Learning from the past – “Laughing at one another” The Korowai People of Papua

Learning from the past – “Laughing at one another” The Korowai People of Papua

by Ali Syarief

It is practically impossible to shake hands with “Nati” the Chief of the Korowai People in the interior of Papua unless one expends as much money as 115 million rupiahs. Because there is no regular flight from Sentai to Yani Ruma it is necessary to charter an aircraft at a cost of 105 million rupiahs return. But this does not turn out to be a problem (OR but we do not become a target) When we arrive in the area where the Korowai People live because we can gather much knowledge and the meaning of life from them. The feeling of tiredness mixed with fatigue because besides having to be one and a half hours in a plane our trip is continued by canoe for one and a half hours tracing a path along the rivers, and then is continued further on foot for another two and a half hours making our way through thick virgin Papuan forest when our feelings of tiredness and fatigue disappear when we meet them.

The threat of attacks by mosquitoes is never-ending and many insects such as flies and the body odour of the Korowai People together with the stinging heat is all accompanied by dry humid air during the daytime, All this is a specific characteristic of this area.

We had not yet reached the place designated as the base camp where visitors usually gather together with their Korowai hosts – a shelter or hut measuring 10 metres by 5 metres. We were greeted by four Korowai Tribesmen with bows and arrows ready to pierce our chests. If at the time they first greeted us we did anything which caused them to be suspicious they would certainly have shot us with their bows and arrows because they have no knowledge of the section of the Code of Criminal Law dealing with murder. It was only after our Interpreter Pak Sendek the Ex Chief of the Village explained the reason for our visit that the atmosphere relaxed and became one of friendship. Laughing together, exchanging cigarettes and paying attention to one another was the time we took the opportunity to chat with them.

The Korowai are a tribe/people who live in high houses, sometimes as much as 60 metres above ground level. There are houses which are indeed built in trees or also on a platform at a height of up to 20 metres. There are a number of reasons for them building their houses so high above the ground. The first is indeed to prevent threats or attacks from their enemies. The second has to do with their strategy for hunting. They can in an unimpeded way keep a check on the wild pigs which run wild under and close to their houses. So if there is an animal close by all they have to do is grab their bow and arrows and take aim. And the third reason is that this is a custom passed down from generation to generation so that they feel it is a specific part of their culture and life. Besides this there is a factor based on nature which makes it more comfortable for them. Even though they use only a small portable tree trunk it is no problem for them (grandfathers grandmothers pregnant wives and women nursing children) to clamber up and down to their houses. Included in the house built in a tree they can light a fire or do what they usually do in their house within certain well-defined limits.

What attracts us to study their way of life is the perception of people like ourserselves who feel that we are civilized and are therefore at a higher level than they are, an attitude which even regards tham as backward. Let us pay close attention.There are no hospitals there because they are indeed super strong people which is to say they are in harmony with Nature. So there is no reason for Nature to cause them to be ill. Indeed on the contrary Nature is the source of their life and health which they experience directly. Because of this awareness they guard carefully the functions of Nature in order to survive. They have no need of rice barns to store food because Nature has provided for them in full in the process of the evolution of the ecosystem. Because of that they safeguard with full awareness and conserve the natural sources of energy by setting out norms of behavior for the effective management of the natural sources of energy including the regeneration of their food sources such as planting sago palms. It is forbidden to cut down certain kinds of trees. It is forbidden to catch fish in the rivers by using poison except by using bow and arrow or the normal fishing line. It is expressly forbidden to catch birds of paradise, including hunting pigs of a certain sex or of certain ages.

There is no radio television or any other film entertainment. They can only enjoy the rustling of the wind as it blows through the leaves of the various trees. The melodic symphony of birdsongs is the specific and natural music of the Korowai which is enjoyed as a part of their everyday possessions. The customs which have evolved between clans have become their individual conventions, that is it is forbidden to damage or destroy their environment their customs and their geographical authority. The breaking of adat or custom can indeed result in the loss of life or in the payment of pigs as compensation. Their understandable pride in the number of members of their clan brings its own sense of pride to the extent that the number of wives and children has its own special value and significance in the Korowai social system.What is interesting in relation to choosing new wives is not their beauty but rather their prowess in finding food or their other skills in living which result in a man making his choice of a woman to marry.

I am not going to write too many stories about them. But my conclusion is as follows. Do not look on them as lower than ourselves. Do not look on them as poor. Do not look on them as unintelligent. We can laugh at each other and they also can respect us in their turn.

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