I am standing in a field just outside Mount Hagen, a town nestled in the lush Wahgi Valley some 1,500 meters up in the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Around me, hundreds of people are gathering in groups. There is a buzz of expectancy in the air as folk begin opening tatty suitcases and laying out their contents on the ground. Vibrant hand-woven shawls are unfolded and stretched out to air under the morning sun. Cardboard sandwich boards reveal colorful pressed plumages and exotic feathers. Small wooden boxes are full to the brim with gaudy powders and psychedelic pastes. This is the beginning of the Mount Hagen Sing-sing, the country’s largest gathering of indigenous peoples.
More than 100 distinct tribal groups visit the Mount Hagen Cultural Show, which is held yearly in August. Created by missionaries in the 1960s, it sought to calm Papua New Guinea’s ever-present tribal tensions by bringing people together in one huge cultural event.
In its 21st-century incarnation, complete with banks of long lens photographers and sponsorship by Coca Cola, it would be very easy to patronize this event, reverting to the seasoned travelers’ mantra of “They’re only doing it for the tourists.” But there is more to it, as I find mingling with the participants before and after the main event. Tribal identity is still a strong source of pride in PNG and this is evident from the great time and effort invested by participants of the Sing-sings.
Next to me is Gelling. He has traveled here from his jungle village at the foot of Mount Hagen about 50km away. “It takes years to collect so many feathers and get known as a ‘big man’ in society,” he says as he begins to lay out the carefully packaged feather vanes. As he does so, he carefully brushes them to realign any barbs dislodged since their last use.
The structure of Gelling’s headdress is upright next to him. About two and a half feet tall, it resembles a prop from a 1960s sci-fi TV show. The bottom half is a multicolored helmet similar to a design commonly worn by medieval knights. Above sits its crowning glory. A crest of no less than four complete plumes of the instantly recognizable Lophorina superba, Papua New Guinea’s bird of paradise. He begins topping off the garish creation with the slender unpacked feathers of a Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia.
Smiling, Gelling glances at me. “Wearing my headdress, I feel proud and wealthy...” He has a glint in his eye. As a cultural emissary representing his village, he is obviously aware of his responsibility to his people – but I have no doubt that he is also dressing up for the ladies.
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