by Jo Tumbe Mangi

The Huli differentiate two types of oil, the mineral oil, yolo, that comes out of mineral oil seepage and the oil that comes from the tree, bagwa. An informant, Lewabe of Piaguanda mentioned that the test to see if the oil was bagwa or whether it was yolo was to pour some oil on the skin and then attempt to wipe it off with a dry hand. If the skin was still shiny from the oil then it was bagwa because this ‘sinks’ (absorbs) into the skin. If it rubbed off it was yolo. Of these the tree oil was preferred more than mineral oil.

Tree Oil

I was unable to go into the Duguba, that is, the Mt. Bosavi and Lake Kutubu area where the tree oil, bagwa, is produced. The information provided here has kindly been made available to me by Paul Sillitoe who has worked extensively among the Wola people and has written about the production of tree oil. The following account is in most parts a summary of Sillitoe (1979b) and more detailed notes that he kindly made available to me.

Bagwa is an oil that is used as a cosmetic by people from the Southern Highlands, Enga, and the westen half of the Western Highlands stopping on the Tuman River, the boundary of the Ek Nii and Melpa speakers (J. Burton pers. comm.). The oil is extracted from the what the Kutubuans identify as the kaeraegow variety of the tree, Campnosperma braevipetiolata, found in coastal areas growing up to 49 m metres in height and one m in diameter but its oil or sap is tapped by people who live around Lake Kutubu, and on the Papuan Plateau and in the Papuan Delta (Sillitoe 1979b:292).

Mode of Production

The task of extraction is strenuous and requires skill. When a tree has a girth of a metre or more the owner cuts out a scoop shaped nick on the lee side of the trunk big enough to go through to the heartwood without weakening the tree itself. After three to five years the owner returns and removes flaps of bark that had almost healed over the initial cut and pares off a thin layer of wood around the inside of the hole to expose capillaries from which the oil will seep out and collect at the bottom of the cavity where the heartwood had started to rot. Leaves are stuffed into the hole formed by the rotting of the heartwood in the roof of the cavity as well as covering the outside of the hole to prevent rainwater and other impurities from falling in. The owner returns to the tree two, three, or maybe even four times at two or three week intervals to collect oil, after which a film of jelly-like sap lines the inside hole blocking the oil flow from the capillaries. If desired, another thin layer is pared off to open the oil flow from the capillaries. The oil is collected in a short length of bamboo node using a funnel-like shape with a hole in the bottom which is used to drain water that may have slipped in. After emptying the cavity of all the oil as well as any other impurities the hole is covered again and let to fill. The oil is brought back home and after further ensuring that there is no water is poured into long dry bamboo tubes to be sold. The tree is periodically tapped until the heartwood at the bottom of the cavity has rotted right through the trunk to the roots and soil below when it is abandoned.

In the interviews I used bottle gourds, baupe, when asking the informants for the amount that they got or sold bagwa for simply because they were easier to carry around. Apart from the detailed account on the mode of production of tree oil it is also important to reiterate some of the other observations made by Sillitoe. Of these the most important thing that he states is that the oil producers take a very casual attitude towards the production of oil. This implies a low value to the commodity, a point that is important to this thesis.

Mineral Oil

Mineral oil, yolo, from natural oil seepages was also used in decoration in the same manner as bagwa. Huli informants claim that yolo could be obtained from the Duna area. According to Goldman (pers. I comm.), yolo comes from natural oil seepage in the Lepani valley. The source is owned and exploited by the Karua clan. The only detailed information that I got on the extraction was from David Kank Yalal (Assistant District Officer-in-Charge) at Komo who described how it was extracted in Nipa. David’s father is the owner of one of these oil seepages – the oil itself called pombokaim – located about 30 km northwest of Nipa station next to Pongopi Community School. Pombokaim seeped out of the ground and would float on top of an artificial pond. To extract it the owner would go and with a funnel-shaped leaf carefully scoop the oil and put it into bamboo tubes.

Another method was to place one’s palms downwards onto the surface of the pond and the oil would stick to the hand. He would then use a sharp edged stick and scrape the oil into a bamboo node. David would take a whole day of scooping average sized bamboo node of scooping (cf. Sillitoe 1979). Hughes (1972.106-7) mentions natural oil seepages in the Kauga, Erave, and Poru regions of the Southern Highlands province. He goes on to mention that: ‘In the west, it was traded long distances, for Sinclair saw two gourds of it offered for sale in Tari in 1953 after being brought from the source 25 miles (40 km) further west (1966:113)’. This means that the oil came in from the Duna area.

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