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Papua New Guinea: Goroka in the 70’s

It was quite surreal. Around me were diminutive warriors with grey clay smeared across their torsos and faces, and just string around their waists holding up nothing more than a bunch of leaves. They were advancing on me subtly and slowly in a circle, almost noiseless and engaged in an incomprehensible dance. Grotesque helmets completed the apparition with strange noses and tusks sticking out of their nostrils. This was Stone Age culture at its best presented by the Asaro Mudmen. Legend has it that they were on the run from the enemy and had to hide in the River Asaro nearby. When the enemy tribe arrived, they were covered in mud from the river and duly scared the living daylights out of their attackers who fled thinking that they were spirits.

I was at the annual Goroka show where tribes from miles around come to dance on the central show-ground in their finery and costumes- one massive sing-sing, a groundswell of primeval culture from the country of a thousand tribes.

Back in the 1970s I was a boy visiting my parents in between school and university in New Guinea. My father was working for UNESCO at the Goroka Teacher’s College in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. Only 25 years previously the Eastern Highlands region had been discovered by explorers from Australia looking for gold. They were making first contact with stone age tribes who no one knew existed until well into the 20th century, living as they were behind impenetrable mountains and forests.

The 2nd largest island in the world is divided into two halves. At the time the eastern half, New Guinea, was a United Nations protectorate governed from Canberra with its Australian colonial civil servants in tailored shorts and long socks. My first job as a feckless teenager was at the Treasury where I counted out banknotes which I took round in a van to key departments in the town in time for pay day. It was well before the days of automatic transfer into your bank account, and the colour of money was the only colour that spoke. And there was no armed security either!

But this was not something the local tribes saw much of in their villages of thatched huts. Their focus was on using stone axes for chopping and fighting, and bows and arrows to hunt wild pig. After nailing their quarry the carcass was dragged across steep paths to the village, the tribesman shouting as they went from the hilltops so that all were aware of their success. The bush telegraph served as the original mobile phone mast, and communications between humans was how nature intended it. For this was an impromptu invitation to join the communal feast cooked in an earthen oven- the mu mu. Men women and children alike made themselves up for the occasion in ochre paint, in some cases wearing pendulous necklaces and beads almost down to their buttocks. Along with the feast came a sing-sing which everyone participated in, young or old, and the celebration could go on for days.

On the other hand sport for the local Aussie community involved jumping into a well-inflated inner tube and hurtling recklessly down the river, avoiding whatever rapids the wilds threw in your way. If you did not wade out far enough, you ran the risk of scraping the tube against an unfriendly rock and being eliminated early from the contest with embarrassment. A frontier town ethos reigned supreme encouraging a tough type of Aussie, and much beer drinking was to be had on successful completion of the course.

Fortunately I was excused from such feats of manhood (or folly!) since I was simply not old enough to join in – just as well that I did not have to try to live it down afterwards. My mother and father on the other hand socialised a lot with the local expatriates who were only really good company if you were prepared to be brash like them. Otherwise you were doomed, an over-polite English family really did not fit in.

Meanwhile the local New Guineans were very much kept off the main street of accepted society. Only a few local successful businessmen would be seen at the annual Xmas ball at the sumptuous Bird of Paradise Hotel. It was a few years from independence and a microcosm of the Indian Raj with its introduced plantations and smart houses and jobs for the settlers. The tribes had not been introduced to the civilised world except to work in European houses doing largely menial tasks. Some say that this shielding and segregation made it harder for the New Guineans to handle independence when it came, which may explain why it is such a crime and alcohol-ridden society today for all the wrong reasons.

In those days it was a raw and unvarnished wash of two totally opposite cultures meeting head-on. You saw exactly how the indigenous population lived. Tribal dances were not put on for the tourists but were an genuine expression of their culture which would shortly be lost forever. It was still common for women to go around bare-breasted and Western dress was confined to a few native public servants. Weaving at Bena Bena had to be done to survive in the cool air of the altitude- over 6000 feet in the mountains- not just to make bus-loads of tourists go ape as they do now. Markets existed to exchange fresh produce between villages which had not long ago been locked in eternal loggerheads. Language barriers were only just breaking down, thanks to use of pidgeon English. Stone axes were treasured for having been used in actual combat, and birds of paradise hunted for their exotic plumes to be turned into headdresses for tribal gatherings including the Goroka show, the biggest one of all. At least the helmets of the Asaro mudmen were more conservation-friendly!

The author and his sister at Bena Bena

It was an exciting time and I could only hope as a boy to catch a small part of what was going on, but it was a rich experience for me nonetheless. I was privileged to have lived there at a time when the country was emerging from innocence and before modern influences fully took hold- and it was a privilege indeed.

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