Monday, April 13, 2009

Featured Flikr Photos: Papuan village life

Paying our porters

I've put up two photo posts about Papua so far, one about the local capital city of Jayapura, one about the town of Sentani that I grew up in. This time I'm posting photos of Papuan village life. Some people say Papua is truly at the end of the earth. In some ways the villages of interior Papua have been frozen in time, still set in the stone age.

*Keep in mind that I am pulling these photos from, and most of them are by other photographers. If you like what you see, I encourage you to click to their profiles and see more of their work! *

Papua is one of the last frontiers of unexplored land in the world. The government, logging, mining, oil companies, and missionaries are slowly penetrating the island, but there are still white spaces on a good map - spaces that no one has explored. When I was in middle school my dad was dropped of by helicopter in one of these areas with a man that worked a few valleys over and was surveying to see if the languages were similar.

It's amazing that while they could fly from that man's village to this new spot in 10 minutes, but it would have taken two weeks to hike there. The people there had never seen a white man, never seen their own reflection, didn't know the country they were a part of, and had never used matches. The stories my dad told were incredible.

In this map you can see Papua on the far right, called "Irian Jaya". The Papuans consider Irian to be a colonial name (they resent the governance of Indonesia over them), and changed their name to West Papua while I was in high school. The Indonesian province of West Papua is on the same island as the country of Papua New Guinea, but they are separate. The Papuans are ethnically related to the Aborigines of Australia.

Map of Indonesia

In most interior villages, the Papuans live in round honai huts like this (although some tribes also build tree houses to stay above the swamps). They keep a fire in the middle of the hut and their pigs underneath the hut. The whole family sleeps in the one room around the fire, with smoke in their eyes. The nights I've spent in a honai were the most uncomfortable of my life:



Traditional dress is next to nothing. For men it's a dried vegetable... lol

Picture 151

For the women it's a grass skirt. The skirts vary in style and length village by village. Most of them are grass, though.


They style their hair with pig grease and paint themselves for ceremonies. They carry net bags called nokens that are freakin' awesome. You'll see women with their noken on their back carrying a huge load of potatos, or a baby, or a pig. The men usually don't carry much - they let the women do the work. In the highlands the women spend their days in the garden, and the men hunt sometimes... work sometimes..
The staple is sweet potatos (ubi) in the highlands, and in the lowland swamps it is sago... which is made from the pith of sago trees and looks like snot. I will never understand how people survive on this stuff:

Then there are sago grubs, a delicacy that thrives in sago palm forest. I've had one, but only fried. I couldn't stomach the raw and wriggling live ones. Blech!

Sago Grubs

In the larger towns you have fun colorful markets like this one in wamena:


I spent most of my childhood vacations and school trips in the highland villages, and I LOVED it. There is great peace and beauty in the mountains, though village life is filled with danger, particularly from disease:

Picture 157

A home

Education in the villages is still sketchy. Western Indonesian teachers dislike being stuck in a back-woods village with no friends around, and there's a definite social hierarchy that is taught... and perhaps less actual education than one would hope. I've heard of some great non-profits that have been started recently to help educated the Papuans.

Picture 155

I think Papuan kids are beautiful, and so smiley:
Picture 128

The old women bear the marks of the old ways. Often when I see a Papuan woman from the side I'll realize I'm seeing light through her nose - they used to pierce their noses at a young age, and most still have the holes. Often their 'earrings' will be safety pins. :) The old women of the Dani tribe are often missing fingers, because in the old days they would cut off a finger any time a senior male relative died. In one village a woman was missing the top of her ear, and I asked what happened. Everyone giggled and said she was late cooking dinner and her husband was mad.

Old mother

Maternally VII

In general, the Papuans are a short, STRONG people group. When Isaac and I watched a group of army guys the last time we were there, the Indonesian guys were tall (but not anywhere near as tall as Isaac) and thin, and the Papuan guys were shorter but totally built. I have seen Papuan men pick up an ironwood tree (the heaviest wood on earth, I believe), and RUN down a mud path while four white people struggle to carry another.

Local Yali Tribeman Baliem Valley - Papua

Those that live on rivers are very skilled in building and utilizing lithe little canoes


The men are skilled at fashioning and hunting with bows and arrows and spears. Random story - once I was in the village/town of Pyramid, watching a movie on a battery powered projector with the Wiselys and some Papuans. In the movie there was shooting, emprisonment, beating... the Papuans watched blandly while we cringed. However, when the main character happened on a snake in the jungle, the Papuan men literally lept out of their seats hooting and hollering in fear. Lol - so funny. On the other hand, I've seen them pick up HUGE spiders with their bare hands, and eat them.

bow arrow

I have seen a village of men on a pig hunt, all hooping and hollering and dancing around. I have literally petted a pig and then eaten it hours later.

These women are prepping a steaming pig feast, baked underground. They call is a "bakar batu", or baked rock feast. It is only for special occasions - protein is rare for them. In some diet book I read recently the vegan authors mockingly said, "have you ever even heard of people suffering from protein deficiency?" as if to say that it was a non-existent problem. HELLOO.... I've seen whole villages with orange hair from protein deficiency.

In any case, a pig feast is a big deal, and it's fun.

Barapen Ceremony Baliem Valley

They often chew betel nut, which gives them a slight buzz and turns their teeth and spit red.

And they are pretty much perpetually barefoot. To me, calloused feet were something to be proud of because it meant you could go anywhere barefoot, and didn't have to rely on shoes.

Warrior Mummy in Irian Jaya
One odd thing about Papuan history is the existence of hundreds of year old mummies. I believe them keep them in their huts, and they are preserved by the smoke of the fires? They estimate that the mummies in the Baliem valley are around 400 years old. It's crazy to think that life for these ancestors must have been nearly the same as the life they live now. In one generation, though, it's likely to all change. For those that live on the coast, it already has. Papua is the last true frontier in the world.

There is quite a variety in how modernized these villages are. Due to mining, logging, the Indonesian government, and sometimes missionaries, the Papuans are being exposed to the outside world. The village culture still exists, untouched in some areas, changing in others, and in some places disappearing.

To view other Featured Flikr Photos, see previous posts about the Most Romantic Spots in Chicago, drinks from around the world,  Papuan village life, Sentani, and Jayapura.


Kaycee said...

Kacie this is a really cool post. What an interesting culture. I love the dried vegetables lol.

meg said...

Great post Kacie.


lillian said...

Thanx for visiting me on my blog.! Love the photos.. soo makes me want to go back ! :-)

Kari said...

Hi Kacie, I love the pictures! Makes me kinda homesick.
I'm not from Irian Jaya but I come from next door. Papua New Guinea. I love pig feasts, and sago (although you're description is spot on!) and the red stained mouths. So true when you say some cultures are disappearing. Personally I think we should keep what is good and slowly let the bad disappear, like keeping the mummies!!
Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing :)