We have to be up at 6.30 in order to get an early start on our drive to the Sing Sing.
There are two small buses waiting outside. The eighteen septuagenarians and Patricia climb on to one of the buses, and squeeze into the seats. They are packed in like sardines and Patricia has to sit up with the driver.
The fearless five have the other bus to ourselves and we try not to gloat as we make ourselves comfortable. Actually that is completely untrue. We are all gloating like crazy and hope that the septuagenarians are well aware of this.
As we travel down the muddy road one more time our guide for the day tells us that there are seven churches each of a different denomination on this five mile track into town. Our guide is an important elder in one of the local tribes and talks at some length about the work of the missionaries. He explains that the message the missionaries preach to the tribes people is that if if they are to be accepted by God they must change their lifestyle, their dress and their spiritual beliefs. The majority of people are happy to go along with the missionaries as they bring much needed schools to the area. But our guide believes they are stripping PNG of its cultural heritage.
And it is this cultural heritage that we are about to see. A Sing Sing is a joining together of tribes where each tribe performs a dance that explains their history or an important part of their lives. The tribes then join together for a big party where they can dance together, talk together, make friends, and maybe even meet a potential spouse. Finally they have a traditional “Mumu” or huge feast which is similar to a Hawaian Luau where the food is cooked in an underground pit.
Because these tribes are so isolated, and until recently travel was difficult, this is one of the few occasions for them to spend time together and forge links with other tribes.
There are only three or four of these Sing Sings each year and they have become huge tourist traps. They last for two days and are now held in large arenas. But the one we are going to has only been in existence for a few years. It is arranged by our tour company specifically for its customers, so that they can have a much more intimate experience. It is much smaller and lasts for just one day. But what makes it so appealing to us is that they only allow forty tourists. At least that’s what their brochure said. In fact there are fifty five tourists present today, but we aren’t going to quibble, unless of course it is the octogenarians that are gate crashers.
This is the Tumbuna Sing Sing and it is held in the Paiyagona Village, home of the Kosumb clan. The show takes place on the clan’s traditional ceremonial ground, which is little more than a field surrounded by hedges and trees.
We have spent 12 days in rainforest country and yet we have had nothing but sunshine the entire time. But today, for the first time, the weather is not co-operating. It has rained heavily all night and is still raining when we arrive at the village. We have to walk through several muddy fields to get to the equally muddy ceremonial ground. At one end of the ground the tour company has set up a makeshift pavilion with rows of plastic chairs and stools under a plastic tarp. We have arrived at an early hour so that we can wander around and watch the twelve tribes get ready, paint their faces and put on their tribal costumes.
But none of this can happen until the rain stops , as the rain washes off their body paint and damages their feather headresses. Fortunately the skies clear a little after 9am and the festivities can begin.
Each tribe stakes out a piece of ground out side the arena where they can get ready and practice their dance. As we have already learned on our travels they are proud of their culture and happy to share with us the process of putting on their makeup and costumes. For almost two hours we mingle amongst the tribes, talking with the dancers, taking photos and watching them get ready.
It is fascinating but the septuagenarians don’t join us. They are anxious to have the front row seats in our little viewing stand and have all rushed over and taken their places. Most of them never leave for the entire time and just sit there waiting for the show to come to them.
They don’t know what they are missing
The painting is almost always done by the men – even on the women’s faces:
Then the body paint
or the headresses
and the accessories
and of course the all important tail feathers
Then we have the impressive finished article
Some are less fancy
some are more fancy
some are strange
Some are scary
And some are just FABULOUS
Then it is time for each tribe to practice their routines and line up for the show
While this is happening the traditional “Mumu” is being prepared. A large pit has been dug in a corner of the ceremonial grounds. A fire has been lit inside it and a layer of stones added. Once the stones are hot, the meat and sweet potatoes are put in and covered with more stones and palm leaves
There are four “chefs” attending the pit, but not all of them are happy in their work
We, the tourists, got here early to enjoy all the preliminaries, but as the beginning of the actual Sing Sing becomes imminent the rest of the audience starts arriving. These are the locals and supporters of each tribe. Some of them are just as fascinating as the dancers:
And while we find them interesting, we have to wonder what they think of the tourists