The Magic of Kula


A long time ago when the days were longer and the nights shorter lived a hero called Tava who at times took the form of a snake. Tava was known to pass between the villages that are identified as the active Kula Circle. When he was present in a village the people were said to have good fortune and prosper. His location was known only to one woman in each village and she would feed and tend to him. If he felt mistreated or betrayed at any time he would move on to the next island. On his departing the good fortune would also depart with him. He would nevertheless leave each village with a trade. This trade ranged from a surplus of pigs and yams in the Trobriands to the fine art of pottery found in the Amphletts, Other places became known for obsidian and Betel nut. It is believed that this myth could be one of the origins of the Kula Circle and the way it functions.

Kula is a ritualised trading culture existing in eastern Papua New Guinea. It is essentially network of villages joined by a common trade route, known as the Kula Circle. By analogy Kula allows you to experience the magic and legends of Papua New Guinea. Kula was and still is a life sustaining cultural exchange. It is unfortunate that much of the time and energy that was used in the past to hold together the social foundation is now being clouded with the desire for money, a by-product of a tourism-based economy. With influences such as these and the advancement of technology, the intricate pattern in which traditional values are based is slowly eroding. In times gone by they were the foundations that enabled a healthy and peaceful survival.

Kula - derived from bita kuli v. 1. to form in the likeness or image of; 2. to be formed as a likeness or image of. 

Kula is the basis of mental and physical well-being. The Kula Circle has always been associated with making contact with far off neighbours. Traditionally two kinds of items were traded; arm bands carved from the toea shell know as Mwali and spondylus shell necklaces, Soulava. Each of these items were traded individually. Mwali and Soulava traveled in opposite directions around the Kula Circle (group of islands). Mwali passed anticlockwise in the ring and were given with the right hand, the Soulava passed clockwise and with the left hand, first between villages then from island to island.

"When attention is directed onto an object, it remains in the object. Throughout the mystery of Kula, trading the mwali and soulava became ‘living personalities’ with definite cultural identities."
- John Kasaipwalova

The Kula tradition is carried by word of mouth and is symbolised by the objects Soulava and Mwali, or bagi as they are known in different parts of Papua New Guinea. “It is a motion, an action of giving and taking between people - two people (partners) to begin with. This action results in the growth of participants”1. Kula is not just giving and receiving but an experience encountered by two personalities, be they individuals or entire communities. It is the simple human experience of growth and growing as an individual or a community engaged in giving and receiving.

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A simple Soulava necklace 
(with cowry shells).

Mwali is an armband made from shell. The main part of the ring is cut from a giant cone shell. Traditionally the armbands would travel in pairs but today’s Mwali are smaller and travel as a singular item. The arm shells are embroidered with coloured trade beads, Egg cowries and sometimes nuts. As they are too small to be worn they are carried on a rope. The shell itself is fished from the sea and then prepared. Soulava’s are made from spondylus shells of which there are two types. Depending upon which part of New Guinea you are in the colour used will be different. Around Normandy Island it is red and further north in the Trobriands you see white with only a little red. The quality of the Soulava is in the richness, colour, cut and polish of the shell.

The grading is interesting as it shows the importance of the particular item and the standing it brings to the person who owns it. There are nine grades of Mwali and Soulava. The highest grade of Mwali is yoiya and in many cases is considered a dangerous item to have in your possession. The Western equivalent would be the jewels (swords, crowns etc) of kings. Many of them carry memories of death and some magic or poisoning. These particular items are of difficulty to obtain and are often given to the Kula master (chief). Individual shells and Soulava contain their own history. A large toea cone shell with incisions typical of Kula markings was found and dated by the museum of PNG to be up to 2000 years old. This suggested Kula trading occurred around this date.

Trade is only a subsidiary to the actual “game” of Kula. It gives men the ability to remain fit and healthy both mentally and physically. As many of the men would be gone from the village for long periods of time the women become reliant on firm village harmony. The Kula Circle was one way village people would resolve interbreeding within their community. Romances often occurred between women in villages that the men in Kula would visit.

Kula allows communities to obtain Mwasila. Mwasila is the building or creation of a good feeling amongst people. To be happy, free, to have no worries. For the people of New Guinea it is a cleansing, they clear their minds of all wrong doings and smooth the path between family and friends, thus rectifying any bad behaviour.

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Men of Kitava in front of the Kula canoe.

The basic concept of Mwasila is creating a clear path between yourself and your environment, in being able to link with the environment you remove all other thoughts from your head that clutter clear and mindful thinking. This is a technique used by men on Kula.

Today’s Kula begins in the garden. As it approaches time to make a journey for trade the gardens are harvested. Most Kula trade involves a surplus stock of vegetables; yams are a common item. The garden vegetables are used in feasts and are one of the ways the village being visited can show hospitality to their guests. This is the link that binds the villages and the Kula partners. On a second visit a Kitom, or new Mwali or Soulava, is given as a token of the new partnership. 

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A Kula canoe.

The canoes are also an important part of Kula. Without them there would be no Kula as the communities could not come together across the seas. The waga (canoes) used in Kula are quite different from the canoes used to fish around the village. Their sheer size makes them stand out. They have been developed specifically to enable travel across large distances. In each waga approximately 15 men can travel comfortably. The lagim (splashboard) on the bow of each canoe is carved and painted. The symbols on the lagim show the importance of the waga. A bwalai (small man figure) represents the sprit of the man in charge of the canoe and allows his spirit to search the ocean. Minudoga (Sandpipers), the seabird that floats on the ocean, symbolises the care that must be taken by the leader for his crew and his community. He will push them to the extreme but must also be aware of their physical well being. Kaitari, the enchantment of the waves and the tides is a link to the sea and if you are in Kula you must remind yourself of its power.

Kula creates a two-way return of favours. Unlike today’s forms of trade where you trade items and the commitment is absolved, in Kula once you are a part of the Circle it is a permanent connection. The saying around Papua is once in Kula, always in Kula.

The Kula experience created long ago by few men has grown and become the spirit of many of the people in Papua New Guinea. It is an tradition that has been repeated over many generations and adapted to meet the needs of this unique community. The complete experience of Kula stretches out beyond the few men that make the journey to their families and villages. Kula gives the people strength, health and happiness in harmony with each other.

Louise Oliver

Bagi - Soulava necklace (in southern parts of Milne Bay)
Bubuna - Turtle Dove
Bulibwali - Sea Hawk, Sea Eagle, canoe symbol
Bwalai - Small man figure on canoe, symbol of canoe leaders spirit
Bwetia - Scented flower
Gegila - Rainbow Lorikeet
Lagim - The splasboard at the front of the canoe
Minudoga - Sandpipers, small white sea birds
Mwali - Arm shell, arm ring
Mwasila - Making of a good feeling
Soulava - Kula necklace
Vegu - Grasshopper

Malnic. J, with Kasaipwalova.J (1998), KULA: Myth and Magic of the Trobriand Islands, Cowrie Books,Halstead Press, NSW
Microsoft Encartar 2000
Dr.Wulf Schiefenhovel
Many thanks to all the local people of Milne Bay Province for their help