Daily Ramblings - April 19, 2009

April 19, 2009 - Sepik River

How to describe this adventure?  The Sepik River is wide, at places a half mile.  Yet water flows at 5 miles an hour – the current is swift, continually changing the river banks.  Over time whole villages must relocate.  And even in these wide open spaces, tribes and clans find conflict over control of the land and river.

It is subsistence living.  The fish from the river and vegetables and fruits from the land provide food.  The starch staple that replaces potatoes and rice elsewhere is Sago...a product from the Sago Palm made by pounding out the fiber, soaking it in water, and seining it through a cheese cloth like material to get the residue.  It is then dried and forms a paste which can be prepared in a multitude of ways.  My first taste reminded me of an Indian japati.

Each village is usually its own tribe but with separate clans. To protect from inbreeding, no one is allowed to marry within their clan. Tribes have a history of conflict and resentment with one another.  Whether over land, resources, women, politics or past conflicts...the river is rich in culture.  And some tribal rivalries date back 150 years.  In each village there are tales of people killing members of other tribes or someone being killed in their tribe and the plan for revenge.

When a man and a woman decide to marry, the man must pay a “bride price” to the woman’s family.  It usually involves the equivalent of less than $1,000, a few pigs, shell money, and lots of fruits, vegetables and beer for the ceremony.  If the woman does not bare children in the next few years he may send her back to her family and demand his bride price back – which, of course, has long been spent.  This becomes a source of conflict.

Men do marry more than one woman at a time, which every man I have spoken with reports it results in domestic conflict and trouble.  But every family wants to have as many children as possible.  This region is overwhelmed with children, making up over half the population with an average age under 18.  It is going to completely tax the ability of the villages to support this runaway population growth.  When you ask a man how many children he has he only counts the boys.  So he will say, for example, “I have four children...oh and three daughters!”

But everywhere we have stopped, it is obvious entire villages embrace all of their children.  Playing, laughing, teasing – they are communal families that share everything.  In fact, if one villager has something and another requests it, it is the obligation of the villager to share it.

Our first over night was at Angoram Village, the most cosmopolitan village on the river.  I chuckle at the use of the word cosmopolitan.  But there are a multitude of different clans and tribes.   We first met Major, the sheriff of the region.  He generously offered the use of his sheriff’s car during our stay.

Everywhere we have visited in PNG the history of WWI and WWII is a prominent discussion subject.  It was the first time outsiders invaded and occupied many of the remote areas of the country. This happened in Angoram.  The Germans claimed PNG in 1884. After WWI the Australians were the colonial lead, then the Japanese were active during WWII, then the Australians again...until independence in 1975.  Angoram had been the Australian center for it’s management of the entire Sepik River Region.  Today, all that is gone, and what remains is a jumble of tribes with conflicts.  While enormously fascinating, it has been the least inviting place we have visited.

Our native to the Sepik River boat captain, Peter Waman, has a sixteen acre plot of land just outside Angoram.  He and I have been discussing the Bedell Guitar business I am re-starting and the importance of the woods in making exceptional guitars.  When I told him I needed to source rosewood, ebony and red cedar, he smiled and reported he had all of these trees on his property.  Upon further investigation, the 150 year old rosewood tree was about to fall down, lightening had hit and killed the ebony tree, and poachers had already dropped the red cedar. So we drove in Major’s pick up and hiked a half mile into the forest to inspect these trees.  Of course, we must be careful to respect the hardwood forests, selective harvest and honor all of the regulations of PNG and the international community.  Everything is falling into place for Bedell Guitar Co. to buy these trees and ship them to USA to be milled for future guitars. Captain Peter is smiling! The next day we approached Ludwig, a local politician and lumberjack, and asked if he would help us mill the tree, only to find out he was planning to poach it in Peter’s absence.  Life is fascinating on the Sepik!

Following this excitement we boated in our tender to a neighboring village that had set up a market of artifacts for us.  The skills and creativity of the artisans is amazing.  We acquired over fifty pieces to join our collection of indigenous products we will be marketing through Two Old Hippies.

And next is the highlight of the adventure so far...we stopped Kambaramba Village for a Sing-Sing.  We anticipated a fairly small dance presentation.  Well, three villages turned out, over 200 performers, and over 1,500 villagers to enjoy the celebration.  It was magnificent. Completely over the top.  Please check out our photos...but they do not even begin to share the music, rhythms and excitement that filled the air.  The costumes were extraordinary.

We motored upriver and anchored near Tambunum Village...Captain Peter’s home and the village in which guide Jim owes a lodge and has spent much time in over the last 20 years.  To be continued....

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