In the tree houses of Koroway, West Papua (2012)

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In 2012, together with Iulius Carebia, I spent one month at the Korowai, a tribe from West Papua. We arrived there without much information and planned to cross their territory first, to get an idea of what was there and if possible, to spend some days with the Korowai.

We tried a few attempts to cross their lands, in what we estimated to be 4-7 days hike, but somehow we never arrived at the destination to which we had left. The Korowai are winding between the territories of different clans, to avoid the enemies. The conflicts among them are frequent and our guides made no exception. Despite all planning we never walked further than one day, always ending in the house of one of their relatives.

In the forest our escorts were armed with bows and arrows. And the bows were always tensed and the arrows in hand. We didn’t feel like being a team with the guys who were escorting us, and an uncomfortable feeling was keeping the distance between us. Besides a kind of suspicion from both sides, it was that they were always expecting to receive something from us, constantly asking for food, tobacco, clothes or tools.

Some Korowai got used to foreigners, coming there in organized trips, 2-3 times a year. 5 mil rp (500 USD) to build a house in a tree, 1 mil for fishing and working the sago and 20 mil to organize a sago grub ceremony. Everything had a price and they knew how things work. The porters and camp staff, some of the clan members would stay behind the group. “We don’t come dressed when they film”. The others, the “real primitives”, would wait naked for documentary makers and eccentric tourists. One day, we arrived at such a place. No make-up, as we arrived unannounced. On the opposite side of the river, we saw a house at 25 meters above the ground, in a tree top, built there for a documentary. The Korowai build their houses at 5-10 meters from the ground, in the middle of clearings, where they have gardens.

After the first attempt, we ended up in Yaniruma, a big village between Korowai and Kombai territories, which was established there at the end of seventies, by missionaries. Korowai don’t build villages. They go every day in the forest for food, and each family lives on its own territory, hundreds of meters away from the others. The few villages found there were settled by missionaries and more recently by Indonesians, in the attempt to take the Korowai out of the forest.

In Yaniruma we stayed at the village clinic, where the paramedics, two great guys from Flores and Sumatra, introduced us to the neighboring clans.

I spent one night in a tree with a Korowai chief and his stories. When he was not puffing his long pipe or playing a bamboo Jew-harp, he was telling stories with lots of enthusiasm.

Once, when he went to town with some friends, they had no food with them and he came up with a good idea: they stopped a car, out of the town and robbed the driver. “We ate a lot and left something for women (prostitutes) too”. This was a funny one and it had a conclusion too. “It’s not good to go to town together with women. We, the men, can still manage it, but for women it’s difficult”.

Then he told proud of two his kids. Two younger ones, went to school. His older son was in prison, after beating a police man. “That’s dad’s boy, he broke the door of the cell!” and he smiled, showing his fist to point the strength.

He told me stories about the time when he was a kid and cannibalism was still practiced among korowai, and more recent ones, to which he took part as head of the clan, stories about tribal trials, women exchanges and murder compensations.

Staying there, in his tree-top house, 10m above the ground, in the middle of a clearing, I could hear the sound of birds echoing all around. And I also appreciate there were no mosquitos there. “I build my house here, on the tree. I can imitate all the birds”. He built a big house, following the Korowai rules. As he was sharing it with one of his mother in law, the house was separated in two parts, with two entrances and two stairs-logs. A part for him and his wives, the other one for his mother in law. “We cannot meet”, it is a korowai taboo. When one of them was getting down the tree or coming close to it, he/she was whistling in a particular way, to mark his/her presence.

Our visa was close to expire. Back in Yaniruma, we bought a dug-out canoe and tried to paddle downstream, to reach a port where we could catch a public boat from. But we failed, breaking the canoe on the rapids. The GPS, good luck and some jungle-experience we had acquired in our trips helped us to return to Yaniruma, cutting straight through the jungle. Then, after another three days of trekking, we reached Bomakia, a small town where our journey to Korowai ended.