An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Western Highlands Funeral

Another trip to the Western Highlands and in particular it's capital Mt Hagen has been completed. After driving up incident free on Friday, working Saturday at the school setting up computers and then having a lazy Sunday at the Hotel I actually thought this trip would pass by without any eventualities happening - comparing it that is to my last trip anyway (see Highlands Hwy Survivor). Then Monday morning when it was time to turn tail and head for home, George (my boss and travel partner) told me first we had to go and pay our respects at the funeral of one of our work colleague's brother who had died.

Paul's brother had passed away in Moresby on Friday, from Asthma complications or bronchitis or something like that. Paul and his brother are from Mt Hagen, so Paul went down to Moresby from Lae and retrieved the body and returned to Hagen with it on Sunday. Monday was set as the first day of the funeral, which would last three days until the body would be interned on Wednesday.

Once George had told me that we were going to a funeral, I changed into some semi-decent clothes that I brought along for the trip and George picked me up. We arrived at the bottom of the driveway up to Paul's clan's area with a group of about 20 other people. Most of these were people George knew and there was the obligatory handshaking of everyone by me as I was introduced.

At this stage I realised that wearing a shirt, a pair of trousers and my doc martins - my usual work attire - was considerably overdressing for the occasion. Funeral's it seems in PNG - or at least the western highlands - don't have the same sort of unwritten dress code that exists in Australia and I imagine all the other western countries. I was standing with a group of mourners dressed in the usual PNG highlands attire, which basically consists of the pickings from second-hand clothes stores (the next time you throw that heap of clothes into the St. Vincent's de Paul clothes bin outside the local church, bear in mind that it will end up being worn for another good couple of years all over PNG, until it finally falls apart), mixed and matched in all sort of unusual combinations. There was even one elderly bloke, who was wearing a nice tweed jacket, elbow patches and all, combined with as gras (arse grass - a bunch of leaves covering your arse, it is traditional highlands dress) hanging from underneath the back of the jacket, dangling above his bare legs.

After all the handshaking was completed the group proceeded to slowly walk up the drive. As we got closer I could hear what I would describe as rhythmic wailing coming faintly from the direction of the ceremony. We stopped as the wailing was getting louder, a respectable distance from the proceedings and one of our members took up a song. After a time others joined, then everyone was singing in the local language. To best describe what the singing sounded like, think of a Aboriginal song in chorus. I am not sure of the details of the song, but no doubt it was to do with sorrow.

The group moved on. My doc martins by this stage were slipping through mud, caused it seems by the combined effects of heavy rain the night before and hundreds of people trampling over the same spot.

The ceremony area was obscured by village buildings along the whole of the path to it. I may have not been able to see proceedings but I could certainly hear it. Similar songs were being sung as the one our group was singing which in turn was mixed with wailings and stomping of feet.

We entered the clearing and I finally got to see what was happening. The area was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool with the edge lined with onlookers who I assumed to be members of the clan. At one end of the clearing a group of people were standing around a effigy of the body. This was the family group and ones causing most of the wailing. To the side of the mourners, were the warriors. About a hundred strong lined up into ranks. They had painted their bodies with mud and brought along their weaponry, including spears, bows & arrows and axes. Most of them were wearing traditional dress of as gras and the like, but some just wore their St Vinnies best. They were marching around the area, chanting and singing their warrior songs to make sure that the other side knew that they had to accept the spirit of the deceased or they would come in and force them to accept it.

Our group came into the area and solemnly walked around the same circuit as the warriors, all the while still singing the same song. We encircled the mourners, coming face to face to them and their grief. This ceremony also goes by the name of bikpela kry (big cry), and now I understood. It was expected for you to show huge emotion. This meant that everyone there was wailing, crying, blabbing and basically overcome with grief. It was a shock to see Paul who I always thought of a tough guy, letting go, with tears streaking his cheeks. He saw me and beckoned me over, so that he could hug me and I could offer my sympathy.

Despite everyone else breaking down, there was no way that I could turn on the waterworks for someone I didn't even know. I looked around to see if I was the only person who was like this and I saw George standing there looking like me, as if he was a bystander at a car accident - intrigued at the sight, but not emotional. Later he told me that he has a real problem crying in public, understandable I said, most guys in the western world are exactly the same.

Up close, the effigy of Pauls brother, which should have apparently been the actual coffin, looked more like a coat rack than a person. It consisted of a branch cut from a tree jammed in the ground with a hat sitting on top and a Hawaiian shirt on a coat hanger, both items which belonged to Paul's brother. Where the face should have been was a photograph of him. This was the centre for the grief and anyone new who arrived made there way to this, to touch it and weep. It was unfortunate that the actual coffin could not be there, instead we got what looked like an unstuffed scarecrow. The reason apparently that the coffin could not be there was because being hot weather, they wanted to keep it at the Mt Hagen morgue until time of burial. I am not sure if this is correct or not, but it was the explanation I got.

While in the inner circle of grievers, the warriors still marched around the outside. After a while they changed from marching in ranks to an attack mode. Racing around in a hunched stance, spears raised, arrows pulled tight on their bows and axes ready. A couple of complete circuits were completed while in this mode, before the inner group that I was in, parted back from the coat rack. The warriors now, with their lungs pumping out a war cry, came around behind and through the group to gather up the effigy. They carried this aloft and down into a hut at the end of the grounds. This signalled that the first part of the funeral was over.

Everyone now relocated to another part of the clearing and formed a circle. The important people sat on seats but most people including me either sat on the grass or stood. Firstly the formalities were done, which meant that someone explained how the guy died, when, where etc. Then others got up and expressed their condolences. Then finally as in the other time I have witnessed one of these events at the compensation ceremony of my last trip here, the talkfest started and every topic people wanted to air was raised. There is one thing to be said about highlanders, they love to talk. These talkfest's are very orderly, no one interrupts anyone, everyone can get there turn at the topic they want to discuss, or to readdress and put there spin on a topic already raised. There was only problem for me, I had no idea about what they were saying, only picking up the general English word every once in a while, and I was sitting directly in the hot noon sun, which I later found turned me a bit pink.

George and Me took our leave at an appropriate time and headed back on the long trip down the Highland's highway to Lae. It was a late leaving, which made the time we got back about 9.30. The trip after dark turned into a bit of a nightmare for me. I was given the reins after Kainantu, and got the pleasure of driving through the dark. Fun fun fun. One of our headlights was not working and road is a shocker even if you drive during the day with potholes appearing as numerous as holes in Swiss cheese. Also the numerous trucks heading up to the highlands don't bother turning off their hi-beam, making it virtually impossible to see anything as they pass. Anyway we made it back safely, though in hindsight next time I will insist on staying the night in Goroka.