Of all the places I’ve now visited in PNG, the Highlands stay with me most strongly. Perhaps it is my own Swiss DNA that resonates with cool, damp weather, high peaks and lush green valleys, but it is also that I admire the tenacity and grit of people and animals that live in and adapt to places of considerable, cold elevation. Theirs is not always an easy life: no fish to pull from the sea for quick protein, no tropical fruit trees that practically plant themselves and groan with heavy fruit; no lightweight clothing or the ability to essentially live outdoors, as many people in hot and humid climates do.
Mountain dwellers work hard to survive in places like PNG, where the limited roads and bridges that do exist still routinely wash out, communities are stranded for days at a time, and even the most basic supplies like cooking fuel can be hard to come by. Hence, the Highlands people are self-reliant in notably different ways than in other parts of PNG. Men harvest timber to build waterproof housing and dry for cooking fuel. People raise animals like pigs and goats and chickens, which we didn’t see in other places, and their gardens are extensive and productive, with sweet potatoes mounds covering huge swathes of the region. Young girls stand knee deep in running water to cut big bunches of watercress, and women weave simple bags called bilums that they usually wear with the strap across their foreheads, carrying loads of varying weights.
The Highlanders’ isolation has slowed the adoption of the latest technology and the casting off of traditional ways. Communities are still closely knit, and like the old tribal societies that they are, they even have their own legal justice system, as we found out one rainy day while passing through a small village. There, dozens of people were gathering in an open field under a sea of umbrellas.
“This is a village gathering to decide a compensation,” our local guide explained to us. ” A man just killed another man here, and now the elders will decide what restitution must be made to the family that has suffered the loss.”
He went on to explain that both families – the perpetrator’s and the victim’s – would be there, along with most of the village, for whom the gathering took on an air of gossipy excitement familiar to any small town dweller. The elders appoint someone to negotiate for each family in the matter of compensation, going back and forth until there is a proposal and then an agreement that the elders and both families must agree to. If a great deal of compensation is owed the victim’s family and the accused cannot make good on that restitution, then his extended family must assume the responsibility for paying the compensation, no matter how heavy a burden it imposes upon them. Honor – and the elders – requires that. The police are not involved and the word of the elders is never challenged, according to our guide. That is how things have always been done up here, and the system works. Compensation can take the form of animals or cash or land, he explained, and it can also include banishment from the village, if the elders feel it justified. In the end, with all of the affected parties involved, justice seems to be served to most people’s satisfaction.
That same afternoon, we traveled to see a group of traditional men known as Wigmen, a small and dwindling group of elders who dress and live in keeping with ancient traditions and who hope to instill those same values in a new generation of younger men. The Wigmen are so called because of the human hair wigs that they make and wear for important ceremonies. It takes eighteen months for a man to grow out his hair long enough that it can be harvested for wig making, and as part of their practice, the Wigmen run a school that houses and feeds and educates the men while their hair is growing. During that period, the men must be celibate, live away from their families, and learn and adhere to the highly ritualized practices that the elders impart to them, including sleeping against a wooden post that is specially constructed to keep their hair from being flattened. Visiting with the Wigmen, I could not help but feel both admiration and sadness for their valiant efforts. Without the money of visiting groups like ours, I wonder whether the Wigmen would even still exist today, much less whether they will still be there in ten years’ time, Birds of Paradise feathers and Hornbill beaks lavishly and yet reverently decorating their headwear, just as they have for hundreds of years.
But they are men of the mountains, and no one should underestimate them. Certainly, I do not.