits to northeastern coastal New Guinea. While they make use of the sea at their doorstep for the provision of ready protein, the Lusi-Kaliai are not primarily seafarers or fisher people. Rather they are gardeners, producing taro, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables and fruits in shifting plots periodically cleared of light secondary forest, burned, and then planted using digging sticks. In the past half-century the Lusi-Kaliai have also begun planting coconut plantations and have added the production of copra as a cash crop to their gardening activities.

The growth of the town of Kimbe, capital of the Province of West New Britain, less than two hundred kilometres away from the Kaliai area is part of the inexorable process of Papua New Guinea's recent development. Kimbe has brought markets for Kaliai copra, sources of goods for their trade stores, and access to Western-style entertainment (like the videos) within easy striking distance for the first time. Still, without roads to link the Lusi-Kaliai to Kimbe, their isolation--and with it much of the colonial and pre-colonial pace and preoccupation of life--remains strong.

The Lusi-Kaliai have an ideology of patrilineality and virilocality. Their basic co-residential unit is the hamlet which typically is occupied by the agnatically related men of a kambu--the named patrikin group--and their wives and children who live as nuclear families in houses built either around a central plaza or in lines facing each other across a common area. Much of hamlet life focuses on the men's house belonging to the kambu. It is in the men's house that resident bachelors and visiting males sleep and where ceremonial paraphernalia is stored. The kambu is the primary cooperative unit. It organizes ceremonies, fences gardens, pools wealth when its sons marry, and shares bride-wealth when its daughters do. Most of the ceremonial activity of the kambu centers around life-course events, especially marriage, first-born ceremonies, and mortuary ritual. It is also the kin group that supplies the clowns for ritual events.

Ritual Clowning

There is no Lusi term that can be translated as "a clown." Clowning is an action; the term for it is a verb, sega 'to clown; to act the fool'.(2) Ritual clowning, the doing of sega, is tied to the central and serious ritual events that are the focus of community interest. The actions of the clown provide a commentary on the ritual work that is of overriding importance to the community. The examples that we have of the public clowning that occurs in conjunction with ceremonial activities all share at least two elements. First, ritual clowns usually perform as transvestites. Women costume themselves as men and perform exaggerated parodies of selected aspects of male behavior. We also have been told of men dancing sega dressed as women, but we have not witnessed it.(3) Second, clowns parody certain kinds of behaviour. Specifically, female clowns mock the stereotypical male behaviour of warriors, village leaders (especially the leader who is chief sponsor of the ceremony at which they are performing), guitar-strumming youths, and drunks. They also burlesque the actions of outsiders: overweight, pompous white men; self-important politicians who wear shoes, socks, and dark glasses and jingle the keys in their pockets; and urban-dwellers who walk the town streets carrying ghetto-blasters. They probably also mimic the actions of resident anthropologists, but we are mercifully unaware of examples of this type of clowning.

Ritual clowns regularly perform at weddings and at rites for first-born children. An example from each will illustrate the way in which Lusi-Kaliai clowns provide both entertainment and social commentary.

The formal ritual culmination of a Lusi-Kaliai marriage--the wedding-- occurs when the groom's family have accumulated the appropriate bridal gifts, no easy task. The bridal gifts include arrays of Sio pots, Siasi carved wooden bowls (cf. Harding 1967), and huge matched quantities of pandanus sleeping mats and fathom lengths of vula 'shell currency'.

When all is in readiness, the bride's patrikin escort her in costume, weighted down with shell currency, skin shining with coconut oil, from her home to the home of the groom. Near the destination the groom waits with his supporters and the piles of gifts. The two kambu meet, the bride is handed over to the care of her husband, and the gifts are publicly counted and given over to the bride's family. Throughout this process, from the beginning of the procession until the end of the distribution of bridewealth, some of the women--usually old women--of the bride's kambu perform sega. Dressed as warriors ready for battle with their loins wrapped in bark cloth, breasts restrained by bands of cloth, skin whitened with powdered lime, battle emblems (albino cowries or boar's tusks) clenched between their teeth, and brandishing fighting clubs or 'spears' cut from slender branches, they leap and rush about, threatening onlookers with their weapons. The clowns concentrate their attacks on members of the groom's party, especially the men(4). The chosen victim of an attack is expected to flee until the clown is distracted and finds someone new to threaten. Those not party to the chase flow with the action, sometimes aiding the clown by threatening to trip her victim, and always finding hilarity in the sight of an old woman putting a strong young warrior to flight.

The second illustration of ritual clowning is drawn from performances at first-born children's rituals of validation. Naomi Scaletta (1985) has provided a detailed discussion of these rituals which also form a central part of the ceremonial and political life of the Kabana people living to the west of the Lusi-Kaliai. Kabana and Lusi-Kaliai adults compete for prestige and standing in their communities in part through the lavishness of the ceremonies held to honor their first-born children.

Among Lusi-Kaliai, parents who aspire to important social standing ritually recognize nearly every 'first' achievement of their first-born child: the child's first step, for example, or its first time to dance in public. The major rites, which validate the claim of the father's kambu to the child and formalize the relationship of the child with its mother's kin, are highly elaborated formal public ceremonies which usually occur sometime between the child's sixth and eleventh years. These rites include the presentation of a young woman on the occasion of her first menses, the ceremony of penile supraincision(5) for a young boy, or its analogue for a young girl when her ears are pierced. The last two rites, called vaulo, are events of great moment for the parents. The ceremony is usually held for a number of children at the same time and, if possible, it should take place when there are aulu 'spirits' resident in the men's house of the hamlet. For the fathers and their kin, the vaulo is an enormous undertaking, for the potential rewards of great prestige are balanced by the risk of excruciating humiliation if they lack sufficient resources to feed all guests and present generous gifts of shell currency and pandanus mats to the children's mother's patrikin (Counts and Counts 1970). For the sponsors it is a time of worry and tension. For others it is a time of festivity. The action usually begins at dusk as singers and dancers, sometimes including masked spirit beings, begin their performance in the village plaza, and it lasts through the night. Soon after dawn, the serious business of shell currency presentation begins as the name of each recipient is called and his or her gift is publicly counted by a master of ceremonies. When this is over, the honoured children are brought out.

All the children are decorated: their bodies and faces are painted; they are dressed in dance costume; and they are bedecked with shell currency and dog's tooth, nassa shell, or cassowary quill ornaments. The children are the center of attention and each one is brought through the middle of the village either surrounded by a crowd of supporting adults and perhaps also by the stately masked aulu figures, or carried standing on a shield above the heads of the crowd.

Leading the crowd, dancing backward just in front of the children to be presented are the clowns, usually women and usually from the initiates' mother's patrikin.(6) The clowns' dress is variable. Unlike the wedding clowns who wear warrior attire, all of the clowning for children that we have witnessed has parodied the dress of young "modern" men. "Dress" is used loosely here; the clowns wear shorts and T-shirts, and long socks and shoes if they can find them. They also often sport sun glasses and carry radio/cassette recorders and, rather than charging the crowd as they might do at a wedding, they are more likely to stagger around drunkenly, falling down and shoving at the spectators.

The more sombre side of clowning behavior may also be expressed at the ceremonial presentation of a child, for the same women who burlesque the 'man bilong gita' (literally "guitar man", in Tok Pisin, but figuratively a lazy layabout) that the newly supraincised boy will become, also mourn his passage through the cycle. After the surgery a clown may throw herself, still in her costume, on the newly blooded mat and weep for the child's suffering and shed blood. When this happens the keening clown remains prone on the mat until one of the child's agnatic kin compensates her for her grief.

Ritual clowns do not perform gratis. As is true of everyone else who participates in honouring a celebrant, they must be paid. Clowns are compensated, consultants tell us, "to buy their shame", to repay them for having shed their dignity to play the fool in public.

Informal Clowning

Informal clowning differs from ritual clowning in a number of significant respects. First, it may have a restricted audience rather than a general and public one. Second, it may exist on the sidelines, associated with but not an integral part of a ritual, or it may occur in a context that is unrelated to any formal event. In the latter case it is wholly impromptu, sometimes triggered by the behavior it ridicules, and sometimes by the behavior of those for whom the clown is performing. Third, it may not involve gender role reversal and, even on those occasions when the parody apes the behavior of a person of opposite sex, the gender reversal may be only incidental and not an integral part of the clowning performance. Fourth, the clown dons costume only if dress is an unmistakable element of the target's identifying features. Otherwise the buffoonery may mock the target's walk, speech habits, or some other behaviour characteristic. Finally, the humor of the performance comes from the exaggeration of the target's identifying features.

Informal clowning occurs in association with the ritual presentation of first-born children, but is separate and distinct from the formal sega already described. It is especially likely to happen if the ceremony involves the participation of a powerful spirit figure whose presence drives women from the village. In 1981 when our twelve-year-old son was one of the children ceremonially introduced to a local men's house, Dorothy fled with the other women, retiring to an enclosure at the far end of the village where the women distributed among themselves some of the food that had been prepared for the men. After the feast, the women began to sega. Some imitated the men, pretending to shout instructions and announcements in English and charging the giggling women, while one woman imitated the leader of the kin group who had sponsored the ceremony, strutting back and forth and ordering all the women to run away.(7) When a young man came to tell the women they could return, they chased him from the enclosure, throwing things at him and hitting him with sticks. According to our consultants, when women retire further from the village, they usually strip naked to bathe, and then dance, sing, and sega, parodying the supposedly secret activities of the men. Had that been the case in this instance, we were told, the women would have cut spears and used them to threaten the young man who came to call them back to the village. Again there is a dark side to the event, for our consultants claimed that in earlier times any man caught spying on the women at such a time would have been surrounded and killed at the order of the elder women. Word would have then been sent back to the village that the female 'spirit' named Vovonga had caught and killed him, just as a woman who was caught spying on men's secret activities would have been killed by a male 'spirit'.

Other informal clowning among Lusi-Kaliai is, like ritual clowning, public. But while ritual clowning takes place in a context where a crowd already exists for another purpose, this informal clowning is impromptu and is itself the focus of action. If it is successful, it creates a public for whom it is the central attraction. In the remaining section of this paper we discuss two impromptu clown actors: one, called Antu Kikira, was a commentary on villagers' views of whites; the other parodied the arrogant stupidity of a Papua New Guinean official.

Antu Kikira is best first described. The clown's head was an old white volleyball, split to go over the wearer's head. Below the volleyball there appeared to be a grossly fat person wearing an old suit and dress shirt with worn leather shoes on its feet. For several months in 1975, Antu Kikira would appear from time to time, usually from the vicinity of a men's house, and slowly and ponderously parade up and down the village 'street', the open space across which the houses faced each other. Commonly, he would emerge at a time of day when young children were about, playing in the sand or under the verandas of the houses. The children would run screaming in all directions searching for the nearest parent or appropriate substitute to throw themselves on for protection from the monster. The children's screams of fear brought the adults out to shriek, point, and hold their bellies with the pain of laughter. Occasionally a parent would take a child toward Antu Kikira, thrusting it at him and telling the Antu, "Here, you can eat this one--he's a bighead!" The proffered child would scream even more loudly, while the watching adults would laugh harder.

What was happening here? First, Antu Kikira was a white man: his bald, white, featureless head, his inappropriate clothing, and his threatening pomposity clearly identified him. These same features made him a perfect parody of the most objectionable features of the stereotypical colonial European. To see such persons being aped was genuinely funny. Second, Antu Kikira was an antu ('ghost', 'spirit being'): he usually emerged from behind the men's house as did the equally ponderous aulu, and from the same area whence came the voice of the antu, the bullroarer. As a "white" antu, Kikira was a barbed and ambivalent joke about the belief of the ancestors (and of unsophisticated contemporary people of the New Britain interior) that Europeans were in fact ghosts. The children's reactions--their fear and screams--were themselves a parody of the ancestors' own fear of the whites who came to the Kaliai area about a century ago, so that too was part of the humor of the performance.(8)

Several people performed Antu Kikira during the months of his residence in Kandoka. The performers were mostly young and middle aged men, though occasionally a young woman would don the attire and make the rounds. On one occasion Antu Kikira was performed by a young woman at the request of some parents in the village whose children persisted in playing in the puddles left after a hard rain. The parents, concerned that pig faeces had contaminated the water and were endangering their children's health, wished to frighten them. The children soon left their play.

The Antu Kikira clown had a short life. After a couple of months, some of the younger children who were old enough not to be afraid, but young and small enough to spoil the effect for toddlers, began to use the volleyball (and sometimes an old torn sheet as clothing) to frighten the younger children on a daily basis. As the character became familiar, he lost his power to amuse as well as to frighten. Eventually the torn, discarded, volleyball shell became part of the trash swept up and thrown out to sea.

Our second example of impromptu clowning occurred during our residence in Kandoka village in 1981. At that time the Department of West New Britain (the arm in West New Britain Province of the national government) dispatched several teams who were charged with visiting all the villages in the province, explaining to the local people proposed constitutional amendments, and attempting to gauge public support for the changes. The teams were led by a national civil servant--in the case at hand, an information officer--who was accompanied by the locally elected member of the provincial legislative assembly and the member of the local government council from each council district. The information officer assigned to patrol in the Kaliai area was a man whom we will call Maringe. For the Lusi-Kaliai, Maringe was a target for clowning. Indeed, some suggested that he was a clown! One member of the provincial legislature told David the following story:

You know, we in West New Britain are really lucky--really lucky. The national government wanted our province to have at least one of everything. They knew we were nearly complete, so they sent a man to find out what we were lacking. After careful study he found that we were short only one thing: West New Britain had no clown! Once they knew, the people in Moresby had pity on us. They sent us Maringe. Now we have a clown. Now we are complete!(9)

From the perspective of the Lusi-Kaliai, Maringe started with a disadvantage. He was a foreigner; he spoke atrocious Tok Pisin; his incompetence was legendary, for he had but to touch a piece of equipment for it to cease working; and finally, he was gullible. As if these severe deficiencies were not enough, he was known throughout the village within hours of his arrival as a person both arrogant and offensive.

He did not walk through the village, he swaggered, he strutted. He showed no deference to big men and big women. Rather he presumed familiarity, entering houses without invitation, staying where he was not welcome. Villagers felt that he talked down to them in the public information session, that he lectured them as if they were children for whom his visit was a gift of god. He did not ask where he might stay, but commandeered the just- completed Young Men's Social Club building for his own use. Finally, the villagers quickly realised that he was spending more time trying to set up assignations with young village girls than he was in trying to do his job.

His lust for the unmarried girls of the village was the opening the people needed. As Maringe chose to base his team in Kandoka and work out to the other Kaliai villages rather than patrolling and staying in each one, he was at the mercy of the Kandokans for the better part of a week. During that time they played on his gullibility, conspiring to lead him down the proverbial garden path, taking him for what they could, and they clowned him. Young girls would be sent to inform him that a desirable young woman would meet him in the bush far from the village late at night. Then a crowd would hide and watch as he went secretly, with no light, to meet his imaginary paramour. When he returned hours later, he would be given a message from the girl that she had waited and waited, but he had gone to the wrong place. When the amusement of Maringe being led by his penis began to pall, one of the village men suggested to Maringe that perhaps he would like to marry his daughter. All that was needed was a down payment on the bride price.

Maringe paid over 50 kina (about $75.00 U.S.) and his stereo radio/cassette player. From then on, members of the girl's kin group began to call him by in-law terms, ask him for gifts, and require that he honor all the tabus restricting a person's behavior with respect to his in-laws. They also successfully demanded that he make available for their use his house in Kimbe, when they went there. All of this was done with complete gravity as far as Maringe was concerned, though every move had been carefully planned and the entire village was privy to the scam. For days the gossip focused on the latest coup that the villagers had counted against this oaf. Needless to say, the marriage was never consummated.

The clowning picked up on Maringe's identifying characteristics: one was a pet phrase: "No Problems!" When informed that his movie projector used in the information session was not locally repairable after he broke it, his response was "No probs!" Indeed, any difficulty was met with a "no probs" response. Yet, from the point of view of the Kandokans, this was a man with many problems. For the rest of our stay, when someone in the village was informed of a difficulty or asked for something that he or she could not possibly provide, the response was an exaggerated "No Probs!" and laughter from everyone within hearing. The second aspect that was clowned was Maringe's walk--indeed his swaggering strut was sometimes aped in his presence, as long as the clown could remain out of Maringe's line of sight. More frequently, someone would simply parade down the middle of the village, waving condescendingly, and shouting "No Probs!" to the delight of onlookers. Now, without question, the treatment given to Maringe was harsh. He was both ridiculed and gulled, and the conspiracy to do it was virtually village-wide, wider than that if we take note of the quote from the Talasea-area provincial parliament member with which we opened this discussion of Maringe. It sometimes seemed to us that people were testing how far they could push Maringe before he would realise that he was being made a fool of and decamp. His departure was what the villagers wanted, but being powerless to effect that goal directly, they used the ridicule available to them. They also used direct action to express their anger, by urging their local parliament member to file a formal complaint against Maringe when the patrol returned to the capital. In fact, a formal complaint was lodged and Maringe was suspended from further patrols while it was investigated. Meanwhile, during Maringe's stay in the village, the people did what they could, and what they could do was to make a fool of the offender and amuse themselves. The point on which to leave this discussion is just that: amusement. Through the actions of those who clowned at Maringe's expense and the hilarious gossip provided by those who managed to gull him, the village was entertained for weeks. Just a "No probs!" was enough to provoke laughter, or the recounting of one of the Maringe stories in which the villagers won, and he lost. He was most offended when he lost the girl, too, and threatened to sue for the return of his goods, but to no avail.


We suggest that the two sorts of clowning we have described are dissimilar in form, employ disparate strategies, and deliver different messages: the contexts in which ritual clowns perform and the comments on social affairs that they convey are not the same as those of informal clowns who perform on a impromptu basis. Our analysis of the content of clowns' messages is necessarily inferential, for we have never systematically pursued the meaning of clowning with our consultants. The following interpretations of Lusi-Kaliai clowning seem to us, from what we understand of Lusi-Kaliai culture, to be reasonable; they are possibilities that we want to explore with our friends and either verify, revise, or reject the next time we have the opportunity to reside in West New Britain.

Ritual clowns perform in view of the persons whose behavior is the topic of comment: they are, in fact, performing for two distinct audiences and, perhaps, providing for each a separate message. One message for the general populace is that the model of the adult male who embodies the qualities of the male ethos--a model to which the newly supraincised boys aspire--including the men's posturing as warriors or as modern "new men" with their socks and shoes, ghetto blasters, sun glasses, key chains, and guitars--are ridiculous. No particular male is singled out as a representative of the category (although clowns and audience alike may have a prototype in mind to add content to the performance). Rather, the target is an archetypal one and, therefore, any particular individual who took offense would be nominating himself as an example of the category, not a role to which anyone would likely aspire. Punctuating this statement, that the strutting adult male is really pretty silly, is the sadness women feel as they see their sons move from the female sphere (literally out of their mother's house and into the men's house) into the male sphere of influence, or their daughters move from their natal home to that of their husbands where they might be unprotected. We think, although we do not have a single quote from an informant to substantiate this, that Lusi-Kaliai women are ambivalent about the ceremonies. They are sorry to see their little boys grow up and their daughters become exposed to the potential dangers of marriage. As Dorothy Counts has argued elsewhere (1987; 1990), marriage for Lusi-Kaliai women is dangerous, for most will be the victims of male violence at one time or another, and some may be driven to suicide. Unable or unwilling to prevent a daughter's marriage with its attendant dangers, women can at least comment on it by clowning. The ambivalence of the women is illustrated by the earlier description of a clown weeping on the mat where the blood of her grandchild was shed to facilitate his becoming a man.

Another message, this time focused on particular individuals, is to the groom and his kin who are threatened by the clowns from the bride's family. First, the relationships between the two groups of affinally related kin are characterized by competition as well as cooperation. Her relatives have the right to call on him and his kin for contributions of pork and shell money when they sponsor important ceremonial distributions. They also may claim the children of the marriage if the husband and his kin fail to pay all of the bridewealth or neglect to perform the vaulo, thereby demonstrating their inability to meet their obligations to the children. Although a marriage allies the two groups, there is underlying tension between them. This tension is acknowledged by the avoidance rules that severely limit interaction between a person and his/her affines. It is also expressed by the sham battle in which clowns from the bride's family attack the groom's kinsmen with mock fighting clubs and spears. This attack is done in fun but it also includes an element of aggressive and violent behavior that carries a message from the bride's family to that of the groom.

On one level, the clowns demonstrate the commitment of the bride's relatives to defend and support her if she is abused by her husband or his kin. Domestic violence, especially wife beating, is an expected part of married life in West New Britain. The amount of punishment a husband can inflict on his wife is limited by the presence of her relatives and their willingness to intervene in her defense if he beats her excessively. The attack of the clowns reminds (perhaps warns) the groom and his family that there will probably be conflict between the two kin groups if he abuses her.

An important distinction between our examples of formal and informal clowning is that informal clowning takes place out of the sight of the persons being aped. Any messages, including those about what is unacceptable social behavior, are therefore for the benefit of someone other than the victim of the ridicule. In this case the clowning targets an individual who may be a prototype of the stereotype being lampooned in formal clowning: this particular person personifies those qualities that clowns in another context have demonstrated as absurd, ridiculous, laughable and not to be imitated by those who do not want to be seen as fools.

In all the instances we have seen of informal clowning, there is a power differential between the goat and the clown, and this inequality is part of the structure of the performance. The informal setting permits relatively powerless persons, as clowns, to use ridicule to comment on the unsavoury or foolish qualities of more powerful persons whom they would not dare ridicule to their faces or in public. Thus women go off by themselves to parody their menfolk but they do not publicly ape their husbands, fathers, village elders or older brothers with impunity. Villagers imitate the gross and unendearing qualities of whites or government officials, but not where the victims can exact angry retribution against them. Once again, however, we can see the reciprocal side to this humor because the other message being communicated is that the powerful are not invulnerable and that the weak may have their own sources of strength. Maringe, the powerful fool, was in fact vulnerable to village anger and resentment and, when the game was over, he was poorer, still unmarried, and reported to the government for incompetence. Women, who were required to submit to their menfolk, claimed the right to attack and kill any man who invaded their private domain (as men could kill women who saw the sacred masks or entered the men's house), and they still exercise their prerogative to attack any male--even a messenger--who trespasses on their territory. In spite of the perceived inequality, those without power are not bereft of resources: there is a time and a place when, as clowns, they can assert authority and can successfully challenge the establishment.

It would be a mistake to end this paper on such a sombre note. It is important to remember that the serious side of clowning behavior among the Lusi-Kaliai is inseparable from behavior that brings light and laughter and pleasure into the lives of people and provides them with entertainment. Clowns comment, but they comment with mirth.


Counts. Dorothy Ayers
1980 Tales of Laupu. Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Boroko.

1987 Female Suicide and Wife Abuse: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 17:194 204.

1990 Beaten Wife, Suicidal Woman: Domestic Violence in Kaliai, West New Britain. In Special Issue: Domestic Violence in Oceania. Pacific Studies 13(3):151-170.

Counts, David R. and Dorothy Ayers Counts
1970 The Vula of Kaliai: A Primitive Currency with Commercial Use. Oceania 41:90-105.

Harding, Thomas G.
1967 Voyagers of the Vitiaz Strait: A Study of a New Guinea Trading System, American Ethnological Society Monograph 44. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Scaletta, Naomi M.
1985 Primogeniture and Primogenitor: Firstborn Child and Mortuary Ceremonies Among the Kabana (Bariai) of West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Ph.D. dissertation. Anthropology Department, McMaster University.


The research on which this essay is based was conducted in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea in 1966-67, 1971, 1975-76, 1981 and 1985 with the support of the National Science Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Wenner Gren Foundation, McMaster University and the University of Waterloo.


1. 1. We have agreed with scholars in Papua New Guinea to try to standardize our usage of terms for the people who have been our hosts since 1966. The people with whom we have lived are called the Lusi-Kaliai. We have chosen this awkward hyphenated term because the language spoken by our friends is called Lusi, while the region where they live (essentially a political division deriving from colonial times) is called Kaliai. In this chapter when we refer to the inhabitants of the region generally, we will call them Kaliai, otherwise our references are to the Lusi-Kaliai and to their language, Lusi.

2. Verbs in Lusi-Kaliai never stand alone as uninflected forms, hence there is not really such as form as sega, "to clown, play the fool," as an infinitive form. Someone must "clown", as in ti-sega, "they clown", or a kind of noun can be formed from the verb, as in sega-nga, "clowning". In this chapter we propose to ignore these linguistic niceties and treat sega as though it could stand without an affix.

3. We have also been told of one man in Kandoka village who is known for clowning naked (to the embarrassment of his wife and the amusement of everyone else). Our consultants suggest that naked clowning by both men and women was once more common. In addition, a lot of clowning that goes on today involves sexual burlesque, for example women sporting huge penises and lunging lasciviously at the men, or men equipped with the appearance of enormous breasts and women's skirts performing impromptu 'bump and grind' acts to the great enjoyment of all but their respective spouses.

4. The ritual opposition of patrikin groups in mock battle is not restricted to the wedding events described here. We have suggested that the clowns' attacks pass the message to the bride's new affines that she is protected by her patrikin's interest in her well-being. That interest extends to her children, as well. The most graphic example of such mock strife between affinally linked Lusi-Kaliai kambu that we have witnessed took place in 1967 following the death of a young boy. When his mother's patrikin group arrived to participate in mourning the boy's death, the men marched in a phalanx through the village center bearing spears and painted for battle. The dead boy's patrikin lined side by side with shields facing the oncoming spears to bar their "enemy's" path. When the two groups met the spears were thrust into the waiting shields. Then everyone dropped their weapons and embraced, weeping for their joint loss. The bereaved mother's patrikin had been given opportunity to express their rage that those responsible for "their child" had been negligent and had permitted his death.

5. The purpose of penile supraincision is the same as that of circumcision -- to expose the glans penis. Rather than removing it Lusi-Kaliai make an incision along the top of the foreskin, allowing it to drop back from the glans. Initiates are usually from about six to eleven years when the incision is made.

6. Lusi-Kaliai are reluctant rule-makers about what there "must be" to make events proper in the abstract. In specific cases, of course they will tell an enquirer precisely what went wrong, and with glee if the error is someone else's. We never have heard a statement that "there ought to be clowns," but we also have never seen clowns at minor rites and never have seen a major one take place without them. We surmise that if there were no clowns at a vaulo the spectators would be highly critical afterward about the ability of the child's relatives to do things right.

7. It is important to note here that women maintain the fiction that what the men do is secret from them. The women, who are driven away to protect them from these powerful spirit beings that only men can control, gleefully celebrate their possession of knowledge thought to be the property of the unsuspecting men.

8. We hasten to add that our own two-year-old also found Antu Kikira terrifying, even though we promised him that we wouldn't let it eat him.

9. This anecdote was told to David while he was sitting on the beach with some members of the provincial legislative assembly awaiting transport to Kimbe, the capitol of West New Britain. The conversation was in Tok Pisin, and the term used to describe the need filled by Maringe was klaun.

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