One of the highlights of my Papua New Guinea trip would be the ceremonial initiation of boys. The ritual scarification when males would have their skin cut with razors deeply and repeatedly to form a decorative scars resembling the sacred crocodile spirit as part of turning young boys into men. In most villages along the Sepik river with exception of Blackwater villages, women are excluded in this ritual scarring.
I was lucky to visit in October where a few mass initiations were happening in a few villages along Blackwater river.Uniquely to this region, the skin cutting here tend to be much deeper than the rest of the Sepik river, more decorative and larger scars.
Blackwater, part of the major Sepik tributary. aptly named because of its dark brown color caused by decaying water plants. These ritual cuttings do not happen all the time, some villages would only conduct these every 5 or 10 years, when they have enough young men, other villages conduct theirs on a yearly basis. It is slowly becoming an annual affair in some villages while tourists often visit as a source of the tourist income.
Kaningara seem to get more tourists compared to other villages for its popularity of having an American reality documentary show, Tattoo hunter where the presenter had his scarring done for television sake. A few other foreign tourists came after that for their decorative scarrings, painful but beautiful designs cut deeply into their skin at least 7 times on the same wound. I briefly toyed with the idea of having my body scarred as the designs are gorgeous but realised this is a deeply spiritual affair and not for any foreigners doing it for their sake of shallow vain purpose.
After the cuts are done, the skin of the boys are infected with ashes from plants and various river muds to form the beautiful keloids that symbolises their becoming a man and the skin of the sacred crocodile spirits. These scars brand the males as belonging to the Sepik river, the body markings that would differentiate them from other Papua tribes.
The boys reside in Spirit houses call Tambaran where they receive their trainings in becoming a man. Depending on the chiefs of the Tambaran, the boys would have to stay in the Tambarans for 1 to 3 months.
It seems the importance of the skin cutting ritual is losing its popularity and importance, slowly losing its spiritual meaning as well. It is no long compulsory for all males to go through this initiation. Partly due to modern changing times and mainly economic. It is rather costly and expensive affair for the family to pay for their sons to go through the rituals. The family must pay for the food, lodging in the Tambaran, feed their sons on a daily affair (often the boys of the family go through the rituals together adding to the financial burden), they must also provide money for the cutting and other ritual offerings.
I met the head chief of the Kaningara region (apparently also the head of tourism in Wewak region and the chief of this particular village as well as the head chief of the village heads) told me it cost an average of 500 – 2000 kina per initiation depending on how long each boy stays in the spirit house. His son currently in the Tambaran receiving his rite of passage and have been in spirit house for coming to 3 months. costing him quite a bit of cash.
Not surprising, if you want to photograph a scarred man or woman, you would be asked the standard rate of 5 kina dollars all along Blackwater river. It is their only source of income to profit from their initiation rituals as there are few opportunities to make money in the Sepik besides selling their traditional wood craving artifacts. There was an entry charge to the spirit house of 5 kina, a further 15 kina to visit the initiated boys and a 5kina charge (bargained down from 10 kina) to visit the females initiates.
You may wonder if the future initiates would increase their prices when more tourists visits this region, thus further diluting it’s already eroding spiritual sacred ritual. I would think the tourists from Europe who came in the 1970s -1980s have already eroded many of their culture, but hope that the present tourists dollar would help preserve this disappearing ritual.
Unique to Blackwater, women are allowed the scarifications in their own makeshift ‘spirit house’ when they reach puberty. They are not allowed into the male spirit houses as such created their ceremonial practise. The females receive training in domestic duties involving household activities of clay making, weaving, and more importantly how to control pregnancy . Many females often do this ritual at a much older age due mainly to economic reasons.
In the female ‘spirit house’ a make shift house belong to one of the womenfolk in the village. A total of only 4 females were going through the skin cutting ritual. Newly cut bodies only 4 days ago.