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