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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Insurance

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.

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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.

Enjoy!

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Cowry in West Papua

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Climbing the 7 Summits not as easy as 1, 2, 3!

This post is probably simply just more for fun than the scientist’s mind or the adventurer’s heart will likely allow. You judge …

Aconcagua, highpoint of the Americas

Aconcagua, highpoint of the Americas

·        How many continents are there: 5 or 6 or 7?

o   Most students in the United States are taught that there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

o   Many European students are taught that there are six continents, with North and South America combined as the single continent of America: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, and America. In some parts of the world, students learn that there are just five continents: Eurasia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and the Americas. And yet other students are taught that Antarctica, due to its lack of permanent inhabitants, does not meet the traditional definition of a continent.

o   Many refer to six continents, where Europe and Asia are combined as Eurasia (since they’re one solid geologic landmass): Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America.

o   See National Geographic’s Geography FAQs for a simple, clear & interesting description.

·        Verdict: No consensus!

Climber’s Base Camp on Mt. Vinson, Antarctica

·        What is included in the definition of the “continent” of Australia?

o Australasia is a landmass description which includes Australia and the island group of Indonesia and New Guinea, and holds weight with the concept that islands located near a continent are considered a part of that continent. 

o   Australia is by convention recognized as a continental mass, not just a big island.

o   As a side note, Oceania is identified as a region centered on the islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean. The term is sometimes used to denote the area of Australasia (most common use), sometimes all the islands between Asia and the Americas, and sometimes all the islands of all the oceans (least common use). I have not seen Oceania described as a physical continent, whether using geography, political boundaries, or cultural groupings, but only as a term of convenience to collect disparate islands.

·        Verdict: No consensus!

Mt. Everest, unquestionably the highest summit of the world!

Mt. Everest, unquestionably the highest summit of the world!

·        Which summits should we include in our pursuits?

o   Mont Blanc or Mount Elbrus?

§  From the perspective of geography, many Europeans recognize Mont Blanc as the highest peak of Europe. From the perspective of political boundaries, Mount Elbrus becomes Europe’s highest peak.

o   Carstensz Pyramid or Kosciuszko?

§  If New Guinea is not considered part of the continent of Australasia and is thus a separate island, Kosciuszko would be the highest point on the continent of Australia. If New Guinea is a part of the Australasian continental mass, then the highest peak becomes Carstensz Pyramid. In my experience, most climbers choose to include the island of New Guinea, though strong opinions & some opposing ideas regarding the science of continents exist.

§  To add to the dialog, many have suggested that Kosciuszko does not belong simply because in its short trek there exists no significant challenge for climbers. Carstensz Pyramid, on the other hand, is a true challenge for the adventurer. Others strongly disagree that such a criterion ought to even be considered.

§  Gerry Roach authored an interesting piece entitled, “In Defense of Kosciuszko,” which is a thought-provoking and enjoyable to read.

·        Verdict: No Consensus!

Mount Elbrus, in Caucasus Mountains of Russia

Mount Elbrus, in Caucasus Mountains of Russia

Maybe Dick Bass’s Seven Summits idea will evolve to “nine continental summits of the world’s five continents!”

A Taste of Papua!

One of the most enjoyable experiences of my crossing cultures from the U.S. to visit Indonesia and the jungles of Papua includes sampling local foods. I recently traveled to Papua for a three week trek through the interior with only 30 packets of oatmeal, 30 protein bars and 60 electrolyte drink mixes, intending to procure the remainder of my foods in the villages I visited. I admit I was a bit intimidated by the “taro in the morning and sweet potato at night” diet stories I had heard, so I also brought four freeze-dried dinner meals just in case!

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

As it turned out, I didn’t need most of what I brought with the exception of the electrolyte drink mixes (the jungle is so hot & humid and I was vigilant regarding hyponatremia!) I was able to eat local, native, traditional and indigenous foods throughout my entire stay.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk. The raw cane immediately rewards you with a burst of sweet, wet sugar when bitten.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

That said, I am by no means hyper-adventurous when it comes to ingesting strange foods. Neither am I careless with regards to food & water safety protocols for travelers. I also realize, however, that almost all diarrheal illnesses are caused by infectious microorganisms which are ingested and are more common in parts of the world where food or agricultural hygienic practices are compromised or not reliably safe. So I definitely watch what I put in my mouth & where it’s been before I put it there!

Sage tree: "Sage" is pronounced with a short "a" and a long "e"

Sage tree: “Sage” is pronounced with a short “a” and a long “e”

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

Plus, contrary to popular belief, traveler’s diarrhea is not caused by food or drink to which the gut is “unaccustomed.” It is also true that most Americans have grown up with pretty good sanitation & food handling practices, and so have little or no immunity to help protect against what might in other places be considered “normal” practices.

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name "yummy bunny" from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name “yummy bunny” from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

Finally, it would without a doubt be exceedingly cumbersome to import a full menu from home. Practically speaking, with the severe weight restrictions on flights into New Guinea (often a 20 kg max) or the associated exorbitant costs of additional baggage to do so, and the limited variety of familiar foods, even if one shops at commissaries preferred by the expat community, eating at least some local foods becomes a necessity. Let’s be real, though, it’s just plain tasty, interesting and fun to do so.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Deserts ... Papuan style!

Deserts … Papuan style!

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a taste of Papua!

A Return to the Mud Below & the Sky Above!

I took nearly the entire month of February to trek through the interior of Papua’s highlands with the sole intention of getting to know the people through whose lands I wanted to continue traveling in the future. And to be perfectly clear, a month is barely enough time to even scratch the surface!

Amy shows pictures from a  previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

Amy shows pictures from a previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

For me, it was a total immersion experience. I met with everyone I could, sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to explain in greater detail why I was passing through. It would not be accurate to say that I involved myself in the practice of “muna muna” because I needed translators (my friends Amy, John & Maximus) to help me tell stories. Nonetheless, we were very warmly received everywhere.

A little "muna muna" goin' on!

A little “muna muna” goin’ on!

Only men “muna muna.” This looks like two or more men squatting on their haunches (a common & apparently comfortable pose, at least for Papuans), deeply involved in conversation. These conversations will run the gamut, but many of them revolve around what traditionally has been the domain of men in tribal society: strategies to wage war, the secrets of effective hunting, and how to best protect their families. These discussions are secretively guarded among the men to the extent that involvement is considered a bit taboo for women, but it is also true that some women hinted that their men “muna muna” to such an extent that entire days are consumed in the practice, and no work gets done!

People would rarely let you pass through their territory without some manner of cordial acknowledgment. Walking along a roaring river, my eyes drifted three-hundred up to the very top of an embankment to see a family waving. Far across a field of crops, a working family yells a greeting, barely discernible, but clearly friendly. A tough looking group of six young men steps out from a village hut, and a quick “amakanie” breaks down barriers as we all shake hands and greet each other. (“Amakane” is the customary greeting in the singular form; “amakanie” is the plural form.)

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a  substantial distance.

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a substantial distance.

After spending a hospitable evening in an “nduni” (a men’s hut, where travelers are welcomed to spend the night), our host dressed up in his traditional best, recognizing that us tourists would likely love a photo. He and his family got just as big a thrill out of the evening of stories and meal sharing as we did, and were delighted to see themselves in a digital photograph.

An nduni, men's hut.

An nduni, men’s hut.

Our host joyful posed with us in his traditional best.

Our host joyfully posed with us in his traditional best.

Not everything was all sweet and perfect along the way, of course, and I hope to unpack some stories in the months to come that will help paint an accurate and realistic picture of the peoples and the lands through which we traveled. This was my second trip to New Guinea, however, and I remain hanging onto Amy’s statement about these people: “They are the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people you would ever meet!” She grew up here, and so far that has been spot on!

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.

Welcome to Ugimba, West Papua

The village of Ugimba lies in the heart of Moni land in West Papua, deep in the jungles of New Guinea. It is the deepest of the tribal villages; only immensely dense jungle and the high marshes and limestone plateau’s of the Sudirman mountain range lie further afield. We would travel these jungle paths en route to Carstensz Pyramid, the jutting high point of the Australasian continental mass.

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.

Our hearts stopped, but just for a breath. A moment later several young women also stepped into our path. Equally modestly dressed in grass skirts and colorful jog bras – I guess that’s what I should call their tops – also with a variety of facial paintings and tribal markings.

The women began a series of repetitive calls that sounded very much like an old style emergency alert siren. The sound that issued from them rang amazingly loud and clear and others, further toward the village, responded in kind, setting up a sort of path of sonic bread crumbs for us to follow. We were being treated to an entirely genuine and traditional village welcome ceremony, complete with dance and song.

The welcome committee, now growing rapidly as additional warriors, women and children joined in, guided us patiently toward Ugimba. Running ahead about fifty feet, then stopping to dance as we caught up, and all the while calling out, the six of us were soon engulfed in a friendly swarm of Moni villagers.

Some villagers welcomed & greeted us in traditional dress …

… and others came to welcome us in casual dress.

We all joined in for the photo op.

What a fantastic experience after a day of trekking through the heat, humidity and wetness of the jungle! At the time, I simply knew we had a lot to look forward to on this trip. We were engaged on an excellent adventure via a route that has seen few western travelers, with a two-fold goal: first, safely reach and return from the summit of Carstensz Pyramid and second, build relationships with indigenous people which would respectfully balance our visit with their way of life. Now, in retrospect, I know we were treated to the very special and unique experience that not many see any longer … literally being welcomed into the Moni home! The July 2012 excursion represented our inaugural effort and as I now look forward to future visits, I am still full of hope for more summits and stronger relationships.

Watch my short, fun video of some of the Moni welcome ceremony.

Enjoy!