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Abelam People of the Sepik River-Tribes of Papau New Guinea

Highlighting the arts and cultural of Papua New Guinea....Ramdas Iyer


Common introduction to the blog series planned:

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a long history when it comes to human settlement. However, it is still a relatively new nation in the eyes of the modern world. For centuries, PNG was a mystery to the outside world and, even today, there are areas of the country that Western civilization has yet to encroach upon, making PNG one of the most intriguing frontiers of the modern world.

The culture of Papua New Guinea is many-sided and complex. It is estimated that more than 700 different cultural groups exist in Papua New Guinea, and most groups have their own language. Because of this diversity, in which they take pride, many different styles of cultural expression have emerged; each group has created its own expressive forms in art, dance, weaponry, costumes, singing, music, architecture and much more. To unify the nation, the language Tok Pisin, once called Neo-Melanesian (or Pidgin English) has evolved as the lingua franca — the medium through which diverse language groups are able to communicate with one another in Parliament, in the news media, and elsewhere. People typically live in villages or dispersed hamlets which rely on the subsistence farming of yams and taro. The principal livestock in traditional Papua New Guinea is the oceanic pig (Sus papuensis).

The Sepik River Cultures:

From above, The Sepik River resembles a serpent meandering its way through lush greenery in gentle coils and curves. As one of the World’s greatest river systems and the largest unpolluted freshwater systems in PNG, the Sepik River plays an integral role in the lives of the inhabitants that live along its riverbanks. Come a little closer however, and you will witness the magic of the rich and diverse culture that is knitted along the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Each twist and bend has a story to tell, as The Sepik is the soul of Papua New Guinea (PNG) sustaining life for an abundance of flora and fauna. At 1,126km long, The Sepik is to the Papua New Guineans what the Ganges is to India.
The culture of the people along the Sepik is a reflection of their vast history, and is heavily influenced by their association with the river itself .More than just a river, The Sepik is home to more than 250 languages, woven together by means of trade and cultural interactions. Tribes are defined by ritual, genealogical and cultural knowledge but all shares a common bond in that their lives revolve around The Sepik. They are genuinely surprised to see you as they are scarcely contacted by the outside world and their remarkable lifestyle has remained virtually unscathed for thousands of years. Arguably, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Sepik are the haus tambaran or literally ‘spirit houses’ which you will find for each clan along the river, located at the centre and highest point of the village. This central location serves as a focal point for the villages’ men, where social and ceremonial acts take place. Once upon a time, it was in the haus tambaran where men prepared for war, however today you are more likely to find the men chewing betel-nut while conversing with each other, perhaps over issues regarding their clan or village. The spirit house itself is a very impressive structure with some reaching heights of 25 meters. Inside, carvings of masks, statues and various figures are held with the purpose of being inhabited by the spirits. While each tribe will vary from the next, these intricate carvings usually serve the purpose of either fending off evil spirits or to help people with specific challenges. Many of the carvings perform specific roles in important ceremonies or life stages. As each tribe has its own beliefs and connections to different spirits, the artistic style from one village to the next varies.

During my travels there not too long ago, I was able to observe both with great interest and sadness the waning of this primitive culture in the face of modernity and Christianity. In the words of the great travel writer Pico Iyer "....the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, “We carry within us the wonders we seek without us."
Having seen the Iatmul, Kwome and the Abelam during my trip there, I felt the need to write about my experiences along with the many photographs taken during my stay.

I have included maps of PNG and that of the tribal areas of the Sepik region. The novice reader not familiar with these parts will find it difficult to envisage the relative geographical areas within which they dispersed and have lived over time. Nevertheless, the traveler in me needs to identify those areas for any future travelers to the area.

The Abelam:
Why have I chosen to write about the Abelam? Two things immediately come to mind. First they may well be the world’s most accomplished yam growers, specializing in the display and exchange of “long yams” Two species of yams are commonly grown: waapi, and ka (jaambe). Ka yams are raised for food, but a few varieties of waapi are grown to gigantic size in special gardens tended by Abelam men. These yams, which have great symbolic and ritual significance for the Abelam people, are exchanged in competitions with trade partners from rival groups. Specimens of the premier waapi variety, the maambutap, can attain lengths of ten feet or more.
Secondly, I was quite blown by the ceremonial haus tambaran and their initiation ceremonies. The ceremonial houses of the Abelam people , in the writings of anthropologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin of the University of Gottingen, rank as architectural masterpieces. "The impressive buildings, built on a triangular ground plan, often reached heights of up to 30 meters, towering above even the tallest coconut palms. One of their hallmarks was the richly painted façade. They were constructed completely without nails, all elements being held together with the aid of vines and liana ropes. During initiations they became the place of stupendous ritual installations. The novices entered the house through a low, tunnel-like entrance before they were confronted with dramatically staged cult images inside. Following this revelation they were led out through a narrow exit at the back on to small, hidden ceremonial ground where they remained in seclusion for several weeks".
In my time spent along the Sepik, I spent more time on the river than on the mountainous hinterland where the Abelam moved to avoid wars with the more powerful Iatmul, a few hundred years ago. From fish eaters they became Yam cultivators.

A recent blog by Steve golan shares many of my sentiments;'As we delve deeper into the unknown we lose ourselves. Every kilometre, every hour everything changes. What were once paved roads become bumpy dirt tracks, manicured forests grow wild like a scene from the prehistoric era. Even the looks the locals give us when they notice a truck full of foreigners driving into the unknown are unnerving. Papua New Guinea’s Sepik region is not for the faint of heart, it is a raw, lawless, tribal land that explorers dream of. As the jungle gets thicker, and the sun begins to set you can almost hear the beat of the tribal drums along the Sepik River. Welcome to Papua New Guinea and the Sepik River."


The Abelam people” today number around 250,000. Their traditional territory extends from the grass plains of the Sepik River to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. According to the 2000 census, over half of the people are below the age of 25. There are three distinct dialects of the Abelam; language, kamukundi, mamukundi and samukundi, but the language actually varies from village to village. The Abelam people” today number around 250,000. Their traditional territory extends from the grass plains of the Sepik River to the foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. According to the 2000 census, over half of the people are below the age of 25. There are three distinct dialects of the Abelam language, kamukundi, mamukundi and samukundi, but the language actually varies from village to village.

In my time spent along the Sepik, I spent more time on the river than on the mountainous hinterland where the Abelam moved to avoid wars with the more powerful Iatmul, a few hundred years ago. From fish eaters they became Yam cultivators and their ultimate unique identity.
The administrative center of Abelam territory is Maprik, roughly 30 feet above sea-level and about 70 km inland from Wewak, the coastal provincial headquarters which is where the airport is located.

I was given a complete tour of the ceremonial house along with an elaborate performance by all the elders of Maprik Abelam community, who are trying to instill in their youth the value of the spirit house culture.
Arts: Abelam art is rich, with the emphasis on painting. Paint is seen as a magical substance that gives life to a piece of wood (carving). Only then do the figures become powerful and active. Paint is a metaphor for a magical substance used in sorcery, which in this case is not life-giving but life-taking. Throughout Abelam territory different art styles can be recognized, although there are also many commonalities. Since it was my last part of my Sepik visit and it was late in the day I had no time to visit the area to collect artifacts.

Money: Many things for an adventurer came true in PNG. It is the first time I have seen shell money used for local transactions. I myself bought and used shell money to buy warm beer in a coastal village. While not a major tender, shell money is recognized within villages for small transactions.

The Abelam, since moving inland primarily use rings (yua) fashioned from the hard, marble-like shell of the giant clam. They were, and to some extent remain, the primary form of wealth among the Abelam people. Ceremonial valuables, yua were displayed or exchanged as part of most major rituals and rites of passage. At birth, a ring is presented to the child’s maternal uncle, who later will help guide him through the complex male initiation all offerings to their spirits Ngwalandu, is made with shell discs ( You can see in my photographs where the large statues are worshipped)
At marriage, the groom presents yua to the bride’s parents, the number he is able to give becoming a lifelong source of pride. At death, gifts of yua to maternal relatives help ease the passage of the spirit to the afterlife. Shell rings also play an integral role in ceremonial life. They are displayed during male initiation, the dedication of men's ceremonial houses, and other occasions, as symbols of the strength and wealth of the community. The rings are so prized that a man, wishing to emphasize another man’s status or his affection for him, will address him as wuna yua (my ring).

Religious Beliefs. Ceremonial houses (korambo) and Ceremonial grounds (amei) are the focus of most rituals connected with the life-cycle events for men and women. For girl parts of the first-menstruation ritual as well as the presentation of shell rings as marriage payments take place in front of the korambo. During the death ritual, the corpse is left there for one night. The korambo is also important for its mere presence and does not really serve as a meeting place. It is mainly for housing those spirits ( ngwalndu ) who visit the living temporarily before going back to another world. In a ceremonial building the huge carved ngwalndu figures may be stored until they are used for an initiation. The large painted facade of a korambo is visually dominated by big faces associated with ngwalndu spirits. The soul of a man is thought to live after death with an ngwalndu.
Ceremonies. Initiations of boys and men into the secrets of Abelam religion are divided into many stages, the first taking place when the boy is 5 or 6 years old, the last between 30 and 50. In each initiation boys are acquainted with one category of spiritual beings. This begins at an early age with the least important, and as adults they learn, after they have seen ngwalndu, the last secret beyond which there is only a boundless void.
Important parts of initiation ceremonies take place in the ceremonial house where artists arrange elaborate compositions of carved, painted, or plaited figures, decorated with shell rings, feathers, flowers, and leaves. No explanation is given to the initiates. The aim of these rituals is to show them the secrets rather than to verbalize a meaning. For each display of artifacts in a ceremonial house there is an associated dance. In these dances men are painted and decorated all over—thus they are transformed into beings from another world.

Death and Afterlife. There is almost no "natural" death recognized, apart from those old people who had been sitting already for a long time "at the ashes of a fire." All other deaths are attributed to magic and sorcery mostly performed in other villages. Symbols of people's life souls are kept in specialized villages. As soon as a lethal illness is suspected these are checked in order to find the cause and origin of the Sorcery performed. After death the corpse is displayed in front of the haus tambaran.

This belief in sorcery still pervades the entire island. Everyone's illnesses are attributed to their rivals doing, through sorcery. So the next act in the cycle of revenge is violence through murder. This cycle of revenge killings progresses into a tribal warfare with rampant killing and maiming until both parties are satisfied.

As a result of the endless cycle of wars, war art; weopanry, make-up and dances have had a major cultural impact. Today such wars are limited but the violence continues with guns and modern weaponry. It is unfortunately a land of violence with many troubled spots and many tenuous journeys for travelers.

Contact between Abelam and Europeans began in the 1920s and 30s, but it was not until after WWII, in the 1960s, that colonialism began to have a considerable impact on Abelam culture. Government influence increased, and Christian churches, including the Roman Catholics, AOG (Assemblies of God) and SDA (Seventh-day Adventist), began to attract converts. The 1970s-80s also saw an increase in business and commerce with the Maprik District becoming one of the country’s largest rice producing centers. Conversion to Christianity increased dramatically during the 1980s, and traditional culture went into a decline. One of the purposes of this article is to increase knowledge and understanding of traditional Abelam culture and beliefs.

Ramdas iyer ...riyerr@aol.com
Ramdasiyerphotography. com
Richard Scaglion-UCIS Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Brigitta Hauser-Schaublin- University of Gottingen- Architecture of Abelam
http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com- Blogs
Brittanica Encylopedia

Photo Gallery;


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:23 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged river new png guinea yam tribes papua haus initiation tambaran sepik abelam culturem maprik Comments (0)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author


“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.

Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.

They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

Travels in Papua in Dani Tribal Lands, Papua, Indonesia

Down the Mountain to a Mummy, The final segment of the Dani Experience.................Ramdas Iyer, Author

The "Baliem Highway" as I call it, is a network of small trails issuing out of hundreds of villages sequestered in the lush mountains of Papua. I was amazed to discover that the trail distances are measured in "days of walking" to Wamena, the only town in all of the Papuan Highlands. These trails descend from 6000 feet down to the valley floor, at about 1000 ft. above MSL If the fearsome Yali wanted to purchase some batteries, or aspirin or even simple comforts like candy or cigarettes, they have to walk a minimum of 8 days on the "Baliem Highway". On the last day of my stay in the highlands I enjoyed walking the highway, which is nothing more than 5 feet wide hugging the crest of the mountains. There was a steady flow of people in either direction, and to give you an idea of human density, contact was made every 30 minutes or so. From space it would almost look like ants walking a forest floor.

After my host villagers wished me good-bye, some of them walked alongside this pedestrian highway and set themselves up in various stations along the way trying to sell sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tobacco and taro roots for the hungry travellers. I met a young man with a rooster in his hand. He will be walking 2 days down and two days up to sell his rooster in the market and pick up some essentials on the way back (See Photo). One of the most interesting observations was that of one of my porters carrying a two-gallon can of petrol amongst our supplies. I initially thought that it was fuel for our trip. Instead he sold the can at our farthest point thereby garnering a good price for its supply to the interior. Unfortunately this fuel is also used for chain saws to cut trees.

People were carrying piglets, walking adult pigs like one would walk Dalmatians, holding hemp baskets for sale and in one case one of them had a collection of fine boar's tusk for sale in the market. What does not qualify to make it into the nostrils end up as necklaces used for ceremonial purposes; one such artifact was acquired there for my New Jersey home along with penis gourds and bead necklaces. With a keen eye on statistics, I purchased 5 and as expected two made it back whole.

We paused at several points as my porters were purchasing and consuming sweet potatoes from select vendors. I was given to understand that the ones grown in steeper slopes had a better taste than the ones found in the valley. I would imagine that the tuber had to grab every ounce of tumbling water to put out its fine sugars. It brought back memories of buying Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina a few years ago, when the same grog was available back home perhaps even cheaper. I am glad that restricted baggage in air travel has put an end to my trans- national appellation transfer. I have made it a point not to buy duty-free since the $10 saved is lower than the $20 copay my chiropractor charges, along with the question “Did you carry something heavy?”
We came upon some spectacular springs were water from the ground caused rivulets, resulting in waterfalls just a mile down hill. The porters and I had our last group picture together in the highlands and thereafter the trail dropped steeply towards Wamena.



If you remember, I had mentioned that Wamena had only five miles of paved roadway. Alongside this roadway, there are many stops were minivans picked up these tribal coming down the hill and transported them into town. We took one such conveyance and reached Wamena. After leaving our luggage and saying sad good byes to my porters (The silent one gave me a gift-a necklace with a single round rock in the middle) It felt as though the boomerang throwing kid in “The Road Runner” movie had grown up and was saying his good byes to me. (Mr. Gibson!)
We crossed a flimsy steel rope bridge secured by weighted steel drums over some scary waters. Since it was fairly sturdy, I would imagine that the builders loaded the steel drum pylons with concrete.(see picture)

The next morning, Scorpio and I trekked a couple of miles to see the famous mummy of Jwicka village

Indonesia has some of the most fascinating death cults. The cremations in Bali, the cave and rock burials of Sulawesi, the sea-burials of the Bugis people of Makassar and lastly the mummification of the Dani. Traditionally the Dani, after the death of a leader or chief used to drain the body fluids of the chieftains and smoked them for preservation.( It almost seems thath the enemy would be vanquished in the digestive tract while the leaders will be preserved for eternity;Ying and Yang!) These mummies were kept in the chief’s hut and were used as a talisman for war successes.
Upon arrival, we were shown the long houses of these people and finally the famous 300-year-old mummy. This today has become a touristy pursuit and did not have the real excitement of being with the villagers; nevertheless it was an unusual sight and a great experience since I was the only tourist there at that time of the year. There were several mummies scattered around Papua just a few years ago. Collectors and museums decamped with most while the remaining ones were badly damaged due to age and poor preservation.

After final good byes were exchanged Scorpio walked me to the airport, only to be interrupted by a motorcycle carrying two drums of fuel for our aircraft! (see picture)

This trip had been like a dream come true. With no one interested in sharing my costs, I tried to do it very economically using frequent flyer mileage. The biggest cost was the hopper flights from Jakarta to Jayapura.
I am very keen on visiting the coastal Papuans; The Asmat who live in spectacular villages with totems akin to the the British Columbian Haidas and the Tlingits, The plains Papuans namely the Korowai, who live in gigantic tree houses and eat grubs and worms as delicacies. These trips involve many porters and travellers to subsidize the boats and planes to reach the interior. If any reader is interested in pursuing this trip please contact me.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 09:29 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia trek dani tribes tribal papua jayapura cannibals aboriginals tribals yali lani Comments (0)

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