When Papua New Guinea Was Still Papua And New Guinea

Seeing them smeared with pig grease and soot from head to toe, imagine yourself in the midst of hundreds of Stone Age tribesmen as they howl their war chants at your direction or brandish the weapons they have on from arrows to axes to spears. Seems like a real nightmare doesn’t it? Actually, you might be watching the annual Highlands Show of Papua New Guinea.

Actually, Papua New Guinea is located in between and the equator, not only is it comprised of the eastern part of the large island that it shares with Indonesia but also by small islands that are part of the Bismarck Archipelago. Achieving independence and nationhood in 1975 was this country but long before this occurred, managed the territories of Papua and New Guinea under various United Nations trust arrangements. In most parts of the country, the people are still unfamiliar with the western way of life.

White men traveling on foot were the first to explore these rugged Highlands in the 1930s. There is still a lot of attention given to the white man today and in the Highlands Show the centers of attention include camera toting tourists and the painted warriors. Normally held alternately in the towns of Goroka and Mount Hagen, this is a two day show that attracts 60,000 viewers most of which are Papua New Guineans. Even if it involves weeks of walking, some people do so from places like Telefomin, Wapenamanda, and Ukarumpa to be able to participate in the festivities.

The show stages the usual agricultural and crafts exhibits plus demonstrations of local skills such as fire making or house building. Light entertainment is scattered throughout the program. Barefoot and clutching their weaponry, the competitors participate in chasing after the greased pig, bicycle races, and climbing up a greased pole with beer and cigarettes dangling from the summit. Tourists and locals are able to see each tribe in their treasured ceremonial attire during the sing sing competition and this is the climax of the weekend.

Under the hot sun, people dance and chant accompanied by the deep hollow beat of the kundu drum where pace changes are occasionally done to simulate a battle or to stage a legend from tribal history. For the Highlands sing, a feast for the eyes is the kaleidoscope of color and costume. Embellished are the dancers in this case. Store bought crepe paper, leaves, beads, and feathers are used as trimmings for their luminescent faces in red and blue ochre and bodies covered with the darkest soot. You may see safety pins used as earrings and ball point pens not to mention a piece of an automobile engine used by those with pierced septums.

This is an event where the village heirlooms are unwrapped and displayed. They use the fur of the spotted cuscus, a small marsupial, to make the headpieces proudly worn by the children. Considered to remain prized and valuable possessions are seashells which were once a form of currency. The tall swaying plumes of the cassowary and of the national symbol which is the peacock like Raggiana Bird of Paradise can be seen at times.

You can even see the eerie Asaro mudmen. These fellows are coated in white mud and wear grotesque heads constructed of sun baked clay and straw. They perform a swaying dance in which they hypnotically slap leaves off their thighs. According to legend, there is a tribe that retreated into the Asaro River after being pursued by their enemies.

They came out all covered in the white clay and thinking that they were ghosts, their enemies fled. To this day the Asaro mudmen commemorate their easy victory by encasing their bodies in the same river mud. When all the sing sings have ended, the judges award prizes of cash and cattle to the groups with the most attractive costumes and the liveliest presentations. As the day ends, locals and tourists start their journey back home.

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