Saturday, 5 July 2014

West of Eden: the unspoilt wilderness of Papua

A construction worker looks out to sea from Jayapura
© Andy Brown/Papua, Indonesia/2014
Along with Mongolia, Papua is one of the most remote places I’ve been with UNICEF. It’s a wild land of impenetrable jungles with deep valleys and high mountains disappearing into a perpetual ceiling of mist and cloud. Outside the towns, people still live a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries.

I’d previously been to Papua New Guinea, on the east side of the island, but didn’t have much chance to explore. This was mainly because violent is so rampant that you cannot safely walk the streets of Port Moresby, let alone wander off into the hills. I spent most of my time in a fortified office or hotel, or traveling between the two in a sturdy van with ‘UN’ painted on its roof in large blue letters so that it could be easily spotted from the air.

So I was excited to get the chance to visit rural areas in Papua, on the Indonesian half of the island. There are problems here too, but they’re less about crime and more to do with a long running conflict between an indigenous independence movement and the Indonesian army. Journalists are not allowed into this part of the country but we were able to get in as UN staff.

Stranger in town

Dipping my toes in the ocean at a beach near Jayapura
© Sudhir Khanal/Papua, Indonesia/2014
I arrived in the provincial capital of Jayapura on Saturday morning, in advance of our mission to the remote mountain areas. As the plane came in to land, the cotton-wool cloudscape parted to reveal the real landscape below of forests, rivers and small towns, the metal roofs of small huts reflecting the sun. Beyond was a long lake with little islands and intersecting fingers of land. There were fishing villages along its shore and reflected hills and clouds on its still surface.

In Jayapura, I met up with Sudhir from the local zone office and he showed me around town. The infrastructure here was clearly better than in Port Moresby and it felt safer on the streets. We were twice stopped at unofficial checkpoints and asked for ‘donations’ but at one of these several young men were at least making a show of repairing pot holes in the road.

Our first destination was the hilltop above the town, where a giant ‘Jayapura’ sign occupied a prime viewpoint, like a low-rent version of the famous Hollywood sign. I walked out along a narrow concrete ledge to one of the pillars holding up the letters. From here I could see across the town to the port, beyond which there was a natural harbour of still blue water created by fingers of land reaching out from the ends of a wide bay.

Afterwards we drove out to visit nearby beaches including ‘Base G’, one of several local landmarks named after former World War II installations. “There’s also a district in town called APO,” Sudhir said. “I asked locals what it meant but nobody knew. In the end an old man told me, it stands for American Post Office.”

Former US army installations at ‘Base G’ beach, near Jayapura
© Andy Brown/Papua, Indonesia/2014
Base G is now a beautiful 5 km stretch of sand with a fishing village at one end. In a few places behind the beach I could see the rusting remains of US installations hiding amongst the palm trees. One of these had been converted into some kind of resort, with giant umbrellas made from half cylinders of metal.

On Sunday, I returned to Base G on my own and walked the full length of the beach. In the morning it was almost deserted, but by midday it was filling up with locals coming to relax after church (Papua is a Christian province). Children played football on dusty pitches behind the beach or ran fully clothed into the water. Vendors sold water and betel nuts – a mild stimulant that locals chew and spit out, leaving both mouths and roadsides stained deep red.

I was the only foreigner on the beach and people were surprised and amused to see me. They were invariably friendly and groups of children ran up to me to practice their English. “Hello Mister, where you from, what’s your name?” they asked. At one point, I waded into the water to shake hands with a group of children. The oldest one introduced all her friends saying: “My name is Ruth; my name is Grace; my name is Thomas,” and so on.

Children at ‘Base G’ beach, excited to meet a foreigner
© Andy Brown/Papua, Indonesia/2014
Back of beyond

On Monday morning, I met up with Rafael and Sarah from UNICEF’s Jakarta office and caught a flight to Wamena. It was a 40 minute flight over dense green forest and looping rivers between steep hills. “In the past the only way to get to Wamena was on foot,” Sudhir had told me. “It took 21 days. People would organise expeditions through the jungle, travelling in groups and carrying food. Not everyone would survive the journey.”

While the population of Jayapura was a mixture of ethnicities, Wamena was dominated by indigenous Papuans. Some of them wore the traditional costumes of a grass skirt for women and a ‘penis gourd’ for men. This is a long, hollowed-out fruit shell that is worn over the male member in an upright position, tied around the chest and scrotum with a piece of string. Essentially they were naked, which in a warm and persistently rainy climate is probably a sensible way to dress.

From Wamena, we drove out to a village in the Baliem valley, where UNICEF is supporting life-skills education for teenage girls, in particular to teach them about HIV.

Children in the Baliem valley
© Andy Brown/Papua, Indonesia/2014
We arrived at the village by mid-afternoon. It was in a striking landscape with lush green valleys between forested and mist-topped mountainsides. A line of thatched-roof huts climbed the hillside above a wide brown river. Women walked down the road, carrying sacks of sweet potatoes on straps around their foreheads. Pigs wandered between the houses.

Here, we met 29-year-old Nira Tabuni, a local volunteer who runs the life-skills group. She was friendly and outgoing, with a wide smile and great sense of fun. She introduced us to the girls and young women who had come for the meeting. They sat in a circle in the grassy field and discussed the issues they faced, then played games together.

“I was first invited to join this group by a friend,” Nira told me. “I really liked the session and wanted to pass the information on to my friends in the village. Most people here are involved in unprotected sex and are at risk of HIV.”

Nira with some of the local girls from the life skills group
© Andy Brown/Papua, Indonesia/2014
It was a really great project. Dozens of girls come to the sessions every week, some walking for several hours to get there. In order to tackle the difficulties of the terrain, the team also produces one hour radio shows based on the training. Nira gives these to the young people on an MP3 player that they can take back to their villages and share with their friends. The following week, they get fresh batteries and a new episode.

It was fun documenting the group’s activities but I had a problem. We were being tailed by a group of curious villagers, which is not in itself unusual, but then a middle-aged man decided to join the life-skills group. My story was supposed to be about adolescent girls so I didn’t want him in the photos, but our local counterparts were reluctant to ask him to leave. In the end, I had to take my pictures strategically (or crop them afterwards) so that his shock of grey hair wasn’t in shot.

Yumelina attends a life skills session with other girls and a random villager
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
Yumelina’s story

One of the girls we met was 13-year-old Yumelina Tabuni. She was the most outgoing of the teenagers, so I decided to focus my story on her. After the life-skills session, we went to meet her family. Her house was halfway up the hillside and we walked there with Yumelina and Nira. Our unofficial entourage travelled in the back of a pick-up truck, after negotiating a group fare from the driver.

We soon arrived at Yumelina’s home, which was a single-room wooden hut. Inside, it was dark and smoky. There were no windows and a fire had been lit for warmth and cooking, filling the house with smoke. Her mother Darmina squatted by the fire, stirring a pan of food. We could hear pigs grunting and squealing in the back yard.

Like most people in village, Yumelina’s parents are farmers. They keep pigs and grow several types of crop, including the local staple: sweet potato. Yumeline attends Bolake high school and has three siblings. “I like going playing football with my friends in the afternoon,” she told me. “I play midfield. My favourite football team is Persiwa Wamena.”

Yumelina with volunteer educator Nira in the Baliem valley
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
I asked Yumelina why she joined the life-skills group. “I didn’t understand about HIV and why people die from it. I wanted to learn more,” she said. “We’ve been taught about condoms and how to protect ourselves from HIV. I’m happy that I have this knowledge.”

Darmina was clearly proud of her daughter and looked up from her cooking, smiling as her daughter spoke. “I’m very happy that Yumelina is attending the training,” she told me. “I trust Nira and I believe what she’s teaching is correct. Yumelina has always been a good girl, and is very diligent, but the training has improved her even more.”

By this point, the smoke in the house was making my eyes water and my throat burn. I wrapped up the interview and went outside. Half the village was waiting for us, so I took one last group photo outside Yumelina’s house, with the magnificent backdrop of the Baliem valley behind. We walked back down the hill and began the return journey to Wamena, just as the afternoon’s persistent drizzle turned to a full-on downpour.

Villagers outside Yumelina’s house, with the Baliem valley behind
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
Read part two of this blog »

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