Sepik Day 4 – Scar Tissue

alex rust

03 December 2010 | 150 miles up sepik river, papau new guinea

We woke at sunrise to find all the locusts, mosquitos and countless other bugs were now passed out after thier night of feasting and partying on us which at least kept me up for the most the night. There bodies now clogged the sink, toilet and deck drains. After cleaning them up we picked up anchor and headed up river.

We were several hours up the river before Mr. Mobo told me we werent on the Sepik anymore. I was confused as there had been no turn offs and the map clearly indicated the town of Mindimbit to be on the Sepik. We turned around and it was a half day later when were only a mile from the spot we had turned around at that I discovered what had happened. The Spepik had cut a new path and the Karawari River is what we had been on and the new river on which Mindimbit now sits. We would have went days up the Karawari tribuatary before realizing our error if it werent for Mobo.

As we passed village after village the local kids would come out by the dozens and run along the river bank with the boat yelling and laughing all the way. We were always beckoned to come and stop by these friendly people but with so far to go up river we just couldnt stop everywhere.

We finally came to a bigger village with some logs at the bank so be pulled in and docked on the massive logs. The cheif immediatly came down the greet us and as we secured the boat we had no fewer than 50 people line the mud bank staring down at our boat from above. We were escorted to the local spirit house where only men are allowed inside. A fire smoldered underneath huge wooden pillars (all carved intricately) that supported the building and a large wooded pig (with real tusks) stood in the middle acting as a drum. An elder picked up a log and beat the pig drum to announce our arrival. The cheif went on to explain the dirfferent sections of the spirit house were for different tribes and that it is here where they would meet to make peace. The sections belonged to the sego clan, crocodile clan, bird of paradise clan, and river shark (yes there are freshwater river sharks in the sepik) clan.

An elderly man then entered the house and everyone went quiet. I had heard stories of scarification in these areas but up until this point hadnt seen any and after asking the cheif about scarification earlier this elder was summoned. He was brought to my side and asked in the local language to explain his scarification. It had to be translated first from an older language to more recent one and from that into English and this is what we heard

“when i was a boy my uncle took me into this very house and while cradling me, cut me all over but mostly on my back. he then laid me in the smoke so the wounds would not heal for a long time. my mother and sisters would be bring food and water to the door but were not allowed to see me. i layed here in this house for three months in very much pain during which time my uncles told me the traditions of the clan and taught me what it meant to a man and when it was my time to leave this spirit house i was one”

He then stood up and took off his shirt revealing several ringed scars around his nipples and dots over his chest but it was when he turned around that I was truly amazed. His entire back starting as his neck and going down the back of his legs resembled grueseomly and artistically that of a crocodile. We asked him how old he was when this was done but he didn’t know because they never kept track of age. All he knew was that it was done when the Japanese were here which meant it would have been during world war 2. The recent missionaries had put a stop to such practices in this particular village but upriver we heard they still perform the ceremony. Farther up river we go.

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