This is Nel, my wife.
If you look closely around her neck, you can just see the two strings of shell money sent out to me by the Carteret Islanders for our wedding. The shell money was a completely unexpected gift, from the people of Group 4 on Han island, where I lived for a couple of weeks (the islands have a very democratic social system, with the people divided up into groups, each with a set of responsible elders). Having left PNG and arrived home, I got a phone call from one of the islanders out of the blue saying they had made the shell money and needed to get it to me in time for the wedding – they wanted me to be able to pay bride-price on the big day.
The islanders couldn’t afford to post it to me, so I arranged for a couple of aid workers I know in Buka to pick it up and send it on.
When it arrived, it was beautiful. Two long strings of tiny white and black shells, each string a couple of metres long. Ruth, my friend from the islands and who had been given the task of travelling to the mainland to get the shell money to me, later told me that each of the thousands of shells was harvested by hand from the coral reef that encircles the islands. The shells can only be harvested at low tide, and are then brought back to the islands where each has a hole cut in it. They are then each polished with a special stone and then strung onto the cord. Ruth says it took five women months to do all the work.
The islanders wanted us to use the shell money in the wedding ceremony itself, and were very specific as to how it should be used. Fortunately, I was able to work out a way to accommodate this with our registrar, who was really surprisingly cool about the whole thing. Maybe she gets strange requests from the South Pacific all the time. After the exchange of rings, I took the shell money and hung it around Nel’s neck, and clasped it between her hands, before we kissed. According to Ruth, doing so also sends out a message to all the other men that this girl is now mine and off-limits to anyone else who may be interested. Or, in pidgin, Nel has become Mary blong me.