By PETER S. KINJAP
WE can safely say there is enough evidence to suggest that thousands of years ago during the last Pleistocene Age Papua New Guineans crossed over on land bridges from Indochina.
People have been living on the island of New Guinea for more than 25,000 years.
When Enga’s son and prolific writer Daniel Kumbon stopped at the display of Engan artefacts on display at the African American Cultural Centre in Dayton, Ohio, United States, he was camouflaged amongst black Americans with the words.
He told an audience, “Like some of you, we too are black. Like you, our roots are rich and deep. We are your distant cousins, sharing a common African heritage but now scattered in different parts of the world.”
“Maybe black Americans have appreciated the display more than others,” Dr Paul Brennan, the American anthropologist who started the Enga Cultural Centre, said seeing Daniel’s love and admiration of his culture on his face.
“One little girl asked me if Engans saw themselves as black people. I thought that was provoking. I told her, Engans are black,” Kumbon wrote in one of his articles.
On the display, there were the rattling seeds the Engans used to contact the spirit world and the Yupin figure, which, according to Kumbon, many thought it never existed. Dr Brennan had saved these precious items from destruction by missionaries.
His collection was probably the largest from the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea to be found anywhere in America or Europe, if not second to British anthropologist Professor Marilyn Strutharn’s collection of Western Highlands items at the Cambridge University museum.
Engans saw danger everywhere, Dr Brennah was telling people – in fast flowing rivers, the rugged terrain, ancestral spirits and much else – but the real enemies were the people who lived on the other side of the ridge or the river.
A clan had to defend itself when pigs were stolen, insults were shouted, boundaries were disputed and, especially, when blood was shed.
The main function of Enga warfare was to ensure the territorial integrity of the clan and to enhance its prestige.
But in the midst of much change, many Engans did not seem interested in fighting. Even as Dr Brennan lived in Enga (1968-77), the transition from stone to steel had been rapid. And most people preferred Christianity ahead of traditional warfare.
Above all they wanted recognition as people of a growing country with rich culture, with their very own culture – and they appreciated the recognition of black people from other parts of the world.
The American anthropologist started the Enga Cultural Show as a display for living culture in Enga. Then on Engans and tribes from nearby highlands provinces proudly display their identify year after year.
Set amidst one of the most stunning natural landscapes and showcasing a rich cultural heritage, the Enga Cultural Show is held in August each year.
The event highlights a traditional culture that is still largely intact, with a festival drawcard being the Sili Muli dancers with their iconic black painted faces and unique headdress.
Enga is renowned as the only province in Papua New Guinea where the people speak the same language, and the festival is designed to showcase and preserve the special cultural history.
It’s the highlight of the annual calendar for the province – the event offers three days of unique culture, heritage and performances from the communities living in the five districts. It also showcases the rare orchid Dendrobium Engae, which is only found in Enga.
Globalisation and Western influence put Enga at risk of losing its rich cultural heritage.
But the Engans recognise the importance of preserving their unique traditional culture. The enthusiasm demonstrated by the Engans and show participants each year at Wabag town showground says it all.
The dedication and efforts by the Enga show committee indicates their aim to maintain Enga culture gives hope that it will remain alive for future generations.
Engan people adore their culture as hundreds of people with elaborate headdresses and bodies painted in rich earthy colours take to the showground during the event. Performers would sing and dance in unison, with long feathers swaying to the rhythmic thumping of the kundu drums. This contagious sound is the background music for the Enga Cultural Show.
The famous Suli Muli dancers perform in fierce-looking painted faces and giant round hats made of moss, plant fibre or even their own hair, similar to Huli wigmen from Hela. Forming an aesthetic spear line they would jump up and down in unison to the beat of their kundu drums and singing suli muli.
Apart from cultural dances, traditional salt making is another trademark of Enga. The salt, locally produced from a specific tree, was used as an important trade item between provinces and used in bride price ceremonies.
They leave tree logs in a salt lake for several weeks so that the salt is dissolved in the wood. They then dry and burn the wood, and take strain the salt from the ashes.
Traditional salt makers at the showground demonstrate how it is made and usually give out bunches of salt wrapped in leaves and attached to a wooden sticks.
If you happen to attend one the Engan Show, you would drive home with not only a gift of traditional salt but also with a sense that tribal identity is still a strong source of pride for many?Papua New Guineans.
There is a golden reason why you find the exotic Enga Show with Sili Muli girls the focal point on a weekend prior to the Mount Hagen Cultural Show. Enga, for those who don’t know, was once part of the Western Highlands.
In 2019, the Enga Show will be held on 10-12 in Wabag town. Air Niugini and PNG Air offer direct weekly flights to Wapenamanda airport located about 45 minutes from Wabag town.
There is limited number of accommodation options in Wabag. In terms of price-quality, Wabag Lodge is the best option. Others include Wildlife Lodge located in Wabag town and away from town, a favourite among birdwatchers is the Kumul Lodge built on the slopes of the Mount Hagen Range in the midst of a forest.
- Peter Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email: [email protected]