This next morning we are scheduled to see two more villages, and our guide is to be the same cannibal we had yesterday. We have been assured they no longer practice cannibalism, but I can’t get over the hunger in his eyes when he looks at me. My butcher has always told me that meat with a lot of fat on it tastes better, and I have a sneaking suspicion that our guide agrees with him. However I have done a little research and discovered that white meat is not the favourite meat of cannibals.
PNG cannibals have been quite succinct in their restaurant reviews and say that the meat of white people smells too strongly and is too salty. I am ready to take offence at “smells too strongly” especially considering my experience with Papuans, but decide that it might be best to leave them with that impression. The cannibals have also stated that Japanese people taste the best (well there was plenty of tasting opportunities during World War 2), but their all time favourite delicacy is the meat of their own women. And there I was thinking that they looked down on their women, when in fact they love them, especially if they are well done.(and if you think I am making that up, check out the book by the cannibal Anthropologist Olga Ammann)
Our first stop is Mindimbit, a village that is divided into two sections. The damage that the flooding has been doing to villages along the Sepik is particularly evident here
We have arrived on a day when the local court is in session. There is an argument raging as to where the village should have its school. Should it be in village #1 or village #2 as the two halves of the village are known. Spokespeople for the two villages arrive at the mens house to put their points of view before the village elders. The required dress code is quite different from our law courts
The speaker on one side goes for a stern look and some badly applied makeup:
while the other side has two speakers who choose body paint, necklaces and an arrangement of dried flowers for their legal attire
The two sides stand facing each other with a so called debating stool between them.
Each person takes it in turn to speak and rams home their point by beating the debating stool with a bamboo branch, hitting the stool once for each new point he makes. The argument is heated but we can understand little of it, so we leave to take a look at the school in question.
It is the first school we have seen along the Sepik river, and considering the state of their homes, quite impressive. It is one large room, spotlessly clean with a wall of blackboards at one end and about 40 children sitting cross legged on the floor
This being a missionary school, the children are not allowed to wear their tribal attire and are all rather smartly turned out in western clothes. Spending money on making the children wear clothes in the 90 degree heat and humidity is obviously more important than buying them desks and chairs.
But the presence of the missionaries and their school definitely makes a difference in how the children react to us. They are much more friendly.
From here we go to Mumeri, our last stop along the Sepik River. This must be one of the more popular stops for tourists as the villagers are quick to bring out a huge array of artwork for us to look at. It is here that the adult Penis Sheath makes it’s appearance in all its glory. One family clearly specialises in making these sheaths and there is a splendid array of them laid out on the mud.
We have not been lucky enough (if luck is the correct term) to see a gentleman wearing such a sheath, but when they do they wear nothing else. It has been tribal attire for men for centuries, but was recently banned by the government as obscene. This has stopped the men from wearing them in town, but apparently they are still to be seen in the villages, but sadly not in any villages we have visited.
It is the most blatant display of male sexuality I have ever seen,
or perhaps more correctly that I have ever acknowledged seeing. The penis sheath is usually made from a dried gourd that may be 15 inches long or in some cases even longer. The purpose is to impress both women and enemies, by showing that the warriors are more virile than their opponents. Well it impresses the hell out of me. And if the crocodile scarring of the men excited Diana you can just imagime what this did for her. She was ready to leave Edward and move in with some of the locals. Even Lois got excited and asked Richard to buy one. But Richard, in a rare moment of self awareness told her that they were all too big for him.
This charming penis accessory is held in place by a small loop of fiber attached to the base of the sheath and placed around the scrotum. The scrotum is not covered by the sheath. The sheath is then held upright against the body with a secondary loop placed around the chest or abdomen depending on the size of the sheath
The competition between warriors to have the biggest penis sheath (if not the actual penis) has led to a great variety of additional adornments such as boars’ tusks, animal skins, animal teeth, claws, feathers, shells, metal pieces, bamboo, and other pain inducing accessories. Some are simply adorned with a white feather bobbing on the end, sufficient to tickle anyone’s fancy.
The tapered gourd is the most fashionable sheath, but thicker models are also in vogue. The latter serves a secondary purpose, as a tote for money and cigarettes in the free end. A variation on this is the double gourd. One gourd for the penis and one for the purse. These tribesmen think of everything.
I am sure you never expected to be so well informed about the penis sheath, but it does seem to generate a certain amount of interest . In fact the intrepid ten have been gathered around the display for an embarrassingly long time, and there has been a lot of giggling both by us and the villagers. It has broken the ice with the locals who have become much more friendly than in other villages.
Our visit ends with another dance. The villagers have been preparing for this while we have been shopping ( a euphemism for ogling penis sheaths). But before the dancers make their appearance a rather strange man appears
He is rather unsettling as he stands and stares at us holding a spear. But then he chases the children with the spear who all start laughing uncontrollably. This, we are told, is what would have been called centuries ago in England the village idiot. He has mental problems but the village has taken him in and cares for him. He is obviously not as stupid as he seems for it becomes quite evident that he is parodying us, and how the villagers view the tourists, which is why the children are loving it .
The dance centers around two men who play enormous instruments (no I am not back on the penis sheaths). They are like flutes on steroids, hollowed out pieces of wood over 6ft long and intricately carved. During the performance, he inserts himself into the middle of it, often getting in the way of the dancers.
Village Dance Movie
In some ways it spoils the effect of the dance for us, but in other ways it makes it so much more real. It is heart warming to see how the tribe accepts him. In many parts of the world he would be an outcast .
The costumes are all liberally adorned with shells, which are not found anywhere in the area.
When explorers first came to PNG they brought many things with them to trade with the tribes people. The Papuan tribes both here and in the highlands fell in love with shells and would trade anything for them. They are now treasured and worn as jewellery or on ceremonial costumes.
As the dance comes to an end it is time to return to the Septic Tank for our final evening. But on the way we have one more encounter – this one has not been planned
The most enormous crocodile is dozing by the side of the river. It’s extended belly shows it has just had a large meal, which makes it lazy. It is totally unconcerned by the pontoon and our driver is able to get quite close. It seems to be a fitting end to our cruise along the river. It has been quite fabulous, and the final approach to the Septic Tank says it all
where is Bill Cunningham of the NYT when you need him?? pretty riveting stuff…. 🙂