A Memoir from Western New Guinea

I flew to the Highlands on a creaking Merpati aircraft with only one other passenger and other seats replaced by large steel drums. I would have been more nervous if I had known we were a tanker carrying gasoline to Wamena. Flying over an unbroken canopy of lush forest and climbing over the island’s backbone we descended into the Baliem Valley. It was assumed to be uninhabited until 1945 when a USAF plane crash-landed and was met by hundreds of tribesmen. It was the last great encounter between the modern world and uncontacted people, and they are still trying to adjust to encroachment they cannot resist.

I walked out of a ramshackle airport into cool mountain air free of malarial mosquitoes for the first time. No advice could have prepared me for Main Street.

People went about business barefoot on the mud, splashing in puddles, and occasionally moving aside for a bicycle rickshaw or Land-Rover. Tiny Papuan women in rags stooped under huge bundles of firewood or had bags of sweet potatoes slung by a band around their forehead. Some held a naked infant to their breast with a skinny arm. Youths in mud-stained shorts and t-shirts looked on vacantly, and a blind albino man with burgundy lesions stood apart.

Real friends

Some men wore a semblance of Western dress, but many still observed tradition. They strode with the erect self-confidence of businessmen on Fifth Avenue, although their ribs were starved of plumpness that prosperity grants. They carried a parang (machete) or a digging stick instead of an attaché case, and wore a koteka (penis sheath) and a large leaf as a vain attempt to cover their rear cleavage in place of a tailored suit. There were more native dressers in the countryside where they were resistant to pressure from missionaries and the Authorities to dress ‘properly.’ As people wended past a satellite bowl connected to the world I came from, I felt like a Time Lord stepping out of his TARDIS into a surreal world where two eras thousands of years apart had collapsed into each other.

I took a rickshaw to meet an American who I heard gave refuge to students from my alma mater after they were released in a military operation against freedom fighters. Frank was instantly recognizable in his yard, much taller and fairer than others. He was the son of the first missionary in the valley and came back from college in California where he felt alien. He invited me to join his family for tea and home-made cake in a sitting room that looked like it was transported from Fresno, until you gazed out the window.

“I hear you are helping community development, Frank.”

“Yep. This is very different to when I was born. Let me show you what it was like with one of my precious possessions.”

He opened a book with a cover picture of native warriors going to battle. I too owned a copy of Gardens of War, and read the story again of bygone Dani society again before traveling.

“I came for birds-of-paradise and tree kangaroos. Have you heard rumors of thylacines in the southern jungle?”

“Sorry, I’m no naturalist. While you’re here, you must enjoy the people. You’ll never forget.” That realization was already dawning.

But as I sat in comfort with a second slice of fruit cake, I felt uneasy watching the Dani file back to their homes in the bush. “Why are they so poor?” I asked. “Isn’t there a humungous gold mine?”

“Forget the gold. This is the land of the sweet potato. The crop failed this year and people are starving.”

I was flummoxed to walk blindly into a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of people were dying during a drought caused by El Niño. He explained the smoke plumes I saw from the air were a superstitious belief that fires bring rain clouds.

“When you return bring us news where garden crops are failing so we can drop rice sacks from our whirlybird.”

I hadn’t come on a mercy mission but no one could refuse such a light request.

The next day I was in the back of a pickup truck going to the end of the road from where I would start trekking. Several tribesmen were already sitting with their tools, and another pair arrived with a live hog bound feet and snout hanging from a pole between their shoulders. Before the tailboard went up, two women with a child got on board. We were a rag-tag bunch and I shifted closer to the men because, although their naked bodies reeked of wood smoke, they were less repellent than the women’s fetid rags.

The younger woman cradling a baby grinned to show blackened tombstones between orange gums stained by betal nut juice to relieve toothache. Her companion, probably her mother, was forlorn and wasted with skin stretched thin across her skull and eyes staring out of dark sockets on a hard world. When she pulled her rags to cover a shoulder I noticed the ends of two fingers were missing on one hand and one on the other. According to a custom less-honored now, women express grief for losing a child or spouse by chopping off a finger, whereas men slice off a corner of their ear. Amputations were common, some more extensive, and the sight reminded me of my own family, safe and well at home. I wanted to hold the ‘old’ lady’s hand to convey warmth of our common humanity, but hesitated too long wondering whether I should or if I could. The chance was lost when she drew her hands to her breasts to stop them flapping like loosely fitting soles when we drove over bumps. How did she bear to go on? Did she have a peace I could never understand?

The road ended at a police shack where I roused the officer to sign the surat jalan. My translator Michael was waiting for me. He was a wiry man from the Lani tribe in a clean shirt and pants who spoke several languages and knew our route over a mountain pass to a tiny settlement. I was much slower than him even with hiking boots and a light backpack and had to rest for breath and rehydrate. I cursed my water filter two days later when I often had to retreat quickly behind boulders, but it was hard to complain when the Dani bore suffering stoically. They hurried past us in bare feet laden with bags of tubers and rice, skillfully avoiding loose rocks and human feces strewn like mines.

I learned to greet men ‘nayak’ and women ‘la’uk’. They were amazingly friendly and cheerful, and always willing to pose for a photograph in exchange for a gift from my bag. A lady in a grass skirt burst into giggles taking me for a clown dressed for hiking in the Adirondacks instead of an equatorial mountain.

We sometimes stopped to shake a Highlander’s hand, which according to custom should be long and mindful to give warriors time to weigh up a stranger. One ‘old’ man, perhaps younger than me but whose ribs bulged under parchment skin, followed us for an hour carrying his parang, only pausing for discreet relief behind a bush so I wouldn’t see him lift his koteka. We parted with hands but no words to share. When I returned home to be streetwise again, I recalled how a visitor can travel among the tribes with confidence in security.

Highland lady scraping with digging stick for tubers

We arrived at sunset on a ridge with a cluster of wattle huts below from which smoke columns rose through holes in thatched roofs. Our first hotel was down there.  We scrambled across the baked dirt of gardens where a woman was raking for wilted sweet potato plants with a stick. I made my first mental note for Frank to make a food drop.

Michael led us to a more distant village to meet a ‘Big Man’ who lived in the largest hut where other men were quartered at night. Women and children lived separately, near the hogs which are villagers most valuable possessions. We crawled through a hole in the wall to the inner gloom where my eyes smarted from smoke.

A venerable man sat in the dirt poking the fire to make sparks fly. His face and body were daubed with white paint, and he had a vacant hole in his nasal septum for a boar’s tusk. The bird-of-paradise feather in his hair advertised his status. I guessed he witnessed extraordinary changes in his lifetime: from tribal wars as a young man, to Christian missions in mid-life, and now in his third age a military occupation. I always dreamed of seeing a place where traditional society still clung, if only in the heads of elders, to bring stories to my world of crowds and concrete.

Meet the Mummy outside the Chief’s home

That was my Eureka moment suspended since childhood, and yet I wondered about my motives for being there. Later, I asked Jake if I was no better than others who exploited his people. Did outsiders claiming to be harbingers of progress and development really come for selfish interests—the government for natural resources, businessmen for companies, anthropologists for careers, and missionaries for souls? I came for adventure, and gave nothing back to the people—not even cigarettes they begged for. Always a gentleman, Jake only stared back with dark eyes.

I didn’t learn much new from stories Michael translated from the old man, but it was precious to hear them first-hand. When I asked if the young girl stirring a pot of leaves on the fire was the chief’s grand-daughter, he grinned: he had taken her as his third wife to preserve his health. I also asked if he was an animist because I assumed the shriveled mummy outside was his ancestor, but Michael grinned even wider because the chief declared he was Catholic. I made a gift of a bag of cowry shells and we curled our small fingers together as a traditional sign of friendship on parting.

Michael leads us to our hotel

As we hiked to a losman (guest hut) I exhausted Michael with questions and wished Jake was my companion. He could explain how former warrior tribes became gentle and hospitable, if missionaries criticized for suppressing culture should be given credit for fostering goodwill, or even if the security forces condemned for human rights abuses be complimented for forcing a peace. I expect his sympathy was for the tribesmen who resisted with bows and arrows and antique shotguns against automatic weapons. Michael was reluctant to talk about suffering and violence, perhaps out of tribal loyalty, but he admitted a monstrous exploitation when he recently guided another Westerner who wanted young girls brought to his tent.

“How many and why did you help him?”

“About fifty. They got a dollar apiece.”

Money, meaningless in better days, was needed for food and tools in desperate times. The chief told me promiscuous sex was normal before marriage, but that liberty made young people vulnerable to predators and brought disease to his community. Michael didn’t understand, but the provincial medical director I met earlier told me travelers and sex workers were spreading HIV-AIDS in coastal communities. It would only take a few sparks to start a wildfire among innocent Highlanders.

“Michael, you know about AIDS?”

He shrugged. He didn’t know or thought nothing could be done.

“Are hospitals prepared?”

“Hospitals for dying people.”

That was the general attitude. There was no faith in them as places of healing, and Papua has the worst health and mortality statistics in Indonesia. The only hospital in the district closed for a time when money ran out, and the scattered missionaries were language translators and none was qualified for medical care.

I made a silent promise to contact professionals in NGOs and the WHO who know when conditions are ripe for epidemics and have resources to combat them. I also emailed Jake as someone with field experience. I had no difficulty persuading them of the urgency, but hadn’t counted the obstacles. International aid was already stretched, Africa was the priority for AIDS, and Papua was a security risk for precious resources. When I returned two years later the fire had already spread, and nothing was being done for victims who could only turn to their families for care and traditional medicines. This was the second promise I broke, perhaps from a mix of naivety and hubris. An estimated 5-10% of the adult population is now infected, and the UN reports the prevalence of HIV infection is twenty-times higher than elsewhere in Indonesia.

Continued September 15

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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