From above, The Sepik River resembles a serpent meandering its way through lush greenery in gentle coils and curves. Come a little closer however, and you will witness the magic of the rich and diverse culture that is knitted along the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Each twist and bend has a story to tell, as The Sepik is the soul of Papua New Guinea (PNG) sustaining life for an abundance of flora and fauna. At 1,126km long, The Sepik is to the Papua New Guineans what the Ganges is to India.
More than just a river, The Sepik is home to more than 250 languages, woven together by means of trade and cultural interactions. Tribes are defined by ritual, genealogical and cultural knowledge but all share a common bond in that their lives revolve around The Sepik. Take a trip down this river and as you slowly make your way around a seemingly endless bend you’re sure to see men paddling their dugout canoes, filled to the brim with fresh produce ready for the day’s trade. Women gather at the river’s edge, chatting as they fish on the banks or prepare sago while their children splash and laugh with glee by their sides. They might be genuinely surprised to see you as they are scarcely contacted by the outside world and their remarkable lifestyle has remained virtually unscathed for thousands of years. The diverse cultures of the people of The Sepik are so unique and fascinating and can be found nowhere else in the world.
Arguably, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Sepik are the haus tambaran or literally ‘spirit houses’ which you will find for each clan along the river, located at the centre and highest point of the village. This central location serves as a focal point for the villages’ men, where social and ceremonial acts take place. Once upon a time, it was in the haus tambaran where men prepared for war, however today you are more likely to find the men chewing betel-nut while conversing with each other, perhaps over issues regarding their clan or village. The spirit house itself is a very impressive structure with some reaching heights of 25 metres. Inside, carvings of masks, statues and various figures are held with the purpose of being inhabited by the spirits. While each tribe will vary from the next, these intricate carvings usually serve the purpose of either fending off evil spirits or to help people with specific challenges. Many of the carvings perform specific roles in important ceremonies or life stages. As each tribe has its own beliefs and connections to different spirits, the artistic style from one village to the next varies.
One of the most significant uses of the spirit house is preparing groups of men for their rite of passage, a necessary act believed to be crucial to the economic, political and ancestral well-being of their community. The skin cutting ritual, which serves as a vehicle into creating and recreating men or transforming boys into men, is an excruciating yet important part of Sepik culture. During this scarification process, young men are cut with razors in deep, short strokes on their backs, chest and arms. Once the gruelling skin cutting process has finished, the men lay in front of a fire so the smoke can perform its healing qualities, while tree oil and clay are rubbed into the cuts to give each one its raised appearance. Not coincidental, the finished product looks remarkably similar to that of the revered crocodile. In this intrinsically significant process, boys are believed to inherit the qualities of the crocodile, such as power, ferocity and strength. The permanent resemblance of crocodile’s teeth and scales also symbolically represent security and protection while providing important cultural and ancestral ties.
Most of the Sepik area, especially the middle Sepik, is largely male dominated with a focus on ‘men as the creators of men’. In the Kaningara area there is a local myth that men were the original bearers of children but it was the women who controlled the spirit houses and with a magical set of flutes they would make men through spiritual communications. However, one night when the women went to sleep, the men snuck in and stole the flutes, reclaiming their ability to ‘make men’. Women today are forbidden to hear the magical sounds of the flute. The haus tambaran houses the flutes and this sacred secret place forbids entry to women or to the uninitiated. There is one exception to this, in the Blackwater region of the Sepik. The women of this region created their own makeshift spirit houses in response to being denied access to the haus tambaran. Much like the male initiation, women receive training in their duties as a woman such as clay making, weaving and even birth control.
As one of the World’s greatest river systems and the largest unpolluted freshwater systems in PNG, the Sepik River plays an integral role in the lives of the inhabitants that live along its riverbanks. The culture of the people along the Sepik is a reflection of their vast history, and is heavily influenced by their association with the river itself. Each year in Ambunti, East Sepik province, the Sepik communities along with visitors and tourists, come together to celebrate the totemic crocodile at The Crocodile Festival. This year, the colourful and elaborate event will take place from August 5th-7th. For the locals, it is an occasion of pride and a chance to share and celebrate their unique culture. For visitors and tourists it is an opportunity to witness some of the richest cultural practices in the World, while perhaps taking the chance to talk with local artists, dancers or community members. Above all, it is a time to celebrate the importance of the crocodile and highlight conservation needs.
Gudmundur (Gummi) Fridriksson, is the CEO of Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Ltd, overseeing the development of Paga Hill Estate, a world-class, master planned estate located in the heart of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gudmundur first arrived in Papua New Guinea over 20 years ago and is passionate about sharing PNG’s natural beauty and diverse cultures with the world. Find out more about Gudmundur Fridriksson on his website:http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com/ and about the Paga Hill Estate development at http://www.pagahillestate.com