On a trek to a remote corner of Papua New Guinea, Kevin Rushby meets a community with one foot still in the past, but only for now …
There comes a moment in certain types of conversation when someone always reaches for the stone age. It happens with debates on diet, frequently with childcare and diseases, occasionally with sex and reproduction. “Of course,” the person will say, with an air of putting an end to all discussion, “humans evolved in the palaeolithic era. Physiologically and psychologically, we are hunter-gatherers.”
I was sitting in a hut in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and – can you believe it? – the old couple sitting by the fire reached for the stone age. The only difference was that this couple were speaking from personal experience: they were born in it.
“When the first white people appeared, we were very frightened,” said the woman, Keira. “We picked up our pigs and ran to the jungle to hide.”
“They were Australians, I think,” said the man, Daniel. “After them came the Japanese and made the men work.”
This all happened during the second world war, when the Japanese used slave labour to construct fortifications, even here at 3,000 metres up in the wilds of the central mountains. Once they left, the missionaries arrived.
I came to Namasaro after trekking in from a neighbouring village which is on the road from the central highland town of Goroka. The road doesn’t yet reach Namasaro, but it soon will, and I was keen to see it before the changes that easy communication will bring. I’d read Jared Diamond’s enthralling new book, The World Until Yesterday, and was intrigued to see a community poised between palaeolithic yesterday and modern today: the former taking up most of our human past while the latter is but the blink of an eye.
In my country, I told Keira and Daniel, some people think it must be good to live like you once did: without guns, Christianity or TV. They looked surprised to hear this and Daniel was keen to put me right: “It was a bad time. We men had to guard against attack at all times. Our neighbours were our enemies. We built watchtowers and fences. It wasn’t good.” But Keira disagreed: “It was better then. We wore beautiful things and there was more singing and dancing.”
The village has not developed a great deal, at least not from what I could see. It was spread along a narrow mountain ridge with deep, jungle-clad gorges on either side, a location chosen for defensive reasons in ancient times. There was no electricity or running water. The main visible sign of modernity was the abandoned playing cards scattered all around: the entire village is addicted to card games.
As for clothes, the older people seemed to wear what the missionaries, Anglican and Adventist, told them is decent: baggy floral print smocks and cast-off American T-shirts. Accessorizing, however, is a deep instinct, obviously palaeolithic: a purple Astrakhan hat, a day-glo string bag, an emerald-green beaded headband – no, wait a minute, those were the wing cases of beetles.
The younger people were more up on western mores: sunglasses, baggy jeans and dreadlocks. Footwear? Forget it. No shoe could contain these broad, jungle-hardened feet. Magnificent feet: they made my lily- white appendages feel like the useless bound monstrosities of a Ming dynasty Chinese maiden. I tripped over roots and struggled to find toeholds on steep inclines. These people had no such trouble: nimble and sure-footed, they never stumbled.
When I arrived here, after a day’s trek through the jungle, old ladies rushed forward and gently rugby-tackled me at knee level. “Nice boy!” they kept cooing. Everyone had to then shake hands, literally everyone, all 400 of them. We processed along the ridge from group to group and my guide, Samuel, explained who I was. Not that this had to be done often, because everyone here talks constantly to everyone and so, by the time I reached the end of the village, they already knew who I was and what interested me.
“Ah, Kevin,” said one stout stranger with the muscles of an ageing prize-fighter. “There’s a bird on that tree you could photograph.”
My name had been passed along correctly, I noted, as had my possession of a camera and my interest in wildlife. Games of Chinese whispers would not go down well here.
I took the photograph. A small boy sidled up with a catapult: “Do you want us to kill it now?”
One of the first groups I was introduced to were The Lads: a gang of youths who live together in a hut at the end of the village, a traditional arrangement for teenage males. I was going to stay with them that night. They asked a lot of questions about England and “our Queen Elizabeth”, who is incredibly popular in Papua New Guinea. I tried to explain why I had never met the woman, how difficult it would be to make contact. “She has guards and there’s a huge fence around her house.”
I could see they thought I was joking. Guards and fences? It sounded like the stone age.
“I will go to her and say happy noon,” said one of them, “Then she will give me a job.”
In Namasaro, if you want to talk to someone, you walk up to them and begin a conversation. There is no such thing as privacy. The idea is incomprehensible. The houses have only one room and everyone just grabs a sleeping mat and lies where there is a space. In the lads’ hut I had been honoured with a wooden cot and mosquito net but everyone else just collapsed on the floor in a heap. Whenever I thought the place must be full, the door would creak open and someone else would throw themselves on the pile. I began to feel a bit awkward, taking up so much room in my cot.
On Sunday morning a few people were wandering around clutching bibles but no one seemed bothered about starting anything like a service. Besides, there was going to be a “sing-sing” and that was much more interesting. A group of old people had started changing into their traditional costumes and I could hear the laughter and shouts of glee. Eventually they all emerged and sat in a loose circle to sing.
I sat with them, taking photos. The old ladies of earlier now seemed decades younger; the men had become dashing warriors. They chanted together, all seated, then began a stamping droning song out on the muddy terrace overlooking the valley. The young men watched but did not take part.
When it was over, and it was time to start trekking back to the road where we would wait for a minibus to take us back to Goroka, a group of The Lads came along. They wanted to show me the special forest birds that live around them: we spotted the bird of paradise first, then the Princess Stephanie’s astrapia, both astounding creatures revealed by sharp jolts of electric-blue feathers in the jungle.
After a long walk and a wait, a lorry came along and I was offered a lift. But The Lads had a last urgent question. One of them came forward as spokesman. “Answer me: true or false,” he said. “Is the movie Braveheart true history?”
I was taken aback. “You watch films?”
“There’s a generator, and we watch on Sundays. What about Braveheart?”
I pondered. “Yes, I think the story is basically true.”
They all sighed with evident satisfaction. “We love that movie,” said another. “We cry a lot.”
We waved goodbye and the lorry pulled away down the track. Perhaps, I reflected, despite all the changes that progress brings, good and bad, it is one step forward when real tribal violence becomes just a film about it.
• The trip was arranged by the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority (papuanewguinea.travel). Flights were provided by Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), which flies to Singapore from Heathrow and Manchester from £640pp (promotional fare available till 28 February). Return flights from Singapore to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea with Air Niugini cost about £800. Kevin’s trek from Goroka was organised by Reef and Rainforest (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk). A tailor-made three-night trip with two nights in Goroka and one in Namasaro village costs £630, including flights to Goroka from Port Moresby