Wig School Diploma

(Reis) We pulled into a muddy lot in the Middle of Nowhere in the Papua New Guinean Highlands. We climbed out of our private Public Motorized Vehicle (ironic, huh?), and nimbly stepped through the mud to a set of rundown grass/mud/stone stairs. We climbed with great care, not wanting to slip and fall. We entered a muddy clearing, with a traditional PNG hut and are greeted by men smoking bamboo pipes. They are all wearing their traditional Huli (extremely cultural tribe, around the Tari area) clothing. The men wear apron-loincloths and have numerous cassowary quill necklaces. What strikes me the most is that the men all have bushy mushroom-shaped hair emerging from their scalps. Because of course, we were in a wig school.

The Huli wig men grow/use wigs to decorate themselves, using them as pin cushions for their Bird of Paradise and other spectacular feathers. An unmarried boy can pay 400 PNG Kina (about $160) to attend wig school for 18 months, to grow and cut a wig. Men must be unmarried because manhood starts when you get married, and the hair knows if the guy is wed and won’t grow. For 18 months, instead of math or history, they have “Look through and primp each other’s hair.” They cannot have girlfriends or interact with women. During that time, they grow and shape it using a wire-frame into the traditional mushroom shape. After 18 months, they can either keep it or sell it in the market. An everyday, mushroom-shaped wig will cost 700-800 Kina (aka 280-320 USD), and a ceremonial wig, which is a rectangle with a half moon on top, and requires two sessions of wig school will fetch 1500 Kina (aka 600 USD).

Spitting the magical water

A man, the teacher we later found out, escorted us down another set of rundown stairs to an area that a river ran through. Our guide translated that the teacher was going to give us a demonstration of how he blesses the hair to make it grow. The teacher gave each of the traditional students a hollowed-out bamboo stalk filled with water from the clearing’s river. He had previously put a powerful spell on the water, that would coax the hair into growing wig-shaped. They all took sips of the water, then spit it out in a flourish of vapor. They repeated that technique two more times, then finished off the water left in their bamboo gourds. Then, the students each took a bundle of ferns, and the teacher started putting spells on the water, also to entice the hair to grow like a mushroom. When he was done, the students started dipping the ferns into the river and watered their hair. Like a plant. Again, after the first time, they did it twice more. When the students finished, the mentor lined them up, just like a modern USA teacher would do for an assembly. He told us how many times the students had grown and cut their hair, and how long they had been growing their current batch. The oldest student at wig school was growing his sixth wig after 90 months — over 7 years!

How the wig scholars sleep without damaging the hair

Finally, a pupil demonstrated how they sleep at night. He sat down and laid his neck on a elevated stick, because they couldn’t afford their wig being smashed by sleeping on top of it. Ouch! When we asked about lice, the teacher told us they were warded away by powerful spells. We were very respectful of their traditions, but we couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing was kind of amusing. We concluded our visit with a lot of “Arames” (Thank yous) and handshakes. I was glad we visited and we learned a lot! Very, very, cool. We walk out, all with the same thought on our mind. Are they monks, or sheep?

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One Response to “Wig School Diploma”

  1. This is a wild description and made my hair curl just reading it! Super reporting. Were they eyeing your locks?