Bilbil Village is famous. Haven’t heard of it? Well, maybe I should say it’s famous within Papua New Guinea. I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of the settlement prior to my visit, but afterwards, whenever a Papuan asked me to list the places I had visited in their country, and I mentioned Bilibil Village, they would never fail to nod their understanding.
‘I know Bilbil village,’ they would say, ‘that’s that place where all the young boys are rounded up once every couple of years, and then they’re taken to that island, where they have their male initiation ceremony, and their (the following said more softly, discreetly) circumcision.’
Such is the urban legend that circulates about Bilbil Village. But is the legend true?
Bilbil Village is located on the mainland – on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, not far from the modern day regional hub of Madang – but the traditional home of the Bilibil people is Bilbil Island, located in more or less the same position as the village, just a kilometre or two offshore.
Bilbil Island is tiny, about 500 metres long by 200 metres wide. With few resources to speak of, the Bilibil people were forced to trade with tribes on the mainland for produce and supplies that their little island lacked.
Fortunately the Bilibil were manufacturers of a highly desired item of trade: clay pots, made by the Bilibil women from local sands.
Trade sent the Bilibil men to the seas; they became great seafarers, travelling hundreds of kilometres up and down the coastline in large double masted canoes. They traded their clay pots for all manner of items; of most importance though were the staple food sources of taro, yams, and sago.
Over the years the population of Bilbil Island continued to grow; eventually, even with their skills at trade, there were just too many people for the island, and in 1904 they decided to relocate to the mainland.
The villagers are still making clay pots, and the pots are still being traded with neighbouring and distant villages for taro, yams, and sago – tourists can purchase clay pots with kina (the currency of Papua New Guinea).
The Island of Bilbil is now uninhabited, and used by the Bilibil people for male initiation ceremonies – the urban legend has it right.
However, while it’s known that the traditional male initiation ceremonies did involve circumcision (and communing with the spirits using flute-like reed instruments), these days the initiation ceremony is more focussed on male-bonding, the teaching of traditional values, and the creation of traditional handicrafts.
Or at least that’s what everyone thinks happens on Bilbil island. The truth of the matter is that the initiation ceremony is a private affair, the goings-on at these ceremonies are not discussed with outsiders, and thus they remain a well-kept secret.
Practical information and how to reach Bilbil Village:
Bilbil Village is about an hour’s drive south of Madang. Tours/transportation to the village can be organised from the main tourist resorts in Madang city. More info on the Bilibil people here. More info on transport to and around Madang here.