While exploring the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, we visited the large, roughly 300-person, so-called Mindimbit Part One Village. The village was created by and is still home to the tribe’s original clan, who are descended from the founding families. The smaller, neighboring Part Two Village was created by subsequent clans and was across the river.
This village had two highlights to show us. The first was a demonstration on how they resolved conflicts.
The Orator Chair has intricately carved ancestor and deity figures, and effectively serves as the mediator in disputes. When a dispute cannot be easily resolved between the parties, a community (at least the men of the community) meeting is called.
Proponents of each side line up on either side of the chair and pick up a number of small bundles of dried sago fibers. Each party takes turns stating their position, placing one bundle on the chair for each point they make. They then pull them all together and strike the chair with varying amounts of force, depending on how strongly they want to make a particular point or how strongly they disagree with their opponent. This process will usually eventually lead to a resolution or compromise. If it doesn’t various members of the community will speak in favor of different parties until consensus is reached. As we were told, this process ALWAYS leads to some type of resolution.
This was appropriately followed by a cute, rehearsed song sung by the village’s women and children. One sung in both English and the tribe’s local dialect about getting along and working together.
We also had an opportunity to tour of the home of what appears to be one of the most prosperous families we saw in the Sepik region. Although many of the river village homes are larger than those we saw in the highlands, one home was larger than most. As with most others in the river villages, it was built on stilts, off the ground, and with cross-ventilation. Unlike most others, it had its own solar panels and several low-wattage lights in the room.
Although not fancy and not at all neat (at least by our standards), the interior was much more fully furnished than many of the other homes. It had beds with mosquito nets, cooking area and fish smoker and tables and a number of low wattage lights. One of the tables was devoted to electronics—rechargeable flashlights and an old, multi-component stereo system. (While the family had its own cell phone, it was used only in other areas, since the village had no cell reception.) Then there was the “family room”/storage area: a separate, home-sized open-sided, stilted structure which could be reached by a ramp from the house. Wood was stored beneath, fishing nets and tackle, along with a smoker and a lovely, hand-carved wooden bench for two were on the main floor. The family also had its own outhouse. But despite the house’s size and relative luxury, the house was 17-years old. They planned to build a larger, new house nearby, a project that would require about a year.
The woman of the house, who was educated and spoke very good English, had ten children. While two of her youngest children and four grandchildren currently lived in the home, the older ones were either married or were about six hours away in school. She saw them only once or twice a year.
The village also had some interesting and unusual crafts. These included much more complex and colorful jewelry (such as necklaces, colorful bilins (woven Sago fiber bags), storyboards (pictorial representations of their ancestors lives) and especially large, beautifully painted and decorated woven fiber masks that fit over one’s entire head and rested on the shoulders.
We then took a short boat ride to the smaller, neighboring Mindimbit Part Two Village where we visited the Sprit House, with carved ancestor and deity posts and worship figures (including an old, no longer useable Orator Chair) in the center of the room. It was lined on both side with a bench and the other with a bench/platform. Some of the village’s men temporarily appropriated the house to demonstrate how they finished different crafts: one the painting of a woven spirit mask with used motor oil, and another a carved, catfish-shaped slickgong (a hollowed out wooden tube with a horizontal hole through which a stick is continually shaken to sound an alert). The slickgong was finished by spreading and rubbing ash into the wood, removing the excess and sealing it with the same type of used motor oil.
Our final river village, the home of our tour guide, is another relatively large, 300-person community that consists of three clans. The ostensible reasons for the visit were to watch:
- Women dye Gumba tree fibers that would be dried and woven into multi-colored skirts and bilims; and
- A traditional victory dance that their headhunter ancestors would perform around the heads of their victims. (They, like the Kabriman tribe, painted the skulls but did not eat either the head or the body.) The dance is still performed to celebrate special occasions.
We also saw the village’s crocodile pen, with about a dozen baby and semi-grown crocs that were captured at night with flashlights. They are being grown so their meat can be eaten and their skins sold. The village also had the only two-story home we saw along the river and a long dugout canoe that appeared to have had one too many run-ins with a submerged tree. The village children, like most of those in other villages, all gathered to watch the tourists and most seemed to revel in posing for pictures.
And all of this under a baking-hot afternoon sun and in stifling humidity. All combined, the most dispensable of all the stops we had made. It did, however, provide a means of getting tourists into the village to explore and buy its wares. And some certainly did so.
We returned to our ship which was already on its way back to our starting point near the Karawari airstrip for our next morning’s flight to next destination, the highlands’ capital of Mount Hagen.
But before we arrived at the airstrip, we got to enjoy one more sunrise and real, rather than the simulated fishing on the river.