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Ethnographers Don Hammers: A Building Adventure in Pema Valley, Papua New Guinea

Ethnographers Don Hammers: A Building Adventure in Pema Valley, Papua New Guinea
Pema Village, Waria Valley, Papua New Guinea

Our plane finally landed in Port Moresby at dawn and spit out of its accordion trunk ten bright-eyed, twenty-something Anglo English teachers in the so-called third world. The sound of crickets in thick air recalled childhood summer nights, a welcome contrast to the urban chatter we left behind in Tokyo. We collected our lonesome bags from the only claim. A busty, chocolate-brown woman with red teeth put “security checked” stickers on our things without so much as a second glance and we limp-dashed around to the side of the airport to climb on an 18 passenger “Dash 8″ that would take us to Lae. The plane reeked of pungent sweat and looked well over its prime. The personal air vents were spitting a foul, watery substance out of them and could not be trusted, so I held my breath for the better half of the 45 minute flight.

An arts festival at the school in Pema Valley, where we were building a teacher's house
An arts festival at the school in Pema Valley, where we were building a teacher’s house
When we descended the plane’s rickety steps in Lae, we had the warmest welcome any person could imagine. Around twenty villagers in traditional dress were beating on wooden drums carved from banana tree trunks and stretched with snake skin. We were standing still in a paralyzed wall as the procession approached. Children wearing grass skirts, heavy beads, and freshly-plucked Cassowary feathers unhesitatingly approached each of us with a necklace of fresh flowers. As they put they adorned us carefully, we were carried off by the smell of white jasmine. Old women with leathery skin and sagging breasts flashed glowing, toothless grins. We confronted every embedded stereotype about tribal culture right there, every textbook picture and car commercial. Firm handshakes with calloused hands and worn, friendly eyes broke the wall into a gregarious circle. A gorgeous little girl handed me some sticky bananas. They chanted us to our buses and were not the least bit shaken by our difference, but we were certainly shaken by theirs.

The next leg of our journey was an insufferably long boat ride. All ten of us were traveling across the ocean in a tiny fishing boat with a huge engine. The operator was high on beetle nut, a red-toothed pirate. We were out of tune with the emerald blue ocean and rough underbrush, singing musical numbers and applying copious amounts of sun lotion. It was on that white dingy that we had our first major scare, a reality check that life is, indeed, about survival. Somewhere in the middle of the Huon Gulf, our boat started to fill up with water. Ironically, the girls were singing, “Tommorrow” from “Annie” (the musical we performed to raise the money for the volunteer project) when we first started to notice that the boat was sinking. When I caught the look of panic from Robert, our cool-cat, dread-locked guide, I knew we were in trouble. Somehow, after a lot of screaming in Pidgin and scooping of milk carton tops of water, the situation was remedied.

We finally made it to the Kamiali guest house around sunset to take strange showers, freezing cold water pumped in from the nearest river in the pitch black. It was not an easy task. Following our first traditional dinner of tarot root, fried bananas and rice, we very soundly passed out.


My crew lumbered up in the morning to the sounds of an active forest and headed to Thong’s Island, one of many “coincidences” that Doug, our Papua New Guinea veteran, set up for us. The boat cruised into a seemingly uninhabited white beach framed in ferns and coconut trees. While taking in that tranquil view, dizzied by the boat ride, out of the darkness darted a tribe of fierce and tawny men, faces caked in red and white war paint. Not only were they intimidating us with whooping cries, they were also closing in on the boat shaking sharp spears! This is the moment when your mother’s voice chimes in the back of your head and you doubt the credibility of your guides, but it also turned out to be the moment when we gained some confidence in them.

I guess they must’ve seen someone on the verge of tears, because they suddenly withdrew from their war stance and bellowed back into laughter. Of course, it was a set up, a tribe from inland that had came to welcome us in a less orthodox way. After a lot of drumming and a playful but predatory dance, we feasted on fish (freshly speared by a six year old boy) smoked on coals and drank some coconut milk. They handed me a whole fish and I crack it open with dirty hands to pick out the meat. Soon enough, I am looking down at the empty carcass and head, disremembering my ten years as vegetarian. It was our first attempt at communication and we were not sure which foot to stand on.

One youngish girl, Darcy, took the lead. She just grabbed my hand and held on to it. I was awkward at first. I could not communicate with this person, but I could not take my eyes of her. She was wearing a dish-water grey bra, a bright skirt made of leaves died with natural pigment and hundreds of beads made from dog’s tooth, seashells, and nuts. The beads were draped around her like a pageant sash and her face was beautiful in that it was not the over-groomed and over-plucked. She never stopped looking me straight in the eyes. “Dance,” she led me to the group with different kinds of drums and we did a dance, pushing our whole bodies back in to the earth as if that exact spot is where we had sprouted up and grown limbs. The finale was a skit acted out to the pulse of two echoing drums. A young man on his hind legs acted out the part of wallaby and another chased and hunted him melodramatically.

We hung a right on the Waria river, entering the territory of the Gia tribe, where would stay for the next week. A pit stop at the base of Mount Ueno marked our first taste of the jungle. Green moss was velvety under bare feet. The jungle was not at all the harsh condition I expected it to be; it was soft and warm and seemed to invite me to take a long sleep in the middle of it. We change boats as the river had become more shallow lately, the collateral damage of logging and sending the product down stream on the river, flooding it periodically. This is a serious problem for the tribe, who’s most precious possession is their land.

To understand our projects, you must know a bit about our hosts. All of the Village Development Trust (VDT) staff had on T-shirts that read, “lukatim bus, lukatim graun, lukatim wara” (Pidgin for “look out for the earth, look out for the ground, look out for the water”). They were rough and muscular, but each of them had accepting eyes. They were tireless survivors who seemed to taking constant survey of their environment. Robert, 23, had a long beard that he decorated with pieces of foliage and flowers. He gently philosophized to me, telling me that there is nothing that isn’t natural, that there is only one God, and that it is all about smoking Bruce (local, coarse tobacco rolled in newspaper) and chewing beetle nut (a local stimulant that reacts in the mouth when combined with other elements, like lime). He is immediately likeable. Mainey is 30ish, easy to laugh and sharp with words. He worked his way out of rural PNG and to a degree in Graphic Design, and then abandoned his career for something for rewarding. Bin is an old gentleman of few words, who garners everyone’s respect he comes across. The rest of the guides don’t speak English but are constantly amused by us and laugh with their eyes. Every time I am overwhelmed by children jumping on me and leave my bag, one of them is there to hand it to me. When I run off to play Ultimate Frisbee with the kids and leave my camera, one of them collects it. When I can’t properly use a machete to open up a coconut, one of them appears and silently does it for me. They all gave off an impression which I have never felt before and can only describe as communal. In short, they were people of amazing character who made us feel both welcome and safe.

Mainey, Robert and Bin explained that 80-90 percent of Papua New Guinea is still tribal. There are no hospitals, roads, electricity, or infrastructure in these areas. People necessarily live along the waterways and oceans in self-sustaining tribes as they have for thousands of years. The currency of these tribes is land, the more land your tribe has, the more “rich” you are considered. The people are both playful and patient when it comes to their environment. They spend a lot of their day chasing down birds to swipe the most beautiful feathers and jumping off rocks into the river, but they also spend a lot of time suffering when nature deals them a bad hand. About 30 years ago, Mainey explained, the tribes started to hear stories about the bright lights of the city. They heard that life was easy there and some decided to give up their traditions.

The stories of the big city make it especially difficult when Korean logging companies came around to offer up a chunk of money for their land. Enough money, the logging companies said, to live in the city for the rest of their lives. The guides explained that the stories rarely turned out to be what they claimed. I saw so many patches of bare space in the middle of that majestic jungle. Every time I inquired, “Why is that mountain bald?” I got the same reply.

If language is proof of diversity in culture, then PNG gave birth to the term. Each tribe is relatively small, but has spent enough time in virtual isolation to develop a distinct language. Because of the rough terrain, a tribe of only twenty on one side of a mountain could develop a completely different language from another tribe of twenty on the other side. The close interpersonal relations of tribal life make language both complex and necessary. The social contracting involved in sharing work and childrearing must require a reasonably complex set of rules and a way to explain them. PNG is home to a significant chunk of the world’s languages, but the lingua franca is Pidgin with a capital “P”, not a pidgin with a lower case “p”. A pidgin is a make-shift means of communication used by two speakers of different languages to communicate. Pidgin, the lingua franca of PNG, has its own set of grammar rules and without a doubt qualifies as a distinct language.

Troy, the other PNG vet on our trip, explained that one of the major threats to PNG culture is language death. The first blow came with German Lutheran missionaries in the late 1800’s and the second came with globalization. With the increased need to communicate with people further away and with logging companies and ecotourism wiggling their way in, tribes are abandoning language and, some would say, culture. The staff at VDT wants to educate people about this and make them feel a grassroots pride for their unique culture. They want to record the old stories that their grandfathers told and learn the weaving of their grandmothers. They told me that what they have already lost in the last 30 years is a tragedy and I believe them.

The landscape changed dramatically on the course of our boat ride up river, from tropical coastline to secondary forest to lush jungle. It seems that we were on a 6-hour Disney ride, unfathomable that the gorgeous façade on either side of our boat was only more dense and beautiful for miles inland. If you took a small cross-section from the riverfront view, you would find thousands of different plant species and colorful insects. It was magnificent.

We were greeted at Pema Valley School by hundreds of kids, some naked but most in hand-me-down Japanese t-shirts, waving Japanese flags they had made themselves and throwing flower petals screaming, “Oro! Oro!” (“welcome” in Gia, the local “speakplace”). We saw the school, one open air permanent building donated by our association years ago and other teacher’s homes made of bush materials. We also saw the building site for our proposed house. Paula and I run down to the field during a break in the ceremony to play red rover and duck-duck-goose with the kids. They are bright, muscular, playful, open, and charcoal-brown.

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Robert, one of the VDT guides, slices open a sweet, yellow watermellon after a hard day’s work
We made our way upstream to the Pema Village. We were greeted by yet another local dance and drumming session. This time it is all women and they are hunched low to the ground in a trance as they dance. The rhythms are slow and mimic the environment. They have covered themselves in the light-brown clay of the river.

We go to the guest house, built just last month by the entire village. The details of the thatched roof, the stones in the shower made from river water pumped up with some genius, primitive mechanics. Every detail carefully crafted by dark hands. We breathe sweet air and fall asleep like rocks.


I awoke to the sound of drums (the town’s collective alarm clock) and surveyed my surroundings, one of the healthier ecosystems in the world. I was struck again by the softness and agreement with human life. In the village there are no trash cans, every material is organic. When you are finished eating a banana, you throw on the floor and it becomes part of the cycle. The simplicity couldn’t be more refreshing.

We head to the building site. Our crew is awkward at first, overtly female and unable to blend with the tenuous men of VDT, indigenous peoples who saw on the roof and don’t wince when they step on nails. Each person finds some menial task and over exhaust themselves while the carpenters observe knowingly. Manual labor connects you to your body, reminds you of its purpose, forgotten at a desk somewhere in the bleak mountains of Japan. I am the saw chick. Sweat is good.

A sea of beaming faces follow us everywhere we go.

Back in the village, I meet Morris and his crew, Supa, Emmanuel, Helson and Joshua, for the first time. They are curious boys who love English. They are aged 12-15 but they are not afraid to hold hands. They taught me how to make bracelets out of a peeled plant leaves, and when we ran out of materials one of them said they were going to run up into the forest and find more of the plant. A random adult overheard the conversation and told him not to go, it was almost dinner time. I asked him if the man was his father, but he said no. All of the adults look after all of the children. That is the way the village operates.

The tribe is divided into four interdependent clans. They each have their own responsibility. The Yewa clan is represented by the bird of paradise and responsible for organizing festivals and dancing. The Wapo is the eagle, responsible for gardening and bringing the tarot to the festivals. The Bego is a hornbill, responsible for slaughtering the pig (I would later find this out first hand). Finally, the Sakia clan is a white cockatoo and they are the fisherman. Without each of these elements “a party is not a party”, Mianey tells me. We all had a formal ceremony inducting us into the different clans. I am a Wapo Bouno (Wapo clan girl).


Back to building. We play ultimate Frisbee in the afternoon. Unabandoned play is contagious. We jump out of the boat on the way home from work and float the rest of the way down.

Robert’s theatre troupe performed in the evening, casting a new light on what it is to be modern. He took local myths and legends and used them as a microphone for more immediate truths: AIDS, malaria, and logging. I learned that the “developed” nuances of “modernity” are not necessarily justified. Anything forward thinking is modern. Modernity can be pragmatic and the avant-garde is as necessary in the jungle as it is in the streets of London.


I went to Pepeware, a village upstream, for a ceremony. The children were playful, bright, curious, partially clothed. They poked me and prodded me with fervor. If I didn’t give them some negative response they would have continued until I was buried in them.

We toured the village, showing our foreign faces, and then headed to the dank basement of a hut. I was the first one to walk in and immediately saw the only wall decoration, a picture of Yamamoto’s face with some historical writing in Pidgin. Yamamoto is the Japanese military commander that ordered the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He is from Nagaoka, the nearest town to me in Japan. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he fled to Papua New Guinea. Needless to say, the Americans sought revenge with ferocity. They bombed both the area around Lae, killing Yamamoto’s men, and Nagaoka, killing thousands. It is strange, the historical connections I have with both of these places as an American.

We floated home on a raft made of banana trees. We were just becoming frightened, going through some rapids when we saw a little black head poke up in the distance. One of the Pepeware boys wanted to catch a ride with us and he managed to make it up to our raft and hop on. As we got close to the village, little boys covered in mud attacked our entourage. They waged a full on mud war, slinging big balls of earth at us.

I watched the Nange Arts Festival, danced with an old man to an out-of-tune guitar, and let the mood overtake me. Elaborate costumes made of organic materials told me that it is human nature to adorn ourselves.

As the day wore on, I decided to go to the river to cool off and saw some kids jumping off rocks. I let my stupidly adventurous nature take over and swam across current to join them. We asked (motioned to) one of the older boys to be our guide. I made it across stream with relative ease, scaled the hot rocks, and jumped, recalling my sticky days spent in Atlanta searching for the perfect bridge to jump off. As soon as I got to the bottom, I felt a surge of adrenaline, unable to swim fast enough. I was headed right for the rapids. I guess that a group of girls (the oldest one couldn’t have been more than 7) saw the look of fear in my eyes, because they surrounded me and became my intertube. They swam me back to land without saying a word.

After the festival, I was propositioned to carry a freshly slaughtered wild pig around the village, dividing its pink flesh up among the huts.

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A “welcome” mask, meant to ward off evil spirits, on Thong’s Island on the Huon Coast
At the end of the night, I was sitting on the front porch of the Guest House with my boys, Morris and company. The entire village suddenly seemed to move into a circle around me; I was suspicious. Doug prodded me into the center and I made a fumbling introduction in Gia. Out of the woodwork came each and every member of my clan, adorning me with gifts. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and I cried. An old woman pulled some peanuts out of her soiled pocket and handed them to me.


I endured another impossibly long boat ride, Japanese lessons in the sand and some silliness at the Melanesian Hotel. I love Troy.


Thanks to a chance encounter on a plane with people who know people, I was shown around Port Moresby by the former Minister of Conservation and the Environment, Sasa. He was light-skinned man with a generous belly and wild hair. He told me that he was fired for being honest and that his only dream was to go to the Amazon. He went ten years ago, so now he is ready to die. Sasa was a refreshing character, obviously displaced in politics. He took us to the Parliament House out of obligation, then to the Botanical Gardens.

The plane was a decompression chamber. I felt the eyes of the beefy, all-American Christian boy sitting behind me drilling into the back of my head. To him, I was a heathen. My hair was matted until it was almost dread locks, my eyebrows wild, my skin flaky and charred. I was peeling a gnarly orange with dirty fingernails and shoving it into my mouth a little too eagerly because I forgot to eat lunch. I was enjoying the way the juice trickled down my hands, clean citrus on my sunburn. I was talking too loudly and too passionately about the book I was reading and I drank three glasses of red wine within the first 15 minutes. I laughed at myself, surprised at the quickness with which I had abandon social mores, but I felt more alive than ever before.


Tokyo was my playground when I woke up in the morning. I was rediscovering civilization in the most developed, dense pinpoint of modernity possible. Going to the “Roppongi Crossing” exhibit in the ultramodern Roppongi Arts Center was an ambitious first day back, but it couldn’t have been more appropriate. I milled through some of the most poignant, abstract expressions of our fragmented modern life, and surprisingly they didn’t seem so far removed from my tribal experience. White on white canvas distorts medium, making texture into color; grotesque neon pink; using technology to produce imperfection, asymmetry; the expressions of our modern lives which prove that computers have souls.

Knowing that the earthy, communal, organic life of Pema Valley exists at the same time that the abstract, metallic, dense life of Tokyo gives a width to the human experience. My spectrum of understanding was given roots.

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