National Mask Festival
 Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

When people think of Papua New Guinea, they think of traditional cultures. On my first true impression of the country, well outside of the messy capital, Port Moresby, I had the chance to see that in full concentration at the National Mask Festival & Warwagira held in Kokopo, the first in three years.

East New Britain province (ENB) is home to four main cultures: Tolai, Baining, Pomio, and Sulka. That’s but four language groups of PNG’s over 800. Yet even within these four, there’s vast diversity of kastoms (customs) — rites, ceremonies, singsings (songs and/or dances), and whatnot performed for initiations, funerals, bride prices, and so on.

Yet all of this coexists with what appears to be a very Christian country. And in this day and age, how often do we see traditional cultures in the world practiced as more than a costume we put on once in awhile? Is anything still considered sacred? For PNG, we know that answer already — a big yes to both — but I’m here to learn what exactly that looks like and means.

The festival kicked off with a tubuan kinavai: tubuans (female spirits with faces) and dukduks (male, taller masks with no faces) represented by an all-male secret society dancing at the beach at sunrise despite the pouring rain, bouncing around like leafy pom-poms, welcoming in a boat of drummers and more tubuans. It’s a representation of the Tolai people’s arrival onto the shores of ENB.

Why the masks and leaves? Why the dance? I asked some people later. One initially bubbly woman became uncomfortable: women aren’t supposed to look at the tubuans, nor are they supposed to know or share what goes on. I asked a man: not being an initiate, it’s simply not for me to know.

What they could share though was that tubuans are “assigned” to men and passed down generations. The more tubuans one has, the bigger the man’s status. And for some reason, if the man dies, the tubuan’s allowed to burn down their house. Huh.

Things were frequently strange and beguiling at the rest of the festival, with ENB groups represented well beyond the tubuans of the Tolai. Some clearly took inspiration from birds or other animals. Various face paints, furry faces, covered faces… they’re all there. Another type of mask-hat I saw a week ago in a museum in Brisbane, I saw a few hundred times here, an eye-covering figurine of a man tall enough that dancers struggled to keep them on during the frequently heavy winds.

If that one wasn’t tall enough, the giant lizard hat couldn’t have been easy to hold in the wind for 20 minutes of dancing. Or the giant Baining one needing two people with poles to keep it steady.

Some kastoms presented seem to have elements of pain or suffering involved, to the point that I can’t suppress audibly gasping at the sights. These ones typically gathered the most attention from local attendees. The whip “dance” being one, with canes slapped at high speed onto outstretched arms or legs, leavings marks and even drawing blood at least once. There’s another where two to four group members are induced into a spiritual, trance-like state, violently quivering as if every muscle is clenched, all the while powering through 15-20 minutes of performance. At least one man collapsed at the conclusion of their performance.

Then there are the eaters of things: fire for one, literally chewing on sticks of charcoal still on fire, mouth proudly full of ash until swallowed. Or bottles: forget drinking a beer, try eating the entire bottle in a long series of crunching noises. How? Why?? I may never know. All of these practices are left to the secret societies of each village and region.

Most secret societies are male, but there were female groups too. Less extravagant but no less energetic.

A couple of female dancers, in a secret society of their own, joined in on the traditionally male, infamous Baining fire dance, held away from the festival grounds up in their mountain village. It’s a breathtaking performance to watch, with flames raging high and two other dances performed, until the big masks come out, moshing like at a concert, taking turns kicking embers into the air. The dancers’ identities are never known. With nothing else but darkness around, the sight of strange masks surrounded in moving clouds of fire may be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.

When people think of places with traditional cultures, reactions often turn to anti-modernity, backwards societies, under-education, or under-development. While some of that may apply to regions of the country living under tribal conflict, it’s most certainly not the case in Port Moresby or East New Britain. Many people I’ve talked to here have been reasonably well-educated, well-read, aware and interested in the world, and eager to progress development and participate in modern globalized society.

And yet traditions live: one girl I talked to, dreaming of a decidedly untraditional consumerist future outside of the country, remarked how many don’t exactly believe in spirits such as those represented by tubuans. They’re all more into church these days. Yet she swears that one time when she happened to stand next to a tubuan without knowing, she fainted immediately after turning around and seeing him. Others mentioned to me the sense of duty they felt to participate in their culture and safeguard its secrets, even with their lives of education and professional work take the foreground, and their eagerness to share with outsiders. For lands of opportunity, there’s always neighbouring Australia, or perhaps a smaller South Pacific nation like Fiji or Vanuatu. Most seem comfortable to remain in PNG instead, even if in other regions — despite the vast diversity of languages and cultures, PNG is a country where everyone understands the coexistence of that with modern life.

For initiates in participating groups, this festival was a serious, sacred affair. (Unfortunately, some obnoxious tourists didn’t quite realize that, standing right in the middle of singsings with their cameras, with uncomfortable performers and locals too polite to intervene. Drones are now banned too after another tourist flew one over a secret tubuan house.) Groups isolate themselves in the bush for two weeks before a kastom, developing their coordinated routines and consuming meagre diets while doing so. Some paddled in from nearby islands just to perform, and some couldn’t make it due to weather despite their weeks of preparation. Singsings feel like an act of endurance: often 15-20 minutes of heavy repetition with sudden rhythm changes and simple but numerous motions and footwork, with high energy throughout. During or after performances, some group leaders would dole out shell money to performers.

We even saw two boys being initiated on the festival grounds, contributions of shell money flooding in as a future investment into buying land or paying a bride price. While not the same as the kina (official currency), shell money is considered convertible to an actual kina value.

Traditions also exist in a form we might see back home too. At nights, the Warwagira part of the festival kicks in: put on your traditional dress, perform a song on stage, and have it judged for lyrics and performance like a reality show. Social issue messages like “stop violence in community” seemed to be a common theme (and now the song’s stuck in my head). Or just skip the tradition altogether and play some rock music. These were far more crowded than the daytime kastom events, and much more popular with the locals.

But kastoms are performed far more often than you might think – seems like one happens every other day in one village or another, for funerals, weddings, settling disputes, celebrations, and probably more. They’re just not public like a festival. It’s been an immense privilege to see so many diverse ones in such a short time, particularly rarer ones like the fire dance up in the mountains.  And at the festival, locals of different tribe affiliations get to see what the others do, and they enjoy the spectacle as much as the tourists — or maybe even more, given the many cell phone videos being taken.

I would be remiss not to touch on the fact that this week has been equally divided into of the highest highs and lowest lows of my travel history. Heavy rain and winds derailed parts of the festival. It also turned what was to be a departure from Kokopo to another island and festival into nothing but three days of waking up at dawn and standing soaked in the rain for hours waiting for boats that did not depart. I even lost my wallet somewhere along the way, something that’s hobbled but not prevented the rest of this trip, thankfully.

It’s given me some perspective of how regular life is here. People from neighbouring islands can’t go home either with the weather, stranded in Kokopo until the boats can run again. Efficiency and communication isn’t a strong point here, and many phone calls have to be made, all providing contradicting information. Several boats have been lost with fatalities this week after running into adverse conditions. Better safe than sorry, but having to extend stays with families and guesthouses, show up at the beachfront for hours, only to have to return and do it again and again each day must be taxing. I’m just here doing it for fun.

All throughout, strangers have become friends, countless phone numbers have been exchanged, and people have been some of the nicest and most generous with their time that I’ve ever encountered. People — again, even complete strangers — have escorted me to make sure I’m okay, waited hours with me while helping with whatever I need, given me rides here and there no matter how early or late in the day, provided bus fare after my wallet was stolen, and offered up any personal connections they might have at any place I need to go both in ENB and further afield.

That’s tradition and culture too: looking out for the visitor in any way possible. It’s just as much of a privilege to be here on the receiving end of that.

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