I am standing in the battlefield surrounded by Hubla warriors armed with spears and bows. My body is painted for war. I am only wearing the traditional koteca, the penis sheath made of cultivated gourd that characterises the tribes of the Baliem Valley in the highlands of Indonesia’s Papua province. The Wililimo – the clan chief – gives the war cry. We all start screaming and running towards the enemies’ lines, eager to display our courage and strength.
I am at the Baliem Valley Festival in Wamena, the capital town of the Jayawijaya district. Held annually in August, this two-day gathering has clans of different tribes – each with their own custom, language, dress and ornaments – displaying their culture and skills in tribal warfare, and in dance, music and art.
Tribal conflict was common in Baliem until the late 1970s – it still is in neighbouring Papua New Guinea – and was caused by dispute over land rights, abduction of women, revenge for murder, or stealing of their precious pigs. The animals are the main source and sign of wealth in the valley and are indispensable as marriage dowries.
These people are the diminutive Yali; the strong and tall Hubula; the Nduga, with their elaborate ornaments; the dark-skinned Lani; and the Mamuna, who are inseparable from their bows and arrows. Their first encounter with white men was as far back as 1938; they have proven resilient in maintaining their traditional culture despite missionaries who introduced Christianity, and the Indonesians who cemented their rule with soldiers, trade and transmigrants from the overcrowded island of Java.
Today, Baliem’s tribes stand proudly in a field for festival day. Hundreds of men wear the koteca – of all shapes and sizes. Some wear a boar’s tusk in their nose, some carry the feathers of the paradise bird in their hair, some have their body covered in clay, while others have animist patterns painted on their skin. All sport various kinds of jewellery made of stones, wood and bones, and all of them are carrying wooden weapons. The women stand beside them, topless, with grass skirts and their inseparable naken, a string bag carried on the head that is made of driftwood and is used to carry vegetables and fruits, babies and piglets.
Trekking the rugged slopes of the Baliem valley, where traditional villages dot deep gorges spanned by shaky suspension bridges, is a great way for visitors to step back in time and experience tribal life and customs. A few nights before the festival, I was sitting in front of a fire with the local chief and his men in their circular thatch-roofed huts. By custom, the men sleep separately from women and children. Outside it was cold and rainy, but the hut was warm. The air was filled with dense smoke and the ﬂoor covered with dry straw. The chief told me passionately about their culture while his men sung traditional stories accompanied by the jukiele, a small guitar made of wood.
It felt magical as we looked into the fire, our minds drifting with the songs and surrounded by the shadows on the walls of the hut. It was intimate in its simplicity and warmth. I yearned to do more than share sweet potatoes with them over dinner. So I pledged, as a sign of respect of their culture, to dress like them in the coming festival in front of all the tribes, the visiting Indonesians, the authorities, and my fellow Western tourists.
Of course, my run in the festival field as a Hubla warrior makes the crowd roar. Surprised and amused by the first white man to enter the battlefield as one of them, many warriors approach me asking for the nekite, the long handshake that allows time to really measure a man: I have made them proud! They tell me that they will never forget this day, when the Apmola Hano – the good white man – honoured their culture.
My curiosity about them matches their interest in us. Often we stand as distant observers, shy to interact. However, a sense of fulfillment comes from participation. It does not require courage but empathy. It results in the joy of discovering a common humanity despite our cultural differences – a sense of belonging to a single human tribe.
I will come back to this valley. Jeremiah, the Wililimo of a Hubla village called Sewolok (which can only be reached with a four-day trek) has adopted me as one of his sons. He has invited me to visit him and promised he has much more to show me about who his people really are. Seeing my reaction, he smiles and adds, “Yogatak hubuluk motog hanorogo.” Tomorrow will be better than today.