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Cannibalism and Burnt Eyes at the Sepik River

We've been in for a while Papua New Guinea and so you'd think we'd be used to the sun, the heat, and the food. We've already trekked through the jungle with mud like sunburn, climbed Oceania's highest mountain without too much preparation, and danced and sang at the country's largest tribal festival. Now it was time to discover the longest river, the Sepik River, in the country.

Also read: Information and first introduction to Papua New Guinea
Also read: Visit to Papua New Guinea's biggest sing sing

There are not many roads in Papua New Guinea so to get anywhere you will have to fly. This time we flew from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby and then via Madang to Wewak. From there we took the car. A journey that normally takes 6 hours, but with us of course 8 hours, to Pagwi.

The Sepik River

The Sepik River is the longest river (1.146km) on the island of New Guinea and the second largest in Oceania in terms of discharge volume after the Fly River. Most of the river flows through the Papua New Guinean provinces of Sandaun and East Sepik, with a small portion through the Indonesian province of Papua.

The longest river in Papua New Guinea: Sepik River
The longest river in Papua New Guinea: Sepik River

Once at Pagwi and after a somewhat strange overnight stay at someone's home, we leave early in the morning by boat to some villages along the river. This is of course not without problems. The engine of our boat has some problems starting up and so we leave not one, not two, but three hours later than planned. We have now elevated patience to an art. With coconut in hand and palm tree as a parasol, we wait. After three hours we can finally leave. The sun burns on our skin, but the breeze on the water is wonderful!

Yuri drinks from a coconut
Yuri drinks from a coconut © MYgrations.nl

Dutch missionaries

We visit several villages. Some more interesting than others. Some consist of only a few houses while others even have a church. After visiting a number of houses and having something to eat, we arrive in a somewhat larger village. Here we will take a look at the spirit house. A house where only men are welcome. When I ask why women are not allowed in, they only laugh. And whether women have such a house themselves? No, don't be silly, they are too busy with the household, children, cooking and working the land.

On arrival we climb a hill and are welcomed by Samson, the head of the village. When he hears that we are Dutch, we get a second extra firm handshake. In 1945 a number of Dutch religious came here to impose their faith on the local population. They succeeded, everyone here has become Christian.

They are glad that the Dutch came because, in addition to religion, they also brought knowledge and development. They built not only a church but also a medical center. The largest of the small region. In addition, the Dutch thought it was important to maintain their own traditions and culture, except that they had to become Christians, of course. As a result, the village is still almost untouched and the church also has a local and cultural touch due to the totem poles it contains. The church looks a bit like the spirit house we are walking to.

totem poles
totem poles © MYgrations.nl

The man cave, also called Spirithouse

This one is also built of totem poles. The largest two represent the largest two clans of the region, the smaller ones are the subclans. Inside, the men gather to smoke, tell tall tales and sometimes sleep.

To become a man you will even have to stay here for a few months. A large tattoo is then applied. Not really a tattoo; the skin is cut open with a razor blade, then the flesh is removed from under the skin. With this tattoo you not only lose a lot of blood, but also flesh.

Sepik tribe traditional tattoo
Sepik tribe traditional tattoo © MYgrations.nl

In the Spirithouse they also come together to make masks, canes and other freubels. Of course we buy a few. Then it's time to move from the man cave to the women.

A welcome with little sing-sing

They have prepared themselves for a sing-sing to welcome us. Of course the men are welcome here now. Sometimes not really, those are moments when women are allowed to break the law and when girls become women. I wonder what law will be broken, but that question remains unanswered.

The women are dressed in a skirt made of leaves and a necklace made of shells for which they have had to exchange things with the people who live on the coast. They smeared their bodies with mud and so did their faces. Some still wear some flowers in their hair.

The young girls also have a tattoo. That's something new in the culture, which is why the older women don't have it. Nice to see that old traditions and cultures are still changing.

We get to see two dances. A welcome dance and a dance for happiness and hope. It seems a bit messy and you can't really call the dance really beautiful, but it's nice to see. The older women dance with pride, the young girls with a little bit of shame. That will be fine. The youngest dances in boxer shorts and with a pig bone on her head.

Cannibalism on the Sepik river

We continue our tour through the village. We are told that the Dutch evangelists were almost eaten by cannibals, but the word of God saved them. Of course. According to these local sources, the Dutch were the first to venture into and exit the dangerous Sepik area. They made friends here.

One Mr. Jansen who built the medical center here is especially popular. And cannibals are long gone. “My grandpa ate humans, but only enemies, not whity's like you”. Good thing, too. And with this reassurance we walk back to the canoe. We do get a coconut for thirst. Just what we needed!

Our residence Govermas

We arrive at what will be our abode; Govermas. Here we prepare for a visit to the village. I am very curious, because it looks beautiful from a distance. It is a short walk along, or rather because it is so dry, the riverbed. We walk around this fantastic village and see one beautiful house after another.

All built on stilts, against flooding and cold from the ground. There are palm trees and banana plants everywhere. There are dogs, cats and pigs around. We even see a tame hawk. There are also a lot of children running around, naked with big bellies. The latter is due to the worms in their stomachs. By the way, there are also mosquitoes and I'm going crazy.

Our residence Govermas on the Sepik River.
Govermas, our residence on the Sepik River © MYgrations.nl

We decide to go to the waterfall. After a very short dive we think it's enough. Too many mosquitoes gather around this delightful water source. So quickly back to the village. Here we are received by the sound of a drum. It almost sounds like a sign of war. But it's not, it's a sing-sing.

Men and one woman are ready jumping and singing in a circle. This sing-sing also looks a bit uncomfortable, but fun. The men are nicely dressed with headdresses and also have a penis sheath on. Something that we have not seen before but expected. But don't worry, no bare buttocks. The men all wear boxers or shorts under their skirts.

After the performance we walk slowly back to the hut. Thunderstorms are approaching and we can't wait for it to cool down a bit. My eyes need some rest and I decide to go to bed early and get some sleep. Hopefully this night without waking up in pain.

People in a canoe on the sepik river in papua new guinea
People in a canoe on the sepik river © MYgrations.nl

Burnt eyes on the Sepik river

Burning your eyes hurts. My greatest fear is not death, not even deep water, but blindness. I think being blind is the worst of all. On the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, I burned my eyes for the first, and hopefully last, in my life. Now I've lived on the equator for almost a year, I didn't have sunglasses. I sailed for days across the Atlantic Ocean, I had no problems with the glare in the water. But one full day on the Sepik River, 160 miles sailing in Papua New Guinea and I wake up almost screaming in the night of pain. My eyes burn, sting and tear!

It feels like the front layer of my eyes is slowly being peeled off, as if my lids have turned into razor blades that glide painfully slowly over my eyes. I dare not rub my eyes with my hands, because I caught a fish this afternoon that accidentally jumped into our boat. That in between. Then the sheet, but it is unbearable. Yuri soon wakes up. Put some painkillers in there. I can't lie down, nor do I open my eyes. The fear strikes; what if i go blind?!

After a while the painkillers start to work and I can resume sleep. The next morning everything seems to be working fine again. Until I want to transfer something from my mobile to the iPad. I don't see clearly at all. The pain is pretty much gone. A small army of men with little hammers gather behind my eyes, but I can see, I can see. Just not sharp yet...

So today I'm wearing Yuri's glasses. Why don't I have sunglasses myself? Well, I did have one, but Yuri sat on it in the first week of the trip. So I don't have that anymore. Fortunately, Yuri still has one that I now put on my head with all the love. It gives my eyes some peace. Let's just hope Yuri doesn't burn his eyes.

The adventures on the Sepik River will continue in a next blog.

Also read: On foot through the jungle of Papua New Guinea

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Mygrations Milene & Yuri 2

Milene and Yuri

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