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Maenge gardens

Françoise Panoff


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1Maenge horticulture rests on an individual treatment of plants. In any compartment, such as the one represented in Figure 2 (p. 56) one finds a limited number of plants (89) belonging to 8 different species. Two of these species, cordyline and taro, may be represented by a high number of cultivars. In this compartment, for instance, there were five different cordyline cultivars and 12 to 15 taro cultivars. These cultivars were planted in such a way as to display their variegated colours, so that the garden would look colourful and adorned. In garden compartments, where edible cultigens are planted together with nonedible ones, space is much diversified. There is a hierarchy of places from the main firing place to the “ground nothing”. Intermediate places, such as the secondary or tertiary firing places, form a series graded from the best places to the poorest ones. This hierarchy is significant, first, from the viewpoint of technology, as the soil is most fertile in the main firing places and the best taro cultivars are grown there, while the worst ones are consigned to the “ground nothing”. The second significance of this hierarchy is from the viewpoint of the rite, as it is in the first main firing place erected in the centre of the garden that the Father performs the most important ritual operations, many of which are repeated in the main firing places of the compartments that form the garden.

2Concomitant with an individual treatment of plants, one finds gardening rites which revolve around the souls of cultigens, mainly that of taro. The soul endows the plants with freedom of action, sensibility and feeling so that they can move about following their wishes. Some beings however, whether supernatural or human ones, have power to control this soul. The rite stresses the similarities between the human soul and the soul of taro: both are submitted to a serial death and rebirth so that their fate looks strikingly identical.

3Contacts with the western world threatens this whole set of attitudes. In this case, change is brought about not so much by the new tools such as steel axes and bush knives that only entail a reduction of the time devoted to certain tasks, as by the introduction of new staples and of cash-cropping.

4In the traditional yam gardens, space is less diversified than in the mixed taro gardens. The number of cultivars is not high, and little magic is performed. This cultural impoverishment is even more visible where sweet potato and Chinese taro are planted. Here, one can no longer speak of gardens but of fields, as space becomes more and more uniform, cultivates other than the staples are no longer there and no magic is performed. The same change can be observed with respect to coconut trees. While in the past the Maenge planted only a few trees that bore individual names and were known by individual features, they now plant numerous trees in regular rows in a uniform space that is no longer part of the site of the village or fallow gardens but blocks devoted to cash cropping. The highly individual attitude of the past contrasts as much with the undifferentiated treatment that is required now as art craft work contrasts with the broken tasks of industrialised production.

5The coastal Maenge have already lost some cultigens due to contact, mostly amaranth and gourds (Lagenaria siceraria). While they have received many others, either recently or in the past, they do not consider these as their own plants, with the exceptions of sweet potato and tobacco. Sweet potato is referred to as yam (kolove), in some parts of the Maenge country, and tobacco is suku. The Maenge call the other introduced cultigens by their English or pidgin names without giving them Maenge names. Yet from the point of view of their culture and its evolution, the most important issues concern taro and cordyline cultivars. While these are still numerous, it is probable that the collections have diminished during the last decades. While there are no comparative figures for cordyline, a comparison between the numbers of taro cultivars grown by the Longueinga, and, in the past, by the Sulka as above 300 (Laufer 1955), shows that probably, the coastal Maenge’s collections have already been reduced by half. If sweet potato and Chinese taro continue replacing more and more taro, this process will not stop. With the disappearance of the traditional staples, much of the associated rites and mythology will disappear as well, whatever the efforts of the millenarian movement to revive these traditions.

Photograph 16. Sonimalua

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Légende Photograph 16. Sonimalua
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© pacific-credo Publications, 2018

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