Category Archives: Customs & Culture

Visiting Papua: Little things, big impact: Notes from my travel journal.

Packed for travel: As we descended toward the village of Ugimba, two men – wearing only traditional kotekas (penis gourds) and tribal markings and wielding large bow and arrow sets – stepped out of the bush and onto the path, raising their weapons toward us as they did so. (from my post entitled, “Welcome to Ugimba, West Papua”) Men who travel in from other villages often carry weapons should they encounter a tasty bird or tree kangaroo, but also because they wish to be ready if ever-present tensions escalate. Orchid fibers wrapped tightly at the tips of war arrows increase contamination of wounds. This indicates that the arrow was designed for a human target.

Amakane! literally means, “Welcome to my bosom.” The message is warm and welcoming and implies, “I offer to nurture you.” In addition to some time spent in the larger towns of Timika and Sentani, I was able to visit the interior villages of Bilogai-Sugapa, Titigi, Hitadipa, Gamagae, Ugimba, Beriquit, Sengapa, Kobae and Selemama in the Zombandoga, and Pogapa. In one village, a man yelled up to us enthusiastically from his hut at the bottom of the hill, “It is amazing that the mbagubagu (literally, ‘straight hair,’ a term for Indonesians and expats) walks this land.” In another, a village elder told a gathered crowd where I was demonstrating porter skills, “What is happening here is more precious than the largest cowry shell.” Everywhere I travelled, I felt sincerely welcomed.

Near Beriquit, a man yells his welcome up to us!

Near Beriquit, a man yells his welcome up to us!

“Giving relationship” is more than “taking only pictures” or “leaving no trace!” An assistant pastor in the Zombandoga, this man was so moved by the fact that I wanted to walk through the jungles and encounter people instead of using helicopters to travel to and from villages, that he gifted me a necklace with pig’s tooth. I felt significantly appreciated and honored.

“Now everyone gather!” Completion of the Selemama airstrip in the Zombandoga valley required nine years of manual labor. One construction strategy was to collect water seeping from the hillside behind a makeshift dam, which when released allowed pent up water to surge forward and carry dirt to a location lower on the airstrip where fill dirt was needed. Large rocks, initially unmovable, littered the future site. Fires were stoked beneath them, and the heat caused them to split. Once split, they could be carried away. See the captivating November 2013 video of the opening of the new landing strip in the Zombandoga here.

Construction at the lower edge of the airstrip in February 2013.

Construction at the lower edge of the airstrip in February 2013.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Though I have traveled the world and seen numerous communities ravaged by poverty, the extreme poverty as it exists in Papua is of a slightly different shade of suffering. The interior and much of the Highlands are remote and void of the “conveniences” of roads, running water, electricity, and health care. While sustenance farming and hunting practices, strong clan and tribal bonds, and access to some remote communities via airplane exist to support communities, the challenging topography which limits access, unrelenting rains which often destroy homes and gardens/crops and leads to starvation, and recent epidemics which have decimated not only the pig, chicken and rabbit populations, but also many children and teenagers, have all factored into Papua’s poverty equation.

Let’s play! Soccer is the lingua franca of inclusion. I found myself playing more soccer than I had in years! Whether playing soccer outdoors on a remote village airstrip or in an indoor gymnasium, pick-up games were easy enough to find. Below, Muslim (Indonesian national) and Christian (indigenous Papuan) school children have an opportunity to practice and play together. In communities often rippling with tensions, soccer serves as a common language for fun and healthy competition.

Don’t lose your head over this issue! During the 1920s, British and Dutch colonists sought to end the practice of headhunting used by warring tribes. Headhunting was used both to appease ancestral spirits as well as to give ritual names to children during manhood initiations. The colonists forced them to end their traditional practices by shooting them down in a show of raw force! Missionaries later brought Christianity to the area to further help stop the practice, admittedly in a much less barbarian manner than their colonial kinsmen. Remnant sorcery and witchcraft continued to cause the missionaries significant consternation, but eventually churches and pastors were able to introduce the Christian Bible into the Highlands. Though one can today still read about man-eating witches and witch-eating men, the practices of headhunting and cannibalism have been abandoned in all but perhaps some exceedingly remote groups. Pastors now routinely “split God’s Word” (interpret and preach) the Christian Bible to congregants. The Bible is referred to as the Hazi Dode, the “Holy Talk.”

A colorfully dressed woman prepares for a Sunday worship service.

A colorfully dressed woman prepares for a Sunday worship service.

Does it really matter? The lowlands of Papua are home to some of the most poisonous snakes on the planet. A danger score has been posited and includes: (1) venom toxicity, (2) venom yield, (3) fang length, (4) temperament, and (5) frequency of bite. However, whether a snake rates a 16 or a 21 (out of 21!) on the danger score has very little meaning to the one who has been bitten. A friend reminded me, “No snake is a friendly snake in the tropics!”

The pig is indigenous and very important to the Papuans. So much so that other domesticated animals carry the word ending for pig, wogo. So wogo is rabbit (i.e., marsupial-pig) and bega wogo is chicken (i.e., bird-pig).

A translation to take your breath away: The word given to describe a cigarette (to tau uggia, or shortened, to-gia) literally means, “inhaling the devil’s breath.”


The Culture of Tourism in New Guinea: Insights on Porter Services for Carstensz Pyramid

With the savage recent attack on porters and trekkers on Papua New Guinea’s Black Cat Trail, I wanted to offer some insight, as limited as it will be, intended to help protect porters, tourists, and tourism in the future.


I advocate that we (visitors to New Guinea) recognize the high value of porters as team members. I believe this understanding can contribute significantly toward developing a healthy tourism culture. Within the context of tourism & climbing in West Papua, I hope that some of the practices described below help foster stronger porter care & appreciation, which subsequently leads to increasingly cohesive teams of tourists (trekkers & climbers) and support (porters). This subsequently can help to build a culture of unity, which can further culturally-appropriate tourism, rather than a culture of conflict, which can arise whenever one group is under-appreciated, taken for granted or misused.


A brief history of Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua as a tourism enterprise:


For the decade or so following the 1998 stepping down of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, greater democracy came to Indonesia and West Papua and the concept of developing tourism gained momentum. However, political volatility remained and Indonesia closed Carstensz Pyramid to climbers & tourists from 1995 to 2005. This was due in part to the Free Papua separatist movement of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM, which has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1965.


After Indonesia re-opened West Papua to tourism in 2006, a steady number of people came to trek through the interior highlands to access the climb of Carstensz Pyramid.


Though no official data exists to track those who have reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, between the first ascent in 1962 and 2005, after which access to the peak was again granted, it had only been climbed by approximately 100 people. Now, with its popularity exploding in part due to the demand created by the new “7 Summits” designation, the mountain experiences scores (some cite hundreds) of successful ascents each year. Even so …


Does the jungle never end?


… climbing and travelling in West Papua entails a great deal of uncertainty and requires tremendous flexibility. In addition to the drum of equatorial rain and eventual venture to higher altitudes, political and bureaucratic challenges may exist right from the start to hinder the progress of an adventure. Numerous accounts exist of climbers denied Surat Jalans (local police & government permits) or access through tribal lands, of unexplained, cancelled flights into the interior, and of shady, unscrupulous commercial outfitters. On top of all that, accidents and injuries (usually of tourists & climbers) and fatalities (usually of locals & porters) along the trek are not difficult to uncover.


While the jungle trek is typically completed in just short of a week of arduous work, the jungle is, at least, exceedingly muddy and slick. I have had people tell me that this jungle trek can feel harder than Everest, though not necessarily because it’s physically harder. Rather, there just isn’t the same, developed infrastructure supporting access and climbing as there exists on Everest. People struggle with the endless muddy, rainy, dirty, steamy, way-out-there feeling the jungle can give. A friend was once asked, “Does this jungle never end?”

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

For many, if not most, the adventure becomes the experience of a lifetime. The satisfaction of having completed the trek & climb and returning home safely is hard to beat.

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

Porters as a vital link to the success of climbers:


Throughout the history of adventures, porters have served as a vital link to the success of climbers. My own personal adventures into the interiors of Tibet, Africa, and New Guinea simply would not have been possible without the efforts of porters who are, I dare say, a universally, under-appreciated group of people.

Porter on Kilimanjaro's Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa

Porter on Kilimanjaro’s Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa.

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal.

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn't seem to challenge our porters at all!

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn’t seem to challenge our porters at all!

Here are three ways we, as visitors, can make a positive contribution toward porter care & appreciation:


Select a responsible commercial outfitter.

Start by letting the commercial outfitter you choose know that the treatment porters receive is important to you. Bottom line is that porters need fair wages, substantive meals, proper attire or equipment for the adventure, and warm, dry sleeping arrangements. The hallmark of a responsible company is how well they look after their porters on the trek.


Interact with your porters.

Talk to folks! Ask about their traditions and villages; share photos or stories of your family. Initiate the relationship by approaching them with appropriate interest. Even if you don’t share a vocabulary of words, body language (a smile, head nod, hand shake, etc.) can express your sentiments well. If you haven’t heard this before, it is well worth recognizing that porters want to be considered part of the expedition team, they enjoy interacting with visitors, and they want to learn and improve their service. In fact, in the sense that this is their land, they truly are the experts, and visitors who take the time & effort to have meaningful interactions with them can learn much. 

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Thank your porter.

Show your porters that you appreciated them. Thank them verbally and leave a tip of money or goods. I discuss tipping guidelines below.


What to discuss with a responsible commercial outfitter or tour operator regarding their porter practices.


Porter Wages

Porters must receive fair wages. When unscrupulous tour operators withhold promised wages, tension builds and chaos can ensue. No one wants to be ripped off! As with insurance, this is difficult to ascertain, but lower fees and a high turn-over rate can indicate compromised practices. In my post entitled, “Polite! Practical! And 1 for Fun!” I mention an usua me (good man) now working to advocate on behalf of porters to protect against non-payment, which has been a not uncommon and tumultuous issue.



In West Papua, in-country tour operators can provide porters with protection paid out to their families in the event that a catastrophe leads to permanent disability or death. This insurance works differently, even among different tribal groups, than it does, for example, in the United States, but they can be covered nonetheless. If a commercial outfitter offers a trip at a substantially lower fee than others, it could be that they are not diligently ensuring coverage for porters.


Weight Limit

The maximum visitor weight that a porter should be given to carry is 15 kg (33 pounds). On top of this, porters also carry personal weight of blankets, clothes and food. Generally speaking, an additional porter should be hired for every three porters in order to carry group equipment and food.


Meals & Sleeping Conditions

Porters are engaged in physically difficult and mentally challenging work. They are leaving the comfort of their villages and families to venture into the remote and inhospitable environment of the high limestone escarpment of Carstensz. You will be tired & hungry at the end of a day, and so will they.  A responsible tour operator ensures that porters are appropriately nourished and accommodated throughout the entire adventure. In general, porters sleep together in groups, whether in huts, shelters, caves, tents or dining tents. However, truly responsible tour operators ensure that their porters have weather-appropriate shelter at higher altitudes. Porters come from the warmer, lower rainforests and, just like any visitor, are not accustomed to sleeping out-of-doors in the cold of the Sudirman Mountains.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

Environmental Impact Education

Outfitters have a responsibility to educate porters on the environmental impact of a trip because porters’ futures are directly tied to the future of the land. Latrine construction, cat-holing, trash management, camp clean-up and other such topics must be included in the vocabulary of every team member, visitor or Papuan. Ask specifically how waste – and especially human waste – is managed at villages, on the trek and on the climb of Carstensz.

Carstensz Base Camp in July 2012. Note the large pile of garbage (in the right foreground) left by a previous expedition.

Equip for the Future

Most of the porters look forward to future work opportunities and are also family bread-winners. Tour operators should inspire and equip porters to develop their skill sets. 

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

Tipping and gifting

Tipping should be dependent on the quality of the service you received. However, even if the food was terrible and the porters couldn’t communicate very well, they were probably still working hard to carry your equipment through the jungle.


In general, though it varies from tribe to tribe, tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator or lead porter in order that he takes charge to distribute tips and gifts to his team of porters. This honors the Papuan tribal tradition of a providing chief. This is absolutely true of money and even a good idea for gifts.


It is a wonderful truth that Papuans also love ceremony. For a closing ceremony, while tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator for distribution, it would be very kind and meaningful to speak good words to the porter team prior to their returning to their homes.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.


Cowrie shells: More than simply “shell money.”

My travels in West Papua introduced me to so many different people, and my eyes were opened to a host of new and interesting customs and cultures, unlike anything I had experienced in the past three decades of travel around the world. I’d heard stories of head-hunting, tribal warfare, freedom fighters, of Don Richardson’s amazing “Peace Child” account with the Sawi tribe, of man-eating witches and of witch-eating men!


I also heard of less dramatic but equally intriguing accounts surrounding the lore of pigs as valued over women (principally to extract a high bride price in the purchase of wives), the extraordinary value of cowry shells (so credited because of the storied histories accompanying them), the use of stinging nettles as salves to abate pain, and of polygamous clans headed by honored chiefs (in which more wives indicated an increase in the chief’s status).


This post explores the beautiful cowry shell, an item not unfamiliar in the legend and mythos of New Guinea. I start with some interesting general information (with links to original resources) and conclude with a few paragraphs specific to the tribes of West Papua. Enjoy!

Illustration from Natural History: Mollusca (1854), p. 169 – “Full-grown Cowry”

Cowry shells (also spelled cowrie, plural cowries) are home to the Cowry snail, a marine mollusk of the Cypraeidae family. These sea snails are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, particularly the waters around the island nation of Maldives, off the southwest tip of India.

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

The shells of cowries are usually smooth and shiny, often colorfully patterned, and more or less egg-shaped, with a flat belly showing a long, narrow, slit-like opening, often toothed at the edges. Their lengths range from a tiny 5 mm to a robust 19 cm.

The attractive cowry shells have fascinated people throughout history and, subsequently, have been used extensively in jewelry and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.


Interestingly, they are also one of the oldest known forms of currency and have been widely used as such around the globe. This practice dates back at least several thousand years ago to China where, because shells could not be counterfeited and sources for cowries were so far removed from China, the wealthy imported cowry shells for use as currency. Excavations of early Chinese emperors evidenced that even the royal dead had currency in store for the afterlife, as cowry shells have been found placed in their mouths! The shells were used for centuries as African currency and huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced onto the African continent by western nations during slave trading days. History shows that they were also used as means of exchange on the sub-continent of India as well as in Arabia.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

Beyond their value as currency, cowry shells have been used as symbols of wealth. Rows of shells found attached to African masks symbolized great wealth and clothes covered with cowry shells likely indicated royalty. Anton Ploeg documented wealth items used in the Western Highlands of West Papua, Indonesia.  He uses the term “wealth items” to refer to movable objects (cowry shells and pigs rather than land, for example), accorded great value and used as means of payment, as gifts, as ritual objects, and as markers of identity.

Hindu dancers at the Festival of Lights (1916)

Perhaps most surprising, the Ojibwe (Chippewa) original peoples in North America, who inhabited the area around Lake Superior, used cowry shells in ceremonies. Debate exists about how the Ojibwe traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, so very distant from their natural habitat. Oral stories and bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. They may also have been obtained through trading.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

There are numerous additional uses of cowries, both traditional and modern. Rachel Naba has written an interesting piece entitled, “The Gift of the Cowry.” Cowry shells have also been viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, and birth. Waistbands strung with cowry shells have been worn around hips to increase fertility. Women in Roman Pompeii wore them to prevent sterility. In Japan, one name for the cowry shell translated to “the easy delivery shell” and some women held cowry shells while giving birth to aid in a successful delivery.


Cowry shells are sometimes used as dice, as in board games or in divination (foretelling the future or gaining occult knowledge). As shells are thrown, those landing with opening upwards indicate the actual number rolled.


The Cowry in West Papua


As I desired to understand the culture & customs of the various people groups in West Papua, what I learned regarding the cowry came in part from casual conversations with Papuans.  I am also indebted to Kal Muller, whose stunning photography and careful documentation in West Papua, have helped introduce not only the world to the Papuans, but also Papuans to their own rich history. In February 2013, Mr. Muller gifted me three beautifully written and illustrated texts: Introducing Papua, Highlands of Papua, and South Coast of Papua. These excellent resources distill years of research into manageable, organized bites; perfect resources for my visit to the interior highlands.


The importance of cowries in the highlands of West Papua was linked to their usefulness as trade items. While major trade items included pigs, salt, stone blades, and seashells, the specific type of cowry, Cypraea moneta, morphed into the most commonly used form of currency. Items less valuable than the major trade items were traded or sold for this “shell money.” Other types of cowries were used as well, but on a much smaller scale. Lower value items included, for example, various bird feathers, colored soils, or orchid fibers from outside the area.


The “shell money” system may have been introduced to New Guinea by the Japanese during World War II and further spread via porters assisting the first Protestant missionaries through the 1950s. In the mid-50s, the Dutch government brought in large quantities of lower valued shells. Soon thereafter the Indonesian rupiah (IDR) was introduced. Cowry shells still see use in trade and purchase, and are currently used alongside the rupiah. This is especially true in more remote interior communities.

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells also still serve an important role in acquiring brides, as part of the bride price, in highland communities. The cowries are accompanied by a number of pigs as well as rupiah, the latter two in accordance with the wealth of the groom’s clan.


I found it immensely interesting that the value of the cowry – especially in times preceding 1950 when cowries were difficult to obtain – had more to do with its history than with its size and color, which predominantly determines the value of newer shells.


This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

It was explained to me in story form; that is, “This cowry was used to settle a certain dispute between such-and-such clans. Later, it was offered as part of the bride price for so-and-so, a man of status in the community. Finally, this particular cowry was given as part of a trade for a number of pigs needed for a significant celebration.” It was in this manner that cowries increased in value as they accumulated history.

Polite! Practical! And 1 for fun!

In my past few posts I have already shared a few fun & interesting words learned as I traveled from Bilogai, through the Zombandoga, and eventually to Sentani. I love different languages & cultures! I’d like to share a few more, not with the intention of imparting any level of proficiency with the language, but just to enjoy sharing a bit more about this amazing land and its peoples. Though I met folks from several different tribal groups, I principally encountered Indonesian Nationals and Papuans of the Moni tribe. A phonetic guide accompanies the literal spelling of the words below.

The Polite

Pak (pak)                             Sir or Mr.

Ibu (ē-bu)                            A polite designation for a woman or a mother;                      i.e., Ma’am or Mrs.

Martha shows off the plump strawberries harvested from her garden. Because I knew her name, I could address her as Ibu Martha.

Martha shows off the plump strawberries harvested from her garden. Because I knew her name, I could address her as Ibu Martha.

This young mother and I had a discussion regarding her cowry shell necklace. I did not come to know her name so I addressed her respectfully, simply as Ibu.

This young mother and I had a discussion regarding her cowry shell necklace. I did not come to know her name so I addressed her respectfully, simply as Ibu.

-mala (ma-la)                     This is an endearing ending attached to a boy’s name; e.g., Zani becomes Zanimala

-sama (sa-ma)                   A similar term of endearment, attached to a girl’s name; e.g., Alina becomes Alinasama

Children in tekah (kindergarten).

Awas (a-waas)    danger (i.e., an expression such as “whoa” or “careful,” as when someone slips on the slick log). Awas is an Indonesian word that has made its way into daily indigenous language.

The super slick & muddy jungle path made for many awas moments, especially for anyone in trekking or rubber boots with stiff, slickish soles! I took a number of near falls (as well as several falls!) during the trek. The folks who live in the jungle are, not surprisingly, amazingly proficient in this environment. Their feet functioned in a prehensile manner, wrapping around rocks and small logs as they moved smoothly forward. Not many awas moments for them! I was impressed by three teenage boys who sat shoulder-to-shoulder, squatting on a log not bigger around than their thighs, but balanced several feet above the jungle floor. They sat as comfortably, it seemed, as I would sit in a chair, with their feet wrapped soundly around their small perch.

Ham & Zonatan were not only sure-footed themselves, but excellent, caring guides.

Ham & Zonatan were not only sure-footed themselves, but excellent, caring guides.

Ham's sure-footedness extended beyond the forest floors to the trees. This is one of my favorite shots from the trip, when Ham, all smiles, shot up into the trees to show off a little!

Ham’s sure-footedness extended beyond the forest floors to the trees. This is one of my favorite shots from the trip, when Ham, all smiles, shot up into the trees to show off a little!

The Practical

usua me (u-su-a-meh)     good man

This good man works with the local Papuan regency government to ensure that porters are paid. He walked with me from Sugapa to Hitadipa, a hike of about 4 hours, and we had some significant time to chat. He had worked as a porter for a number of commercial outfitters over the past decade and in that time, the abuses he witnessed spurred him to begin serving as an advocate for the Papuan people. He now ensures that commercial outfitters uphold their responsibility to treat porters respectfully and pay them as promised. On average, he told me, only about 75% of the porters are being paid as promised. His work isn’t easy and can be fraught with tension because he is essentially policing foreigners. That said, he was shocked that I spent time just chatting with him, asking him about his family, showing him pictures of my family, etc – extending what I would consider just simple kindness to a hiking compadre. He confessed that no foreigner had ever expressed such interest in him as a person. I told him, “You are a good man, taking a difficult job, working on behalf of your people.” He appreciated that.

imba (ēmba)                      hurt

obat (ō-bat)                        medicine – Obat is another Indonesian word which is now frequently used by the Moni. In the early days, the Moni did not have words ending in hard consonants, so we also hear obat-i.

meze (me-zā)                     You will have aches and pains (imba) along the trek, and you may be offered a leaf called meze as medicine (obat) to rub against your aches. Don’t accept it! It is a stinging nettle and it will make you miserable! It itches and stings, and gives welts and wheals like nothing you have ever experienced. Meze will make you so miserable that you forget your other aches and pains!

I watched Zonatan rub meze onto his sore knee with his bare hands! It made me wonder how long the plant’s chemicals would remain on his hands.

I watched Zonatan rub meze onto his sore knee with his bare hands! It made me wonder how long the plant’s chemicals would remain on his hands.

Eo (eh-ō)                            Eo is simply an expression of agreement, a little bit like ok.

And 1 for fun!

Mepa (meh-pa)                 An expression or exclamation suggesting that you “get tough!” Akin to “man up!” The expression is spoken only from man to man; the expression is not used by or with women. The expression literally challenges you as “man baby.”


So Wogo Saigia

Being invited to an afternoon wogo saigia (pig roast) demonstrated to me the second of two extremely hospitable Moni cultural practices.

The first practice involved welcoming travelers into an nduni (men’s hut; seen in my last post). Each village or clan enclave provides an opportunity for travelers to rest or spend an evening in an nduni prior to continuing their travels. No cost is incurred by the traveler, but the customary expectation for reciprocation exists; that is, everyone is expected to offer respite for a traveler.

The second practice reflects a similar generosity and involves welcoming a visitor to a meal. If a guest joins a meal, whether invited (as in our case) or not (a “walk-in,” if you will), the expectation to extend an invitation and share that meal exists.

I am curious how these practices originated, but I might venture a guess that in terrain as rough as the highlands of Papua, a little generosity goes a long way in building alliances. I welcome your thoughts & comments.

The wogo saigia I experienced was primarily a celebration honoring a visiting missionary family (the folks who hosted me) who had spent much of their life and energy in this village. Such roasts are reserved for great occasions and typically become an all-day and extremely social event. A recent epidemic, however, had decimated a large part of the local pig population, so our wogo saigia wisely morphed into a saigia of veggies, hoga, and so wogo, rabbit. Super tasty as well!

Start by digging a hole in the ground large enough to hold all the veggies and meats that you wish to cook, as well as banana leaf linings and hot rocks needed to make this oven functional. Our host was serving approximately 20 people, so our hole was about a foot deep and 3 feet in diameter.

Gathering all the veggies and preparing the animals took a couple of hours. Of course, a healthy amount of friendly socializing & play kept the work of cooking festive, not unlike the outdoor bbqs of my childhood.

Feb 2013 547

Everybody joined in to help prepare the rabbit, chicken, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, squash, and a variety of tasty greens.

A little bonfire heated the cooking rocks. Those rocks, transported via forked sticks into the waiting hands of someone who would wrap them in banana leaves, were then carefully placed into the oven.

Cover it all up with additional greens and roughly three hours later … voilà! …. a tasty celebration with plenty for all … including two uninvited, but welcomed – as per hospitable culture – guests.


Do the Moni really want to live as they always have?

Amy with a Moni friend c. 2007

As a child of missionaries to West Papua, Indonesia, I have heard many discussions about one’s interaction with indigenous people groups. Some are heartfelt and deeply thought out, some are shoot-from-the-hip perceptions that cover the gamut of opinion. Recently, catch phrases such as “White Savior Complex” have been used to describe those of us who would seek to partner with indigenous people. The concept of “helping” has become a minefield, fraught with criticism and cynicism.  Although new and catchy words or phrases may be used, the concepts and criticisms are anything but new. Anyone who has worked with indigenous people for any length of time, will at some point have their motives challenged. One cannot argue that over the years there has been truth to some of the criticisms. However, I would submit that the new social-anthropologists-journalists-environmentalists commentary and yes, even well-meaning tourists, actually demean the very people groups they claim to hold in such high esteem. After over a half century of living and partnering with the Moni tribes people, I would say that this partnership can be both exceedingly simplistic, and exceedingly complicated.

It is purely a Western construct that indigenous cultures must never change and “we” must protect them at all cost. This has always baffled me. Why is it okay for Western thought and culture to change, but not the culture of the Moni? There has been much hype about the protection of women’s rights in the recent re-election of President Obama. No one would dare suggest that we return to an era where women are viewed as possessions, or subservient to their male family members, yet the current push to “leave them alone” relegates Moni woman to exactly that. Why is that okay for them, but not for me? Do the Moni really want to live as they always have? Has anyone actually bothered to ask them?

It is my belief that the suggestion that the Moni are “offended” by the helping hands offered to them is totally contrived. I would even go so far as to suggest that it demeans the intelligence of the Moni. It is a house of cards that pretends to care without actually knowing who or what they are, much less what they actually want. I can recall translating this for a Moni tribesman once when the question was posed, and he sniffed and wrinkled his nose very quickly as Monis do when they are mildly disgusted, and said, “What? Am I of a child’s mind, that I cannot distinguish these things? Does that person think that they are wiser than I? Is that why they must explain it to me? Can I not determine for myself the heart of a person who comes to our land? Is it that I am child that needs protecting?”

Several years ago a journalist came to Papua wanting to hear from the indigenous people about a Western NGO doing exploration in their areas. My brother was asked to interpret. The Moni tribe’s men and women waxed eloquent about their ancestral lands and how the spirit of their ancestors lived among the mountains and could not be disrupted … unless, of course, the company was willing to pay a steep monetary price. My brother, being very good friends with several of the village elders, asked after the meeting what exactly they were saying. They all laughed and responded, “Tuan, do you not say and do what YOU need to get what YOU want.” It would seem the tribes men were willing to play to the sympathies of a Western journalist, to set the stage for a specific outcome. When the company decided to pull out because of these factors, Western journalists and environmental groups rejoiced, and declared victory. The Moni tribes men, however, rioted and demanded the company return for negotiations.

National Geographic recently ran an article about a group of anthropologists who were studying a central highland tribe in Papua as observers and documenters. Sometime into their observation an illness swept through the village. A great argument broke out among the anthropologists.  Several wanted to sit back and observe how the villagers handled illness and death, and others wanted to “help.” What was the right thing to do? Finally, one of the anthropologists decided academic research principles could go to hell, and carried the most ill woman over the trail to the nearest hospital with Western medicine.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate the social construct that is so pervasive today. Maybe we need to take a step back from all the political correctness of the day; the one that arrogantly assumes the worst of the helping hand. Rather than treating the Moni like children that must be protected, maybe we should begin recognizing that they are equal to us in their ability to think critically and determine for themselves how to interface with the “helping hand.”

AGM, November 2012

Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.

My good friend Maximus introduces me to dignitaries of the Legislative Assembly of Mimika Regency in Timika, Papua (June 2012).

Relationship building in a different culture and actively listening to the Moni people describe what they want and need, and don’t want and don’t need, requires more time and less “action” than most Westerners are accustomed to.

I will join John and Amy in Papua in February 2013 to meet with various Papuan village and tribal leaders to discuss community development and infrastructure needs along the Sugapa-Carstensz trekking route. Somewhat reminiscent of the National Geographic article in which cave people “sent a surprising message to the modern world,” the Moni seek economic and educational opportunities, as well as health and infrastructure improvements for their local communities.

John and Amy, as children in Papua in the 1960s.

Growing up in Papua has given John and Amy an exceptionally strong love and regard for the Moni people. It is most certainly true that our February excursion is built upon strong cross-cultural relationships that began their development with the life-time service of John and Amy’s missionary parents. Only two decades ago cannibalism was still practiced (though not by the Moni) and it was (and still is) the work of Christian missionaries that has defused tribal conflicts and advocated for the human rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples. John still actively serves in West Papua, where he fiercely advocates for tribal peoples and is fueled by, as he states, “Many are starving; there is much work to do.” In addition to ministry and relief/aid services, John has mediated between the Grasberg mine and the indigenous peoples who dwell in the surrounding area, as well as in cases of inter- and intra-tribal conflict.

John speaks with Dani tribal warriors and children during preparations of a pig festival.

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.