Back In Time

(Dana) During our adventure-filled time in New Zealand, I have been reflecting on our time in Papua New Guinea, which was like traveling back in time. The entire Highlands of the country – home to a million people – was only discovered by the Australians in the 1930s…less than 80 years ago! The vast majority of the population survives as subsistence farmers, cultivating sweet potatoes and raising pigs. Children learn the language of their family — one of 750+ languages spoken in a country of 6+million. But most striking were our days up North in the Sepik River Basin, where as Andrew described, we had the privilege of staying overnight in the Kaiwaria Village. Here we stayed with people living exactly as humans have for millennia; they are still true hunter-gatherers.

Sago palm is the staple of the diet here. The trees are felled and floated down the river to the village where the bark is peeled off (to be dried for floor boards) and the inner pulp is mixed with water to extract a starchy flour. The starch is dried and used to make either pancakes or a thick paste. Fresh fish, river greens or bananas complete the meal. This is what the Yaringie people eat every day of the year. And this takes a lot of work. As we were heading into the house for our breakfast, one of the elders said, “We don’t eat breakfast. With no way to store food, we have to make food every day.” Boy did I feel lazy.

Women in this society are valuable workers, yet when their position is looked at by Western standards, they seem second-rate. Based on traditional beliefs, men can still take as many wives as they want, and each will bear 8-10 children (although a few may die along with way). Here men and women live in the same house, but in the Highlands, men live in their own house with all male offspring over age eight. During their monthly menstrual cycle, women are not allowed to touch men’s food; they are considered unclean. And when a girl gets her first period, she is locked in a room with her best friend for company until it is over. When they emerge, everyone in the family gets a “moon tattoo” on their arm, which is actually a cut that is cleaned in a particular way to obtain optimal scarring. Parents and all siblings are cut to indicate that one of their family members will soon be available for marriage, generating a bride-price for the family. And bride-prices are big business. In the Highlands, they are getting as high as 10-30,000 Kina ($7-12,000) for an educated girl. Fortunately, the villages here are still much less.

In the village, material goods are still nearly non-existent and most of the kids run around naked just like they always have. Witch doctors still provide incantations to spirits to cure ailments. And for the most part, their worldview is so blissfully limited. In my conversation with one 47-year-old gentleman (and former cannibal!) his questions perfectly reflected how he sees the world:

– How many people live in your village?
– Do you have a river in your village?
– Do you have a village language?
– Do you have trees like these?

How to explain our small town and our vast country of 300+ million diverse people?

Of course, this will change. Missionaries have brought western religion to the country with over 80% of the people now counted as Christian. People now wear clothes because it is proper. With increasing mobility, Pidgin English is spreading to bridge the language gaps, and village languages are disappearing. It’s easy to be saddened by these changes, but there are big benefits to the spread of formal religion. There is far less clan fighting; headhunting has been (mostly?) eliminated; fewer men have more than one wife and education holds a higher value.

The biggest challenge in the country now is the rampant, egregious political corruption. With extensive natural gas and other resources, this country should be supporting its people as they inevitably fast-forward into the 21st century. But sadly, very little money flows down to the people. Infrastructure is shoddy and education remains incredibly expensive – 400 Kina/child/year for primary school (>$150) plus books and transportation; K1500 (>$600) for secondary school for boarding if you’re not lucky to live where there is one — a virtually impossible sum for hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. So 75% of the country has at most a Primary School education. It is very sad given the country’s rich resources.

After two incredibly rich days in villages, we returned to our balcony overlooking the Karawari River. That night, I looked out over thousands of acres of river, tributaries, swamps and fields — all without a single electric light. Not one. Stunning. It looked empty, but I know that there are thousands of people like Mark and his fellow villagers out there. Living life as they have for generations. About to collide head-on with the outside world. I am so thankful we visited when we did.

 

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