Kamadipw en Wahu

The Nahnmwarki (sitting in chair) and others with lesser titles.
By Roger and Linda Gorham
Feb. 2, 2017

We received a phone call from the Chief of Elementary Education for Pohnpei schools on Friday evening asking if we were available on Saturday to attend a “Kamadipw en Wahu,” or festival of respect.

Pounding the sakau root
Pounding the sakau root

Our immediate response was, "Sure"... then we stopped to wonder, "What’s this?!"

We found out. The chief picked us up and, while driving, explained that September through December is the time for “first harvest,” or thanksgiving festivals. 

A little background: There are nine municipalities in Pohnpei, each of which has a traditional system of leadership wherein they are ruled by a king, or Nahnmwarki. The Pohnpei culture is matrilineal and leadership titles are passed down through the mother’s clan. Along with the Nahnmwarki, there are various other titles with greater or lesser responsibilities. In keeping with tradition, each of the local villages in each municipality still invites their Nahnmwarki to a festival at which they present him with yams, pigs and sakau as tokens of respect. 

We went to the Nett municipality where the chief led us to a nahs (like an open-air picnic pavilion). We were presented to the Nahnmwarki and other members of the cultural leadership. Because we were invited guests of the chief and his wife, we were invited to sit on the cement platform with the king and his family, but in front of him and lower in elevation (he sat on a chair, we sat on the floor). 

Almost immediately we were presented with food — woven palm leaf platters filled with fish, chicken, breadfruit and bananas. Music was provided by a young man singing and playing a keyboard. The music was very upbeat and soon women were dancing. They took great delight in inviting us old folks to get up and dance. From Lin: “The women are great dancers; they have a hip shimmy that I tried but could not even come close to duplicating. My dancing instructor said, ‘Just bend your knees and relax’… no way!”  

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Taking sakau from a traditional half coconut shell
Taking sakau from a traditional half coconut shell

As the afternoon progressed, we watched an amazing array of gifts and tributes presented to the King. Most impressive were huge piles of sakau plants and perhaps a dozen pigs, killed within the last hour. Also hanging from the rafters were dozens of yam plants.  

During all of this, two groups of men were making sakau. Half a dozen men sat around two large, flat stone surfaces and pounded the roots and prepared the drink. After hearing about sakau for so long, we finally had a chance to sample the drink. The first sakau from a pounding is very thick and strong. It has a viscous texture and earthy taste that takes some getting used to.

Equally amazing was the presentation of the pigs. Palm fronds were laid on the cement floor in front of the king. The pig carcasses were then carried in on the shoulders of strong men who struggled under the weight and dropped their load at the foot of the Nahnmwarki (and only a couple of feet from where we were sitting). At that point, a dozen men with large knives and machetes started butchering the pigs and distributing portions. We were presented with a couple of large sections of ribs. Wow! Much of the sakau root and most of the meat is given to families from the local region. 

All in all, the day was pretty amazing and provided an opportunity to see the traditional Pohnpeian culture up close.

Roger and Linda Gorham

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