Friday, February 5, 2010
Just Back: tribal tales from Papua New Guinea
The man's voice came from behind. Not a very original chat-up line, I thought as I turned to reply. I might have swooned from shock at the apparition confronting me had I been anywhere but the Mount Hagen sing-sing (Papua New Guinea cultural show).
Cigarette in hand, he was stark naked – except for a discreetly placed small triangle of leaves – and daubed all over with light grey mud. Adding to his ghostlike appearance were extended finger nails and a huge grotesque full-head mask tucked under his arm. He belonged to the Asaro tribe who, legend says, before setting out to avenge defeat in an intertribal fight, covered themselves with pale clay and made fearsome masks in the hope that their enemies would flee in terror. They did. Thus was tradition born.
The Asaro is one of more than 50 tribes that travel long distances to attend this annual two-day event. It was instituted by the government in 1961 in an attempt to bring together in a peaceable gathering people renowned for their ferocity, and to encourage pride in their cultural heritage. Incompatible aims: awarding prizes for best performances was soon abandoned as fights broke out over the results.
Preparations for the event begin at dawn. Despite the throng (more than 10,000), it is surprisingly quiet as everyone concentrates on adornment. The pungent smell of pig grease and oil – rubbed into the skin to make it glisten – pervades the air, mingling with the aroma of food cooking over open fires.
Broken fragments of mirror are peered into as faces and bodies are painted in intricate traditional designs, though chemical dyes – giving brighter colours – are now preferred to natural ones. Shell or bone nose discs are inserted, shell breastplates hung around necks and fixed to torsos, skirts or aprons of leaves fastened around waists. Men strut about, cockerel-like, each with a bunch of leaves attached to his bottom. Elaborate headdresses – some more than six-feet high and decorated with flowers, shells and feathers – rival any at Ascot.
In an hour-long procession, tribes enter the arena one by one, chanting and drumming. Then the display begins. One tribe marches in military formation around the perimeter, spears at the ready. Elsewhere, headdresses bob and sway, grass swishes and buxom bare bosoms bounce to rhythmic stamping and jumping; my soles feel the vibrations. Young children dressed as miniature adults join in. All to the incessant pulsating beat of kundu drums and chanting, each tribe providing its own music. Incongruously, a uniformed brass band occupies one corner, striking up When the Saints Go Marching In.
Surrounded by this exuberant kaleidoscopic hubbub, I reflect that the New Guinea Highlands was scarcely contacted by the outside world until the Sixties. These people's parents would have hurled spears or arrows at a European woman instead of shaking hands and exchanging names. Or asking her for a match.
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