For a month’s respite from new blogs I am posting a memoir dissected into four

A Memoir from Western New Guinea

(some names have been changed)

There was a message waiting in my office from an unidentified caller. Jacob was back in town. But why was someone urging me to hurry down to see him at St. Vincent’s?

I scurried for a yellow cab outside the hospital, waited in line as a wintry mix of sleet and rain fell between towers of the Upper East Side. My driver grumbled about the afternoon rush with the United Nations in session, so we took the FDR to the West Village. I sat uneasily, worrying if I would be too late, but for what?

We crawled across to Seventh and I jumped out at 12th Street to join a tide flowing along the sidewalk. Pausing to button my jacket against the icy blast from the East River, I gazed up at the windows of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Was Jake inside? Did he have an accident? That would be tragic after fleeing assassination. I pushed through revolving doors to the embrace of warm air and waited for a man at the desk to lower a wall of the New York Post.

“Is Jacob Korem a patient?”

He scanned a list.

“Eleven. Take the elevator to the Stroke Unit.”

Stroke! I never expected that. Surely, not a man of forty-four? Inside the cell, I pressed a button behind a doctor in green scrubs whispering to a nurse. Another man looked solemnly from under a black fedora at his wife. I too would soon be locked in a private drama.

The corridor on 11 was painted beige to calm emotions, but the urgent chirping of a distant monitor made me uneasy. I arrived at the nursing station at a bad moment when the staff was scrambling for an emergency. It was crass to disturb them but my first thought was for my friend. Was he in danger? After waiting for a Filipino nurse to finish on her keyboard I lost patience.

“Is Jacob Korem here?”

I was relieved when she pointed to a door cracked open behind because a gurney had rushed past it. When I peered inside there was a human form on the bed beside a vase of daffodils. I stepped inside. A blinking neon light and wriggling EKG caught my attention before I recognized Jake lying motionless. His brown arms protruded from a hospital gown like peninsulas of land in a surf of white bed-linen; his frizzy mop put me in mind of a tropical atoll with coconut palms waving in a Pacific breeze. Was this hobbled body of my tireless friend, the one they called ‘the Voice of his People’? I often wondered if he ever thought I was a naïve, if well-meaning, foreigner because, if only at first, I thought his stories of menace in his country were exaggerated, if not pure fiction. But it never spoiled our friendship, and now much wiser I imagined his enemies gloating.

New Guinea

I didn’t know we were not alone until a cough startled me from behind. A short black man stood up to offer his hand, the picture of a young Desmond Tutu.

“Hi, I’m Gilbert… call me Gil.” It was an unlikely name for another Melanesian. “I’m a journalist too.” Another refugee I thought.

“I’m his friend, Roger. What happened?”

“It’s a tragedy. Such a brave man.” It sounded grave. “How do you know Jacob?”

“It’s an unlikely story. You know how sometimes you start a journey with a destination and end up somewhere completely different and don’t regret it? He came from an alien world only inhabiting my imagination for a long time.”

Jacob was a journalist in the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the western half of the vast island of New Guinea. He became a leading human rights activist, and that’s when his troubles began.  He accused the Indonesian military to the FBI of complicity in murdering Americans outside the Grasberg gold mine. He also published a report about the murder of Chief Eulay, the champion of Papuan independence, which helped to prosecute members of the Special Forces ‘Kopassus.’ And he was already a marked man for documenting abuses of the Amungme and Kamoro people, which almost got him fired by the NGO he worked for. He never shrank from threats, but when he was labeled an enemy of the state his friends persuaded him to flee because discretion really is, if only sometimes, the better part of valor. Perhaps he believed, or at least hoped, he could serve people better in an overseas haven instead of martyrdom. His friends hoped a nomination for the Peace Prize would bring publicity to the cause, but it isn’t awarded posthumously. There never is any certainty for those campaigning for poor indigenous people in a land richly-endowed with natural resources under foreign military rule.

Gil waited for me to explain more.

“We met on the Internet when I needed an influential Papuan for advice about an emergency.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me about something I felt disappointed about, even a little ashamed of.

“You visited him in Abepura?”

“Never at his office.  We met when he came to lobby at the UN and Congress, and was a fellow at Columbia. I never probed his politics.

I grasped a limp right hand, marveling at the long, dexterous fingers Jake drafted reports with and wondered if he was paralyzed he would also lose his speech and gift of writing. If he couldn’t be whole again I almost wished he wouldn’t recover rather than being bed-ridden with the knowledge that a decade of struggle was for nothing. But I couldn’t give him up, so I whispered in his ear he would get back to work and we would eat barbecued fish together on his beach, just as we planned, although I was talking to myself.

As Gil took a turn at the bedside, I remember looking out the window beyond the wintry towers to feel the equatorial heat again and see the emerald mountains crowned with cumuli. I fancied I smelt smoke from a Honi hut still clinging to my body, and that flashed back to sleepless nights on dirt floors, inquisitive brown eyes across the embers in the men’s hut, and a tribal family who helped a delirious traveler. Jake knew the Interior but never understood my fascination, and even joked I was a pale Dani.

Continued September 1

The Good, the Bad, and the Cannibals

The cannibal hungrily carved muscle from the girl’s body; then he broke “Jane’s” skull open to scoop out brain matter. But it was neither in New Guinea nor in the Amazon jungle that her corpse was plundered; it happened in old Jamestowne, Virginia, just two miles from home.

"Jane's" skull
“Jane’s” skull

Her four hundred year-old remains have been on display at the Historic Jamestowne center since their discovery was announced, rather conveniently at the start of this year’s tourist season.  After the story broke I visited the center jostling with visitors eager to see the spectacle in a glass cabinet.  Old bones seldom attract much attention, except those of famous personages, but as a victim of cannibalism “Jane” has drawn more public curiosity than had she been just another victim of murder most foul. Suddenly the forgotten teenager has become a historical celebrity, like King Richard III whose skeleton was recently exhumed in the English Midlands.

I wonder why the consumption of human remains should attract so much more attention than the dire circumstances endured by people like “Jane” during their lives? And since modern society approves of dissecting cadavers for medical education and research, I am puzzled why we are so repulsed by eating them to save life? Perhaps I am straying into the treacherous territory of becoming an apologist for cannibalism, but sometimes the practice gets an unfair rap!

When “Jane” arrived in Jamestowne in 1609 after a perilous sea voyage from England she joined a pioneer colony, then numbering only a few hundred souls. The following winter was so hard it was remembered as the “Starving Times”. With bad weather preventing ships from resupplying the colony, ignorance about indigenous food, and deteriorating relations with the Indians, the inhabitants of Jamestowne fort starved. Only a quarter survived to the following summer. It is hard for us who have never been in wont of food to imagine what it feels like to starve, or to understand how it undermines character. After the colonists had supped their last meat and vegetables, they were so desperate that they began eating boot leather and some fell ravenously on deceased neighbors, including the girl. One of them even killed and ate his pregnant wife. According to George Percy, one of the community leaders:

And now famin beginneinge to looke gastely and pale in every face that notheinge was spared to mainteyne lyffe and to doe those things wch seame incredible.

Stories about people eating people still turn up in modern times. In a true account that was made into the movie, Alive (1993), an airplane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes. When search parties failed to find the wreck, the survivors starved after exhausting the little food on board. That any survived the four month ordeal, and that two successfully hiked out of the mountains for help, was due to their overcoming a natural revulsion against eating the dead, who were their friends and team mates. The survival impulse trumps civilized taste and etiquette.

Animals have no such scruples about eating their own. There are numerous examples ranging from sexual cannibalism in spiders and mantises to stress cannibalism in mammals and even “tribal” cannibalism in chimpanzees. You may have seen pet mice or rats eating their own pups. At first sight it seems so utterly perverse, but as a reaction to disturbing their nest or other threats it makes biological sense to recycle valuable nutrients for creating a new litter when conditions are more propitious. A far stranger case is when babies eat each other before they are even born.

Female sand tiger sharks are promiscuous, with mating starting with a dominant male.

Sand tiger shark. Photo by Jeff Kubina
Sand tiger shark. Photo by Jeff Kubina

Eventually they become pregnant with embryos from a series of ovulations and different fathers. The first embryos develop ahead of the rest, one in each of the twin forks of the uterus, and when the mother’s nutrient supply becomes strained the pair eat their siblings (they grow teeth precociously). Of the two embryos surviving to birth, researchers found they are almost always fathered by a dominant male. Evidently cannibalism in utero has an evolutionary advantage in this species because it guarantees that only the fittest genes will be represented in the next generation. It is hard however to find any merit in eating human flesh except to preserve life.

Cannibal feast, New Hebrides, by Charles Frazer (1863-1899). Private collection
Cannibal feast, New Hebrides, by Charles Frazer (1863-1899). Private collection

Everyone knows that cannibalism and head-hunting were practiced in New Guinea into modern times. It was in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea that Daniel Gajdusek discovered in the 1960’s the first prion disease (kuru), which was transmitted by eating the brains of deceased relatives (kuru is related to mad cow disease). When I made plans for a couple of solo visits to the Highlands of the other (Indonesian) half of New Guinea in the 1990’s, some people felt they should discourage me, otherwise I might become “fresh meat on the mountain for uncivilized brutes.”  I had long doubted tall tales I had heard were brought home by returning travelers to impress eager listeners, but I never imagined the people I would meet there would be as kind and hospitable as anywhere on Earth.

My 1997 visit coincided with a dreadful famine in the Highlands caused by the effects of El Nino. People were dying of starvation, if not driven to the extremes recorded in Jamestown. Although I was visiting ostensibly to see birds-of-paradise, a missionary friend urged me to report back about the food supply in remote villages so he could arrange to drop sacks of rice from the air where necessary. I set off into “cannibal country” more embarrassed at being a well-fed Westerner than feeling trepidation.

West PapuaThe “old” man in the picture was the first traditional Dani tribesmen I met in the bush, and one of the better-nourished.  He greeted me with “Na-yak” and the long Highland hand-shake. I guessed the parang (machete) carried in the other hand was used for tending his garden of sweet potatoes. We shared my tin of sardines and some candy before heading over a mountain pass, for which I sometimes needed his helping hand in the thin equatorial air. As we climbed, the string tied around his waist jangled a suspended horim (penis sheath) and waggled a large leaf covering his rear cleavage. Among other traditional dressers I soon felt the old man out, especially when a lady in a grass skirt fell into fits of laughter when she saw me. I was the strange object to stare at.

Nights were spent in uncomfortable shelters and the most memorable one was in a communal men’s hut after struggling on a journey for which I was naïve and poorly-equipped. Despite being just skin and bone they shared a cook-up of sweet potato greens (the few tubers were inedible from blight), and I wished I had brought more provisions. We bedded down on the packed earth around a flickering fire, sleepless eyes flashing inquisitively at each other. My eyes watered from smoke that failed to rise through the roof hole, or perhaps it was the emotion of a grateful traveler. Joy springs from wonder, and is the beginning of love.

So many years later, I still think about those people, even say a little prayer for them. I never found out when that village had its last cannibal feast, and it seemed crass to inquire when I got back to the missionary base. If anyone asks me where is cannibal country today I would not show them my travel log, I’d gaze out the window towards Jamestown Road and say, “You’re living in it.”

Next Post: Seventeen year anniversary

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