The power of the singsing

After dinner the one of the other couple, Aaron, returns from his sigaret. He sighs, sits down, and looks at his wife and us. “I’m getting a bit tired with Pym’s changes to our itinerary. Now he wants us to do our cultural day tomorrow, even though we are supposed to do more birding. I’m getting annoyed with his constant changing, that’s not what we pay him for.”.

Suddenly a lot of things make sense to us. Pym thought to make a quick buck by tacking us on to their itinerary. However, we changed one day of birdwatching for a village trek a few weeks ago, thereby deviating from their itinerary. Whether he forgot to arrange or was unwiling to do so, changes are required somewhere since there are not enough cars and guides to make both our plans happen. Given their are several vehicles parked at his Mt Hagen office it seems more like unwillingness, which would also fit why Paul kept thinking we would have day of birding, or why we never got an answer to which village we would walk. Every time we brought this up Paul looks confused and Pym just waves his hands around saying “trust me, it’s all OK. You’ll see plenty villages tomorrow.”

Aaron explains that their cultural day includes driving to 4 different villages around Mt Hagen. Each is from a different tribe and has different kastoms, which translates to different singsings. Singsing is a general word describing the customs and traditional dress a tribe puts on. Depending on the event, e.g. wedding, funeral or visit from a highly rated visitor from another tribe, the kastoms are different and different outfits and dances are required.

Singsings were something we were looking to experience anyway, so whilst this is different than what we agreed it might actually be a good deal for us. It is pretty annoying though that Pym doesn’t see any necessity to inform us that he’s not going to stick to the agreed plan, which is pretty poor form in my opinion. However, as said, perhaps this is much better than trekking through the jungle for 8 hours, so we’ll defer our complaints to later if needed.

The following morning we get up at a very reasonable 8am, leaving for the villages an hour later. The first stop is at a cultural center for Mt Hagen’s mudmen tribe. The center is one of the few tourist like facilities, with proceeds of singings and souvenirs going towards development of the local communities, with the local high school, which opened in 2016, being a notable example. It gives three villages easy access to secondary education, rather than that the kids will have to walk for an hour next to a dangerous motorway.

Legend has it that the tribe was defeated in a battle against another tribe. The villagers fled their homes and hid near the river. They covered themselves in mud and put bamboo stakes on their fingers. Finally they would put ferocious looking masks on their heads. It scared the other tribe out of their minds when they were confronted with them and they fled back to their village, believing that, in surprising Lord of the Rings “army of the dead” style, the ghosts of the tribe’s forefathers had come back to defend the village.

The cynic in me had a few doubts about the center and the outlook for their culture going forward, as it is still a form of touristic monetization of their culture. If experience in other countries is anything to go by then in the next generation the knowledge on which their culture is based may be lost. For example, in Vietnam we visited the excellent “Precious Heritage Art Gallery and Museum”, where French photographer Rehahn documents the traditional dresses and customs of minority tribes across Vietnam. In many cases the text accompanying his photos or the dress was “Unfortunately they no longer know how to make these dresses”. I fear PNG is destined for a similar future, although it won’t happen overnight.

On the same day we visited the mud men we also visited Huli wigmen, skeletons and Pym’s own village of Paiyma. Payma village also entertained us with a witch doctor hut and a shrine holding the skulls of warrior heroes from an old battle. Yes, that is a pig jaw on a stake and yes, those do look like real human skulls. Whilst it was a suitable replacement for our intended plans I still felt unsure about the authenticity. Was this all real, or just imitation for tourists like us? The answer came a few days later, on our last night in Mogl-Kagai village.

Simbu province – Mogl Kagai

We were the guests of Stephen and his family. He picked us up from the PMV stop in Kundiawa and greeted us heartily with a big smile and a hug, as did his wife. We then departed for the walk to his village, an hour north of Kundiawa. On the way we chat about our stay in PNG so, what we like to do, our lives in general. After descending for half an hour he points at the hills in front of us. “up there you see PNG’s longest waterfall. You should go there tomorrow, there’s a nice pool at the foot and you can shower there. The guesthouse is up there, just beyond the round house. It’s just on the other side of the river.” That all sounds good to us, and we proceed quickly.

Then we reach the river. I look left for a bridge. I look right for a bridge. No bridge is in sight. I do see lots of kids with larger and smaller rubber tubes. A few of them have walked with us for a bit, and Stephen indicates we should climb on them. It turns our there is no bridge on this route to the guesthouse. There was one previously, but it got destroyed in floods. The villagers that ferry people across charge 1 Kina each way, and with 10,000 people living in the lands behind and no real public or private motorised transport it brings in quite an income. And so we get ferried over: one passenger on hands and knees, and one local with his feet in the water treading in the water to the other side. The river flows fast, and we float quite a bit downstream before we hit land again, but it seems these are the usual transit points.

On the other side Stephen points out the village’s land, which starts from the river all the way up to the hills beyond. It’s rich, fertile land too, growing bananas, coconuts, pineapple, sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrot, tomato, broccoli and many more vegetables. By all measures it seems like a prosperous village and fair enough, the houses are well-built and there are some schools. The ascent to the guesthouse was steep but doable along the fields over the hardened mud. After turning a corner we looked out over a group of fields, or gardens as locals refer to them, with each a different crop and flowers as boundaries. Gardening is something that people from PNG do with pleasure, and social status is derived from the quality of one’s gardens. Stephen’s were is perfect condition, and it again emphasized his status in the village. From a distance the guesthouse looks amazing. Sitting high on a hill surrounded by flowers overlooking the river and Kundiawa town. It consisted of a two storey bamboo and straw building with porch, kitchen annex, two dining rooms, external toilets and cold showers and a communal roundhouse. Obviously there was no wifi, no hot water, electricity only via solar panels (between 7pm and 6am), and no sewer. It’s pretty basic for the bargain price of £50 per night, excluding food.

Freddy (blue shirt), Willy, Stephen, Elise (pink shirt), Ruti (next to me) and Stephen’s wife (next to Fran)

Stephen has three kids: Willy (23), Emmanuel (20) and Elise (14). We barely saw Emmanuel, but got plenty of time to talk to Willy and Elise. Willy was Stephen’s oldest son and lived mainly in Kundiawa town in his father’s town house. He spoke reasonable English, but both Franzi and I felt there was something off about him. He had a certain coldness or harshness in him, such that even though he didn’t do anything unfriendly is demeanor suggested it nonetheless. I could tell he was aware of it, as sometimes he was genuinely friendly, but after a while his guard would slip. He also had a habit of staring at Franzi, especially after we showed the family a few wedding pictures. Since he wasn’t married (not enough money for a bride price) I doubt he’ll have seen as much skin on a woman, especially a white one.

After we talked to Stephen a bit more we got the distinct impression he lived in town for the benefit of his sister, to give her a quiet place to focus on her education. Willy finished school at 16, but wasn’t particularly educated. His math skills were rudimentary, and he could only read a newspaper when sounding out the words. The contrast with his sister couldn’t be greater. At 14 she was fluent in English, successful at school and looking to become a doctor later. I sincerely hope she’ll manage to do that because the alternative, mother and vegetable saleswoman, would be a waste of her talents. We also felt that Willy could very well feel threatened or outstaged by his sister, perhaps leading to unwanted rivalry. Whether sending him to town was the right solution we’re not sure of, as Willy appears to have obtained some type of hard boy swagger, as both in the village, especially younger kids, and in town, men, greeted him with some deference. Later he was also very interested in knowing how much my camera was, my lenses, my phone. It’s not questions that usually come up unless someone is trying to assess how much value you’re carrying. It altogether made me uncomfortable and pleased to leave after a few days. Which is sad as Stephen, his wife and Elise are wonderful, honest people. They take life’s challenges with a smile (and a lot of faith in God), and happily explained their customs to us and took us around the village. We also found Stephen’s house functioned as a meeting point for youngsters, as Ruti (15) and Freddie (20) also hung around or slept there. Freddie in particular I liked. He spoke enthusiastically about PNG’s rugby league, football, things he did for work (unfortunately no steady job), etc.

Freddy and I having a cold but powerful shower

On our last night Stephen and his wife cooked another mountain of food. After finishing our meal we drank tea and chatted about our plans for the future. Suddenly we hear singing coming from the roundhouse. It’s a mysterious yet harmonious sound, with a very catchy rhythm to it. Stephen tells us it go to the roundhouse where the village’s cultural group has gathered. We go over there to find 10 women sitting on the floor, wearing shirts with the flag of the Simbu province on them, red and white face paint and cassowary feather head bands. Each are adorned with local jewelry, consisting of shell necklaces, polished clam shell hangers and much more.

In perfect unison they sing of welcoming visitors to their village, that we may all live prosperously and in peace, of growing enough food to feed our families and safety and health. While doing so they tilt their heads left and right which swings around their hair bands in a way a metal fan would be jealous of. Simultaneously they also clap their hands or put them on their neighbor’s waist, and rock their upper body left/right and front/back depending on where in the song they are. It all looks rather complicated and mashes two rows of 5 women into one moving bundle of cloth and hair.

After a while they invite us to join, and, adorned with a hair band we attempt to imitate their movements. It’s bloody difficult, and after 20 minutes I feel sweat dripping on my back and my neck muscles start to ache. After half an hour I decide I’ve had enough exercise, and just watch how the woman next to Fran clues her in on the right moves. It’s entertaining to watch, and I wonder how often they practice. When I ask a girl about that later she gives me a response that makes me incredibly happy : “We don’t need to practice, this is part of our culture. We grow up with it, and know it from a very early age.”. I hope they can maintain this level of sincerity for a long time. The show just keeps on going and not until 11pm do they break up. One of the ladies explains to us that this is as much fun for them as for us, a way to leave behind the daily grind and child care, and just have some fun with their friends. All in all it was a much more rewarding experience than the earlier singing (and no sight of a witch doctor!), and Fran and I leave Kagai with a heavy heart the following day.

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