From arrows to spears to axes, there might be hundreds of Stone Age tribesmen all around you brandishing their weapons in your direction while howling their war chants at the exact same time while smeared in pig grease and soot. You would not like it one bit. It may be the annual Highlands Show of Papua New Guinea that you are watching.
Sandwiched between and the equator, Papua New Guinea is comprised of the eastern half of the large island it shares with Indonesia, plus many smaller islands in the Bismarck Archipelago. In terms of independence and nationhood, this happened in 1975 but before this occasion there were Papua and New Guinea that were under the management of considering various United Nations trust arrangements. When it comes to the western way of life, it remains a mystery in some parts of this country.
In the 1930s, white men traveling on foot were the first to explore these rugged Highlands. You can say that the white man continues to be a novelty today because a camera toting tourist is as popular at the Highlands Show as the performing painted warrior. As they are held alternately in the towns of Goroka and Mount Hagen, this two day show is able to attract 60,000 viewers who are mostly Papua New Guineans. Some might have walked for a week or more from places with such colorful names as Telefomin, Wapenamanda, and Ukarumpa to participate in the weekend carnival.
Apart from having demonstrations for skills like fire making or house building, agricultural and crafts exhibits are also staged here. Included in this show is light entertainment segments. Bicycle races with barefoot competitors prudently clutching weaponry, the elusive greased pig, and the greased pole with cigarettes and beer dangling from the summit draw laughs from the huge crowd. The tribes displaying their treasured ceremonial attire during the sing sing competition to tourists and locals is the climax of the weekend.
Regardless of the scorching heat, people dance and chant to the deep hollow beat of the kundu drum as the pace changes to simulate a battle or stage a legend form tribal history. What is amazing about the Highlands sing is the kaleidoscope of color and costume. Well decorated are the dancers here. Either their faces are colored in red and blue ochre or their bodies are covered with the darkest soot trimmed with everything from leaves to feathers to beads and even store bought crepe paper. Aside from having safety pins for earrings, they use ball point pens and even pieces of an automobile engine for their pierced septums instead of the usual pig's tusk or other bone.
Here, unwrapped and displayed are the village heirlooms. Fabricated from the fur of the spotted cuscus, a small marsupial, are the headpieces proudly worn by the children. Considered to remain prized and valuable possessions are seashells which were once a form of currency. Some people are lucky enough to witness the tall swaying plumes of the cassowary and of the peacock like Raggiana Bird of Paradise which is the national symbol.
Following this are the eerie Asaro mudmen coming into view. Apart from being coated in white mud, they use sun baked clay and straw to make grotesque headgear. When they do their swaying dance, they slap leaves off their thighs. One legend is that one tribe retreated into the Asaro River when their enemies pursued them.
After they emerged covered in the white clay, their enemies fled thinking that they were ghouls. To this day the Asaro mudmen commemorate their easy victory by encasing their bodies in the same river mud. Those who gave the best presentations and were best in their costumes were awarded with prizes in cash and cattle as well after all the sing sings. What the people do as the day ends is begin their long trek to their homes.
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