Touring Papua New Guinea

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Touring Papua New Guinea

Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review

THE badge gave admission to the Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, but this is no ordinary August show. For over an hour the audience, on tiered wooden seating, watched more than 50 tribal groups enter the vast showground and take their places. Each group, clad in traditional costume and with bodies and faces painted, was accompanied by the beat of kundu drums and chanting. This is a major annual Papua New Guinea sing-sing.

At mid-day the show chairman and the governor of West Highlands Province welcomed participants and visitors, inspected the former and declared the show open. The national anthem was sung and the displays began.

Some tribes marched determinedly round and round the perimeter as if going into battle. Others performed a stamping dance to drumming and chanting, the movements of which are designed to make their aprons, rear leaf-bunches and head-dresses swish backwards and forwards attracting attention. The ground shook. Somewhat incongruously, a uniformed brass band took up a position in one corner playing When the Saints Come Marching In.

I had spent the morning in the dressing area marvelling at the concentration and care with which faces and bodies were decorated and head-dresses placed. Each tribe has its own distinctive patterns and style. Some use pig grease or oils to prepare the skin and make it glisten before applying paint. Others prefer yellow or rust-coloured clay. The most fearsome and extraordinary are the Asaro men who smear their entire body with grey mud before donning a huge grotesque head mask - and a discreetly placed bunch of leaves. Although the paint used nowadays tends to be synthetic, colours remain traditional: red, black, white, yellow. Broken pieces of mirror were much in evidence, though the intricacies of head-dresses often required an assistant to place the feathers and flowers in exactly the right place. And what magnificent creations those head-dresses were: some towering nearly 2 m high, others decorated with precious Bird of Paradise feathers handed down from generation to generation.

Academic opinions differ about the purpose of body art. Some consider it merely cosmetic -- to enhance appearance -- others think there is a ritual significance, that it encourages tribal bonding, or is a disguise. In the Highlands each tribe has its own explanation. The Asaro tell of how, having lost a tribal fight, they covered themselves in mud for the revenge trip hoping the enemy would run away in fright. Unsurprisingly, they did.

Just as amazing as the sing-sing itself was the realisation that the parents -- and certainly the grandparents -- of these people would never have met a European. And, if they did, might well have killed him or her on sight. Yet I was greeted with smiles and requests to exchange names, something regarded as highly personal.

Although the Portuguese reached New Guinea in the sixteenth century, followed by the Dutch (seventeenth century) and British (eighteenth century), no Europeans ventured far from the coast, believing the Highlands to be uninhabited. Evidence of settlement was not revealed until a 1933 flight by gold prospectors. Shortly afterwards the Leahy brothers returned on foot and found that the Wahgi valley alone contained over 200,000 people who formed numerous small tribes, sub-divided into clans, which were constantly at war with each other. Government officers and Christian missionaries made a little impact but failed to quench this tribal warfare before the outbreak of World War H. The remoteness of the Highlands protected its inhabitants from the effects of the Japanese invasion and many areas remained virtually uncontacted until the 1960s and 1970s.

The Australian government instituted the Mt. Hagen show in 1961 in an attempt to gather together the tribes in a peaceable context. Over 50,000 tribespeople made the journey to that first show, building temporary huts for the three-day event. …

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