The eight-year-old boy watched with awe as the dolphins flipped in the air dancing to the woman’s chant.
Ocean waves sparkled. They smiled and sprayed the sky with golden bubbles.
From a deep place within her, the chant broke forth from the woman’s lips, streaming notes over the ocean surface, stirring the pod with an invisible energy. The mother of the pod responded, throwing her a calf into the air.
The boy saw nothing else, but the dolphins. Heard nothing else, but the chant that rose into the air and covered the ocean and lilted in every little particle of space. It flowed into him, striking a deep chord within. Frozen in time, it was a magical scene under a golden Pacific sun.
Much of Benjamin Dickson’s life now, began that day. On that beautiful morning on the shores of North Wagawaga in Milne Bay, East Papua New Guinea. His aunt stood ankle deep in the bay, chanting the uliuliyabobo.
‘The dolphins were swimming by and she went out and started chanting to them,’ he related, smiling at the memory, longing to be transported back to that day.
‘When I asked her, she said she was asking the dolphins to throw their babies up into the air for us to see.’
‘I was shocked to see the dolphins respond. I wanted to learn that magic so I asked her to teach me.’
‘I practiced until I knew it by heart. Until I could sing it with a passion. Until the dolphins responded to me, just as they did my aunt.’
‘Singing the chant and watching the dolphins jump and play made me feel I belonged to my people.
‘The dolphin is actually my father’s mother’s clan fish.
‘That day it felt like the dolphins were part of me. My kin. My blood.
‘Her name is Dilikoi from Tuoku clan of Uliawa from Milne Bay.’
Benjamin is an artist. With the strokes of his brush, he paints the eagle soaring out of the forest, majestic trees with people faces, the ocean in its brilliant hues of blue, a cultural dancer, lines that dart forth across curves, like a canoe leaping over waves. Some abstract, some overtly understood. All bearing a story about nature – colourful, bright and alive.
They also show us the artist’s passion for nature.
‘I like to mix colours and see what comes out of it,’ he said.
‘I like writing as well.
‘You can write colours and paint colours and also paint words. Through painting I am writing.’
‘I want to keep culture and tradition alive and keep it in people’s eye.’
‘It matters to share the message and keep our connections with nature alive.’
‘Otherwise we lose it as Pacific islanders. We lose our identity, our spirit.’
Mr Dickson or Benji feels blessed and grateful to his aunt for sharing with him the uliuliyabobo.
‘I missed out on spending time with my grandfathers (maternal and paternal) because they had passed on when I was still a baby,’ he said.
‘As tradition would have it, they would have been the ones to share with me all the knowledge, rituals and customs of my ancestors.’
‘I would have really missed out hadn’t I gone and spent more time at my Dad’s village.’
‘I saw children sitting with their grandparents and learning things like playing traditional games, and telling stories and singing traditional songs and chants like the dolphin chant – uliuliyabobo.’
Early into his teens, Benji was back at the beach swimming with cousins and friends when a pod of dolphins swam by. He’d religiously practised the chant and it burst out of him in a sweet chorus.
‘They responded. I chanted louder. I was cheering when the babies got thrown up,’ Benji said delightedly.
‘I wanted to swim out to them, the urge was that strong.’
‘It felt like I know them and they know me. I swam out but it as much too deep for me.’
‘Maybe I was hoping they would come right up to me.’
‘It felt like we belonged together, that they were my kin. My blood.’
Benji said his paintings aim to give a consistent message.
‘That nature is part of my DNA and I feel connected to it at a deep level,’ he said.
‘I celebrate this part of me through my art and to urge Pacific islanders to remember that we are all connected to nature but in different ways.’
‘I use art to tell stories about these various connections across the Pacific.
‘I’m fortunate to be working with the Institute for Mission and Research to promote work around changing the story with the Reweaving the Ecological Mat project,’ Benji explained.
‘What I’d like to see change is for Pacific islanders to value their identity, embrace it, and to be proud of it.’
‘These identities are closely linked to nature, to our cultures, relationships with each other.’
‘And I like telling these stories through my painting.’
‘Because my identity exists in connection with other Pacific islanders’ identities.’
‘I’m not just from Papua New Guinea. I belong to the Pacific.’
‘We are connected, by the ocean, in fact an ocean of islands that belong together.’
‘That’s why I love working here at IMR, promoting all Pacific identities, celebrating them all.’