The Papua New Guinean motto is “Unity in Diversity”. Nowhere is that more apparent than at a PNG cultural show. Once a year, dozens of tribes from several surrounding provinces gather in Mt. Hagen, the largest city in the Highlands region to showcase their unique, traditional dress, music, and dances. Cultural shows were originally organized as a way for warring tribes to gather peaceably in friendly competition. Now it is a way to celebrate and showcase the diverse cultures of Papua New Guinea.
It was fun to walk through the grounds during the pre-show preparations as each tribe applied their distinctive face paints, feather headdresses and ropes of shell necklaces. I enjoyed learning where each group was from and what unique ‘bilas’ (decorations) they used.
Many tribes wear the long, colorful plumes of the famed ‘kumul’ (bird of paradise), which is the national bird. Others feature feathers from roosters, peacocks, ‘muruk’ (cassowary: a large flightless bird), or parrots. Some headdresses are hats woven from moss, bark or colorful yarn with beaded bands or leaf decorations.
Breastplates can be made of bamboo, large shells, boar tusks, or animal furs. Many people use the fur of the ‘kapul’ (cuscus) in their hats, breastplates or skirts. Skirts can also be made of grass, strings of chicken feathers, woven fabric, or just a loincloth with traditional tanket leaves covering the backside.
Some of the more unique characters are the mud men and the skeleton men. The mud men come from Goroka, a town in the Eastern Highlands Province. It is said that they were once chased by an enemy tribe and forced to hide in a muddy river bed. When they emerged, covered in grey mud, their enemies believed them to be spirits and ran away in fear. Now the mud men make gruesome clay masks to complete their other-worldly guises. One mud man was quite friendly and even let me try on his mask!
The skeleton men are another unique group who paint their bodies with charcoal and ash to give the appearance of skeletons in order to frighten their foes. One man showcased their traditional battle cries as he danced with a pretend spear. He was quite the performer and seemed to love all the attention.
It was also fun to see the children getting involved, learning the traditions of their ancestors and adding immensely to the cuteness factor.
Many local artisans attend the show to display their traditional paintings, carvings, shell jewelry, and artifacts. It is truly amazing how God created people with such widely diverse customs - each beautiful and creative in their own way.
Before the end of the day, my face was painted too (with a bird of paradise in PNG flag colors) , and I joined my new friends as we smiled and laughed. It seems that smiles can cross any cultural barrier and truly unite all of us, no matter our culture.