Tangled in Time – The women of Papua New Guinea

by Dafna Nevo

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not the mainstream. Travelling around PNG means exploring a kaleidoscope of cultural and natural diversity, making this off-the-radar island truly one of a kind.

PNG is the second largest island in the world. Although it is roughly the size of California, it is one of the most rural countries on the planet and only 18% of its six million inhabitants live in urban areas. Incredibly, over 800 indigenous languages are spoken in PNG: a statistic that accounts for 1/5 of the world’s total.

Just as PNG is linguistically diverse it is also an ecological, geographical and cultural wonder. 

PNG is famous for its unique cultures (over 800 different tribal groups) and is a kind of paradise to reveal with many layers beneath the surface. 

A country, remote and undiscovered, reflects the ancient times in which the modern world is only recently creeping into the everyday life. A place in which the traditions are still vivid and are practiced.

These tribes’ traditions that they still practice today were created by the forefathers of all of humanity, and the chance to explore their music, language, traditional garments and ancient cultural ceremonies gives us a rare glimpse into our collective history and shared origins.

A mesmerising country which is one of the world’s last frontiers. It is like we are standing in front of a closed door to be opened by us and testing us to try to endeavour the deep meaning of our existence, of our humanity roots, the origin of what we are all. A constant intrinsic dilemma of past, present and future. The confusing meaning of the term of time.

My book written ‘Tangled in Time’ is emphasising the element of time I felt whilst there. 

The women of Papua – A tough place to be a woman

Travelling in PNG one doesn’t have to spend a long time to realise that many of the roads lead to a place where luck seems to have run out. Walking in the markets and villages or in the streets of the urban slum called Eight Mile in Port Moresby, women are caring for their children and fighting off a range of illnesses from malaria to skin rashes.

Sitting on the floor in the markets chatting, in words as well as in body language, there was always one young lady that speaks some English and is volunteering to ease the conversation. She is curious with me, the strange woman sitting there with them in their local place. Our talk is centred on the life of a woman in the village: birth giving, birth control, children, husbands, family – you know – womens talk.

I listen to the women of the village – old, young, some wearing poor weary cloth, some are more coquettish, some are shy and others are anxious to be part of the conversation. Amazing.

Some of them tell me they will give birth only in the hospital. One is telling that she believes in doctors and would like her husband to be present in the labour room to share the moment with her. Another nice young lady had a few natural miscarriages, so she realises it’s better for her to give birth in the hospital. Probably she had a wise decision since PNG has the highest maternal death rate in the pacific. More than 2,000 women die during childbirth in PNG every year.

A woman of the Sepik

Undoubtedly some of them are more open minded to modernity while others are sticking more to their traditional way.

My English volunteer translator, dressed in a nice yellow dress, her hair combed nicely and looks quite modern. Regardless of her modern appearance however, she says she gave birth at home with her mother and family women and that she will keep doing it in the traditional way.

Another is complaining – ‘I have been married fo 10 years already and 3 kids and he hasn’t paid for the pigs for me yet’!

Big families are common in PNG and children are perceived as important to ease the work of the family. Add to that that most of PNG has a strong patriarchal culture and some often must get permission from their husbands to go on birth control programme. As one said: ‘whatever the men say, the women have to follow’. I was told about a woman that was forced to drop out of university when she became pregnant.

‘The man decides how many children he wants to have and if the woman doesn’t want them, he tells her ‘I paid the bride price and you are to have kids as many as I like’ Ms. Tukne explained.

A woman with facial tattoos

Women can also face pressure from their own extended family and community about having children. ‘She can’t run away anywhere because if she goes back to her people, they’ll say, ‘we got big money and pigs for you, you have to go back and submit to your husband’, said Ms. Tukne.

In this strongly Christian society, religion can also be a deterrent, with some churches preaching against contraception and some pastors claiming, the implants in particular, were the work of devil.

Despite advances achieved in the empowerment of women and the reduction of gender-based violence, as Human Rights Watch put it in a 2016 report, ‘Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with the majority of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime and women facing systemic discrimination’. It is also says that more than two-thirds of women in the country have experienced gender-based violence. The violence was perpetrated by their husbands, involves barbaric acts and are done repeatedly. 

On 4th of March 2019, The Guardian reported and showed a picture of a woman, whose said her husband cut her arm with a large metal knife. Sh holds her heavily bandaged hand at a women’s centre in Wewek East Sepik.

However, I have a reason for some hope in Papua New Guinea.

Series of legal reforms have changed the penalties for domestic violence and victims say the police are now taking it more seriously. There are signs that political parties are also taking women’s role more seriously too.

A hard days work

On International Women’s Day in March 2019, former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill proposed a women’s parliamentary quota system for its 111 seat legislature which shows that PNG is trying to struggle and overcome its international reputation as “the worst place in the world to be a woman”. But, this is still a land in which the international call for #MeToo does not exist.

Beauty and tattooed

On the largest island of PNG, in Tufi region, the face tattooing was performed and used as a rite reserved only for women. We could see around ladies, age forty and above, wearing facial tattoo. The belief is that the ritual originated ‘when heaven and earth appeared’, a mythical time when the people of the area emerged from the ground.

As the young Korafe tribesman, with his toothy smile stained by the blood-red betel nut, said: ‘I love a woman with a good tattoo. You know, there are ‘boobs men,’ ‘legs men,’ but me—I’m a tattoo man’.

The facial tattoos is a rite of passage solely reserved for adolescent girls, between 14 and 18 years old. The painful custom is believed to be as old as the local creation myth and is related to the mating rituals of the bird of paradise.

These permanent markings aren’t meant to embellish any female attributes in the name of sex appeal. They are perceived as ornamentation, as beautification.

This women’s rite of passage is shrouded in mystery and performed with great secrecy inside the tattoo maven’s hut so that the rite bearers can hide there, as they are forbidden to be seen by others until the artwork is complete.

Most designs are painted with bits of finely burned vegetable charcoal or squid ink. And then the ‘tapping’ process begins. 

The tattoo designs are usually abstract motifs of nature subjects and those of falling objects (stars), flying birds or other creatures associated with movement. However, it was believed to repel evil spirits and to represent the complex life experience in the natural and spiritual worlds of the tribal coast life of PNG.

While I was in the Korafe village sharing a tattoo celebration with the people we saw the zigzag motif. This motif is related to the spinal column of a particular local fish. Throughout Polynesia and the Pacific, spinal or zigzag motifs are symbolic of genealogical relationships likened to a “family tree” of ancestors.

The traditional form of tattooing is called ‘tapping’ because of the rat-rat-rat action that takes place when the artist literally taps the charcoal design into the face of the young woman with a sharp thorn dipped in a variety of ceremonial antiseptics.

We met few of the tattooed elder women. One of them told me that beyond the mental acuity needed for her to focus through the pain, she had also abide by a strict diet during the unpleasant sessions of the ‘tapping’. She said it was very painful, but nobody could then refuse of doing it ‘not like now with the new generation’. It was a tradition that no body then could skip. They had to accept the clan and family tradition. 

A ceremony, in the end of the healing period, is marking her transition into true womanhood. The girls appear in a procession through the village to publicly display their newly transformed bodies. Unmarried young men would show their admiration by throwing betel nut skins at the women. 

Thirty years ago, ‘Adult women without tattoos were considered used up’ according to the old wise man of the tribe. Today, however, with Western influence, most girls are not performing these rites anymore. Talking with the young women of the Korafe – they don’t want to do it. There were a group of teenagers that unanimously said out loud that they will not do it ever. They think it is damaging their faces, too painful, old fashioned and not reversible. 

It is clear that this tradition becomes a forgotten code and is no longer relevant to the young generation of the Korafe tribe of Tufi, PNG.

Future PNG

Despite Papua New Guinea’s economic boom led by extractive industries, almost 40 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty. The government has not taken sufficient steps to address gender inequality, violence, corruption, or excessive use of force by police.

A country where the modern world is only just creeping into everyday life and where traditions are still cherished and practiced in everyday life. A forgotten land far from the eyes and far from the heart of the world.

Franz Kafka in his ‘letters to Milna’, says: ‘I am in Vienna reading a book about Tibet. I wonder is Tibet is so far from Vienna…but – is it really so far’?

Same question I often ask myself while in PNG and while researching this extreme country. I think the answer is yes…PNG is here but it is also so far back in time that maybe it is not so close here. 

This place is like the end of the world but also the creation of the world – together.

Absurd as it can be…

Tangled in Time – The cover of the book Dafna Nevo (Shtelzer) wrote

Dafna Nevo (Shtelzer) 

A sociologist, anthropologist and keen photographer. Motivated by curiosity and scholarship, she has connected with the colourful conundrum that is today’s Papua New Guinea.

Mail: [email protected]

Whatsapp/Line: +66851144390

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