The bilum is one of the most definitive symbols in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is a handmade, colourful, woven bag that is carried by men and women alike. It can symbolise where a person is from, is given as a much-prized gift during bride price ceremonies, and is used for carrying an array of items from bettlenut, to market goods, to kaulau. Bilums have been made for centuries and are one of the things that is truly special and unique about PNG.
Coastal, highlands or islands
Depending on where you are from in PNG will depend on the style of your bilum. The traditional string bags come in a variety of different colours, shapes, styles and are made for different purposes. In the highlands bilums are woven from wool in different patterns and colours. In coastal regions the bilums are woven from thick string and are coloured using natural dyes. On the islands the trend is for woven grass baskets. The patterns reflect different ethnic groups and the designs can tell stories about the communities and societies through the patterns.
Baby on board
Tucked away in the enclosed, woven comfyness of a bilum you will often find a baby! What better way to carry your small human than in the safety of your bag, with no fuss.
There is absolutely no shame in carrying a bilum whether male or female. Men often wear their bags around their necks and they can be filled with smokes, kina and buai. The East New Britain basket is also a highly prized fashion item.
Ladies carry all of their market produce in their bilums. Their bags can be bursting at the seams and they can carry them for great distances to sell their garden food or squeeze them onto public motor vehicles with all their produce. The woven string can stretch to an amazing size due to the resistant and elastic structure, making them perfect for carrying all types of cargo.
Babies in bilums
As well as being the baby carrying vessel of choice, bilums are also the perfect bed for a baby. Padded with a blanket, babies are cocooned inside, perfectly ventilated and snug in their homemade hammocks. Babies are often hung from trees or from wooden structures in their stretchy, string cradles. The beautiful life of babies in PNG.
Around the forehead and balanced on top of the head – the highlands women are renowned for carrying incredible amounts in their bags and for being very strong ladies. Tieing the bilum around the head maximises strength and gives better balance when transporting a heavy load. As well as these huge bags, some women now use small, pocket sized bilums to carry their mobile phones.
Sing sing bilum
Bilums are an important item for singsing bilas (traditional dress). Bilum style is so interwoven in culture identity, identifying a tribe or clan by the geometric designs. People can identify a person just by the creative pattern woven on the bilum. The most colourful and extreme bilums can be seen during singsings, worn as clothes or among the myriad of items held, hung or draped on people.
On average bilums take one month to make and are a crucial source of livelihood for women in PNG. Bilums also have a fairly fixed price like most items sold in the market. A small size, woven bilum costs around K50/60 (£12.50-£15), plain market weaves a little less, and bigger bilums are around K100. A well made bilum will last at least 20 years so it is a real investment.
Being given a bilum has a lot of significance. They can be given by a mother as part of the bride price ritual, by a colleague as a gesture of how appreciative they are, as a gift from a loved one, or can be a symbol of wealth or a person’s position in society. People treat their bilums with great respect, if they can avoid it they won’t put them on the floor. I recently used a bilum to decorate a chair; I have subsequently found out that no one would sit on my chair as they feel that it is disrespectful to sit on my bilum. A great way of keeping someone off your seat!
A bilum, a baby in a bilum, and an umbrella, this is a multi-tasking Mum on the go! Bilums are also great alternatives to plastic bags so what better way to be environmentally friendly, although we are a long way off weaning Papua New Guineans from their love of carrier bags!
Women carry extraordinary weights in their bilums. Like this women, they often stretch the woven strap across their foreheads to carry their cargo to the market. Bilums can be filled with coconuts, yams, taro and sweet potato which is of sizeable weight. As such some older women who carry their bags in this way everyday, sustain permanent injury to their forehead from the bag digging into their skull, as well as developing pigeon feet from the constant pressure.
The beautiful bilum means many things to people in PNG. As a visitor they also show respect and that you understand a little about PNG culture. If you want to fit into PNG life quickly, don’t carry a Western bag, buy yourself a bilum from a market mama!