Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Palauan First-Born (Ngasech) Ceremony, Part One

I just returned from two weeks in Palau, where I served in the Peace Corps from 2002-2004. I visited two of my three host families (the third was on a faraway island and the boat schedules just didn't line up), went on a northerly tour, went diving, and went on a five-day kayak trip. My friend Vaughn accompanied me for most of the trip and we had a blast. But the reason the trip came together this summer was because my Palauan friend, Emadch, had a baby in May and planned her ngasech (first-born ceremony) for the beginning of August. I have so many pictures from the trip (5100+) and many of them are good. So, barring anything exciting in Zamami over the next couple weeks, I'm going to do a bunch of Palau posts. We'll start with a series on the first-born ceremony.

From what I understand, Palau is the only country in the world that celebrates a woman's first baby with such a large ceremony. It usually takes place a couple weeks to a couple months after the birth of the baby. I was able to photograph Emadch's first-born ceremony in its entirety, which is rare (especially for a male). I'll start with the days leading up to the ceremony:

The number of days of 'steam baths' (for lack of a better word) depend on the status of the clan the family belongs to. They can go up to 10 days; in Emadch's case she went for nine days. Traditionally women were disallowed from having any male contact during this period, but that rule has relaxed a little in modern times. However she is not allowed to leave the house. She doesn't use the internet or cook or do anything but take care of her baby and do her steam baths twice-a-day. Emadch starts in the morning around 8am with her first 'bath'.

Emadch begins in a specially built structure, sitting on a woven coconut mat which is resting on a bamboo floor. She removes all of her clothing then proceeds to cover her body in a coconut/ginger oil.

The ginger makes the oil yellow. The mixture of ginger and coconut makes it smell really nice.

Emadch covers herself liberally with the oil to protect from what is going to happen next.

The older woman, who is assigned to Emadch during the whole nine days, starts with a tub of hot water, as seen above. It is taken from that pot in the background that is on top of the fire (which was started that morning at 5am). The water boils with many herbs and it smells nice.

The old woman starts by using those leaves (I forget their name, but they're important), dipping them in the water, then splashing Emadch with them. She starts with the face, then proceeds downward, pretty much getting the whole body (Emadch has to roll over to help out with the backside). This is repeated twice more, with Emadch reapplying the yellow oil between each iteration.

On the fourth iteration, with really hot water (quite a bit hotter than the previous three applications), the woman uses half a coconut shell to throw the water against Emadch. She starts with the face and Emadch is not allowed to squint or prepare for the water. She does wince with pain, though. This time the woman also throws a cup of the near-boiling water up inside Emadch's open legs.

The older woman then repeats these four steps three more times, which concludes the morning bath. In the afternoon the same process is repeated. Every day for eight days.

Tomorrow, the ninth day.


Natalie said...

Dave this is amazing! You were so lucky to be a part of this. I also loved your aerial Palau shots. Can't wait for future instalments!

Dave said...

Thanks Natalie! Yeah, the good pictures will come tomorrow or Friday. :)

Anonymous said...

A decent palauan would have bothered to teach you the difference between Ngasech and Omengat. You can't call the ceremony "Ngasech"!

Anonymous said...

Ngasech is reserved for specific clans of Ngeaur(Angaur)Island, the southern most Part of island chain.Ngasech, literally to go up or climb up, which they literally do by climb ancending steps of 100s in a wide ladder platform at the celebrartion. Omengat then is to have similar steam bath but without such climbing or acendign up a ladder platform. This blog is fantastic.. it is about time that this rich hisotry is digitalized and shared thorough out the world.

iRiE SaLvador said...

This is beautiful. Thank you.

I don't know who that Anonymous person is who said that "a decent palauan would have bothered to teach you the difference between Ngasech and Omengat." But I just want to say I'm sorry for the way she/he conveyed their thoughts.

I thank you, Dave for bringing me back home with your gift. Thank you for your openness to learn a culture not your own. Not many people stop to understand and respect others.

Keep up the beautiful journey.

Dave said...

Anonymous, I'm sorry as that was my mistake. I do know the difference between Omengat and Ngasech (I lived on Angaur for over a year), I was just being irresponsible with my wording.

Irie, thank you for your kind words. I lived in Palau for two years and went back again last winter to do a three-month long family portrait photography project on Angaur. You can see a selection of the photos from that and an Omengat here: http://www.davidclumpner.com/personal

Denise J Burnham said...

Very beautiful. I, too, was a PCV in Palua (1998 - 2001) and you got some great oics of what is a beautiful Palauan custom.

Anonymous said...

This is awesome Dave....the next time someone asks about my "Omengat" i will direct them to your page...couldn't have explained it better myself :)

jojo davis said...

Thank you for this..makes me home sick..ur blog needs to be shared arouns the world so more countries and people will be aware of different cultures and such that is still practiced..much love and appreciation.

Rredd680 said...

Its beatifull..
like we say ng klebokel eh Dave..
sulang el share.
but what anonymous said is true..
and nowadays, in this modern world most people back home call it either or..but only angaur do the actual step climbing(ngasech)
thank you again and hope to see more of your palau photos.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for admitting that, Dave. Young palauans these days don't even know the difference. It's our responsibility to educate them! Btw, Irie Salvador...you needn't apologize on my behalf. Kmal dimalk uleldurech er kau.

Sonia Hilt said...

It's not ginger they use with coconut oil, it's turmeric.