By PETER S KINJAP
Since the beginning of mankind, events and festivals have provided a means for people to relax, enjoy and escape from their reality, often by embracing and celebrating.
As a country steeped in rich culture and fascinating history, Papua New Guinea plays host to many festivals throughout the year. Not only do these shows, festivals and events showcase the unique intricacies that make Papua New Guinea unlike anywhere in the world— but they bring together communities, tribes and tourists alike— in unity, reflection and deep appreciation.
Lining up in the annual cultural calendar of 2019 is a list of significance shows, events and festivals to feast together are available and here is a snapshot of one of those a must-visit upcoming cultural events.
Apparently the oldest show in Papua New Guinea since 1957 that always coincides with the week the country celebrates its independence; Goroka Cultural Show brings together the customs of over a hundred tribes that populate the highlands.
During the course of the weekend in September the tribes gather for music, dancing, showing-off and extraordinary displays of tribal rituals.
A popular iconic tribe featured in the Goroka Cultural Show is the Asaro “mud men”, known for their ghoulish clay masks adorned with pigs’ teeth and shells.
They look fearsome and ghostly, and they are meant to. The masks, mud-smeared bodies and long bamboo finger spikes worn by the Asaro mud men were originally adorned to scare enemies. The mud men, from a village near Goroka known as Asaro Green Valley, are not only for Goroka Cultural show but one that holds PNG’s cultural icons. Outside their highlands territory, they can be seen at various cultural shows.
With their skin painted white, elongated bamboo fingers, and the eerie masks, the mud men in a motion of sluggish they move their feet a step dragging 3-sec interval when staging.
With no written history, there is no way of pinpointing when the Asaro men began making masks, though it is believed the practice has existed for four generations.
But when the Australian Museum in Sydney asked about when and how it was made, a Klinit Berry had this to say: “One of the Asaro got married and everyone wore their traditional costumes.
“But one man had no costume, so he took an old bilum (a string bag), cut two holes for his eyes, dipped it mud and also covered his skin with mud, and that was his costume. But when he arrived at the wedding, all the others thought he was a ghost and so instead of celebrating, they fled.”
A lot has changed over the past 60 years right around the world — and perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Papua New Guinea’s rugged highlands.
Even in the 1950s, hundreds of tribes were living in total isolation from the rest of the country, let alone the world and this story of mud men.
But in 1957, things changed when Australian patrol officers, or Kiaps, introduced the Goroka Cultural Show; a chance for dozens of groups to come together from across the region, to show off their traditional dress and dances.
It brought together an eclectic mix of cultural groups from right across the country.
Back then, the idea of the first Goroka Cultural Show came from the ruling kiaps as a competition to see which was the best organised and administered district.
The event soon became a showcase for the traditional dress of PNG’s many tribes and language groups.
The mud men took their stage perhaps from a simple bilum dipped in clay to become popular part of the show as it is today.
Their masks are made from a special clay that dries in the sun in just a few days — no two masks are ever the same, with some men designing them as monkeys, and others as skeletons.
The objective they say is to make the enemies afraid, perhaps seeing what happened at the Asaro bride price ceremony.
Stories of how the mud men came to be are varied. Another story says their ancestors had escaped to a nearby village, after being attacked by their enemies.
When they emerged they were covered in white clay, scaring the enemies who had mistaken them for spirits.
But some anthropologists disagree, believing the idea was entirely made up by the village leader in 1957, when the organisers of the very first Goroka Cultural Show requested for his people to take part in the extravaganza.
Joachim Kaugla, 75, is a retired Catholic teacher born in a village near PNG’s tallest mountain, Mt Wilhelm, during World War II.
Joachim went to his first Goroka Cultural Show in 1961, and believes the show is just as important today as it was in 1957, giving Papua New Guineans the chance to learn about each other’s cultures.
But he has some gripes about the changes he has witnessed over the past 60 years.
“Special dressing used really pure materials from the bush, their own bush … and they prepare it for dress up and show,” he said.
“Nowadays … they’ve mixed up with the materials from the factories, overseas materials … we have seen that is not nice.”
Some groups even had traditional kundu drums — normally meticulously carved out of wood and covered with lizard skin — made from plastic pipes instead, covered in more plastic.
While the Goroka Cultural Show may be evolving just like Papua New Guinea is, elders like Joachim say it does need to stay for the next 60 years and beyond.
“The show is very, very important to teaching other people what’s culture,” he said.
“Sharing and laughing, respecting, all these things come from the soul.”
The 2019 Goroka Cultural Show will be a hot, loud sea of colour, with enormous headdresses made up of feathers, and painted faces and bodies, is pinned on the weekend of Sept 14 and 15. Never to be missed, it’s bigger and better!
- Peter Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email: [email protected]