The last chapter of my first journey along Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, took place in Baio, a village at the confluence with 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 estimate their cargo and guess where they were coming from. This bustling 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, stepbrothers, 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 leaves. 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.