Visiting Papua (Part 2: The Moni People)

The 25,000 Moni live in the highlands east of the Paniai Lakes and Enarotali, which was the first Dutch post in the central highlands. Despite this proximity and that the Moni are one of the highlands’ largest groups, little has been written about them.  The Moni have proudly resisted assimilation. Western encounters with the group seem always to produce strong reactions: “sarcastic,” “a tribe of all chiefs and no Indians,” and even “treacherous,” are often heard. Other observers find much to admire: “they have such gentle features,” and “they have inherited all the good points of the tribes around them and blended them into one.” Having grown up with the Moni, I can only say that none of these is accurate. Or perhaps, they all are.

The first documented meeting between a European and the Moni took place in 1937, when Dr. J. W. Cator, the Assistant Resident at Fakfak, flew from the coast to Lake Paniai and trekked to the village of Kugapa. In 1939, Controleur Dr. Jean Victor de Bruijn mounted an expedition to Kugapa and continued on into the heart of Moni country to the village of Sanepa in the Kemandoga Valley. His first impressions were condescending (in the habit of the time), but positive:  “The Miganis [Monis] are a superior race and are very conscious of being so. Not only are they superior in warfare, but ordinarily conduct themselves with better manners and greater dignity. They are a proud people, more reserved.”

The Moni can seem intimidating in part because they speak loudly in clipped, guttural tones. In reality they are kind and highly intelligent with a wonderful sense of sarcastic humor.  They appreciate the curious outsider and enjoy teaching the “how to’s” of Moni culture.

Although western clothing has largely replaced the traditional grass skirt and  penis gourd, it is not unusual to see both, even in larger towns and villages. Interestingly, seeing exposed lighter skin is considered immodest. Nets woven of string made from tree bark are a must for all adult women.  The adult men also wear smaller nets.

Historically the men waged war, hunted small animals, traded goods (which included women) and cowrie shells. The women worked their gardens and tended to the children. Their culture and home is changing at a riveting pace.  The Moni’s are trying very hard to preserve their culture and customs. They are striving to maintain their individualism and their dignity while at the same time they know they must assimilate to new ways.  Amakane!

Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.


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