What comes to your mind when you read that? A very unflattering dress? Perhaps, but you would be incorrect in this instance. In Bena culture (and most of PNG, for that matter), a mumu is a large feast, often used to celebrate a girl’s coming of age, a marriage, or some other occasion. Today, our language helpers put on a mumu for all of the students, so we could see the process of creating such a feast.
As we walked down to the house where the mumu was to be held, you could see two huge piles of food lying on banana leaves. One pile was kaukau (sweet potatoes), the other was bananas. These were not “American” bananas though, but “strongpela bananas” or cooking bananas – harder, and less sweet. There was also a fire that was smoldering nearby. All of the guys went to work peeling the bananas with peelers, and the girls began peeling the kaukaus. Once we were finished peeling the kaukau, we laid out a new mat of banana leaves, got a few leaves and a bucket of water, and scrubbed the kaukau clean. At this point, the guys had moved on to slicing the lamb flaps and adding them to a pile with the peeled bananas and various greens.
Then began the creation of the mumu. Four national men brought four banana tree logs and laid them around the fire in a square shape. Eight small sticks were stuck upright inside of these logs to create a frame of sorts around the fire. Dirt (more like mud, thanks to the enormous amounts of rain these last few days) was piled against the outside of the logs, then the large armload of long grass which several of the women had gathered was laid along the upright posts to form walls. Banana leaves were added to this “wall” around the fire and along the bottom, then the smoking “pot” was filled with the kaukau. After the kaukau, a few more banana leaves were added, then the bananas, lamb flaps, assorted greens, and even a few pumpkins. Once all of the food was in, the top was covered with a thick layer of banana leaves. Oh, and lest I forget to clarify, this “house” made of food was about 4×4 in area, and 3 feet tall. That is a lot of food. So they covered it all with banana leaves and stuck a pipe made of hollow bamboo right in the center. At this point the entire thing was covered with a thick layer of dirt/mud. Once completely covered, the national guys poured six buckets of water down the pipe into the heart of the mumu. Wherever steam was escaping around the outside, more mud was added to seal the heat inside. When all the water was in, the bamboo tube was pulled out, and a ball of banana leaves stuck in the hole, with mud on top to fully seal it. Essentially, the mumu looked like a mini-volcano.
After an hour, the dirt was shoveled off, the banana leaves peeled from the top and sides, and the food was pulled out. The inside temperature was estimated to be about 300+ degrees. The national men and women juggled the hot food as it was pulled from the mound and laid on the banana leaves that had formed part of the inside layer. Once all the food was pulled from the mumu, it was divided into four piles. One pile for guys, one for girls, one for staff, and one for the nationals. We all sat down in circles around our piles of food and began to dig in. Being a sweet potato fan, the kaukau was my favorite, but I tried everything and it was all delicious. There was a lot of food left over when all the ITF staff and students left, but be assured that it was not wasted – the nationals would make sure it was eaten.
Good times. Good food. Good people.