Editor’s Note: In Papua New Guinea, tribal warfare is still common. Will McGough watched a reenactment of one of the country’s greatest — and most haunting — underdog stories in person.
A sun-faded wooden shield, split in half, leaned against the side of the hut, its black warrior feathers still intact, shooting straight up from its top. I took the bigger half and put my palm on top, slowly spinning it between my hand and the ground. The front was riddled with small holes, a clear sign that it had actually seen battle and, presumably, done its job in defense of foreign arrows. There were dozens of holes, each a few centimeters deep. I asked one of the tribesmen how old it was, and through a translator, he told me 30 or 40 years. Holding it and seeing the arrow indentations and feeling its weight — about 20 pounds — started to make me feel uncomfortable, so I leaned it back up against the hut, next to its other half. Just then, I heard a stick crack behind my back, and I turned to face the tree line 20 yards away. At first I saw nothing.
I was in Pogla Village outside of Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, the country due north of Australia that crams a 100 tribes and 700-some languages into one nation. Foreign mining companies like ExxonMobil have infiltrated and transformed the capital of Port Moresby into a city of gated complexes, but up here in the mountains, about 80 percent of the country’s population still lives in small towns and villages. Despite the political and social influences that missionaries and foreign governments have had in the coastal areas, the more secluded upcountry regions have withstood the test of time: their inhabitants still sport traditional tribal clothing and uphold the beliefs of their ancestors.
Here, lands are really controlled by tribes, just like they have been for hundreds of years. There are no lawsuits to settle disputes; the closest thing these people have to a lawyer is the tribe or clan’s individual shaman, who mediates in a straw hut, collects pig jawbones, hands out relationship advice and helps remove curses that bad apples have bestowed upon themselves or others. Spirituality is a major part of life here in these hillsides, and is also the driving force behind the small “wars” and skirmishes that ultimately settle disputes between clans. Clan and tribal wars are just what they sound like: A hostile conflict between members of two different native families. The easiest analogy, although imperfect, is the bloodshed we see between street gangs here in America, a tit-for-tat struggle of power and respect. Tribes in Papua New Guinea, especially those living in the highlands, are incredibly strict on fairness — meaning, you take one of ours, we take one of yours, an eye for an eye, a taro for a taro.
These clan wars still happen today, and are typically the way tourists get into trouble while visiting the country. Sometimes it’s simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time — like walking through a part of town when a riot breaks out. Other times it’s more complicated. Take, for example, the group of National Geographic researchers who were blamed for the coincidental illness of a young girl during their visit to an upcountry village. (Luckily, the girl survived and the researchers were off the hook). People in Papua New Guinea are extremely friendly, but they do subscribe to lots of old-school beliefs, including witchcraft, that leave room for behavior a Westerner wouldn’t predict, like blaming outsiders for bad luck. But it also leaves room for amazing myths and stories, many of which serve as “parables” and guidance for tribesmen today. My purpose in Pogla was to learn about the country’s most infamous clan war, one that took place in the adjacent Eastern Highlands Province and is recreated for visitors to Pogla as a way of illustrating the role deep-rooted spiritual beliefs play in the culture here.
According to tribal folklore, two neighboring tribes were at war over land ownership. Or, perhaps more candidly, a large tribe, known as the Nokpa, was bullying a smaller tribe, the Kauga, off its land and claiming it as their own. Unable to match the Nokpa’s numbers, the Kauga were forcefully driven out — until they came up with a way to fight back without using force. The Kauga were too small to go toe to toe with the Nokpa, but they were smart enough to come up with a plan that rivals any trick the devil ever pulled.
It all centered around the tribal theology’s deep-rooted fear of spirits. The exact reasons vary from tribe to tribe and region to region, but here in the upcountry of Papua New Guinea, tribes believe them to be the ghosts of their ancestors. And not in the Casper kind of way. Here in the jungle, spirits are not called upon. They are feared and revered and, most importantly, avoided.
Knowing this to be true and at the core of the Nokpa’s beliefs, the Kauga molded detailed masks — better described as full-face helmets — out of clay. They used pig teeth to make mouths, and took artistic liberties with the facial construction, molding oversized ears, curled lips, and enlarged eyes. They carved long, sharp fingers from bamboo that would make Freddy Krueger proud. To complete the costume, they covered their entire bodies in white mud, a final design detail that would later earn them the nickname of “The Mudmen” amongst historians.
One night, as the Nopka gathered around the fire with the moon high overhead, the Kauga slowly tiptoed through the jungle and emerged into the camps of the Nokpa, who now occupied their former land. They moved in very deliberate, sneaky strides, occasionally snapping the bamboo fingers together to break the silence. The Nokpa, unable to reason with what they were seeing in the dark night, believed the pasty figures to be the fallen Kauga spirits coming back from the dead, and immediately took off running, never to return again for fear of divine justice.
As I continued to watch the treeline, I began to see movement. This was a reenactment of the Kauga’s ghostly trick, I knew. But even in the light of day, watching these sneaky, stealthy, “walking dead” figures tip-toe out of the jungle was something out of a malaria-induced nightmare. Their movements were long and deliberate, like they were carefully stepping through a room full of tacks or mousetraps. The long, slender men glided forward, floating and rising up and then coming down to a crouching position with bent knees, the expressions on the masks looking deep into whoever gazed upon them. The small boys snapped their bamboo fingers together, which popped like loud snare drums in the quiet mountain air.
After the reenactment, I tried on one of the masks. The weight was absolutely unbelievable at 30 to 40 pounds, straining my neck the minute it was placed on my head. With no straps to secure it, all the weight rested on the cone of my head, swinging side to side as if it were a bell. The inside reeked of tobacco, and I was barely able to see out of the small eyeholes in broad daylight. It was hard to imagine how it would have been possible to navigate through the jungle at night; to think of the courage it must have taken for the small tribe to take such a risk was a bit overwhelming. What if the ruse hadn’t sent the Nokpa running?
I looked at the shield again, the one that was split in two and riddled with arrow holes, and I thought about all the violent conflicts that still take place in Papua New Guinea today. Yes, the story I had just been told was a ghost tale, but there was a much deeper lesson. The Kauga won back their land without so much as drawing a bow, proving that David need not outmuscle Goliath. As Papua New Guinea continues to work through issues of violence, perhaps the impact and message of the story can go well beyond tourism.