Hello Papua New Guinea, part of the world's second-biggest island where some 850 different languages help make it the most culturally diverse place on earth. At the Sing-sing in Mount Hagen, 50 different clans share their culture and colorful costumes with tourists once a year but, deep in the heart of the country, tradition remains a vital part of everyday life.
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 (PNG). 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.
Next to me is Gelling. He has travelled 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, PNG’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.
Tribal identity is still a strong source of pride
More than 100 distinct tribal groups visit the Mount Hagen Cultural Show. Created by missionaries in the 1960s, it sought to calm PNG’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.
“Rather than use the word ‘tribes’, we talk about PNG as clan-based or cultural groups,” says anthropologist Dr Graeme Were. “Sing-sings are really important to such cultural groups as they are a way to make their traditional culture visible: not only to tourists (such as during the cultural festivals in Mount Hagen, Goroka and Rabaul), but they are also incredibly important to rites of succession and lifecycle events. They affirm and express a cultural group’s connection to their land, ancestors and spiritual power. They serve a real function, though on a magnified scale today.”
Throughout the day, a constant parade of fantastically dressed people rolls in to the arena field and dances to the beat of their own drums. The atmosphere is electric. All around, people watch from seating areas and raised grassy banks. By the end of the day, the amphitheater is packed with bouncing feathery headdresses and stomping feet. The gates then open to spectators and the cameras flood in. I spend the last 30 minutes dancing and weaving a route through the parade, clicking as I go. It is a great end to the festival.
The climate really gets to you in the end
In Mount Hagen, the tarred roads, shops, banks and restaurants could be almost any tropical town in the world. “Modernity came to PNG at the end of the 19th century with colonialism and missionization,” says Dr Were. “Most PNG people are Christians. People in urban centers such as Port Moresby live lives very similar to those in any other modern city. In the rural areas, people are aware, if not engaged with western ideas and lifestyles and certainly some aspire to this. Digicel, the Irish Mobile Phone company, has transformed the country and the rural areas have seen a massive uptake of this technology. Five years ago, fixed line phones were hard to find in rural PNG. Things change fast. So modernity has impacted on people’s lives in different ways – and to different degrees – yet despite this, what is incredible is that many PNG people recognize the value and importance of their traditional culture, their place of origin, and their traditional obligations to their relatives.”
While Sing-sings reveal the colorful visual culture of PNG, daily life for many is a less extravagant affair. As much as 80 per cent of PNG’s population exist at a subsistence level which, in its densely forested interior, roughly translates to a simple life of cultivation and hunting. The environment and the weather make life hard for everyone in Papua New Guinea, but even more so for those living far from a town. ”The hardest thing about working in Papua New Guinea is the humidity and malaria,” says Dr Were. “The tropical climate really gets to you in the end and tires you out. It is hard to adjust as there is no way to escape from it.”
For a taste of this other side of PNG, I fly to Wewak on PNG’s northern coast with a BBC film crew. Beneath us, through the mist, I spy the majestic Sepik River weaving its way through the thick jungle covering. In 2007, a BBC colleague, Jane Atkins, was flying over this area on her way back from a shoot in the Sepik river basin. What Janie spotted in the jungle from her window seat prompted an investigation back home that, two years later, led me to the same spot. If you look closely along many of the mountainous ridges that flank Mount Turu you will see rows of carefully cut gaps in the tree line. It is a cultural phenomenon that has so far never been documented and something that I am here to investigate further.
The real reason is more bizarre
After being collected at the airport in a 4x4 vehicle, our first port of call is a guesthouse near the beach where the owner greets us with the news that, for our own safety, we shouldn’t leave the building for a few days. I instantly suspect inter-tribal fighting, an ever-present threat on this island of more than 700 distinct peoples. As it turns out, the real reason is more bizarre. The owner reports that 12 of PNG’s most notorious criminals have recently broken out from the prison near PNG’s capital Port Moresby. The most dangerous of them, notorious bank robber William Kapris, is a Wewak local who is likely to seek refuge in the nearby mountains we plan on visiting. On top of this, the owner explains that today a jeep has been stolen from the neighborhood and the rumors are that Kapris is back in town. We all glance at each other and then to the courtyard outside where our car sits, laden with a small fortune in filming equipment.
What ensues next is a textbook example of the power of fearful rumors and hearsay, something we will become accustomed to on our trip into the interior of this highly superstitious part of PNG. As we begin to discuss our plan, the unlikely possibility of getting kidnapped suddenly becomes a very real concern amid the heated opinions of our crew. In the end we decide to visit the chief of police for advice.
The next morning, a visit to Wewak’s head law enforcement officer does nothing to allay any fears of death in a remote jungle location. From the start, it is obvious that the chief has no idea if there is a real threat or not and, unfortunately, soon reverts to hollow rhetoric declaring that he has issued his force with a shoot-on-sight order. We leave more suspicious and none the wiser. Our director decides we should carry on to our location regardless. The first part of the journey is quiet as it becomes evident that everyone in the vehicle is weighing up the decision. I am initially skeptical about the rumors but, as we begin driving up a mountain road, I find myself wondering just how vulnerable we will be staying in a remote village in the hills for the next week. I know how efficient the bush telegraph can be at spreading news across vast distances. This information void has now put us all on high alert.
Evidently we are in good hands
My fears are somewhat allayed when I meet Marcus, our Yangoro Boiken host for the next few days. His translucent red smile reveals teeth blackened by many years of chewing betel nut. A reassuring handshake is accompanied by the news that no one in the area has heard any reports of the escaped convicts and that, if they had, he would be the first to know. Fortunately for us, Marcus has magical powers and everyone around here knows it, so evidently we are in good hands. To get to our location we still have a few hours’ walk and Marcus is quick to elicit the help of most of the male inhabitants of the village to help carry our gear. One by one, each man puts his name on a payment list and a sprawling line of 40 or so bag-laden porters begins to snake off into the jungle.
Our new friends warn us to stay close or risk a magical attack from a neighboring tribe if we walk on the wrong path. It is becoming increasingly evident that rumor and superstition still rule these hills. This part of PNG is well known for the cultural phenomenon of cargo cults. Beginning in the early 20th century, these cults were the response of many remote tribal communities in the Pacific region to the sudden appearance of technologically superior cultures into their communities. They focused on magical rituals designed to imbue themselves with the material wealth that they saw belonging to the foreigners, believing it was intended as gifts for them by their own deities and gods. Although the cults have since largely vanished, the deities still persist and are a strong superstitious force in contemporary culture.
After we have set up camp, Marcus shows us to his ‘hunting grounds’. We are on a forested ridge standing in one of the clearings made by him and his friends. At either side of the gap high up in the canopy are two long poles from which is suspended a giant net spanning the width of the hole cut into the forest. At the base of the net is a small hut and Marcus gestures us in to sit by the fire as the sun begins to set behind the lush canopy.
A bat with rice can feed 12 people
As darkness falls, Marcus begins his night watch. Sitting on a stool, he periodically glances upwards into the darkness. “A bat with rice can feed 12 people,” he says as his eye traces a line across the Milky Way. It is evident that this job requires a lot of patience. Marcus knows that there are many giant fruit bats that roost in upland caves nearby. Their feeding grounds are in the plains below and when the time comes for them to return home at night, they choose to fly via the shortest route their sonar can detect. Like a giant spider, Marcus sits silently at the corner of his web waiting for the unsuspecting prey. Kindling pops as the fire crackles gently in the background.
I jolt my head up with a start. There is movement and shouting around me and from above a clanging sound like a herd of cowbells approaching. Marcus is pulling hard on a rope and suddenly the huge net begins to sag and descend like a theater curtain plummeting to the stage. There is a thud as something in the mesh hits the ground screeching. Marcus brings down the blunt end of his machete on the animal’s head and it is still. He then picks up his catch and holds it up, showing off the impressive wingspan. He smiles and walks into the hut, hanging the bat up by its feet from a stick wedged in the rafters.
The next morning I wake up to the smell of smoldering fur, an unpleasant stench that I have experienced in various jungle communities around the world. As it turns out, apart from the bones every part of a fruit bat is edible – even the leather on the wings. There is not a great deal of meat on them but what is there is tasty, if a little charred from its cooking on an open fire.
There is shouting and a heated argument
After a few days of filming this spectacle it is time to go and we pack up our camp. I am one of the last to leave. On reaching the village boundary I see a large crowd of men has gathered by our cars. There is shouting and a heated argument. A couple of our crew are engulfed in the throng. My first thoughts are of escaped convicts but as I get closer I recognize a few of the men who portered for us on our outward journey. The ranks of the original 40 or so porters that we employed have swelled and these previously unknown men are demanding more money for work that was not carried out. There is the obligatory mention of black magic and tribal retaliation and before long, the list of names is torn up and we find ourselves reluctantly giving up far more money than was originally agreed.
Back at the guesthouse, there is time for reflection. We have been fleeced today. Our only consolation is the fact that it could have been a lot worse had our darkest fears of encountering homicidal prison escapees come true. By chance, one of our team happens to be listening to a local English-language radio talk show as one of the callers to the show announces: “I am William Kapris.” The unidentified man goes on to explain that he has been set up by the government who organized the jailbreak themselves so that corrupt officials could use him as the scapegoat. As news of this begins to spread around our hotel I can almost hear the sound of cogs grinding against each other as the rumor mill begins to jolt into life once more. In Papua New Guinea, the bush telegraph rules.