West Papua/Indonesia

First published in the London Review of Books, July 2000.

Caleb held a bundle of arrows in his left hand and a bow and single arrow in his right. His mother was holding her torn ears between her thumbs and forefingers. Her chin was on her bare chest. Her legs were coated with grey mud. She was shivering as she watched me and behind her the smoke, seeping out of the hut walls, mingled with the fog and cold rain. Around her was the jungle.

I had been in the jungle once before, as a child in Borneo; and the image I have of it is a child’s image which has become more childish in the intervening years. Were I to look at the photographs, I would find that most of the villagers are wearing T-shirts, that the long-house walls are decorated with photographs from magazines and that a modern school stands in the ‘virgin hunting ground’. The brightly painted shields, the silver ornaments, the tattoos and the finely woven textiles appeared only at festivals. But my impression of the warmth and colour of the Borneo forest is still true to the environment. The villagers cool off from the sun, naked in the river. The jungle is rich with bright red pitcher plants and among the clear glades of vast trees, easy under foot, you can hear the high notes of a gibbon or see a startled deer.

Twenty years later in Irian Jaya at the far end of Indonesia, the river was far from the village and bathing was rare. The moss forest was cramped, cold and difficult. There were no deer, monkey, tigers or bear. Caleb’s people, the Una, did not yet make iron, textiles or pottery. It was not a place of natural abundance but a mountain land, soaked in cold rain, where you could not see the sunset.

Caleb’s toes emerged out of the mud in a row, straight as piano keys, his feet together, his weight evenly balanced. Although his testicles were hanging free, where you would have expected to see a penis there was a thin six-inch tube of brittle gourd sticking vertically into the air. A string tied round his waist held the head of the penis gourd, his ribcage was clearly visible but around his shoulders hung the remains of a Chicago Bulls tank-top. His head was shaved. There was a hole in his nose, big enough to put your thumb through, and the shine on his face reflected the first light.

The rain had eased and the moon, which was still visible, was an eggshell blue. On the ridge of Mount Yarkon, Gunung Tertinggi, ‘the highest mountain’, the faint break of day gave way to an acid red that glowed above the ridge line. Caleb was looking down the slope to the south. Beneath the dark canopy, the forest was not uniform. First, there was the drenched, muffled, stunted moss grotto. Then there were the 11-trunked ‘kelapa hutan’ of the mid-forest; on which the descending moss revealed warped bare branches. After four days’ walk there were the hot foothills, the rivers and the thick tropical hardwoods. That was the limit of his world.

Beyond the foothills the marshes stretched for a hundred kilometres. But the Asmat of the marshes who used iron were so far away that the Una had until recently never seen carving or metal. And beyond the marshes was the sea. We were on the central spine of New Guinea, a vast island, 2400 kilometres long, marooned between Australia and the Pacific. The West, Caleb’s part, is regarded as Indonesian Irian Jaya, and thus forms the south-eastern tip of South-East Asia. Caleb’s mother’s generation had no word for the sea. The Una must once have made a heroic crossing from Asia, but they had long ago forgotten it.

It was the middle of 1998. I had taken a month out of a three-year posting in Jakarta to walk across Irian Jaya with two friends. The Indonesian economy, which had grown by 7 per cent in the previous year, was on course for a 15 per cent contraction and Suharto had stepped down as President after 32 years two months before. We landed at dawn on Irian’s northern coast to the sound of automatic weapons. And two days later, as we arrived in the highland capital of Wamena, a crowd tore the Indonesian flag off the police station roof. In Wamena we rented a four-seater plane and were dropped at a small jungle landing-strip on the border with Papua New Guinea, where we started our walk through the forest to the southern coast. By the time we had reached the Una village of Baluk the police station which had lost its flag was three weeks walk away over high jungle ridges. One could walk from Paris to Berlin in that time with much more ease.

Very few of the Una speak Indonesian and Caleb was the only person I met who enjoyed talking to me. He did not express opinions: he seemed to prefer facts. Often, when he was excited, he would remove his arm from my shoulder, pull his knees up to his chest and talk about the past in a soprano voice. At other times, he seemed in sombre mood and would drag me round the village, responding gruffly to questions like a pompous schoolmaster. He was never hesitant or doubtful.

I brought out some photographs of the Dani people of Wamena taken in the 1960s to show to Caleb. He squatted beside me, outside the village fence which adjoined his hut, so that we were looking at the plantations of taro and banana: plants the highlanders had cultivated two thousand years before the Scots started agriculture. He laid his heavy skull against mine.

‘Itu, kami tidak punya,’ Caleb said, looking at the raised spears in my photograph of a Dani war party. ‘These we do not have.’

‘I see. And these?’ I asked, pointing at the necklaces, face paint, head dresses and nose tusks.

‘Yes.’ He ran a blade of grass thoughtfully back and forth through the pierced septum of his nose.

‘Do you have them?’

‘Yes. The cowry shells are for weddings. That woman is very pretty.’ In the photograph, the young girl wore the white shells between her breasts. Her face was coated in ceremonial mud.

‘Do you have the shells now?’

‘No. Father Geet burnt them all.’

‘What do you mean, “he burnt them”?’

‘Just that, he built a bonfire and burnt everything: headdresses, nose tusks …’


‘Because the Bible came. Now we know God.’

‘When was this, this fire?’

‘In 1987. I was the same age as him,’ he pointed at Onisimus, his ten-year-old nephew, ‘but by then I had already had my nose pierced. Father Geet came in 1987. Before that the missionaries had not come.’

One of Geet’s helpers, Cornelius, a Dani man, had told me a week before that Geet had been working in the village since the late 1970s. Only the final conversions had taken place in 1987. Caleb, however, presented the conversion as a sudden Damascene vision, not a long, difficult period of negotiation. ‘Of course, we did not burn traditional things in the village,’ Cornelius said. ‘We were much more sensitive – we don’t do things like that any more. That was the old approach.’ But if that was right, what had happened to all the nose tusks?

The first permanent settlement built by an outsider among the highland peoples was that of a Texan from the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1954. By the 1960s he had been joined by a horde of missionaries and anthropologists, one of whom married a Dani chief. But in the wake of the resistance movements that followed from the formal incorporation of Irian Jaya into Indonesia in 1969, the Government had limited the number of foreigners entering the highlands. The anthropologists who had begun to venture out of the valley into the surrounding jungle found that their licences were not renewed and of the very few foreigners left most were American Christian missionaries. They now began, with the blessing of the Indonesian authorities, to press out of the valley, eastwards along the limestone and sandstone ridge around Wamena that runs the length of New Guinea. As they climbed onto these ranges through jungle areas which the Indonesians continued to avoid, they found far fewer people. Those they did encounter had been cut off from contact even with the Dani by the ravines, by the jungle and by continual warfare. And the weather became colder and wetter: a sweet potato on this land would take twice the time to grow to half the size it could reach in Wamena. The climate left people short of food and susceptible to pneumonia, their pigs were sick and the rains released landslides that frequently destroyed the plantations.

In the mid-1960s, the missionaries encountered the Yali, whose lands stretched in a hoop of rugged terrain around the eastern edge of the valley. The missionaries had seen the Dani as cheerful, relaxed and easy converts, but the Yali were ‘as harsh and difficult as their climate’. In 1968, the Yali killed the Australian missionary Stanley Dale. Not long afterwards they ate 13 Dani lay preachers. But despite the increasing dangers, the missionaries had succeeded in converting most of Dale’s killers by the late 1970s. Now, with the aid of Yali converts, the missionaries continued to press further east, first among the ‘Goliath pigmies’ or Kimyal areas through to Kweilam Dua and then, sometime before 1987, further still to the Una people at Bomela, below the 14,000 foot peak of Yamin.

Their startlingly rapid progress was made possible by the light aircraft. A map of the central highlands shows not roads, for there are none, but the dots of airstrips for single-engine planes which the missionaries carved by hand out of the hillsides. First, there is a whole peppering inside the Baliem and then a thin line stretching east along the mountain range to Bomela. Thanks to these dots the community was supplied with the new necessities: for the villagers, emergency provisions, medicine and the Word of God; for the missionary families, school books and tinned food. They have since become more like leeches, relentlessly sucking communities out of the jungle towards the airfields, creating an uninhabited wilderness around each set of dots.

Indonesia has continued to discourage anthropologists, and as far as I could gather Father Geet of the Dutch Reformed Church and his missionary assistants were until our arrival the only outsiders to have been with the Una near Baluk.

I ran my hands up and down the rough walls of Caleb’s hut and pulled out traces of bark and rattan from between the planks, staining my hands with soot. The yellow thatch, singed by the hut’s fire and soaked by the rain, was dank and rotten. Inside, his family crouched to avoid the smoke and an enormous sow that lay in the corner seemed to gasp for air, ignoring the snuffling demands of her litter. The Una, unlike the Iban, had not yet acquired petrol cans, calendars and plastic pots. In the corner, on the bare earth, was a stick for digging, some teeth used as scrapers, a block of stone for an adze and a sharp piece of bamboo used as a knife. There was a stone axe, made by binding a piece of Langda flint onto a stick. Since the arrival of an imported metal machete, it had been used only as a hammer. Caleb’s remaining possessions were in a bark fibre net bag, which was slung over his mother’s back. They consisted of things collected in the jungle: resins, different types of kindling, strips of vegetable fibre, cassowary bird bones, husks of padanus nuts, stones and rat furs. Unlike the Dani of the Central Highlands, the Una did not dye the bags with clay or flowers so the bag was the same colour as the dirt floor.

The absence of colour was not merely an aspect of the huts; it seemed to be an aspect of the villagers. They had never made textiles and their bodies were not decorated with cloth. The Una were not tattooed and, again unlike the Dani, they did not paint their faces with clay. That day, the only colour came from the dim light reflected in the beads of rain on their hair.

Standing slightly to one side of the group, framed by the black fence, was a young albino. He was staring at Caleb. His curly hair was as yellow as butter, but he had the build of a Una boy, from his broad face to his wide feet and distended belly. The sun had been at work on his pink skin for ten years, staining it with khaki and liver-white and cherry-red blisters, half-healed. Over the motley of his pigment, there was a sprinkle of black freckles. His penis gourd was the same colour as patches of his particolour flesh so that it appeared to be his real penis. The villagers pushed him a little closer to me shouting: ‘Same, Same.’ When released, he backed away, studying me through pale eyes as though looking for the similarities. I tried to talk to him in Indonesian but he would not or could not respond. For the rest of my stay he remained in the background, watching closely.

On my final night in the village before Caleb led me up Mount Yarkon – the next stage of my journey – I slept in the youth hut, a rectangular building with a corrugated iron roof, built by the missionaries. Twenty villagers sat inside and there were 50 children at the door. It was very different from Caleb’s hut, which was round, and where the old low roof forced you to squat on the ground. In this rectangular room you could stand or sit on the benches – the only furniture in the village – putting us all on different levels, with our backs against the flat walls. There was no fire and no opportunity to share and cook the food. Perhaps in reaction to this, there were no rules as to who could sit on the benches or at a certain end of the room. Everyone did a great deal with their cigarettes, as though the lighting and sharing of these small fires had replaced the lighting and sharing of the cooking fire.

Caleb’s uncle, a very old man almost entirely bald, with grey stubble and legs so thin that it seemed you could pass a hand between the two bones of one thigh, sat on the floor with an empty net bag on his head, eyes red and weeping, coughing. I had brewed sweet tea and gave him some. When he had drunk it, he gazed at the white scratch lines on the red plastic mug.

‘How old is he?’ I asked.

‘Very old’ Caleb replied. ‘He’s the oldest man in the village – he is 35.’

‘But he looks older.’

‘He’s 35,’ Caleb repeated. ‘We die at 35.’

‘How old are you, Caleb?’

‘Twenty-five,’ he replied.

‘And you?’ I asked the others.




And so on, counting in fives.

‘Has he fought?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ everyone said who could speak Indonesian. Everyone wanted to talk about the battles that had preceded the conversion to Christianity.

Caleb’s mother, sister, children and his brother’s wife were standing outside looking in. The teenagers had put on their T-shirts but his mother had not. Her ears had been ripped apparently by the weight of heavy earrings, but I never saw any earrings. She would not come in, but was prepared to answer my questions from the doorway. I asked her about the wars with Langda, the neighbouring village. She remembered watching the flames at night when the women’s huts were torched by a Langda war party. Many of the Una men who struggled slowly up the hill to fight them were killed. Their bodies were carried to Langda, five hours’ walk away and, she believed, eaten.

‘How does human flesh taste?’ I asked.

‘Like pig,’ Caleb interrupted.

‘It’s just meat,’ another villager added. The Una seemed to be most comfortable talking to an outsider if they talked about cannibalism and warfare. Maybe it was all outsiders ever wanted to talk about.

‘Please ask your mother,’ I said to Caleb, ‘if she has eaten human flesh.’

She said something in Una, which I did not understand, and Caleb replied: ‘No, only her father’s father ate human flesh, although her husband fought in the wars.’

Caleb’s mother’s statement seemed to contradict Cornelius the missionary’s claim to have seen cannibalism here in the late 1980s. There was symmetry in this. According to Caleb, the missionaries were totem-burners. According to Cornelius, the pagans were recent cannibals. Yet Cornelius freely admitted he was from a cannibal people and Caleb boasted of his role in the church.

Caleb suddenly, for the first time, asked me a question. ‘Where do you live?’

‘In Jakarta,’ I replied. Caleb nodded and so did everyone else but with less conviction. ‘Where did you learn your Indonesian, Caleb?’

‘I went to primary school but I had to leave after a year.’

The village leader translated the answer for those that did not speak Indonesian. Everyone giggled. The leader was wearing a T-shirt that said in English, ‘Don’t be fooled by this crummy T-shirt, I’m loaded.’

‘Why did you leave?’

There was more talk in Una and the room laughed again. The ten-year old, Onisimus said: ‘He likes to play with women.’

‘I played with a woman so I was thrown out,’ Caleb said earnestly. ‘I couldn’t go to school any more.’

‘How old were you then?’

‘Ten. I was only at school for a year but I can speak Indonesian.’

‘What does your name mean?’

‘It comes from the Bible. Caleb was the man who looked after Jesus in Egypt.’

‘From where in the Bible? Which Gospel?’ I asked because Caleb was a lay-preacher.


‘But which Gospel?’

He seemed very uncomfortable. After a pause, he asked gruffly: ‘Where is England, is it in Africa or is it in America?’

‘It is nearer America,’ I replied untruthfully.

‘Is everyone in England a boss?’

‘I don’t understand. “A boss”?’

Caleb explained. ‘In Holland, everyone is a boss: they are missionaries or doctors or teachers. Here we have farmers. Are you all bosses?’

‘Well yes, many of us are “bosses” but we have farmers, too. They have farmers in Holland as well.’

No one was listening any more. I was not sure whether they were confused or merely bored.

After another pause Caleb added: ‘In Africa, everyone is a pilot.’

The man who has written most eloquently about the highlanders of Irian is Peter Mathiesson. In 1961 he was allowed to stay with the Harvard Peabody expedition among the North-Eastern Dani, by the Dutch colonial government, on the understanding that the police and the missionaries would arrive a year later to stop the fighting and change the religion. In his Homeric account, the Dani are ‘noble and warlike’. Each war-leader, his character and style of fighting are described in depth. In one passage, Mathiesson dedicates five pages of close anatomical detail to a young boy bleeding slowly to death from a spear-wound in a ditch. He sat for some hours beside the boy notebook in hand but ‘to keep them pure’, he did not intervene.

Mathiesson’s description is simultaneously appealing, morally abhorrent and misleading. Much of this is a result of his attempt to describes how the Dani behaved ‘before the long shadow of the white man’ fell. He likes to think of the warrior ‘Weakelek’ alone against the sunrise, plotting raids and considering the world spirit. But in reality, much of Weakelek’s time was, I assume, spent watching Michael Rockefeller, the millionaire photographer, opening tinned food outside the Harvard tent. The Dani must have questioned the reality of their own wars, with the crew openly filming and, no doubt, encouraging them not to look at the camera while engaged in hostilities. They must also have begun to suspect that their real enemies were no longer the neighbouring village – above all, when the cameramen were replaced by the police. There was little here above Baluk that reminded me of a Homeric epic.

On my final day with Caleb, we climbed up towards Yarkon and stopped after some quick hours to eat, sitting down beside the rising path. It was still cold, but unusually, we could see the sun. The sun is visible for perhaps an hour a day on the higher slopes. For the rest of the day the land is soaked in mist. It had rained every day for a month. Standing beside me was Caleb’s three-year-old son who had accompanied us all the way. He had his stomach thrust out and was quietly enjoying a cigarette as he watched me. The boy’s very young mother was giggling with two unmarried girls in grass skirts who stared at me but wouldn’t approach. Caleb talked to the other men.

Then a green stick insect, ten inches long, settled on my chest. Its tail was a violent yellow. The boy looked at it and ran away. It crawled slowly up towards my neck and, laughing at the child’s fright, I walked over to show it to one of the other men. He backed away. I stopped laughing. Everyone was staring at me and nobody approached.

‘Only its tail is poisonous,’ the man said.

‘And it’s very good to eat,’ Caleb said, adding hastily: ‘but you mustn’t eat it now.’

I shook it off without mishap. The men, who were eating sugar cane, passed me a stick. I could not remove the thick bark, so Caleb took the cane back from me. He arched his head back, braced himself with his small feet, thrust his belly even further forward and then ripped away strips of bark with his teeth. Finished, he rolled the bare white sugar cane back and forth in his dark pink palms. Next to him, his little boy had a grandiose puff on his cigarette before he ran one finger along the cane and passed it to me. Then he hid behind his mother’s short grass skirt. I ate the cane.

Following Caleb, up through the moss forest, I watched his bare feet carve a new path along the edge of the old, at times feeling for slivers of sharp rock and at others drawing the energy from the roots underfoot as though from a sprung wooden floor. On the peak, high above the mid-level foliage and the alpine moss, a Una had set the gorse and rhododendrons alight. Caleb did not know why. To me the landscape looked as I imagined some shattered, bomb-gouged field on the Western Front. The mist formed a wall thirty feet away and beneath it stretched a thick mud of brilliant silver grey, planted with the stumps of charred black trees, all gradually melting in the rain.

On the greasy spits of land between the puddles Caleb spread his great toes and held a pole upright to make the centre of the shelter. Onisimus, the ten-year-old, shinned up the pole. The others were vigorously tearing fragments of rock and tree out of the earth to create a sleeping area. Throughout the evening and well into the night when everyone else was seated, Caleb was out in the downpour, cutting blocks of turf to pile as a wall for our camp. We barely needed them and he tore them down the next day.

Two old relatives of Caleb’s squatted with their arms wrapped around their chests and shivered with cold, compensating for the chill damp on their backs by burning their shins at the fire. The fact that they were cold but had no clothing reminded me that there was no wildlife for skins, no metal for knives, no bone or ivory needles for sewing and no neighbours from whom to learn.

Caleb sat down, shaking his head vigorously from side to side. My green tam o’shanter, now with a dark line of mud and rain along the rim, swayed back and forth on his hair. I had hoped to find out a little more about him. But he did not seem to want to communicate at all. When he spoke, it was to make a public show of ordering me around. A gruff note of command had now replaced the affable soprano. The villagers sitting in a circle around the fire had finished their meal of sweet potato. Caleb was in the centre, a stick of sugar cane in his hand and his back resting lightly against the turf wall. He began to sing what they said was an ancient song. It was my last night with the Una and I wanted the voices around the fire finally to reveal what they thought of themselves and the world. It was only when he ended the verse that everyone else began to join in, hesitantly, echoing the final two lines in another key. Then they were silent again. As he came to the mid-point of the song they began to intrude softly with cassowary cries, the voice of owls and a strange low cackle, beating their hands on the earth. The Una words were translated for me:

We are here, on top of the mountain,
On the highest peak, we are camped,
We have fire and trees to shelter
Our guests and our journey.

With its ancient harmonies the song was impressive. But the words reveal very little. Written down they are not what I hoped they were.

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