The story of Makapasapa and Sasaap – from Sepik


I heard this story from Kowspi brothers, Chiphowka and Agatoak, two Kwoma artists from Wani Clan, Sepik River.
It’s a long story which connects two clans, Wani and Hemkwa, from Blak Wara – Waskuk Hill area. I transcribed it as I recorded it, and I did a direct translation from Pidgin, a language without tenses, conjugations, numerals, or genders.
(If you have curiosity and patience to read it till the end, I’d like to hear your feedback, as I’m preparing to transcribe more stories.)


Haus tambaran or haus boy:  spirits’ house, men’s house, or warriors’ house is a powerful place, the gathering of ncestors’ spirits. Pillars, crossbars and roof are carved and painted with mythological spirits and scenes. Men gather there to find strength and guidance, to debate, chill and share stories. A haus tambaran belongs to one or more clans, which have the “paternity” over the ritual artefacts from tambaran and their stories. Kaipuk, a big-man from Kwoma, told me the tambaran is like a mask of the clan.
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Sikau, Kapul oan taim Dok (Wallaby, Opossum and Dog) – Sepik story

Sikau, Kapul oan taim Dok

This story was told to me by Yangas, a Kwoma man from Hemkwa Clan, Sepik River. This is a direct translation of it.

Note: sikau = wallaby, hemkwa = kumul = bird of paradise, kapul = opossum.
Yangas: Sikau is the big sister of the opossum. This story belongs to Hemkwa Clan, but everybody knows it. (Sikau is a sub-clan of Hemkwa – m.n.)

The dog and opossum were friends. One day, the dog tricked the opossum: he folded his years to make the opossum cut his years. Opossum thought the dog has short years, so he cut his too.
When he came back, the dog raised his years. Opossum saw it and said: eiiii, he tricked me like this.
Opossum told to sikau: the dog tricked me like this, and I cut my years. Sikau herd this, and she felt sorry: ooh, what happened to the years of my little one.
Then, sikau talked to her little one, the opossum: you keep your mouth, and stay easy. I’ll reply to the dog, same as he did to you. And the two stayed.

Now, the dog, he was feeling smart for what he did. The dog used to pass by the house of the two sisters.
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Why does the flying fox laugh? – short story from Sepik

Why does the flying fox laugh?

Miwoia (gecko) gets underneath the limbun’s skin (palm tree), when it’s dry, and leaves marks.
If you remove the bark, you can see them!
The marks are writing. Miwoia writes to apkwas (flying fox). When apkwas is reading it, it erupts in laughter. The flying fox is laughing, it must be that gecko is writing something funny.
Sometimes gecko knows how to draw the dick and the bolls of apkwas. When seeing them, apkwas loughs.
Gecko is a joker!

A Kwoma story, told by a few men from Tongujam, Blek Wara, Sepik River.

apkwas – flying fox spirit, painting on sago bark, by Maukos, Wani Clan, a Kwoma artist from Tongujam. The painting is part of Haus Tambaran (spirts’ house) Yaukam, of Gusem Clan, from Tongujam. (Gusem – The Eagle is a subclan of Wani – The Pig)

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Women life skills training (Sepik, Papua NG, 2015)


Life skills training, in Tongujam villages, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

Following the requests of the women from Blek Wara – a wetland area close to Waskuk Mountain, on Middle Sepik – the Catholic Church from Wewak sent there two sisters to teach women how to bake and to use the sewing machine.

Around 150 women, some coming from villages situated a day of walking and paddling away from Tongujam, enrolled for the six days training. They paid 50 Kina fee (20 USD, money which requires weeks of savings) necessary for buying materials and ingredients, like cloth and imported flour.

I question how many of them will make use of the new skills, but I think that’s less important. They took this initiative and managed to attend a vocational training. They are from communities which live entirely from their forest, river and swamps, deep in the wetlands surrounding Sepik River. Most of the adult women never been to school and about 80% are illiterate (according to local admin. accounts).

At the closing day, watched by their relatives and neighbors, the daring women were awarded with a Participant Certificate.


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Drai wara (Sepik, Papua NG, 2015)


In 2015, the dry season came earlier on middle Sepik (river in Papua New Guinea). The draught reduced the wide lakes, which cover Blak Wara area, and the channels which connect it with the Sepik, to small ponds.

One day I saw the women gathering with enthusiasm, to catch fish in a dry water channel. I took my camera and join the party.

After a bath in muddy water, many left home with the baskets empty. But it seemed that nothing could change their good mood.

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In the swamps (Sepik, Papua NG, 2015)


Catching fish from the swamps – Sepik River, PNG 2015.

During the weeks stayed with the people from West Sepik, I joined them a few times to the swamps, to catch fish.

How did it always happened?: armed with baskets – made of bush-ropes, cane spears, modern nets – traded for smoked fish at the local markets, machetes – to clear the way, and smoking logs – to chase away mosquitoes, dry the tobacco and light the cigarettes, we hopped in canoes and paddled along Sepik. When the canoes were pulled aside, we followed a maze of one-foot-wide paths through young forest and marsh lands, to a pond of murky water, in the forest. There, they were smashing poisonous roots, after which they squeezed them in the lake’s water and collected the fish afterwards. One to two hours were enough for a good catch, which would last a family for a few days.

As there are plenty of flooded forests on their lands, the indigenous don’t go often to the same location. Each swamp has its time, depending on rain and the Sepik waters. And above everything, there are spirits and sorcerers who visit the swamps. One day, a boy died, drowned in a pond nearby the village. “I gat spirit, long kilim em”. Nobody could go back to that water for weeks. And there are some swamps, home to powerful monsters, where people should never go.

Trying to ignore the mosquitoes and my feet, which were sinking at every step in a muddy soup, with bush ropes and thorns, struggling to keep my camera dry and wiping the sweat from my eyes, distracted me from admiring the landscape. I could just hear the forest’s environment, surrounding the noisy party. Yodellers, calls, water splashes and laughter were accompanying the moving crowd. In good mood and filled with energy, the Sepik people were storming the swamp. When they were gone, the sounds of cicadas and birds settled again round the swamp. (I noticed this, as I was always left behind, moving slowly on that terrible terrain.)


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Pukpuk – crocodile hunters (Sepik, Papua NG, 2015)


Going downwards on Sepik River (Papua New Guinea) with my hosts, we made a short stop in a village, to visit some of “our family” there. Under the roof of hous-wind, the community’s gathering place, I saw a pile of crocodile (pukpuk) skins.

It was my second trip to West Sepik, staying with the locals, recording their legends and joining them on daily activities. I heard many stories about crocodiles, pukpuk spirits and pukpuk monsters. I saw pukpuk skulls under porches, teeth on necklaces, carvings, paintings and men with ritual pukpuk-skin scarring.

I took my stuff from the canoe and I remained there for two weeks.

Manu, a young guy from the family I lived with, and his father where hunting and trading crocodile skins. The money, sometimes the only income for a community living on sago and fish, was used for buying small things for the house and most of it was saved in order to buy an engine for their dug-out canoe and to pay the school and boarding fees for Manu.

The skins collected by a bisnis-man from East Sepik go to Singapore and KL, where they are sold for prices unheard of on Sepik. During the last years, the price for crocodile skins dpropped on Sepik, even though the crocodile population decreased. At first, it sounds good, as it might slow down crocodile hunting. But wait. For most of the stuff the locals sell, like coffee or gold, they get a few times less the prices their neighbours in Indonesia would get, whilst everything they buy in PNG: cigarettes, batteries for torches or boat engines cost way much more. Moreover, there is an increasing pressure over the indigenous to give in their lands to palm-oil plantations (mainly Malaysians and Filipinos) and gold mining companies (mainly Australians). In 2015, going from Vanimo to West Sepik, it took me longer to reach the Sepik’s forests than in 2012. For hours we only passed through palm-oil plantations. What used to provide a life for small local communities became a source of development for foreign companies. And with over 80% illiteracy and no trace of development brought by the government, there are not many options for indigenous people anyway.

I post here photos I took with Manu and his family.


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3 days of diving in Komodo



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West Sepik to Vanimo (PNG 2012)


Last chapter of my journey along Sepik River, Papua New Guinea from 2012, happened to be in Baio, a village on the upper Sepik, at the mouth of Babi River. I stopped there for a few days, before taking a boat to Vanimo.

Increasing gold mining activity on the Middle Sepik was bringing frequently boats on Babi River, which was being used as a shortcut to Vanimo – a border town close to West Papua, my destination. They were carrying smoked fish and sago upstream, to sell it in Vanimo and gold, to be smuggled into Indonesia and were bringing back packed-food, clothes and electronics, smuggled from Indonesia, to supply the camps of gold-seekers.

The Baio people were watching boats passing by the other side of the river from their bank, trying to size their cargo and guess where they were coming from. This busting activity didn’t seem to have changed something there. Only once in a while they would go to Vanimo, to sell dry fish and sago. The money could barely cover costs of transportation, but “they’ve been to town”.

When I debarked in Baio, no one familiar to them was escorting me, which feels strange in a place, where people normally visit only with related clans.

I was hosted by the elementary school teacher. The neighbours took me along for fishing, setting traps for crocodiles or visiting relatives along the Sepik. Soon, people started to call me according to their relationship with the teacher. I had cousins, brothers, step brothers, nieces, nephews etc., a whole clan.

“White man! White man!” I could hear everywhere I arrived and a whole village was coming to see me.

“After death people live underground and they are white skin.” “They have cities underground.” “Someone told us, the missionaries go many times there (underground) and they make a lot of money.”

It happened in a village that someone came to me crying. I was a dead relative. If I was meeting someone, outside the village, they would literary run scared.

The people still live there on sago and fish, in houses made of wood and leafs. The community is defined by the relations between clans and controlled by ancestors’ spirits, taboos and sorcery. But they are Protestants. Missionaries arrived there in the seventies and convinced the people to leave the pagan traditions, haus tambaran (spirits’ house) and artefacts connecting them with the past.

After one week in Baio, I hopped on a boat to Stone Pass and then in a car to Vanimo. On the way I saw palm-oil plantations, logging camps and machines – operated by Asians, working to extend the road. Three years after, on the same road, the plantations spread almost everywhere. Down on Sepik, in Baio, life hadn’t changed much, except for the school, which was getting crowdie.


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To Ama Mountain, Sepik River (PNG 2012)


“If you want to find remote communities you must go upstream, to Ama Mountain.”
“Where is that?”

I was in Ambunti, an administrative centre on the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. Asking about remote communities (tribes) from the upper Sepik, how they live and how I can get there, I was pointed a few settlements, around Ama Mountain, somewhere between May and Sepik Rivers.

I waited almost three weeks in Ambunti for a long boat to May River. Then, after 15h on the boat I arrived at May Station, where I joined Poiap, a man from Ama Mountain. He was returning home with his sons, after being in a hospital, down in Wewak. (The trip to hospital and back took them one and a half month.) From May Station, a canoe took us to Waniap, a village in some flooded lands below Ama Mountain. Next day, we kept pulling upstream, until the water was too small for a canoe to pass. After one more night, in Kawia village, a day of trekking followed. We passed two small villages and finally reached Waniburu, Poiaps’ place, a settlement with 5-6 houses. This was remote.

I remained with Poiaps’ family for a week.

Despite its remoteness, protestant missionaries had made their way to Ama Mountain around the nineties. The haus tambaran (spirits’ houses) were left in ruin and ritual, pagan carvings and paintings were destroyed. But life continued seemingly in the same way, with the old stories, taboos and beliefs, only less colourful.

I spent my days in Waniburu following the people to the jungle and the evenings listening to their stories. They live on the forest: scrubbing sago – the staple food, collecting sago grubs, hunting wild pigs, wallabies, cuscus and forest rats and picking up sweet potatoes and greens. Fish is scarce, as the water streams are very small, but the forest seemed to offer enough.

Some of the people, form the 6 houses village, were left to a camp, in the forest, looking for gold. In the last years, on the middle Sepik started a gold fever. Even in places like Waniburu people were showing me gold, checking If I want to buy it.

During the day, the village was almost empty. The people were in the forest, after food. The boys, were going down, to Kawia, to the elementary school. Sometimes, they were coming back in the afternoon, to go hunting in the night, and next morning were going back to school. But the average rhythm in Waniburu was slow, chill, without the worries I could notice sometimes at the Sepik people.

At dusk, the mosquitos were terrible, we always had to make fire, to smoke them. I was watching from my porch, a flame coming up, stopping at other houses and then arriving to my house, on the upper part of the village. Lighters are rarity and lighting the fire without one is difficult, so people try to keep the fire all day long. We used to gather at a house, chatting, sharing stories or just smoking weed, guarded by some smoking coconut shells. Only the food was worse than mosquitos.

From Waniburu I crossed the mountains, heading west, back to Sepik waters.


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Sing Sing in Purkunawi, Sepik River (PNG 2012)


16th of September is the day when Papua New Guinea got its’ independence officially.

In September 2012 I was on a two month trip on the Sepik River, in the Sundown Province of PNG.

Emilyn, Mary and Lorrie Augwi, three sisters, from the family who hosted me, organized a sing-sing festival in Purkunawi, a village on Middle Sepik, to celebrate the Independence Day. They were aiming to get the authorities’ involved in developing a vocational school. They had invited Michael Somare, the governor of Sundown Province to attend the sing-sing. (Somare is the first prime minister of PNG)

For sing-sing ceremony, the clans take out spiritual masks to invoke the spirits of their ancestors in ritual dances. In Purkunawi it wasn’t a proper warrior sing-sing and the masks were not the powerful ones, which were left safe at home, in the haus tambaran (spirits’ house). Despite this, sing-sing was a serious event and everybody joined with enthusiasm, even if just for the community pride.

Most of the sing-sing groups came from Blak Wara, an area at the foot of Waskuk Hills, where the haus tambaran and sing-sing are still alive. From hundreds of ethnic groups, spread along Sepik River, only a few kept their traditions, against protestant missionaries. Watching them with their masks was like holding a post card from a far-away place.

Next day, after sing-sing, the flag raising ceremony and Christian songs marked the Independence Day. And two fights, one for money and one for a girl, completed the whole event.

Three years later I returned to Sepik. Mary Augwi was busy with the newly opened vocational school, in Ambunti. Her older sister, was also running a school, downstream, close to Pagwi. Mary told me how in the previous year, Purkunawi show didn’t work. It degenerated in fights between clans. But they were determinate to organize it again. I was not coming for the show, I was going to see the villages in Blak Wara.


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Spirits’ houses, Blak Wara, Sepik River (PNG 2012)


In 2012 I went on a two month trip along the Sepik River, from Middle Sepik to West Sepik, joining the people I was meeting on the way and following their stories.

In Ambunti, an administrative centre on Middle Sepik, I met Kaipuk, a “savvy men” from the Kwoma clans. He invited me to join him, to Blak Wara, a flooded area at the foot of Waskuk Hills, to show me the haus tambaran (spirits’ house) of his clan, Teg-Asaul. Teg – the Dogs, Asaul – the Vulture. Kaipuk is an Asaul.

Blak Wara is one of the few areas on the Middle Sepik where the tradition of haus tambaran survived the missionaries’ assault. Haus tambaran is powerful place, the gathering of the spirits of clans’ ancestors. Pillars, crossbars, roof and walls are all carved and painted with spirits and scenes from their mythology. They exert their powers over people and lands, and watch the customary laws. The men gather there to find strength and guidance, to debate, teach, learn, chill and share stories.

When I arrived in Blak Wara, the Sepik River was high and a black-tea -like water was covering the wide plains. The villages were connected in a maze of channels and lakes. The calm, dark waters looked like big mirrors with green patches, surrounded by steep hills in the background. Besides the ferocious mosquitoes, it was fantastic and it was matching the stories from haus tambaran.


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Vanimo – Ambunti, Sepik River (PNG 2012)


In August 2012 I crossed from West Papua to Papua New Guinea, planning to stay a few days in Vanimo, a small border town, to renew the Indonesian visa. The process took only one day, so, why not, I left east for a short trip, just to have a sight of Sepik River.

I arrived in Pagwi, on the Sepik bank, where I looked for a boat to go downstream, back to the coast. But the first canoe which stopped was heading upstream. I hopped in and ended up on a two month journey along Sepik River.

My first stop was in Ambunti, an administrative center, on Middle Sepik. There, under a religious–public administration, a few ethnic groups divided into clans, live together. On Sepik, most of the public administration, education and other services are run by Catholic and Protestant missions.

In Ambunti I met a few “savvy men” from the Kwoma clans, who took me to the world of Sepik people. I met tribal artists and art, tangled up in a net of taboos and superstitions, I saw churches with spirits-houses like make-up (or vice versa?). I watched a trial held by a village court, applying customary laws. (After the trial, I even had my share of the compensation received by “my family”). And I listened to stories from the local mythology told by the “savvy men”.


I post here photos I took in Ambunti.