Sunday, 2 November 2014

Papua: long walk to the mummy’s tomb

Tolaka and Lima walk to school for an hour through grasslands and forests
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
I was in Papua in March to document the issues facing children in one of the most remote and mountainous regions on Earth. With few roads and no horses, there is only one way for most people to get around – on foot. Children often walk for hours to get to school each day, and we wanted to document that journey.

It was our second day in the highlands of Papua, after arriving and meeting Yumelina the day before (see part one of this blog). We got up at 5am and drove out towards the Baliem valley, which is in the heart of the Cyclops Mountains and had no contact with the outside world until after World War II.

We drove out of Wamena over a wooden bridge, where one of our vans briefly got stuck, and continued on to park beside a wide river. Here, we left the van and continued on foot, crossing a rickety foot bridge made from steel wires and wooden planks. It swayed alarmingly and I had to watch where I walked so I didn’t put a foot through one of the wide gaps between the planks.

We carried on along the riverbank. It was cool and the valley was filled with early morning mist. The sky was rapidly lightening but the sun had yet to rise. Women picked spring onions along the riverside and American country and western music drifted incongruously across from a wooden house on the other side.

Tolaka and Lima with their mother outside the clan home
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
We soon arrived at our first destination. It wasn’t so much a village as a square formed by four traditional thatched huts belonging to a clan of related families. Outside one hut we met Dimika and her two daughters, Tolaka, 8, and Lima, 7.

Both girls attend Advent Maima Primary School. It takes them over an hour to walk to class each day, through flooded grassland and along muddy woodland tracks. “I’m used to walking so I don’t get tired,” Tolaka told us. “I’m happy to go to school. I have a lot of friends there and we like playing together.”

Dimika attended the same school herself as a child, but was forced to leave when her parents told her it was time to get married. But now her husband has left and she grows corn, potatoes and cabbage for the family to eat, selling the surplus in the market.

She was determined for her children to do better. “If the girls go to school, they’ll be able to do anything they want in the future,” she said. “I’d like them to work in an office. It’s not good for them to work like me as a farmer. I don’t want them to regret not getting an education, like I do.”

Tolaka and Lima laugh as they walk through the muddy grassland
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
We left the clan houses as the sun finally broke through the mist, scattering dazzling shafts of light from just above the horizon, and began the walk to school. Rafael and I stayed at the back with the girls.

It quickly became apparent that we were ill-prepared for the journey. The path was regularly interrupted by deep pools of mud. Some of these were narrow enough to jump over, while others had wooden branches balanced across them, but all took time and effort to cross. The girls, meanwhile, ran swiftly through the mud in their bare feed and waited for us on the other side.

The solution was obvious and before long I had taken my hiking boots off, tied the laces together, and slung them over my rucksack. Barefoot, the journey became much easier, and I started to enjoy the feel of the cool, red mud squeezing between my toes.

Along the way, I had one of those moments where I realise how lucky I am to be doing this job. I was hiking through amazing scenery in one of the most remote corners of the world with great colleagues and two adorable children as guides. “I can’t believe I’m doing this for work,” I said to Rafael. “I was just thinking the same thing,” he replied.

Lima, 7, makes a calculation at school in rural Wamena district, Papua
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
At the school, we observed the children’s morning activities and first class. The school is supported by UNICEF to develop a more ‘child-friendly’ environment. When the children arrived, they washed their hands and feet and brushed their hair. I joined Lima’s class and watched as her teacher led classroom activities.

At the end of the lesson, I got a great shot of Lima doing calculations using an abacus. When I was at school, abacuses had long been phased out in favour of pocket calculators, but in Papua, where access to electricity and money to buy batteries is scarce, the old methods still work best.

Special delivery

After the school, we travelled to the nearby Ilekma Health Centre, which UNICEF was supporting to do outreach to remote communities, including pregnant women and new monthers. It was election season and convoys of trucks passed by outside, broadcasting campaign messages through megaphones.

Neli with her daughter and newborn boy in their communal home
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown
In Sapalek village we met 23-year-old Neli Kogoya, who had given birth just two weeks before. She sat on the floor of a communal house that she shared with two other families, craddling a baby wrapped in a blanket on her lap, while a nurse checked her blood pressure.

Neli had two children: a two-year-old girl Yosiana and baby Eliup. “When I had Yosiana, I didn’t know what to do or what to expect,” she said. “I didn’t know about breastfeeding or vaccinations, and there was no health centre nearby. When Yosiana was three months old she got a fever. I had to pay for a taxi to Wamena to take her to the hospital.”

The second time around, things were much easier for Neli. “Someone from the health centre has visited me every month since I got pregnant,” she continued. “I was past my due date, so they took me to the hospital to have an induced birth. They’ve helped me with vaccinations and breastfeeding, and they give Eliup regular check-ups to make sure he’s healthy.”

Having regular help from a medical professional has been a big relief for Neli. “I’m so happy that the health centre is here,” she said. “I’m most thankful to them for taking me to the hospital and making sure my baby is alright. If it wasn’t for the midwife, I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Penis gourd

Sarah, Rafael and myself, with villagers and their mummy at Jiwika Village
© Andy Brown/Indonesia/2014
Due to our early start, we had finished both project visits by mid-afternoon and had time to spare for sightseeing. One of our local colleagues told us about a village where you could visit a tribe that had a ‘mummy’ of a long-dead ancestor, made famous by a Dutch TV documentary in the 1980s. The village was in tribal territory and we expected to see traditional costumes, including the famous penis gourd or ‘koteka’. We decided to check it out.

We arrived at Jiwika Village, a group of traditional thatched honai houses inside a wooden barricade. Honai are round sleeping quarters, constructed without ventilation to trap heat during the cold nights. There was a sign outside saying ‘Mummy this way’, so we were clearly not the first visitors. Inside, we met the village chief, 45-year-old Jonas Mabel of the Dani tribe.

Many of the tribespeople were indeed wearing the traditional costumes of a grass or bead skirt for women and a penis gourd for men. The koteka 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. Other villagers were dressed in western clothes, including Jonas who wore shorts and a polo shirt.

The penis gourd growing on a tree, and worn by men and children in the village
© Andy Brown/Indonesia/2014
One of the villagers showed me a tree where the gourd was growing – a long white fruit that is also used for food. “When it’s fully grown, we hollow out the gourd and eat the fruit,” she explained. “Then we dry and wax the shell.” The type of gourd chosen to wear depends on the tribe. Men of the Dani tribe favour a long, thin and straight koteka. Other tribes grow the gourds into more elaborate, curved shapes.

Visitors often assume, as we did, that there is an element of sexual display to wearing a penis gourd. However, tribesmen say that they wear them only to cover themselves and protect their delicate parts while working or hunting. Short penis gourds are worn while working, and longer more elaborate kotekas on festive occasions.

The mummy returns


Meanwhile, Rafael had negotiated a price to see and photograph the village mummy, and Jonas ordered it brought out. Named Wimintok Mabel (‘Always at War’), the mummy was a smoke-blackened corpse, wearing the remains of a headdress, necklace and ceremonial penis gourd. His legs were bent up to his shoulders in order to fit into a bark basket, now long gone.

Jonas explained the history of the mummy. “Wimintok was the second chief after the founding of this village,” he said. “He is my ancestor. I am the seventeenth chief. We believe that the mummy is 371 years old. Every five years we treat the body with pig fat and add a new necklace. We use this to keep count – there have been 74 necklaces so far.”

Jonas Mabel, 45, and Wimintok Mabel, 371
© Andy Brown/Indonesia/2014
Jonas showed me where Wimintok was missing a finger. “His son died during a tribal war, and he chopped off a finger because of his sadness. This is our tradition. When we lose a family member we always cut a finger or ear.” To prove the point, an old woman showed me where she had two finger stubs, just like the mummy’s.

I asked about the mummification technique. “We create a hut, suspend the body and smoke it for three months,” Jonas replied. “After that it’s treated with pig fat. Not everyone can become a mummy – it’s reserved for chieftains and great warriors. We used to keep Wimintok inside a bark basket, but the documentary makers asked us to open it up. Since then there has been a lot of interest in our mummy.”

Researchers have since found six other mummies in Jayawijaya and Yahukimo provinces. “There used to be many more mummies in this area,” Jonas continued. “Now there are just two left. Ours is in the best condition. The others were stolen or destroyed in tribal wars. Or they were not well cared for and fell apart.”

To us, the mummy was a bit morbid, but to the villagers it was comforting. They kept it in the same grass-roofed hut where the village men sleep. “We live with Wimintok in our hut because he’s part of our family,” Jonas explained. “We want to keep our cultural traditions, and we believe his spirit looks after the village.”

Me on a footbridge in the Baliem valley at first light
© Andy Brown/Indonesia/2014

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