“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.