Visiting Papua (Part 3: Cultural Sensitivity)

Teju Cole, writer, art historian, street photographer, and contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker and more, recently tweeted several striking statements that really grabbed my attention:

  • From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
  • The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
  • I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

And I certainly encourage you to read Mr. Cole’s complete comments in The Atlantic, March 21, 2012, at for context, but my question here is, “How do I balance our visits with the Papuan’s traditional ways of life?” Whether I come to guide a climb of Carstensz or to involve myself in some sort of ‘community development’ project, can I do so in a way that not only does no harm to the Papuans, but also in a way that is rooted in respect? I admit, I have to learn what this means. I certainly don’t desire to be a part of that White Savior Industrial Complex. Oh yeah, and I was born in Amsterdam. That’s not considered a bonus in Indonesia!

I’ve read or heard statements which just make me wince. I knew these statements were likely borne of cultural ignorance, not maliciousness, but I wondered how they might read if their authors had been more culturally aware and in-tune with their role as visitors:

  • “The Dani are so much nicer than the Moni.”
  • “The exciting thing about Carstensz is that you start the trek from a village … whose people still walk around naked, with bows and arrows and eat spiders.”
  • “There’s also a lack of any sort of facial recognition of closure or agreement. No smiles. No handshakes. No nods of the head.”

One of these statements came from a friend of mine, so don’t mistake me, I’m not lambasting anyone, I’m simply using these examples to caution myself with the understanding that I, too, can share the spotlight with the “culturally insensitive tourist” or even the “white savior industrial complex,” and those attachments I’d like to avoid!

Perhaps I can share a few (admittedly simplistic) cultural sensitivity guidelines which I held to on my first climbing adventure in June-July 2012:

It is important for people not to “lose face.”

“To lose face” means to be embarrassed or to lose respect in the presence of others. For example, if we have some sort of misunderstanding, miscommunication, issue, etc. with one of our local porters, we should bring that issue to the local porter leader rather than taking it up with the individual porter. For example, we had a climber who needed help carrying a backpack, and the porter who carried that pack was not always nearby when it came time to take a rest stop. Regardless of how many times that occurred (or how badly we wanted the porter to stick close by), we remained sure to ask our porter leader to manage the porters. As a result, we didn’t shame an individual porter and our local porter leader retained his lead role without losing the respect of his team.

We may see things that we do not agree with.

For example, several young boys (probably about 10 years of age) accompanied our party and carried supplies for several days. While we might think these young children should be in school (and, of course, we also have strong feelings regarding child labor), in this case, we learned that the boys actually came along as helpers for their dads. They were enjoying being out with their dads during a week-long furlough from grade school! They were just “working” so much harder than any 10-year old we know.

Honestly, there are a number of other things that might cause our eyebrows to lift, practices which are so far removed from our own cultural norms that we naturally can’t help but apply value judgments. Polygamy, cannibalism (though recently this has only been found in cultic ceremonies), animist practices, the role and value of women and children in tribal society, tribal warfare, etc. all fall into this camp. It is important for us to be aware of just how very much Papuan life contrasts our own.


Before heading to Papua, it was explained to me that Papuans love greetings. I came to learn that this was true even with the simplest greetings. Of course, the fun part is recognizing that tribal greetings are different from our own.

A friend who grew up on the island mentioned that to a Western tourist, the tribal people (speaking of the Moni with whom we worked) can seem loud (the Moni speak loudly in clipped, guttural tones) and look mean (their facial and body language is far more reserved than we are accustomed to). She then added that they were likely “the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people we would ever meet!” And I indeed found them to be unbelievably friendly.

“Amakane” (ah-MAH-kah-nā) is the traditional and most common Moni greeting used by both men and women. It literally means, “Welcome to my bosom.” I have been told that all Moni greetings are offering up a private body part in some way or another. Amakane, (which offers up one’s breasts) is no different. The message is warm and welcoming and lovely, and implies, “I offer to nurture you.”

Another wonderful greeting, a mix between our Western handshake and a finger snap, is a knuckle snap. A lightly held opening handshake is followed by the knuckle snap and then by a closing lightly held handshake.  The knuckle snap itself results in a loud snapping noise, just as if one snapped their fingers really well. The two who greet each other curl their hands in order to intertwine the knuckles of each other’s 2nd and 3rd fingers. Then holding tightly, they quickly pull away from each other causing the snapping noise. What a wonderful greeting! It is rare that this greeting does not bring smiles to faces!

I did find that for all of their reserved nature, flashing a smile and saying “amakane” never failed to produce a similarly friendly smile and greeting in return.



21 responses to “Visiting Papua (Part 3: Cultural Sensitivity)

  1. It is very tough to visit another country and experience another culture that is entirely different from our own. We view the world through our own set of glasses, so we often pass judgments on what seems absurd to us. However, perhaps what we should do is be open-minded to different ways of life (as you have), because who’s to say that our way of life is the “norm”…….Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  2. I believe the mere fact you are aware of White Savior Industrial Complex makes you inherently NOT susceptible to demonstrating White Savior Industrial Complex! Congrats on being culturally and socially sensitive — that’s a beautiful thing. And those pix are a beautiful thing, too… 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on casahamsa and commented:
    And I thought they were Cannibals…

  4. Excellent post – thanks for turning me on to the idea of “White Savior Industrial Complex” – fascinating subject. Safe travels!

  5. Great post!! I love the way you explain the experience. So interesting, buddy!!!

  6. Nice post and description! That’s so true, sometimes we should dive into the cultures before make the prejudice. Glad to read it 😀

  7. Heh. “Bosom” can mean breasts or the chest. And probably more specifically the heart in this case. 🙂

  8. “White Saviour Industrial Complex” – I actually thought that it was a place located in the suburbs where light manufacturing was done. But, No…… You’ve explained it so well. Papua (and the New Guinea) side is so much of a challenge in so many ways. What is “normal”? Great post.

  9. just learned a new greeting “Amakane” :P:P:P:P

  10. Amakane! The first photo is scary…they do not look friendly, contrary to what you may say :O All jokes aside, nice post, as they say, “you gotta learn something new every day.” Swing by my blog (please!)

  11. Great post! And how interesting to learn a knuckle snap is a respectable, welcomed greeting – I know it only from middle-school boys trying to have a special, exclusive sign amongst them, ha!

  12. I love your post. Great pictures. This is good learning experiences.

  13. Thank you for an insightful post about an unusual travel destination. It’s also got some advice that’s applicable to other destinations too.

  14. wooww!! interesting and insightful.. I kind of find their culture very fascinating and interesting..Thanks for sharing.. 🙂

  15. Great post! An important message. Thanks for sharing.

  16. So great to hear folks are educating themselves, and understanding that this complex actually exists. Cultural sensitivity is *SO* important when one travels, and to be honest it even comes down to the way we dress. Being respectful to the culture you’re visiting always (imo) makes a trip that much more pleasant and fun 🙂

  17. I grew up in Papua New Guinea so found this post very interesting!

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