An abode of dead ancestors’ spirits


Mt Giluwe in Southern Highlands has been an important part of local culture and spiritual beliefs.

MOUNTAINS, rock formations, waterways and wildlife were among parts of the natural environment that featured prominently in the cultural practices and beliefs of indigenous Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea in the tumbuna (pre-contact) times.
Indigenous Papua New Guineans lived with nature and it provided their sustenance. The founders of modern PNG ensured the inseparable relationship between people and the natural environment was acknowledged up front in the National Constitution.
The people’s relationship with the natural environment continues in many ways today.
Mount Giluwe (4367m), PNG’s second highest mountain, is one natural landmark that featured in the lives of the indigenous tribes around its foothills and beyond.
Mount Giluwe (roughly pronounced Kilguwe in the local Imbonggu language) is principally located in SHP with a portion of it to the north in Tambul, Western Highlands Province.
What I share below is only a glimpse of what this great mountain of life was and is to the indigenous tribes around it on the SHP side.
Realm of the afterlife
A tumbuna time belief of the people on the east, southeast, south and southwest sides of Mt Giluwe, the area commonly referred to as “Ialibu” which is now divided between Imbonggu and ialibu-Pangia electorates, was that the spirits of the dead from the tribes took residency up in the majestic heights of the mountain. The people here believed back then that the cloud covered upper reaches of Mt Giluwe and skywards was the realm of the spirits of dead relatives and ancestors.
A traditional parable associated with this belief describes a wayward human behaviour. The parable goes something like this when translated from the indigenous Imbonggu and Kewa languages: “Spirit from home does kill a person up in Mount Giluwe.”
“Never assume that death on Giluwe is the work of foreign spirits”.
This parable relates to the human fallibility of betrayal of trust and relationship of a loved one, tribesman, friend or neighbour.
Mt Giluwe, as the realm of the afterlife and source of sustenance, was held in high regard. People passing through its upper reaches, valleys and rock formations during hunting expeditions and for other purposes had to do so respectfully.
Blaming the spirit of my ‘apo’
Many years ago my late mother Limbo Nindeme Kange related a true story that epitomizes the spiritual significance of Mt Giluwe to her father Kange Raku and his Pupai tribespeople of Polgopo and Pakule villages in Ialibu Basin LLG of Imbonggu in the pre-contact times.
The story was about my grandfather and his tribespeople who believed that his little daughter (my mother) was accosted by the spirit of her long dead mother (my apo or grandmother) from Mogol village in Upper Mendi and almost taken away for dead up in the alpine plains of Mount Giluwe. This ‘spiritual encounter’ happened as the Pupais were trekking over the mountain from Karel village in Upper Mendi to Polgopo village in Ialibu Basin just as the first lot of outsiders (Australian patrols officers and missionaries) were opening up these parts of the last frontier SHP in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The story was that my mother, who was around six years old, almost got lost up in Mt Giluwe after she was distracted by a flowery plant beside a small pond in the alpine plains while the trekking party had gone for some distance. Upon realising the absence of the child, the party turned back looking for her. They called out to the spirit of my apo who died years earlier when my mother was a baby in Upper Mendi, to release the child unharmed. Eventually they found the child beside the pond and called out to the spirit of her dead mother to not bother the child anymore and they resumed the journey.
The blame that the spirit of my long dead apo copped was typical of the belief and reverence our people had of the spirits up in Mt Giluwe.
One of my maternal uncles, Robert Pena Maka said recently that the track that my grandfather, my mother and their Pupai people used was a major route for family visits, cultural exchanges and trade between the people of eastern SHP and Upper Mendi and beyond to Tambul in WHP and Kandep in Enga. (I will share aspects of the traditional trade route in another article next week).
The track described above is on the southwest side of the mountain and passes through the heavily forested Ipi-Angolgopa area in the headwaters of Angule River.
The pandanus season and hunting expeditions
The Ipi-Angolgopa region of Mt Giluwe was a hunting ground and amo (pandanus or Karuka in tok Pisin) growing area for the Pupai and other tribes. During the amo walgi (pandanus season), I recall hearing about my grandfather going to Angolgopa to clean up his amo pakulge (rows of karuka trees) and also harvest the fruits when they were ready.
There is also a wild pandanus species called Kilguwe wapuneme (also amo wapuneme) which is much taller than the domesticated specie and its nuts are very strong requiring a rock to crack it open. During the Kilguwe wapuneme and normal amo season my grandfather and his tribesmen trekked up to their side of Mt Giluwe at the Ipi-Angolgopa area to harvest the nuts, dry them up in bush huts and then bring them home after spending some days up there. Besides gathering the pandanus fruits they also hunted possums and birds.
Kongi ekendo myth
Children in my generation also grew up hearing myths about Mt Giluwe. One common myth we heard was that of a mystical creature that was “half pig” (kongi ekendo in Imbonggu language) and “half vegetation” (ekendo lgama) that roams the plains, valleys and rock formations of Mt Giluwe. Uncle Pena said part of the myth goes that when human beings see the “half pig” it turns into vegetation.
This mythical creature was considered the custodian of the alpine plains and the upper reaches of the mountain. It was also believed that any sighting of it by a human being fore-shadowed misfortune – often death.
Captivated by this myth and other legends, me and fellow children attending primary school in the late 1970s and early 1980s used to look up to Mt Giluwe in the distance to the north on clear days imagining the mystical kongi ekendo roaming the vast expanse of its grassy alpine plains and valleys.
Uncle Pena said that there are features that look like “hoof prints” of the kongi ekendo on rocks up in Mt Giluwe near the traditional route that people from his tribe use. Uncle Pena said the Pupai and other tribes believed the images on the rocks were hoof-prints of the kongi ekendo and the people respected them. This part of the traditional route is called “kongi kimbo pelgi (Imbonggu for place where pig hoof prints are).
The light and dark lakes
Uncle Pena also said there are two lakes, one light and one dark, with mystical properties up in the mountain near the traditional route that his people used. They are among many small and large lakes spread across the breadth of the alpine plains of Mt Giluwe. Legend has it that at the dawn of creation the dark lake called out to the lighter lake that they must devour human beings that come near them. But the light lake did not agree to the evil plan saying it wanted to see people and enjoy the richness of the encounter with them. Uncle Pena said when people passed near the two lakes the dark one retreats to its corner and the swamp in front of it pretends to be dry. This is a decoy or trap by the dark lake for people to walk over so water underneath can devour them. Therefore, in the pre-contact times people had to stay well way from the dark lake and only see it from a safe distance.
Kilguwe Peandi and Kilguwe Pelgepo
Any story about Mt Giluwe is incomplete without mentioning the legendary wild dog specie that ‘owned’ the alpine plains and jungles of this great mountain. Among them were dogs called the Kilguwe Peandi and Kilguwe Pelgepo. These dogs featured prominently in folklore and legends as custodians of the heights of Mt Giluwe along with the mystical kongi ekendo. Uncle Pena said Kilguwe Peandi and Kilguwe Pelgepo and their pedigree are rarely seen these days. He said these legendary dogs could have become extinct due to loss of food sources and constant bush fires lit by people that burn the alpine grasslands during dry season.
Highlands Highway access
The Highlands Highway passes from the east to the southwest foothills of Mt Giluwe providing spectacular views of the mountain on clear days. Here the Highway passes through where the forests of the foothills terminate and the pitpit covered open plain (basin) of Ialibu begins. Travelling from Mt Hagen, this stretch of the highway is nicely sealed and provides great driving experience with priceless views of this great natural landmark ahead, Mount Ialibu (3036m) in the opposite direction (eastwards) and the picturesque expanse of the Ialibu Basin and Ialibu town southwards. Some local entrepreneurs from Imbonggu have started lodging facilities along the highway and provide trekking services as well. One of the facilities is called Mt Giluwe Lodge located beside the Highway next to the great Mapele (Yalo) River which begins in Mt Giluwe. Ends/ Next week: The North-South trade route over Mt Giluwe.

Next week: The North-South trade route over Mt Giluwe

  • Dr Kevin Pamba PhD is based in Divine Word University. His doctoral thesis on indigenous landowner communication and engagement matters in the PNG LNG Project areas in Hela also addresses the cultural norms of the people.

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