The Mount Hagen Cultural Show isn’t due to start for another two hours but dress rehearsals for at least a dozen groups are already in full swing. Across the field, hundreds of people are in various states of dress (or rather, undress) – tucking leaves, arranging feathers, painting bodies, examining mirrors.
“When I was a boy, I used to climb up to the treetops so I could see over the fence and watch the festival. That was the 1970s,” says local coffee-grower and organising committee secretary John Bonny.
“We are very proud; we love to present our culture. But it is dying out because of Western influence.”
Held over two days, the Mount Hagen show is one of the biggest sing-sings (traditional ceremonies) of the year. Villagers from all over the region come to showcase their costumes, music, dance and culture. The festival has been running since the 1960s and was originally about promoting peace between warring tribes. Today, it’s an opportunity to experience first-hand the customs of about 80 tribes in one of the most culturally intact places in the world.
The sun’s rays catch the morning dew as an old man applies black paint to a young boy’s arm. Their female companion tells me that “all the men, from the smallest to the biggest” honour their ancestors by dressing as old men. They shave the tops of their heads to look like balding men and use the cropped hair to make facial hair for the young boys. Jewellery crafted from threaded seeds, tree nuts, animal tusks and pig’s jawbones criss-cross their torsos. When they dance – rubbing their hands together and jogging on the spot in two parallel lines – the rattling of shells, bones and seed necklaces form a mesmerising percussion to their low chant.
Many costumes evoke ancestral spirits and, although most performers won’t initiate conversation, they are excited and happy when asked to tell the stories behind their costumes.
“When you open up to people, they open up to you. If you walk with your arms folded, saying nothing, they will say nothing, too,” says Darius Kauga, a Mount Hagen resident and organising committee volunteer.
“That is one of the least-developed tribes,” he whispers, and I turn to see a group of men in resplendent red, yellow and black body paint.
They are Foi tribesmen from Lake Kutubu in the Southern Highlands, only “discovered” by the West in the 1930s. While Foi men are renowned for their knowledge of how to extract the highly valued viscous oil of the kara’o tree, the Foi believe the first kara’o trees sprang up from the menstrual blood of two women who once travelled the land. The gushing oil is said to be the tree’s menstruation. The oil is mixed with charcoal or plant dye to create the paint used in celebrations and rituals: black for warriors, red for mature men and yellow for initiates or men in training.
With the equatorial sun blazing high in the sky, groups enter the arena, one by one. A K300 ticket (equivalent to more than one month’s income for the average Papua New Guinean) buys unfettered access, which means almost all the spectators are foreigners. Beyond the gates, hundreds of locals stand shoulder-to-shoulder, their bodies pressed flat against the fence, fingers clasping wire, faces peering excitedly. I feel a pinch of guilt that foreigners like me may do as we please while those to whom this culture belongs must stand on the sidelines.
Tourists wielding oversized cameras duck and weave between performers, jostling for the best angle, snapping selfies – and snapping at other tourists to get out of the way. For their part, performers seem proud to be celebrities for a weekend, primping and posing with interminable patience. Sweat carves tiny rivers across folds of flesh as panting performers gulp down bottles of Coke. Others lie in the dust, sucking on cigarettes.
Within a few short hours, the field has become a bowl of dust and by early afternoon the whole frenzied affair is winding down. Every party has its stragglers and this one is no different. In this or that corner of the field, performers continue to stamp their feet and shake their arse gras (the leaves tucked into the back of their belts). When finally all the performers have left, the arena gates are opened and locals – who have spent the day straining to see, to mingle, to dance, to sing – at long last, it is their turn to stream onto the field, laughing as they soak up whatever is left of the party.