Thursday, March 9, 2017

Celebration of Life and Friendship

 Flying over the lush green mountains, the rivers swollen with rainwater, and the thatched houses with their garden clearings hewn from the dense surrounding forest, I truly began to appreciate the beauty of this isolated land.  

Landing on a grass airstrip in a seven-seat plane was a new experience for me. But as we bounced to a halt, we were greeted by the smiling, inquisitive faces of the local people of Sangapi. 
Over the next week, some of them would become my friends and my teachers as I learned the language and the culture of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. 

         Life here is very different from America. The people truly live off the land, living in houses made of local karuka trees or thatched with kunai grass, growing fruits and vegetables in their gardens, raising “free range” chickens and pigs, cooking over wood fires, making almost everything they need from “bush material” which is in plentiful supply and biodegradable, leading to very little waste.  


      Time seems almost to stand still in a place without seasons, where it seems to be perpetual spring. But life here is difficult. It is hard work to clear land for gardens, fence in the gardens to keep the pigs out, build houses from scratch, and gather and prepare food daily without the conveniences of refrigeration or electricity.

 Clothing varies widely with some young children running around without clothes or with a simple loincloth, others wearing the same tattered shirt day after day, and still others with impressively stylish wardrobes. Most of the adults are well clothed with women wearing skirts or dresses. I’m told that some people living in the bush just prefer to wear the traditional coverings of bush materials despite having access to western clothing, only wearing clothes when they come to town.

Despite the hardships of living in such an isolated place, the people here have a deep-seated joy and appreciation for life.  In this culture, they do not live to work, rather they work to live, and their very survival depends upon it. Life is to be celebrated. Smiles are contagious and everyone wants to shake your hand and welcome you to their community.  Everyone shares whatever they have. Many people brought us fruits and vegetables from their gardens, but the ultimate celebration that they honored us with was a traditional mumu, a pig feast.

Here in the highlands, pigs are the most valuable assets that families have. They are sold for anywhere between 200 and 2000 kina depending on the size of the pig. A mumu is typically reserved for very special occasions, so I was very excited to experience one. It is a full day event to prepare a mumu.  


    Nathan, one of the workmen at the clinic, showed us how he killed the pig with a bamboo spear shot from a limbu wood bow.  He even taught Erin and I how to shoot the bow (much different from the bows I’m used to shooting).

     Then I watched while Nathan, Amos, Maurice and Max butchered the pig, removing the internal organs and preparing it for cooking. Meanwhile, the ladies prepared the vegetables: kaukau (sweet potato), taro root, pumpkin (their name for any squash), pitpit (a grass with tender inner shoot), kumu greens (mostly pumpkin leaves), beans, and banana. 

        They dug a large pit and heated stones over a large fire. Then, the pit was lined with hot stones and layered with banana leaves. Next the root vegetables were placed in the pit on a bed of fern leaves.

After another layer of ferns and hot stones, the greens, pitpit, and banana mash were added. Then the pig was placed on top. Everything was quickly covered with banana leaves and grass to seal in the steam and heat.

Two hours later, everything was cooked and ready to eat, served on banana leaves. As you can imagine this feast can feed dozens of people. It is a huge celebration of family and of community. In PNG, sharing a meal with someone is a sign of friendship. I was greatly honored to share in this celebration with my new Sangapi friends.


  1. Wonderful post and pictures, Sheryl!

  2. Amazing!!!! What a great honor! Thank you for sharing!