Part 1: Getting there
This is the story of the latest chapter in our Karawari Cave Arts Project. Ironically, it involved absolutely no cave recording or exploring. We have grown into such a multi-headed monster that we could bring two distinct teams, and hope for a third, to the caves without enlisting our spelunking ethnographers. This time we brought a community awareness team back, some of our most valuable employees, including Howard Sindana, Siggy Fuaya, Yorba Yuki, Frank Don, and Peter Gabu.
In addition, we enlisted a special forces crack team of environmental scientists to conduct what they called a Reconnaissance Biodiversity Survey---a quick look at the flora and fauna that will allow us to plan a more elaborate study.
These guys are the wonderful Jacinta Mimigare, formerly of Partners with Melanesia, now on leave from MMJV; the terrifying Kentish Igai, Forester par excellence; fellow Forester with a friendlier face, Lindsay Sau; and finally, a social scientist, our friend Paul Hukukuhu, to collect subsistence and forest use data for the survey.
We also wanted to schedule a medical patrol for this trip, but that fell through at the last minute (and will be described later). The idea here was to bring the scientists to train the community awareness team as well as the villagers while they conducted the survey---and believe it or not, it was a big success. Not only did we learn alot about the bush in Karawari, but we learned how much people themselves know about their bush---in direct proportion to how dependent they are on it.
That is, the Awim people had lost some of the taxonomy of their trees in the single generation that they had moved to the riverside and reinvented themselves as more sedentary people. The Imboin knew alittle more, as they are even more recent settlers from the hunter-gathering past. And the still nomadic Meakambut knew everything still---down to five different uses for each leaf of a given tree.
So when Kentish Igai stood to give a farewell thank you speech and said you folks taught us as much as we taught you, he wasn’t kidding. We all shook our heads in the evenings about how rich the young forest was and how adept the Meakambut remain at living from it.
Equipped with this survey we can now take the first steps toward marking the bush surrounding the caves of the Penale, Ewa and Sumariop peoples a legal conservation zone, and then, fingers crossed, be eligible for World Heritage status. These three weeks also clarified for all of us the multiple bases of the Karawari conservation area, if and when it comes into being: The virginity and youth of the forest, which is exemplary in its fragility; the biodiversity presumed to be within this young forest, based on the presence of several specie indicators; the importance of the rainforest as a catchment for the entire Arafundi-Karawari River area, and indeed the entire Sepik floodplains---such that any disruption could be devastating for thousands of people; the cultural significance of the caves themselves, especially the origin cave/stone of the Penale people called Kopau; the rarity, fragility and importance of the Penale, Ewa and Sumariop subsistence base, as nomadic hunter-gatherers; and the archaeological and historical importance of the cave images for the story of human migration in Papua New Guinea, and indeed for the story of mankind in general.
In the course of the three weeks it also became clearer to all of us that we must secure this area not simply as a protected zone, defended against commercial resource exploitation, but also as a laboratory of PNG science---to be studied by PNG scientists first.
The idea that these caves and their bush are an important resource in their own right was driven home to us all as we walked through the bush with the landowners, all of them repositories of important information. Not unlike any other resource in PNG, the cave arts area should be conserved and made useful, should be unpeeled, so to speak, as a great archive of knowledge, to Papua New Guineans first. Anthropology in all its forms has been largely a foreign endeavour in PNG, something others study and record for a predominantly Western discourse on humanity. But like gold and fish and timber and oil, the time has come to nationalise this database, and nationalise the PhDs, journals, books and findings we can glean from it.
Given that, it came as some surprise that after the logistics of getting all of us to our long-time base camp in Awim Village, we were greeted by a friendly young Serbian student from St Andrew’s in Scotland. He told us he was here to write an ethnography of the people; to write a book and get his PhD. He had heard of us, and our work, but clearly not been told we are also hard at work on an ethnography of the people, and that we had spent 7 years compiling it. I was shocked and none too receptive at first, to be honest. The rest of the team were aghast, some even angry, that he might be taking the same stories we had taken, and without much quid pro quo. But once we heard about his long journey to Awim, and the reasons why he wanted to work on the Arafundi River, we had to agree it sounded like a good idea.
Tomi is deeply interested in linguistic ideology and comes from an interesting Marxist/Levi-Straussian tradition, which is different from mine. He will focus on the language and produce a brilliant piece of work, no doubt. Once we had explained the possible conflicts and potential benefits to all of us, we listened to the insights he had already gleaned from a week in the village. And he became one of us. Probably the peanut butter, rice, and the generator we ran in the evenings for our work, had a lot to do with it. My footnote on this would be that I am no little astonished at how unprepared he was by his professors before coming to the field. He’s extremely good natured and hearty, not to mention smart as a whip, so there’s no great risk for him, but I find it hard to believe he was fed so little current affairs and tok pisin beforehand.
But let me begin at the beginning.
Oct 12 I jumped on PMV in Madang with Yorba, Howard and Siggy, bound for Hagen. After about 5 hours (no, Im not kidding) spinning around for passengers, we set out for the highway. Came up in Hagen 20 hours later. There we found Jacinta and Kentish, and within a couple of hours Paul and Lindsay had also arrived. It is a day of semi-comatose shopping for everyone. Along the road in Hagen I spy 7 or 8 year olds photographing each other with their mobile phones. They’re pulling a truck tyre along with a stick, that universal toy, and one of them whips out a mobile phone for a good shot of this. Maybe he has a blog. Maybe he’s tweeting to National Geographic, or maybe he's just getting in touch with his agent.
Fortunately Hagen's Best Buy is open all Sunday and we got a car from my friend Anna at Jubilee Rentals, so we loaded up. The next day we flew MAF to Wewak, waited for three hours (and had breakfast at the surprisingly expensive Airport Lodge), then flew on to Munduku on the Karawari.
We had sent part of our team the week earlier, by ship from Madang, PMV from Wewak and canoe from Angoram, so these guys were waiting for us when we landed at Munduku. We set out for the long ride to Awim, fully confident that our twentysomething boxes of gear and food would keep us happy for a long time to come.
Suckers. We were out of tea by the second day, and sugar by the third. I will say it here: it is absolutely impossible to provision 20 people for a three week stay in Awim without chartering a plane for it. As it was, we paid dearly for overweight and were paddling to Yimas for emergency oil and whatnots at the trade store before week two. That’s not to mention the masses of dried and fresh fish we bought again and again at Yimas 1, and tonnes of sago bought, scraped and strained by our fearless crew (a shout out to Bonny and Marta Mapat).
We had enlisted a Community Health Worker from Angoram hospital to travel to Wewak and pick up 7 boxes of meds from the provincial stores for our patrol. But apparently he was so delighted to be in Wewak he spent all the money we sent him and couldn’t catch a taxi canoe to us when he got home—although he did have a friend who would gladly charter his canoe for K3000. Thanks, said, but no. As I type, a team is setting out from Yimas to reclaim those meds now, and will take the Yimas CHW, Zakarias, who has assisted our beloved Dr Samiak on his patrols, to all the villages of the cave arts area. None of them have seen an APO for years. As elsewhere in PNG, women are dying all the time from childbirth and gynaecological complaints, which inevitably get chalked up to sorcery and make me scream at everyone that Sanguma is not from the village---Sanguma is the government that has denied you basic medical care for thirthy-something years!! But don’t get me started.
Back to the trip. In the narrow terminal for MAF in Hagen there are families and children waiting to be beamed up to mountaintops and mission stations that once took several days, even weeks, to reach by foot. I marvel at the electronic tinkling of a new age: ringtones from the Willam Tell Overture to Ba Ba Banana and the Playstation 4 theme. Meanwhile the passengers are marvelling at the airplanes taking off. Sometimes change happens in such bursts that cascades of dissonance can surround you in a perfectly ordinary setting here. Kids with mobile phones, tinny sounds, trendy sneakers. And the crowd obeys my grandmother’s law of travel: wear your Sunday best (which, for her, might include kid gloves). Everyone here is dressed to the nines and snapping selfies. But hands down the most gorgeous couple is a man and woman of their seventies, who told me they were siblings. Traveling together.
From Wewak to Munduku we are flying over the Sepik Plains and all the tessellated patches of vegetation that cover it. Lush green trees fill the extinct river beds and create tendrils like wet curly hair falling over the plains. From above, the mauve and green patterns are incised by these deep green fertile lines and echoed by faint versions of older riverbeds, creeping across the land like veins on an old man’s hand.
The bush meanderings are mirrored somehow by the shadows of low hanging clouds; these glide across the flatlands in wonderfully paisley designs, almost like explosions of blue dye, or smoke rings in the dark. We pass islands of bush, mostly sago but also rubber and pandanus, surrounded by acres of swampland, then drier patches covered with circles like water rings on the furniture. Subtle shifts of colour are unexpected, as the edges of these bush islands creep darker or lighter toward the swamp, and the cloud shadows match the blue-grey intensity of bushfire patches across the plains. The river itself is doing its crazy reptilian thing, sometimes looking industrial in its curves, other times freaky and Peter Max, like a vast wonderful doodle. But this is doodling on land like the way grille will doodle across a Sepik child’s skin---in patches, in swirls and separated by great flat surfaces. Here and there the design pulls focus to become pony hide or a giraffe; and across this big glassy spill the shadow of our small plane is gliding like a mercury ball.
The second day here Magdala gives birth to a baby boy in the bush behind her house. Kids come bouncing into our house to tell me, and when we find her, she had emerged from a tunnrl she’d fashioned of a low hedge, for privacy. Now she’s washed a bit and cut the cord. Her infant daughter is looking dazed and confused near her house, almost as if she’d been there through the birth. Nancy Jr and I bring painkillers, and later come back with a singlet and some soap for her. In the following days she will move to a limbum palm enclosure under her own house, and after a week, follow her husband and kids into the bush for a garden camp near the Karawari River...with her very new newborn.
I caught sight of the little toddler with Prince Charles ears as he spied me from the high perch of his house. Looking forward to seeing how his head grows in. The dexterity of some kids always impresses me, especially as I trundle behind them on log bridges while they prance across on strong soles, balanced and confident, little Mary Deckers. Three kids---no more than infants---sit every day on the rickety verandah of their house, narrow, precipitously high and completely without railing; they run up and down a notched log for their ladder and compete with a dog for sitting space. But there is never an adult to mind them, and when I walk by they giggle about my yellow hair, then burst into tears.
The Arafundi villages are sometimes a brigade of naked or big-shirted bare children, the very image of Dickensian penury, and yet these kids are always happy and buoyant, and incredibly biddable. Parents cuff them, manhandle them, and shoo them away like feral dogs, but still they grow up knowing they are loved beyond measure and can eat, sleep, hug and hit whomever they want in the community. Teenagers pass toddlers on the path and sweep them up by one arm to their neck for a ride. Infants carry babies, boys throw their arms around each other.
A few years ago I travelled to Tanganimbit and ran into a kid about 11 or 12. Don’t you remember me? He asked. You came to visit my school when I was in grade 1. Of course he remembered; and naturally, I forgot. His world is filled with people he will see again and again, and he can count on his fingers the strangers who pass through. Of course! I said, lying. I remember you!
Marta spends two days diligently making skirts and dresses for the Awim people and trying to get them to start sewing themselves. One woman actually did. The rest were happy to have Marta as their seamstress. The second day she bundled her things to the side and left a small stack of skirts to one side, which a gaggly of teenage girls promptly stole. For a few days the entire village is wearing crisp new cotton jumping fish frocks. After that they quickly begin to look decades old, and tattered.
It’s great to see Donald here, a far cry from the boy we found seven years ago. Since then he was ‘gifted’ to us by his schizophrenic mother (who has since died), spent time living with Freddy and his wife (until Freddy died from drinking home brew one New Year’s Eve), bounced a bit from Imboin to Awim, and now he’s all grown up, healthy, happy and as sweet as ever. He still hasn’t developed an adult voice, so he sounds very fey and sing-songy, especially by comparison with three year old Floydy, whose already acquired a whiskey throated growl. But years ago, when Donald looked ten at most, we discovered in his clinic book that he was in fact 18 years old. That would make him 25 now, and he’s begun to show facial hair, so his voice may drop yet. His days are spent fishing and acting as the all-around au pair to mothers with nursing babies. Every time I see him he’s cradling another one like his own.
The day is made more eventful by Tony, who is hosting Tomi the student in the house behind ours. He graces us with a good old fashioned harangue of a kros, and works himself up to waving around a bushknife in the face of my Yimas workers. It is an old Yimas-Awim rivalry that’s been rekindled during the recent by-elections.
Apparently Tony had bagged up a small fortune in betelnut and was taking them to the airfield to be sent by the TNT aircraft to Hagen. He had a Hagen buyer who would pay well enough to make his bounty worth K2500. Buai is three for ten toea in the Sepik, and one kina per nut in Hagen. It is said this Hagen buyer wanted to take them to Porgera, where he could fetch K5 for each, providing him no small profit. The people who live across from the Karawari Lodge are Kundiman, and they have been recurrent enemies of the Yimas for years now, involving jealousies over work at the lodge itself.
When Tony brought his betelenut to the airfield up from Yimas, he was somehow tricked by Kundiman people who told him to hide because Yimas folks were out to attack him. (Hey, this is all I know; clearly there are layers and layers to the story). He dropped his bags and ran back to his canoe to paddle home. Now he says the Yimas had it out for him, and they effectively took his betelnut from him----he needs to be compensated. In fact, it would suit him, we learn, if our team, NSA, paid him all the money we are expecting to pay our workers. That would be fine. But as his rant gains momentum and no one challenges him (as is custom), Tony gets a better idea and he storms out to the river and takes our company 40 hp motor from our canoe, and carries it back furiously to his house. There’s a back story about bribery and votes and evidently alot more.
Tony is careful not to lash out at me directly, although he vents a bit about how I must be making money off his paintings (which I sent to Barry Craig at the South Australia Museum, who paid for them). But it’s not worth contesting, as this is a full blown drama of his own script. I have paid his children’s school fees, brought solar panels, water tanks, health patrols, etc to Awim for years, and do not get money for this work at all. But he says something about broken promises---a buzz word for aggrieved villagers everywhere. Part of the lexicon of development work here. It sounds very much like something from someone else's playbook.
And of course he says all this while insisting again and again how much he respects lapun meri and everything she’s done, which is sort of like baring your teeth and hiding a knife while saying Have A Good Day (or, as you say in PNG, Have A Blessed Day). The good thing is that the harangue peaks, and then subsides. The motor stays in his house until the next morning, when steam has dissipated and lots of talking has clarified the problem, or at least the trigger: Kundiman people tricked him to set up the Yimas, that’s certain, everyone says. Indeed, in classic PNG style, people one by one yell facetiously at Tony the next morning that he should never take the word of Kundiman people when they talk about Yimas, he must refer to the Yimas himself (it’s his fault).
A good hard rain washes this all down in the night, as the dry riverbeds swells and rises up to the top of its embankments. But just before it goes dark, after the yelling is done, a series of hornbill pairs streak across the village overhead, sounding like bellows blowing at a dying fire.
To be continued, tomorrow ad passim: we visit Kandamkunda, Tembakopa, Moinene and Ratoma.