A Palauan bai
Koror-- The Ngerubesang Men’s Club was formally approached by Aimeliik State to renovate the Bai ra Keai earlier this year. Ngerubesang Men’s Club, traditionally called Ngarchosichii, is the modern iteration of the centuries-old men’s group from the hamlet of Ngerubesang in the southern Melekeok State of Palau. The club became an official not-for-profit organization in 2011, when about two dozen of the members signed a set of bylaws which were approved by then President Johnson Toribiong.
The Club has been a busy group, being asked to do many community works including assisting the rebuilding of the Ngermecheluch jetty when it was razed by Typhoon Bopha in 2012. I was very proud when I heard that the Club would be renovating the Bai in Aimeliik because I remember as a child my father, Kemedaol Benedict Tellei, had to go away for some weeks because he was part of the team of men who originally constructed the very same Bai back in 1995. I asked my father how many times he has worked on the Bai and he replied that this is the third renovation for Bai ra Keai. Usually he asks me why I’m asking so many questions but when I said I wanted to write an article about the project he worked on, he sort of smiled and kept on answering my questions. I could tell that he was very proud of the work they had done. He even shared that they finished early, an entire week before the project deadline.
The Bai was to be renovated in time for Aimeliik’s celebration of their Constitutional Day so that the crowds that would descend upon Aimeliik could admire the newly touched up Bai. The exterior got a new coat of paint. Without even seeing the Bai, I guessed what one of the colors used was, because my brother came home with a beige highlight in his hair from working on the repainting. I was quite pleased that my brother, Orrakl Benedict, was involved in the transmission of intangible Palauan cultural heritage by participating in this work that involved so many skills like the intricate tying of bamboo and wood to replace the entire roof structure.
One day on a drive home from Koror to Melekeok my mother and I decided to take a detour and go visit the Bai. We were aware that it was men’s work and women would not be welcome. We decided to go anyway to take pictures and to see the men working. After driving on the bumpy dirt road for a few minutes from the paved Compact Road we arrived at the site. Work was stopped because all the men were gathered under a tent and under the tree’s shade for a well deserved lunch break. Ngiraingas Villiany Thomas invited us for lunch, which I politely declined. The chief of Ngerubesang village was being gracious but I knew better than to overstay my welcome. My father told us to quickly take pictures and to leave since this was “men’s work”. I immediately remembered that when the Melekeok Bai was being built in 1990 my grandfather Ngirauchuladoko Ubal Tellei would yell at us little girls to vacate the building area and to go play somewhere else. The feeling was just as strong some quarter century later.
My father said that even though he was older, his younger brother, Olikong Frutoso “Toto” Tellei was actually in charge of the project. I, of course, was very proud of my uncle for being such a good project manager and for overseeing the work getting done in such a short amount of time. Many of the hours worked were actually on Saturdays and at the end of the project most of the men took time off work weekdays to get the project done. Since the project overlapped into the summer break, my male cousins who would have been in high school or college were able to participate and learn traditional skills of Bai building in this project. My brothers, too, spent long hours being told what to do by the more knowledgeable and seasoned Bai builders. Bai building is a set of skills that is now only held by this group of men from Melekeok. My dad said that “When people pass the Bai they will see our work so that makes me really happy”. It makes me even happier that this ancient traditional skill set is still alive and that the males in my family are the holders of this precious cultural knowledge. When asked further what kind of materials were used he quickly rattled off “ukall, btaches, kelelacharm, chelebiob, lild, bambuu, touechel…” I smiled. I was so thankful that my father so freely shared this knowledge with me.
Then I thought, what traditional intangible cultural heritage practices do I participate in? Do I have a place in the transmission of my indigenous knowledge? As a child I learned basket weaving, dancing, and chanting. But without practice I have all but lost those skills. Our culture is what makes us unique in the world. I urge you to become a practitioner of Palauan cultural heritage. If you have an interest in a certain skill and know someone, especially an elder, who still practices it, I’m sure they’ll be eager to teach you so the knowledge will be passed on and not lost. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the last holder of some traditional knowledge just like the Ngarchosichii is for Bai building. Jus’ Sayin’.
Souang Inez Benedict Tellei is an undergraduate student at the College of Forestry, Oregon State University. She is passionate about protecting nature and keeping the Palauan culture alive. Send feedback firstname.lastname@example.org