Laiagam’s Sangai Festival – One man’s dream to keep Enga culture alive

An ancestral practice at a new tomb to seek certain answers relevant to the community.

TRADITIONAL society is fast breaking down in almost all parts of the country but more so in the highlands region.
One young man from Laiagam in Enga decided he should do something to revive some aspects of his rich cultural heritage before it was too late.
He is Tony Sulupin from the Ambai major clan of the Sambe tribe in the Philikambi area of Laiagam district. Tony saw that age-old customs and moral standards that had been established to hold society together by tribal founders many generations ago were not being followed and respected by the current generation.
So, in 2019, he gave up his lucrative employment package with New Britain Oil Palm Ltd in Kimbe, came home and started the now popular Lagaip Sangai Festival.
Now into its third year, the festival will come alive next week, on Wednesday, June 22, at Wanepap Catholic mission primary school, a walking distance from Laiagam town.
Tony Sulupin said an attraction at this year’s two-day event will be a pig-headed ritual stone called the Kepelkuli which was discovered accidentally in a traditional salt pond towards the end of last year. It was found by Marcus Kaubin, nick-named the ‘salt man’ who frequents Wabag town to sell small parcels of traditional salt.
Marcus was cleaning one of the ancient salt ponds at Yokonda not far from Wanepap Catholic mission when he was amazed by the sight of a strange object which looked like a sleeping pig on the bottom of the salt pond.
Indeed, this stone had been dumped there in the early 1960s by a man named Konowai Sai, one of the keepers of the sacred stone when early missionaries who came to the area encouraged people to destroy such idols and worship only one true God who was in heaven.
Konowai Sai had taken the sacred stone to a place called Aipinakal and dumped it in the bottom of the traditional salt pond in his naive belief that it would bless and nourish the salt pond.
Late last year, after Marcus found it, he took it to Tony Sulapin who accepted it to keep it in a safe place for future generations to learn something about their rich cultural heritage.
Apart from reviving the Sangai festival Tony Sulupin is writing a book to record some aspects of his culture. The book titled ‘The Beauty of Enga Culture’ will be published in the next couple of months.
Tony’s school years ended in 2007 and a new chapter of his life began the following year when New Britain Palm Oil Limited in Kimbe, West New Britain offered him employment after he had done his industrial training with them two years previously.
He very much enjoyed working with them as a plantation supervisor among friendly people on the coast but a nagging thought kept disturbing him, which forced him to resign and give up his lucrative employment package.
“I wanted to do something privately that yielded benefits for my marginalised people,” Tony says in the introduction to his new book.
He recounts how he envisioned how important it is to revive traditional culture and alleviate poverty in his Laiagam district hoping other people from other parts of the province would emulate him.
“I came home and formed a community-based association called Lagaip Poverty Relievers Association with the aim to alleviate poverty among my people and revive our culture before everything disappeared,” he says.
But things did not work out easily the way he thought would happen before he resigned from his work. Soon, he encountered many challenges.
“People whom I worked with wanted instant rewards. They were not patient to realise that the benefits for their hard work comes much later,” he says in his book.
Tony was also faced with socio-economic challenges such as lack of markets where people could sell their farm produce to compensate their hard work. Politics remained a major setback too in a dire situation where government support hardly reached the people in remote pockets of his province.
“Nevertheless. I remained optimistic through all those trying times hoping that God would invert those challenges into success. I envisaged that Laiagam was a sleeping giant for agriculture and tourism prospects; hence, I endeavored to find ways to unveil those potentials,” he says.

A traditional practice to unite a newly married couple called enda lyonge katenge is revived at the Sangai Festival.

In 2019, Tony registered the Lagaip Sangai Festival with the National Cultural Commission of Papua New Guinea and staged the first ever district show in 2020 to exhibit the Lagaip people’s diverse cultural heritages and connect with the outside world.
He also started the Pilikambi Traditional Salt Art Festival, an event endeavoring to market ancient salt ponds and products to lure tourists to flock to villages in Pilikambi where the traditional salt ponds are situated.
“I have a dream that Laiagam will be an agricultural and tourism hub, and one day serve as a food bowl for the nation if not the Pacific region. My overall aim after all the efforts is to mitigate hardships endured by rural people,” he says.
Now, the annual Lagaip Sangai Festival will be staged for the third consecutive year starting next Wednesday.
The festival was scheduled for July 28-29 on the National Cultural Commission calendar but was brought forward to this month due to the National General Elections.
Tony said the unique cultural festival has already attracted a good number of tourists last year and hopes more will come next week despite the date change.
“I believe it’s the only platform in my area where these intriguing cultures are demonstrated, exhibited and recorded in books for educational, promotional and preservation purposes,” he says.
Tony’s book under the process of publication is the result of initiating the Lagaip Sangai Festival and shows what makes Enga a truly culturally vibrant society situated in the central highlands of PNG.
The book encompasses several of the tangible ancient cultures like ritual practices, traditional salt making, myths and legends such as how Lake Lau and Lake Ivae came into existence. It records beliefs like Mt Mugalo which relates to the miracle water and the significance of Sangai initiation ritual that purifies young men from moral blemishes.
The book also contains some fairy tales and narratives, which had been retold in Engan folklore, more like prophecies that were coming into fulfilment today.
The origin of Sambe Tribe in Pilikambi from an eagle, and the bowerbird which shows direction for young people’s future marriages.
The methods of feeding and talking to the natural spirit world and many other interesting pieces like surviving extreme hunger during crisis caused by killer frosts are other features mentioned in the book.
There is curiosity as to how childbirth together with postnatal and prenatal practices were managed with no health care facilities in olden times which are mentioned as well.
It should be very inspiring to learn about these cultural beliefs, practices and values as well as the primitive lifestyles of Engans in the past yet compatible with the customary codes of conduct and natural laws, which served as guarding principles to recourse justice during the period before written laws were introduced by the colonial government.
This was the beauty of Enga cultural practices, values and norms applied in everyday life was the binding factor that held society together on a daily basis.
Both the annual Sangai Festival and the book are intended for all young people in Enga, especially high school and tertiary students. However, the book is also relevant resource material for young people from other provinces who wish to learn something about the 800 other cultural groups in PNG in comparison to their own.
Efforts of people like Tony Sulupin should be appreciated and supported by relevant authorities in his efforts to preserve our rich cultural identity and at the same time promotes peace and unity among the people.
What better time to stage the Sangai Festival then this month when the national elections are on and when many people are expected to attend.

Daniel Kumbon is a freelance writer.