Tambu


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Tambu is the traditional form of money in the Tolai community. To make it, large numbers of a specific snail shell are collected, dried, and strung on a very thin piece of cane. At one time, these snails were prevalent along the coast of East New Britain. The people of Raluana would simply anchor a rotten piece of fruit in the shallows of the reef, leave it for a few hours and could expect to collect hundreds of these snails. However, following the volcanic eruptions of 1994 and 2006, the temperature of the water in the area rose causing these shelled animals to relocate to cooler waters. Now, the shells are found primarily on the coasts of West New Britain and New Ireland.

Though the Tolai communities have adapted to the cash economy of East New Britain, Tambu is still used on various occasions. Tambu is amassed throughout a man's life, starting when he is a young child. As a boy reaches certain stages in life, he is presented with varying amounts of Tambu depending on the milestone he has achieved. Tambu is also given in exchange for the completion of various odd jobs around the community or in recognition of certain actions. Though it is most commonly the men who receive it, there are certain times when Tambu is distributed to all the members of the community. For example, when a member of the community passes away, the family will host a gathering to allow the other community members to pay their respects. It is the responsibility of the family to distribute a small length of Tambu, ranging from 15 to 30 centimeters long, to every person who attends this gathering as a symbol of gratitude.

A system has been set up between the Tolai communities and the government which has assigned an exchange rate between Tambu and Kina. At the most basic level, 1 meter of Tambu is equivalent to 5 Kina. These single strands are generally organized into bunches of 10, which would be equivalent to 50 Kina. If a Tolai family does not have enough Kina to cover their expenses, like school fees, they are able to use the Tambu in day-to-day transactions.

Usually a collection of Tambu consists of fragments varying in length. Before the process of making Tambu can begin, all of the individual shells must be removed from the cane strips so they can be re-strung on new ones. (see Figure 1)