Carving a canoe in the middle of the jungle in New Guinea


On our way to Kokas Kota with Coast Guard Henkie, we came across a Papua carving a canoe out of a big tree trunk at 800 m above sea level.

A few days later, voyaging from Fafanlap to Salafen, I had a strange dream: somehow I’d accidentally landed in a cooking pot. Wild frizzy-haired men and women were dancing round and round me with horrible shrieks: they were Papuas with painted faces and with mirrors, glass beads, rings and bones in their ears, hair and noses. Plenty of other gleaming and sparkling objects adorned their steely bodies. I was being literally boiled to hell amid savage shrieking and the thudding beat of relentless drums. But then I woke up to find myself bathed in sweat, lying on my hard bunk, happy to have escaped from the cannibals’ clutches. The worst thing about the dream, though, was that the canoe-builder I’d seen was their chief!

According to countless studies and contemporary reports, cannibalism was until recently part and parcel of indigenous culture in New Guinea. When German missionaries reported on this rather unusual habit from German New Guinea around 1900, a public outcry went through Europe. Europe, of all places, which since 1500 had been traversing the world, from Tierra del Fuego to Tasmania, from Mexico to the South Pacific, on campaigns of conquest, annihilating whole civilizations and slaughtering indigenous peoples by the millions, was outraged. Simply because out on the edge of the world some tribes would wage war and then treat themselves to a savoury victory feast after battle. The missionaries wagged a moralizing finger and brought the cannibals the Bible. The German Imperial Colonial Office reacted with an iron fist and punitive expeditions, most of which proved abortive. After all, who is eager to venture into the jungles of New Guinea in search of cannibals?

As I mull all of this on my bunk, the boatbuilder crosses my mind again. Good thing I was riding to Kokas Kota on a motorcycle and not travelling by foot that evening….