Pigs, Women and Land – the war mongering and corruption that has created ‘modern’ Papua New Guinea – and some crazy PNG tales accumulated from the back-country.
(This is really only meant for adults, since it has a little bit of an adult theme… and is probably boring for kids, so read on at your own risk of boredom! It was also tapped out on an iphone while bouncing along very bumpy dirt roads, so I blame the lack of suspension for misspellings and poor grammar kids.)
So, I suppose that a few foundations to any successful society would include: education, health care, laws/police, and jobs. PNG has, remarkably, gone 0 for 4. It’s a fundamentally corrupt government (as almost all third world countries seem to be), an economy with no jobs (they ‘make’ liquid natural gas, coffee, tea, and gravel from the river beds – essentially raw materials with no value add), have very limited health-care (everyone we met delivered their babies with mid-wives out in the jungle), and terrible schools that are sparsely attended. PNG combines all of that with a near lawless compulsion to conflict and war. And it’s just an awesome place! I guess the most amazing things just aren’t simple, and PNG is one of the last outposts on this over-run planet that suspends time, protects near magical natural beauty, is filled with beautifully friendly ‘national’ people (they don’t say ‘native’ but instead ‘national’) and simultaneously scares the crap out of you.
Below are just a few anecdotes (many specifically from Tari, which might as well have been Tatooine since it was filled with outlaws). Many of these came from our bush pilot friend Matt, one of the most interesting guys I’ve ever met. He had just amazing stories about jungle flights, PNG tales, and his own family (thanks Matt!) I tried to cobble down a few gems, and also tap into my iPhone some quick observations I had or things I heard. Here goes:
The culture and social structure almost precludes progress of any kind. Instead of one unified country, with single customs and language, Papua New Guinea is covered with 835 unique tribes – each with their own language. This makes travel hard, as each new city we visit we have to learn a whole new set of customs and words. Thank-you alone consisted of: ‘thank-you-tru’, angymom, arame. This fundamentally blocks the villages from trade, economic progress and growth. Instead, each village leader is very protectionist… And gained land as recently as 1960 through ‘headhunter’ raids (yes, and cannibalism through the 50s and 60s – where they called humans ‘long-pigs’ – and we were told by a guide that if you get referred to as a ‘long-pig’ to start running; we think he was joking). To this day, the unique cultures, villages, customs and language isolate the country’s people from each other and challenge social structures like education, trade, policing, military, and health-care as each village resists and mistrusts anything from the outside.
‘I cannot find any qualified people to work here. Everyone I’ve hired stole the tools and materials and walked off the job.’ Manager at our first lodge.
They built an asphalt road in Tari, and despite almost complete unemployment (most people are subsistence farmers) the government gave the contract to an Indian company which shipped in workers from India… Because they didn’t trust their own nationals to show up to work and do their jobs. It’s almost shocking the open conversation from locals that the PNG population doesn’t have the skills to do work or to responsibly run businesses.
The men (particularly in Tari) don’t live with or raise children, until the boys turn seven and move into the men’s huts. The men live together in one hut, and the women, children and pigs live across the village in other huts. The men, frequently, have several wives and dozens of kids; making the whole place teem with naked little kids chasing around overwhelmed mothers balancing raising kids while subsistence farming and raising pigs for the family. It ends up overpopulated with children that have little opportunity for life beyond supporting their parents until it is their turn to take over the subsistence farm. It’s beautifully simple and pure, but the men and women seemingly have misaligned incentives. Brandy learned some spell from a spirit-woman on how to keep your husband faithful… Unfortunately, I think her husband has three wives.
Mick Jagger visited a few months ago for five days (we actually were put in his little room in Mt Hagen) and no one knew who he was, or who the Rolling Stones are. Literally, no one knew who he was until Australian news started calling asking about the little old British fellow.
Brush fires abound. It’s easier to just burn fields and hillsides than to mow them, so everywhere in the Hagen valley there are hundreds of little brush fires filling the sky with smoke. More on smoke later.
Car crashes seem like a daily occurrence. We visited three areas, only one with roads (Hagen) and saw two bloody crashes in back to back days. Anise, our driver, said they happen all the time since the cars are pretty rough, roads are mostly unpaved, bridges are washed out, roadways are almost always one lane, and pedestrians walk right on the edge of the roads while drivers drive like mad-men on pock-marked roads.
We learned that many regions have tribal clan wars, typically over land, pigs, and women (apparently in that order). As recently as six weeks ago a battle erupted just down from our lodge where eight men died in a clan war over a stolen pig. The pig theft was retaliated by killing a boy and then a war ensued, fought with arrows and home made guns out in the jungle. The local police told them that as long as it stayed off the road, they would let them fight it to its conclusion. That left ten people dead. Apparently it happens all the time. We met a friend who said we’d be fine and safe as long as we didn’t touch anyone’s land, pigs or women.
In Tari (Huli warrior wig-men region) the men grow ornate hair-dos for 18 months (mostly without showering to protect the fro) which then they cut and stitch into ornate wigs. The wig-men take the ornate hair wigs and stitch it together with feathers from birds of paradise to signify status and attract a wife. It’s weird and awesome how different cultures develop. I wonder what they think of lululemon pants.
Addiction and chemicals have a strong hold of the local population, like any developing country. In Papua New Guinea, it’s betel nut, which stains their teeth and mouths bright red (and they spit it everywhere), alcohol, and cannabis (the smoke smell is everywhere in the mountain villages, and our kids got a wonderful demonstration from a spirit man of a friction fire, kindling a small flame, then lighting up a big bamboo bong… While brandy was trying her best to wave the smoke clouds away).
Tari is raw and primal. All along the dirt pathways that are the main thoroughfare for buses, trucks, and cars are streams of people walking with no shoes, babies slung in hemp woven bags from their mothers’ heads, women working the raw dirt on the roadside with no clothing on, while their men stand guard in an adjoining hut, teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. The raw smells mix the smoke and bodies. Almost all of the men carry long machetes, menacing stances mixed incongruently with big smiles and waves as our car bumps by. Our first day just seemed like a dream. I’ve been to remote parts of South America and Kenya and nothing is like Papua New Guinea.
Village vignette – A village is typically a family unit of between 20-50 people. They live in scattered about huts, frequent with up to a dozen people sleeping in one hut. Men live separate from babies and women; women live with together with children and pigs. Women cultivate the earth into little hobbit like mounds, about the size of a pitchers mound, and shove sweet potato roots deep into the churned up dirt, trading between pulling white chalky sweet potatoes out of the ground and burying new ones. The pigs root and dig right alongside the women, almost as a family member (up to the day they are slaughtered or sold). One women pulled a smoking hot sweet potato out of the ground fire, smacked it on both sides to knock the ash and dirt off and then proudly offered it to me. I took a very frightened bite and it’s was sweet and warm, but odd.
The huts are smallish open dirt floor plans, made with thatched palms for walls and roofs. The kitchen is a fire pit, but there is no chimney or ventilation, so smoke infiltrates the thatched roof and the dark and dank room for heat and protection from bugs, lice and animals. They love the tar substance that the lingering smoke creates across the rooftop… Apparently unaware that the same thing is forming in their lungs.
Last year, a private (owned by a local PNG national) plane crashed carrying seven passengers, cargo and an Australian pilot. The owner of the national company was mad that the pilot crashed his plane, so decided to abandon them out in the jungle and not try a rescue mission. When local villagers arrived at the site, the pilot was unconscious and had broken his back; the locals robbed him, looted the site and left. The other pilot community organized a rescue and everyone lived, but without their wallets.
Recently, alcohol problems in Tari became an epidemic, so the local magistrate ruled that booze was now illegal. The local police force went through homes and markets confiscating all alcohol. The police took all of the bottles up to the airstrip by our lodge and started drinking it all. The next day, the PNG military (with bigger guns) heard about the commotion and showed up, locked all of the police up in their own jails and then binge drank all the rest of the booze. This was a few months ago.
There was a man left for dead on front steps of the police headquarters in Hagen, handcuffed and unresponsive. An Australian man, hired by the government to make the police friendlier and less corrupt saw the body and raced into the jail. He asked the chief what was going on, and the police chief said he was told by the man that they cannot leave people in cells that might die, so they left him outside to comply with the new rules.
In Karawari, near the Sepik river delta, someone stole five solar panels from the local school… so the regional government closed down the school for five years as punishment. The place is so remote that it’s a two day trek on a boat and then car ride to the nearest town, so no kids have a school to attend.
In Hagen, they are in a severe drought and don’t have irrigation or water systems, so yesterday they closed all schools for five days to conserve water.
Our friend Matt, a kiwi who now lives in PNG, shared with us that he would never carry a gun, because it’s more likely to be used against you here. Unlike in the US, people in PNG run TO a gun fight.
The 835 tribes and languages create barriers to integration, economic progress and trade – leaving conflict and war as the only means of gaining land, pigs, women.
The last PNG Prime Minister was charged with 48 counts of fraud and corruption; he was found guilty of many and suspended for 6 weeks. His quote was: ‘well, seems like a nice time for me to play a bit of golf.’
They had to suspend a regional rugby match, because the players disagreed with the calls and starting chasing and attacking the officials and linesmen.
In Hagen, the municipal workers aren’t being paid – so they stopped picking the trash. Piles of rotting garbage fill up the central square where the main market is. The villagers responded by piling up the garbage and burning it – batteries, tires, everything. The smells were horrible.
It’s scary and incomprehensible that this way of living still exists, but it is magical and like a dream that is hard to imagine. We loved everyone we met, and saw landscapes like we’ve never seen before. We all feel like we now share in the wonderful secret that is Papua New Guinea… And will return (but not for a while!)
‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.’
Sir Francis Bacon