Papua New Guinea
Photos and text by Amar Dev Dhindsa
Spears, stone axes, war paint, bright bird of paradise plumes, bare breasted women, grass skirts, Kundu drums, war cries, dog’s teeth necklaces, Kina shell chest plates, headdresses made of human hair, penis gourds, wild bore tusk nose piercings, bows and arrows, warriors in formation, dancers, muscles glistening under the sheen of pig fat, sweat, tropical heat, jungle…Boys Own adventure story? Hollywood fantasy? Dramatic tourist show?
If you have ever had the privilege to feast on the aural and visual delight that the Mt Hagen Show is, you will know that it is much, much more. The biggest show in Papua New Guinea is a flamboyant expression of a culture that has thrived for over 60,000 years.
Once a year, since 1961, the Highlanders of PNG congregate and flaunt the amazing diversity that makes up this fascinating country. The Singsing was started as a nation building exercise to get the numerous tribes of the highlands to interact peacefully for the first time ever. Previously the only connection they made with each other was with a lethal weapon.
The first contact the Highlanders made with the outside world was only in the 1930’s. They had no concept of the Napoleonic ideal of the nation state. Even today, in many parts of PNG, loyalties are rarely extended beyond a tribe’s wontoks or community.
In late August of each year, over 50 tribes gather at Mount Hagen to dance, sing and march as they compete for attention. In a riot of colour and to the thump of Kundu drums they strut around a large grassy arena cheered on by crowds of wontoks and a smattering of tourists. The wild mix of feathers and weapons make it feel like a cross between a military parade and a Mardi Gras.
They sport elaborate headdresses made of brilliantly coloured Bird of Paradise plumes and human hair. Round their necks they wear necklaces made of Kina shells that were once used as currency in the mountains. The warriors are armed with spears and traditional stone axes. All the while the masked Mud Men of Azaro silently dance in slow motion to intimidate their enemies.
War paint, dances and songs are more than just for entertainment and display. They are powerful symbols of identity in a country still dominated by the complicated wontok system.
The singsing is a magnificent expression of traditional South Pacific culture in all its glory. Despite the presence of the ubiquitous red ‘kokakola’ sign flapping in the wind, this spectacle seems destined to continue far into the future.