Headman

Local knowledge and transitional skill contrasted with modernization.

Vocabulary:

belian: also called ironwood, is a wood prized for building in swampy land as it doesn't rot easily

parang: a curved machete used by Ibans for cutting anything necessary and as a weapon, formerly used in headhunting and long since outlawed

manang: is a healer or priest who conducts ceremonies for Iban holidays and healing 

metal box: an elevator in a five storey building in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak


By Kate Griffen Flaherty - Peace Corps Volunteer, Niger (2009-2011)


He was the headman.

Wisdom sat on his head

as a mynah bird on the prow of his canoe,

a true sign the gods approved

the tattoo on his neck,

the most elaborate and painful in the village.


He knew the looping brown rivers 

as the veins on the back of his hand,

knew when the watery elbows were swollen

with fish he could catch in a basket,

knew where the belian trees grew

the nipa palm for thatch.

The wild boar, the python, and the crocodile

had fallen by his parang.

Each pathway through the swampy woods --

as changeable as clouds --

his feet remembered.

The exact moment to begin

burning his fields was a part of him.

He knew the songs of his people,

had almost been a manang once....


Knowing so many secrets:  of the dead,

of the rivers and trees, of the power

of the sun at noon,

of the youngest child in his village,

he could believe, as the radio said,

that man had walked on the moon.

Now, but a day's journey from home,

he balks at the door

of the metal box that wants to hold him in,

to carry him to the next floor.

This poem was selected as a finalist in the returned Volunteer category for the 2015 Peace Corps Poetry Contest. It was selected from more than 1,000 submissions, representing over 50 years of Peace Corps service in more than 100 countries.

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