On the edge of modern society, just in this very second, a crocodile hunter surveys the shores with a flashlight in search for prey, a wizard is secretly speaking the magic formula to curse an enemy of his clan, Kenny’s four wifes argue who is going to cook the donuts today, a jobless villager hijacks a fried chicken leg in Port Moresby, and an aircraft packed with Christian missionaries lands somewhere in the hinterland of Papua New Guinea. That’s probably why they termed the country “the last frontier on earth”, and this visual stoy points out why they’re actually right.
Jump to Chapters
- Deceptive Heritage – The mighty Sepik and its Crocodile Festival
- Insect Tribe (Riverine romance) – From self-sufficiency to money economy/ polygamy
- Crocodile Handbag – The hunt & transition from worship to kill for money
- Wantoks – How the people from 800 different cultures are connecting
- Post Mortem – Animism, the Afterlife and Sorcery
- Crocodile Men – Scarification of the youth (a disappearing tradition)
- Browse all images: Crocodile Festival Ambunti / Sepik and its inhabitants
- Switch to the long version or commission this story
En route to the Sepik’s mouth, I’m scanning the canopy of a pristine jungle. Think of all the secrets this thicket still bares to date, all the plant and animal species it had seen flourishing or dying out, and what sacrifices it will owe the progress of civilization! Nonetheless, the era of magnificent expeditions is probably over. German explorer and scientist Friedrich Hermann Otto Finsch surveyed the stream by steamship already back in 1885 and termed the waters „Kaiserin Augusta River“ after Augusta Marie Luise Katharina of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. A grand expedition explained Augusta’s son and later Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm to the public. Obviously, it was about the expansion of the German colonial empire and their supremacy over the Pacific. In 1912 Father Eberhard Limbrock started his journey through the watercourse in search of virgin souls. So, the idyllic coastline near the estuary called Vaviak became Wewäk and after the takeover of the Australian administration ultimately changed to Wewak.
Although they all have plenty of time, nobody really wants to waste a second here in the transit of Pagwi Waterfront risking to miss the next motorized dugout at an afar junction. Today’s morning tastes like diesel and dried fish, as several captains just unloaded a new delivery of market ladies, whereas the trucks only equipped with wooden planks to sit on taking them straight in again. Even here on the Sepik, a tight schedule of public transport has gained control over the citizenship. Whilst the first fully packed canoes disperse in all different directions, I’m lazing in the grass, waiting for my captain’s sign. An old man joins me, his lavish grin compensated for the burden of a crooked back. No, not all these years of aging were responsible, but a ship propeller that certain tribal enemies pulled over his neck. The scares that stylishly adore his upper body reveal that he had attended the Sepik-exclusive scarification ritual when he was a youngster. Once being scratched open by a razor the traditional totem will then express a man’s lineage to his mystical elders – The mighty Sepik crocodile. Now he shall officially call himself “a crocodile hunter” although this nickname isn’t really flattering for western standards. “Peter would do,“ the old man proposes.
The Sepik headwaters rise in the rugged Star Mountains and meanders eastwards through hilly landscape, lush valleys and tropical rainforest until it eventually flows into the Pacific after 1126 kilometers. Although the stream is considered Papua New Guinea main traffic artery, only very few gravel roads connect the mighty river with the outside world. Nonetheless, for almost half a million people who inhabit the Sepik Basin, it is nothing short of a miracle – the eternal source of life. I’m surprised to notice that Francis is drinking water straight from the river, thus looking at him blankly until I realize that I look at him blankly. “No worries,” says the school inspector – as long as the infamous mining company PanAust is waiting for approval, and as long as the loggers don’t rage as intended, our waters remain clean, even drinkable. But that will change rather sooner than later. Chased by a picturesque twilight, we reach the small hamlet of Ambunti, where they will pay homage to the region’s icon.
I’m heading over to crocodile farmer Jack, who looks after 120 crawling chainsaws. He buys the smaller versions from Swagup’s famous crocodile hunters or other villages and feeds them until they are chubby enough. When they’ve reached the average size, he’d skin the crocs and sell the tail meat on the market – a sequence that Jack is visualizing with the well-trained body language of a butcher. The exquisite scaly crocodile skins will then embark on a journey to the port city of Lae, from there it’ll be sent out to the sewing workshops of Hermes, Dior, and Gucci. In order to invalidate my prejudices in terms of sustainability, Jack promises that every single traded piece must be accompanied by a form which includes the species description, weight, measurement, location, date, and signature. The catch is limited by law to a minimum size, whilst other species aren’t even allowed to be hunted. So the Sepik crocodiles enjoy at least on paper certain rights. Jack is carefully wrapping some Brus into a newspaper article from January and turns his attention towards his breed. What’s going through his mind? Conspiratorially giggling he leans sideways and says: “Crocodiles are like people, they never change their character and remain unpredictable.” Armed with a bottle of Warrior Dark Rum and a spear Jack’s buddy is loafing about. Yesterday, they didn’t catch any, his crocodile squad was too drunk, so no live-skinning today at the festival as the organizers had previously scheduled. In the past, no one would have even thought of harming these armored amphibians. Primal fears? Certainly! But most of all because the tribes along the Sepik believed to have descended from father crocodile and it would be like hurting their own kind. It’s sort of a fun fact that the very first Crocodile festival has been financed by the WWF. Eleven years later, the lawyers of nature are no longer among the sponsors, and the same organizers suggest live-skinning and crocodile tail for dinner. As Jack mentioned, the money economy has reached this territory only two decades ago but is now influencing their lifestyle intensely. Thus, they’ve moved away from an age-old crocodile worship to actually kill or farm crocodiles so that they can cross-finance essentials like rice, transport, and education – Stuff that they had not needed until recently.
Different tribal groups are invited to showcase their traditional songs and dances. Half naked actors prance on the soccer field, swinging their living crocodile mascots through the air to the beat of Kundu drummers. Another clique presents a chaos of warlike battle cries, conch trumpets, and spear-fumbling. Other have decided to torture their instruments in a hypnotic monotone way. “Veeery traditional,” comments Nelson, without disguise his sense of sarcasm. I won’t judge, but am not quite convinced that guitars really are part of the Sepik cultural heritage. What certainly is impressive, is the variety of outfits, the carefully applied tribal body painting, but also the authentic group dances with chants in endless loops, which still make up the weddings and other social celebrations. “… And Christmas” adds a dude with a crocodile necklace. I take some photos. Capturing Odors, that would be a thing! Just at that moment, it would enhance the scene with the necessary authenticity, because it smells awfully exotic, like an unparalleled blend of bush, Brus, Buai and sweating armpits. A precious note you could bottle and name “Eau de jungle – Awaken the warrior within you“. Is it possible to recognize a place only its very taste? Paris? London? Ambunti? Close your eyes and tell me the scent of your home!
Insect Tribe (Riverine Romance)
Moses doesn’t shake hands, he squeezed them. With closed eyes, I would have hallucinated a heavyweight champion, but his clumsy facial features, the typical African complexion, and his motoric moves rather indicates a Papuan double of cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh. Moses is Nelson’s second cousin, and thus my Wantok from Swagup. My upcoming visit to the famous crocodile hunters was first intensely discussed by the two relatives: Nelson: “You, take care of this dude!” – Moses: “Okay”.
Prior to our departure from Ambunti, the freshly painted “Insect Tribe” are about to pick up their reward – the fuel for the return trip and a few Kinas, which is barely sufficient just to compensate for the lost time in the garden. As the organizers skimp, the troop immediately cancels the final performance and marches down defiantly to the collective canoe. Remarkable how !37! powerfully built men and I are able to fit in one motorized dugout. However, this only works if half the passengers hang on the wooden railing with half their butt. Squeezed between spears as bodies I’ve just enough room to roll my eyes in order to overlook the bosom of nature. Upstream we cruise along tropical vegetation, only every half hour on a sleepy little village appears, other than that jungle dominates, or wilderness, and more thicket. Cumulus clouds are reflecting in the brownish water as if we were to plow through a herd of grazing sheep. On the horizon, beyond the fertile valleys, the four-thousand meter high mountains of the New Guinean highlands rise. Kenny calls me out of my daydreams: “No worries, you’re in good hands”. A soothing slogan which Moses accompanies with a thumb up. As if the two brothers suspect that I previously just realized what sort of situation I’ve put myself into. After all, I’m heading with a bunch of hunters and gatherers which I hardly know straight into the depths of the Papua New Guinean bush, without any contact to the outside world. A queasy thought? Certainly not! I trust people and within all the enriching years outside the comfort zone, I fine-tuned the sense for them so that I am able to separate friend from foe with ease. Especially in the little-explored island nation of Papua New Guinea, where there’s certainly no shortage of problems, a visitor is valued. Especially when he or she curiously investigates on the local characteristics and thereby treating the indigenous folks with respect. And now, upon arrival at the cliff of modern society, I’m delighted to jump into the unknown.
The region knows only two seasons – wet or dry. During the rainy season, the water level rises up to seven meters, leaving the river residents little choice, but to move exclusively by canoe to buy barter for food, to hunt, or to simply visit their mates in the stilt house next door. Now, in the dry season, however, our captain maintains greater caution as we navigate at walking pace through the tangled tributaries of the Sepik, deeper into Wonderland. No phone signals are sneaking into the remoteness around tiny Swagup. Only very few generators are humming, satellite dishes I find none. There is neither a road lighting nor roads that need to be lit. Only a few kiddos with machetes roam the footpath which connects the roughly 50 stilt houses. The houses are accessible by a pair of improvised stairways, one for the women, one for men, each leading up to the spacious rooms with a fair sized fireplace. Moses passes me to Kenny, suggesting that he’d have more room on the floor. That surprises me because Swagups very own village Casanova already stows four wives in his stilt house. Plus two children and three cats. At the insistence, Kenny explains the principle of plural marriage in the Sepik with the moral verve of a boulder – One woman, one house, one garden, one canoe. Unfortunately, he’d be short on Kinas for so much equality, therefore, the four wives share his house, the garden, the canoe and himself. Outside the Islamic realms, I have never faced with polygamy so far. “Well done,” I say, but consider at a harem with four jealous women more sort of self-flagellation. He met Kathy, Glenda, and Wendy just around the corner. Caroline, however, is originally from the village Kawai. She was purposely married to Kenny to settle a generation-long spat between two clans. With Kathy and Caroline Kenny have one child each, the rest would have to wait until he has gathered enough money education. The prevention by “traditional tampon” (I did not ask for details) brought some positive changes. Seems as if the womanizer is still able to calculate despite his alarming testosterone levels. Let’s question that, is a man really able to four share his love? Kenny can because he really doesn’t love even one of his wives. It’s more kind of practical agreement. He is no exception. The front-runner in PNGs Casanova League lives a few hours by canoe upriver in Aum together with his 12 wives and 96 children. In the Indian town of Baktawng, there’s Ziona, who rocks a large family with 39 wives and 94 children. World Record! I therefore confidently stick to my theory; Caroline makes delicious donuts, Wendy gets the clothes the cleanest, Kathy is good with children and Glenda is prettier than the other three together.
Anway, is such a constellation compatible with everyday’s life? Caroline waits with responding until the next morning, now that all the others are outside the home, she can tell me. “Yes and no!” But that’s how their society is prospering. The man plays his power play, and the woman obeys as diplomatical as possible. Or she gets beaten. A few months ago, a new law came into force, granting the women equal rights. Ever since women and men are laughing at it. Usually, a troubled man who wants to soothe a situation may quote the endemic credo as followed; “I’ve already paid,” – by saying this he refers to the bride price, which he handed over to his wife’s parents. From now on, the woman is his possession. In many parts of Papua New Guinea, the man is responsible for the hunt, the garden and not least, the wars, whilst women are useful for fishing, cooking, washing, raising children, and for bartering bits and pieces at the local markets. This social structure won’t change that soon. Fine then, I’m sitting on the floor to watch Caroline smoking the fresh fish that Glenda had caught this morning. So do the three cats. Outside, Wendy is cruising with her machete through the yard to prevent an invasion of snakes, and Kathy chops out the starchy juice from a sago palm together with the children. All of a sudden, a grotesque scenario of the past is crossing my thoughts, an era when marriage contracts were as immoral as headhunting when it was quite normals for a woman to get pregnant by several chosen ones, and family planning was more of a group activity. And now, here, my modern worldview is slightly getting distorted and leaves space for some real parallel worlds. What I condemn as wrong and right, or what my girlfriend thinks right and wrong, all arose from a subjective spiritual knowledge that has been consolidated over the last few decades by the progress of civilization. Per se, country-specific, obviously intelligence-specific, sometimes gender-specific. I’m not a fan of Nations which are hiding half her population in the kitchen, just as I’m puzzled about the headlines of more than 50 percent divorce rates, or babies from the laboratory, and the soon childless Japan. Since the dawn of time, we have tried a lot, and still, the ideal way seems to remain unclear. By the way, where are Kenny and Moses?
In the shadow of layered Sago leaves that form the roof of the Hausboy the men have gathered to discuss investing in a cocoa-dryer. Normally, such important issues would be sorted in the traditional Haus Tambaran, where also revenge maneuvers are planned, or village disputes would be clarified. But the so important house of customs got damaged from the previous flood, and there’s no money for the restoration. Thus village chief Tom has elected the Hausboy to serve as the center for important decisions. Traditionally, it is the place where the boys go at the age of 10 to learn about hunting and ancestral worship until they will be married with parental support. Upon marriage, the man moves into the stilt house of the wife until they are capable of building their own house. The topic „cocoa-dryer“ continues. Perfect time to have a chat with Kenny’s neighbor Samuel whose presence is already noticeable from the other end of the village due to his bass box. Lolling on the wooden floor we listen to “Best of House Music”, which sonicates every corner of Samuel’s hut with riot. Until his generator finally runs out of fuel. Despite his church membership Samuel also indulges in the sin of participating in polygamy, although he married wife number two only because he wasn’t able to host all his guests adequately. Pause for thought – then he’s kicking off with a report on Swagups curiosities, and his second wife serves us tea. Although the village is one of the first settlements on the Sepik, their ancestors lived in the outskirts of Ambunti district. At that time there was a dispute between the founders – the two brothers could not agree on who owns which betel nut trees, or how to draw borderlines across their gardens in the jungle. The younger brother Wolou Mamcoil aka The great ancestral warrior of the Insect Tribe had heard enough and ventured with a bunch of companions a day’s journey upriver to eventually found Swagup. That was roughly 200 years ago, henceforth he called his guild “The Insect Tribe” and they would ornate the war canoes, paddles, and shields with the symbol of the praying mantis. The majority of the approx. 300 villagers belong to the caste of insects, and some 60 counts themselves among the Muu (the crocodiles), then there are the eagles, pigs, kasawari, possums, et cetera. What sounds a bit like some badass nicknames for local bush gangs, actually defines a man’s lineage, his hunting practices, and special abilities. Samuel, for instance, is responsible for the possums and calls for them if hunting stocks and thus the proteins are on a decline. His cousin Lesley, however, seizes power over the mosquitoes. Superficially speaking, this extraordinary skill may impress little, but in reality, it serves well to sow chaos and to annoy your rivals to death. My wantok Moses masters the rats, what makes him unofficially a “Rat-Caller”. Don’t ever dare to upset peaceful Winnie, he just calls a crawling rat army by means of secret chant to gnaw away an enemy’s legs. At least the inventories. Currently, peace reigns the banks of the Sepik and Moses recruits his nibbling squad only if absolutely necessary. But just one generation ago, such black magic anchored in anyone’s repertoire of survival strategies. Headman Tom comes by and gets served a cup of tea from Samuel’s wife number two. Not surprisingly, Tom is also blessed with mystical powers. In case he’d that a drought and hence food shortage threatens the village, he orders the tide. To perform the ritual, the druid must rub his whole body with special little leaves. Once he’s tormented by infernal itching he sings the age-old spell Masalai, which will get him in a trance. If Tom is successful (and he always was), it rains throughout the Sepik basin. These days the aged weatherman avoids the exhausting ritual because of his asthma and high blood pressure. „My special force would possibly kill me,“ he emphasizes.
Strengthened by Kathy’s turtle stew we prepare the canoe. Kenny decided to go for the dugout made of hardwood because it’s kind of “crocodile proof”. While spears, flashlights, and machetes are tucked, I’m thoughtlessly eyeballing the village idyll. Just until a fish somersaults directly into my face, a scene that even puts a sporty smile on Moses’ unsporty face. For a good hour, we cruise out of Swagup, heading kilometers into a depth of field that never stops, only the neon green wilderness on both banks restrains the horizon. Before we finally go crocodile seafaring, Kenny and Moses have to look after her garden which appears to hide somewhere in the middle of Papua New Guinea’s jungle and is accessible only by request of machete power. No later than tomorrow, the freshly chopped slopes will surrender to a vigorous vegetation. Surrounded by cocoa, vanilla, and star fruit trees we investigate a pile of dirt for our lunch. Moses believes to find the breed of the Faul bird, supposedly it’s the perfect season now. And he’s guessing right – after an hour of digging, we retrieve three huge oval eggs. Kenny trips into the thicket to pluck to edible leaves, and Moses, driven by his inexhaustible fetish for Buai disappears in a palm crown to harvest betel nut. Meantime, I’m keen to prove myself useful, so I’m chopping some twigs and start a fire. Until I watch Moses hysterically hurrying back from his quest to get the wood pieces out of the fire. Apparently, I’ve just attacked and burned the defenseless Sumum – a mighty spirit tree. Back in the days when the region was still seized by revenge cycles and genocides, Swagups ancestors would feast on Sumum tree barks – it provided them superhuman strength on the battlefield. With all the success stories of the ancestors in mind, the spirit tree is til today regarded as sacrosanct. They say it only slumbers, waiting patiently until the guild of local hero Wolou Mamcoil one day celebrates its magical comeback to fight a tribal war supported by rats, mosquitoes, eagles and Sumum.
Kenny wraps the Faul eggs gently into leaves and grills them until the floating fetuses reach “medium raw”. In the clearing at the canoe parking, we doze towards cooler hours. Only the ripples of the life-giving river can be heard, whilst fist-sized butterflies are fluttering about, ants bite, birds swarm out, and somewhere out there I suspect a silently stalking crocodile that has no idea yet what will happen soon. With the waning evening sun, we move on to the camp – a small outpost where Swagups huntsmen spend days, sometimes weeks in order to chase monster lizards and to escape their two to four wives for a while. During the rainy season the croc hunters would wade through the swamps in form of a human chain, focusing the spots where they have observed a crocodile mother laying her eggs earlier the year, then they just skewer indiscriminately into the shallow waters. Other hunters, however, hang some bait on the shore overnight and wait for good. Kenny suggests option three – the most reliable of all methods. So we disembark, straight into a striking Milky Way, which bends from one to the other banks of the Sepik in perfect symmetry. Distant storm clouds discharge in front of even more distant galaxies, and the nature theater still leaves enough horizon for the meteorites which are rushing sporadically across the sky. “Flying crocodiles,” fantasized Swagup’s elders, Kenny explains. Meanwhile, Moses fumbles with his flashlight along the mangroves. Within a blink of an eye along the ray of light strikes a crocodile eye, it reflects red. From now we only whisper as Kenny navigates the canoe smoothly towards the alleged victim. Armed with the genetic set of a prehistoric huntsman and the obligatory spear Moses sticks on the dugout’s bow until we are close enough.
For more than 200 million years the crocodiles inhabit the earth. A good third of that time they have defended their habitat against the dinosaurs, but tonight they compete with the titans of natural selection. Ironically, until a few decades, the Sepik crocodile was still worshiped. Who dared to annoy them, got punished by a mystical disease – So the folk belief. “Nonsense” propagated foreign missionaries, and took the boobies into prayer. With the burgeoning money economy and the associated urge for education, the legendary tribal symbol mutated once and for all into prey and their admirers into executioners. Who would blame them? In three hours of seafaring, we catch two mini crocs which after snarling defense ultimately surrendered Moses’ speer. On the way back to Swagup Kenny describes the business side of the croc hunt – which is literally their main source of income. The market prices depend on the species, wherein a freshwater crocodile generates around 40% less than a saltwater crocodile would yield. It also depends on the size. If the amphibian is caught alive, the price is determined by the length, whilst the Endangered Species Act restricts the trading on a minimum span of 27 and a maximum span of 51 centimeters. Crocodiles under a length of 27 centimeters are plumped up either in in-house cages or at crocodile farmers like Jack until they reach the legal size. Dead crocodiles, however, are getting skinned immediately, and their scaly armor will be divided into four quality levels. Today, Moses caught two freshwater crocodiles, both measuring some 40 centimeters, because of the damaged skin they’ll be rated “quality grade 4”, which can be sold for only 5 Kina (1.50 USD). If he would have caught a ten centimeters larger saltwater crocodile alive, they could have made up to 400 Kina (120 USD). The catch is sold mainly to middlemen in the area of Pagwi as a canoe trip to the main exporter in the coastal city Lae would simply be too expensive. Kenny is pointing out that the crocodile business isn’t running too bad, bottom line it funds the education of Swagup’s offspring, additionally, they can buy a sack of rice every now and then, or new batteries for their flashlights. What if the hunters would be running out of crocodiles in the near future? Then, Kenny draws away to a secret location on the Sepik, snakes crocodile-like through the water, scans crocodile-like the area, and crawls crocodile-like back ashore to call his crocodile clan by singing the magic spell – the unique consecration of the “Crocodile Caller”.
Glenda cooks the two crocodile tails, Caroline fries donuts for tomorrow’s market, and I’m just sitting around amazed by the sparsely furnished room. Let’s say, I steal all their possessions; the pot, the desk lamp, the holey T-shirts, the mosquito net – basically all the modern knickknack they call their own. What would they do? Apart from feeding me to the crocodiles, they would wake with the morning sun, as usual, maintain their gardens, as usual, chew their betel nuts, as usual, hunt for wildlife and feed the family just like so many generations before they already did. But what, however, may happen if I take away your smartphone, the bank account, the, and the current job. How long could you survive? Despite all the advantages our civilizational progress evokes, sometimes I wonder who the masters of life really are.
Kenny meditates over his trip calculation. To apply for the teaching position in Swagup, he must deposit his request in Wewak personally. Neither a postal service nor an e-mail account helps him to avoid this Odyssey. Kenny speculates with a one-week absence, as well as a budget of 200 Kina (60 USD) for all the collective canoes and minivans – Equivalent to roughly 40 freshwater crocodiles grade 4 or 300 sold donuts by Caroline. Just three days later enough passengers gathered to join us for the ride downstream – to charter, an engine powered dugout would have blown up our both travel budget. Swagup waves goodbye. Even Moses beckons as dazed as ever. We don’t get far today, but Kenny is prepared. In the little village Yambun, we stay with his Wantok Vivian, a second or third cousin of him. Ingenious wantoks – the foundation for social cohesion, seemingly essential for a country in which no one would ever dare to visit an unfamiliar place without having any connections. A Wantok (taken from Tok Pisin for “one talk”) is basically a friend or acquaintance, someone who at best is a member of the extended family, and worst case has one out of the 800 tribal languages in common. To show my appreciation, I suggest Vivian to help cooking, or at least to hang the mosquito net, just something that would protect me from the feeling of dispensability. As Charming as determined, she refuses. In here she cooks, in here she beds down. But one day she’d come over to Switzerland, where ever this country may be, and then she expects to experience the same. Tragically, so we suspect both, that day will never come. Vivian has not even made to the capital Port Moresby within the previous 54 years.
“Sharing stories” is equally important as chewing Buai thus everyone’s favorite activity, if Papua New Guinea can call one little thing its very own holy relic, then it’s time – time to loll around to watch the nothingness, and to chat. Whilst we in the western world crowd the libraries to get the latest title of Tips for happiness, start meditating yoga and such in search of healing, Team Papua knows neither ambition nor meditation, and that’s what makes them so appealing. In many cases, they remind me of infants who are trying to understand the world by asking tons of questions uncoordinatedly. Assumably people living simple lives are happier because they can not exploit their hopes and dreams, instead, they travel in their imagination and build castles in their hearts. They possibly still see miracles. I, however, want to hear their stories, as they appear to be equally strange and enriching. For inspiring conversation, you usually go to meet in the houseboy. Again, I forget nine of the eleven newly introduced names, because of the countless people I meet every day. After all, I remember Morris and his brother Taylor. Because Taylor would have carried me off straight into the jungle to hunt bats or to meet with headmen who were believed lost, or in order to catalog medicinal plants – „Up to my taste,“ Taylor points out. And Morris finally clarifies what kept my thoughts busy me for weeks: Why is the land of self-sufficiency so damn expensive? Morris sighs, the answer is simple. „Our government borrows money from the World Bank every four years, which in turn increases the cost of prices on everyday goods and services, that’s plunging the country into deflation. With the borrowed money they support the whatsoever mining projects so that can repay the funded loans – A closed circuit with only a few profiteers, which leads them to the unofficial nickname of „Papua You Gimme“.
Tomorrow is market day, Vivian and her fellow salesforce get all available dried fish, bananas and sweet potatoes out of their closets. To move Yambuns harvest including the outpatient traders cost efficiently to Pagwi, their husbands have knitted three dugout canoes together to one motorized raft. Inside the float, they store all the dried fish and other bits and pieces and cover it with wooden planks for the crowd to sit. And since everyone aims to make it to the PMV trucks in time, we start to disembark close to midnight. There is not much to admire, especially because after a few minutes it starts drizzling, followed by a cyclone-like downpour until at some point I no longer know what’s coming from below and what from above. I wonder Swagup’s village chief Tom is still alive. “We must hide,” Kenny grins mischievously and throws a tarp over the two dozen passengers. Those in the middle are kindly asked to stretch their arms so that the water can drain aside. I don’t sleep a second. A washed-out horizon greets us in Pagwi. Kenny hugs me warmly and immediately disappears in a minivan. And I’m surveying the jetty for a ride to Palambei. Jacob is on his way there too. Whilst he presents himself as Guest House owner, famed Top Tour Guide, accredited chief of culture, aka Palambeis “Big Man”, my seismograph starts to bud, warns me that something might be wrong. A trap? Does the great Jacob compensate something with these superlatives? But I’m not putting my luck at risk today and jump into his canoe. Then, as I catch the Big Man inflagranti while weeping, so he drops the glamorous facade. Last night his wife Patricia has passed away. A snake ambushed her under the stilt house as she was collecting some firewood. After three hours the poison seeped via blood circulation into all her vital organs. She died on the way to Wewak. And all of a sudden I realize that I’m actually riding in a funeral canoe together with Patricia’s closest relatives. Emalda whines bitterly – Together they had cooked, they educated the children and watched the house. Like a sister, Patricia was to her. She wipes away some tears and introduces herself as Jacobs second wife.
With the outboard motor going silent Jacob mentions that he’d be happy to host me for some days. Eventually, I’d help him financing the moaning ceremony every night I’m staying in his guest house. The event lasts no longer than an entire week. In the past, a typical moaning session lasted for several months, but nowadays no one can afford such intense farewell-parties anymore. Whilst Patricia is buried, some family members are preparing for the post-mortem inspection, as no one here seems to consider her natural death. Stereotypically, the neighbor is the suspected killer – “A powerful wizard,” mentions Jacob with both of his eyebrows about to meet in the middle of his face. In order to strengthen Jacob’s suspicions with the necessary touch of drama, young Emalda starts sobbing loudly. Like most of his compatriots, Jacob believes in the power of Sanguma – the magical damage spells which may cause Deaths, illness or crop failure. Under the Sorcery Act from 1971 Sanguma Magic as well as slandering innocent people was strictly prohibited, but the law had been dissolved per 2013, allowing the sorcerer basically to get back on what they’re good at. Ever since the rumor mill flourishing again. Patricia’s son Cleo prepares a bamboo pole. In one opening he’s stuffing a rag of mother’s blouse, a tuft of her hair, and some of her saliva, which Cleo had consciously taken on Patricia’s deathbed. Then he hangs seeds from the breadfruit tree to the other end and paints five rings around the bamboo. Scanning the situation I find another marked bamboo pole stored in the overhead storage room, just below it hangs a tiny piece of wood with the inscription: Clarence 11/05/2013. – Cleo’s son died just a year after his birth. “Jealousy,” says grandfather Jacob, hoping to get the same conclusion during today’s bush forensics. The evil warlock Jacob is suspecting would be on his heels for quite a while now, driven by his jealousy on the Guest House business, the two women, and of course the status of a Big Man in Palambeis society. A couple of relatives are bringing earth from the freshly shoveled grave into the house of mourning. “The earth includes Patricia’s Spirit,” says Cleo and stuffs it carefully in the bamboo pole.
Patricia’s brother Richard helps him carrying the investigation stick outside. Both hold the bamboo with only one loose hand each. Now intimate questions will be asked and Patricia’s Spirit responds henceforth by leading Cleo and Richard into whatsoever directions. “Only the bamboo can reveal the truth,” announces the visibly curious Jacob. A good quarter of an hour, the duo roams through the garden led by a precarious bamboo. Although no one is quite sure, the Big Man decides as followed – Eureka, it was jealousy! Speaking of jealousy, this pretty much links to any Papua New Guinean, whilst retaliation is often applied by a whole clan. For this purpose, folks would preferably hire a “Contract Wizard”. No one knows exactly who the magic hitman actually is, whether he ever had committed to the case, or acted of his own will – only their anonymous presence appears to be undeniable. Well, it’s at least been said that they can curse someone with a fatal illness or kill by remote-controlled snakes. In the village, next door the son of a primary school teacher died a few weeks ago, whereupon the irritated father summoned his traditional coroner. After the pseud-judgment, some family members went for a meetup with the arbitrarily accused witch. As punishment, they cut her head and upper legs open by the use of machetes until they’ve spotted a police canoe passing by. Some landed temporarily in the jail. But as the sorceress generally didn’t enjoy a magnificent reputation, her abusers bought themselves free with a symbolic amount of Kinas.
Although the mystical background for Patricia’s death may be clarified, her spirit is neither appeased nor free – Suddenly, I hear the bestial roaring of a pig – which has just been sacrificed to usher the final separation of Patricia’s spirit and her body. But its death automatically triggers an act of revenge within the spirit world. Patricia’s Spirit now teams up with the spirit of the dead pig, and together they are taking revenge on her killer. – Yes, the event of dying in PNG is damn complicated. Same for taking revenge. That happening shall also clarify why pigs in Papua New Guinea are considered as valuable as women. I spend the rest of the day with Richard and his marijuana on the Sepik bank. Looking beyond our little campfire reveals the silhouettes of about 200 mourners, which have by now made themselves comfortable in Jacob’s garden – and there are more and more coming. “Good stuff hey ?!” Richard points his bearded chin towards the neighbors on the other side of the river and says solemnly: “We barter! Weed for radios, Weed for fish, weed for batteries. Every now and then Sago for fish or vice versa.” They used to be sworn enemies and heads have mutually chopped off in order to eventually pile them in the trophy galleries. Until that one day when Palambei rushed over in their war canoes once more to loot and lynch (no one knows anymore who had started). As they were used to, the whole lot of children, women, and elders tried to escape, but a village beauty wasn’t running fast enough. One of Palambei’s invaders was able to grasp her. And married her. The war was over, village brotherhood sworn and Richard’s grandmother was named the heroine of both river banks.
Jacob has pitched a little tent next to the grave, as he’s traditionally not allowed to leave Patricia’s side for a week or so. Today’s the last part of the spiritual ceremony. Richard volunteers and thus I tag along, following him to the Haus Tambaram. Embraced by palm trees the ancestral worship house sits on a perfectly trimmed lawn with the “Blood Stones” just nearby – the name refers to a tormenting past in which indigenous tribesmen had smashed their head trophies on these bloodstones in order to celebrate their triumphant rampage. Such macabre customs are long gone, thanks to the energetic influence of German missionaries. A merit of Christianity – as to mention some good things about mass converting at times. The Haus Tambaran with its nickname “Paiambit” is also the Hausboy here in Palambei. Additionally, it serves as a vault for all the strange artifacts and carvings of worldwide fame, which brought the tiny village onto the radar of many international art collectors. Last but not least; Sukundumi rests here – CEO of all Sepik spirits. And right now, Sukundumi is watching how a puzzled chicken slaps against a wooden post. With its death, Patricia’s spirit is finally released from earthly anguish. Whether I enjoy my time in Palambei, asks village council Aaron Maling, who in turn receives all my jammed questions. Richard guess what this will be all about and waves goodbye. At the very beginning, there was Sukundumi. He created the land, the Sepik, everything. Then, along with the crocodile spirit, he created mankind. At will, he transforms from the shape of a crocodile into a human, a snake, a bat, and if he can’t decide, he possibly goes for half pig half fish. On the recommendation of the missionaries, the spirits were promoted to agents of the one real God, and Sukundumi got degraded for Head of Departments. Aaron points to the almighty relic of their ancestors, also known as Sukundumi’s favorite place in the Sepik – A rotten chair.
Palambei is one of the last seven places in the Sepik basin where the scarification ritual is performed until now. With the traditional houses in other villages falling gradually apart and a fair part of the youth already staying away from the razor blades, the tradition wanders on the edge of extinction. According to local customs, the boys enter the Haus Tambaran when reaching about ten years of life. If they feel mature enough for the ritual, they move over to the Spirit House “Nambaraman”. Once in a while, outsiders come here for the initiation. But only if the parents can afford it. Normally, the scarification-master, his extense stock of betel nuts plus the compensation for his absence in the garden, and the recovery costs for their boy sum up to at least 300 USD for the entire four weeks. Two weeks ago, a set of 15 boys went through scarification, one student didn’t make it because of an exceptional high blood loss. Whereas the survivors sit now all joyful on their little stools and fan the flies off their bodies.
Their wounds had been cleaned two days after the procedure with a natural oil and mud in order to prevent infections. With the scars winching elegantly around the chests, the back, and the upper arms, the totem tells the story of the crocodile – thus their ancestors. Symbolically, the young men meant to be separated by these ornamental scars from the women’s world and charged with the power of the crocodile spirit. There are two different designs to chose from, which mainly differ by a striking emblem on the back. I suspect a star, as a synonym for the vastness of the Sepik, or maybe a diamond that imitates the purity of the river. “Crocodile vagina”, correct me, Aaron. Having the option between female and male crocodile scars, the scarification provides more equality than PNG’s society. Ironically, the boys know nothing of this circumstance and are looking forward to showing off with their cool star sign. Actually, they have no idea what will happen to them during the three to four weeks in the Nambaraman, I’m informed by Espie and Norbert, which were both initiated at the age of 16. Immediately after receiving the cultural totems the boys will learn the tactics of crocodile hunting, natural history and about the enemies which had fought their grandfathers. In roughly two weeks, then they will be released into the wilderness as „Crocodile Hunters. Whereas the official nickname “Crocodile Man” is only given to them who have studied on to become a Warlock.
Aaron is such a crocodile man, unfortunately, he won’t tell me what sort superpowers he’s possessing. Instead, he reveals the secret of the craziest magic formula at all – “teleportation”. The story begins with his uncle, who once called the spirits, then traveled by light speed to Australia, stole some biscuits, and teleported himself back to his stilt house before dinner. Too bad that the trick only works with smoked human flesh, preferably a finger, heart, penis, or vagina, so the sorcery works best. If you cheat, and you’re using instead flesh of your enemy, the spell requires compensation, which is either the life of your wife or your firstborn. 2018 – the ritual is still practiced secretly in Palambei and elsewhere. A bush causality between power, compensation, and victims which will go on, until one begins to think, and decides to break the cycle. Aaron tells me that the studies of teleportation had been offered to him. Quite an honor some would say, but Aaron hesitates; “The old teacher has even smoked human flesh in stock, but I am afraid of the compensation.” Aaron’s wife, his firstborn, and the Australian biscuits industry will thank him.
Back with the mourners, at the small campfire on the river bank with Richard & Co. The ideal place to admire how the daily “San go don” (Tok Pisin for sunset) plays with beguiling color combinations and releases the stage right on time for distant storms that pounce on the mirroring Sepik with full force as if all wizards, druids, and witches call their spirits simultaneously. Every now and then a beam of a flashlight interrupts the natural spectacle. I trust that fumbling with flashlights is apart from “Sharing Stories” the nightly favorite of every Sepik dweller. They shine from the shore at passing dugouts, logging vessels, or investigate suspicious activities in the opposite village. Whether it is boredom or precautions, probably knows only Sukundumi. I picture the same scenario without the flashlights, T-shirts and solar cells, that’s how it must the have looked like centuries ago; Mothers breastfeed their offspring, men talking the talk, midges bite all of them, a parrot’s doing a mating call, naked kiddos flit around and whip stray dogs to flight, and one guy with the crocodile spear wades down to the shore. Richard lights a joint. If he’d miss something I’m asking him; “Not at all, I don’t feel comfortable in the city, I’m a village boy – a Mangi Peles. Out here I decide about my time.” With him having said the keywords “time” it occurs to me that I have already survived two weeks without my mobile phone. Even now in Palambei, no check-FOMO, mostly because their cellular antenna is down since already three months. Rumor has it that the Digicel technician from Wewak was eaten by crocodiles. Everything in this moment is live, people laugh together, cry together, praise and insult others – no heavenly conditions, but the real life with all its emotional hardship. It is my last evening in Palambei and I memorize it all, this mystical tropical world and its tales, the secrets of Sukundumi and his Sepik – The source of life where it begins and, for most ends.
Adolf is picking me up, “PNG Time” (two hours later than agreed) with his mini dugout. Together we row to Kaminabit, a hamlet on the Lower Sepik. I get the smaller women’s paddle. And the women’s place at the lookout. The singing Adolf, in turn, balances the canoe from the rear with one foot on the shaky edge. Downstream from Kaminabit it turns out getting either inconvenient or expensive, or both. In the Haus Tambaran, I discuss my travel options with the local village council. Either I may purchase a canoe for some Kinas and paddle through pirate-infested waters to Angoram. Alternatively, I could also hire a captain who brings me to the nearest village – but no farther. Or I’ll jump on the water taxi and jet back upriver to Pagwi. I place myself in front of the canoe, next to the 1,775 fish. A smelly delivery which is on its way to a crocodile farm in Pagwi. Henceforth, all the circulating fishing ladies will be kindly asked to contribute something. We are truly on a divine mission. Per fish, the farmers will pay 1 Kina (0.30 USD). After deducting the gasoline costs the crew remains around 700 Kina to restore their village church.
Those, who are traveling solo, will always be blessed with local support. In fabled Papua New Guinea, the only thing that might get stolen is what couldn’t be more relative anyway, and that is time. By all means, Expect the Unexpected!
Images: Crocodile Festival Ambunti/ Sepik and its inhabitants
Commission this story