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Traditions of the Bena Bena people of the Eastern Highlands

Bena Bena coupleKERRY KIMIAFA

THE Bena Bena language group of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea is found towards the north-eastern side of the provincial capital Goroka.

It shares the border with Madang Province to the north (Ramu), Lufa District to the south and Henganofi District to the east.

Today, the number of people who live in this area numbers close to 50,000 and they are distinguished by the different dialects of the Bena language they speak: Upper Bena, Lower Bena and Kona Bena.

One can easily distinguish where the person comes from depending on the dialect spoken.

In fact, the Bena Bena area was one of the first districts, if not the first, to be opened and exposed to western influence when the Leahy brothers arrived prospecting for gold along the Bena River.

Eventually an airstrip was established at Hapatoga as was the first mission operated school at Hogisopagu. Some of the products of this Bena SDA school include Benais Sabumei (former defence minister and member for Ungaii-Bena) and Sir Akepa Miakue - two senior statesmen whose names are synonymous with Bena Bena and the Bena society.

Some legacies of the Leahy brothers included the Collins & Leahy Group of companies, East-West Transport, Bena Co-operative Society, Bena coffee factory and Magitu tobacco factory; most of which do not exist today.

As in many other PNG societies, the Bena Benas have their own culture, legends, folklore and myths unique to their cultural setting and environment.

The environment is mostly savannah grassland, rolling hills and plains surrounded by guardian mountains including Mt Otto (referred to as Smanuga Sma, which literally means mountain where cloud mist never fades) to the north, Migipa to the east and Ungaii in the south west.

I was privileged to have been born between the traditional and modern eras and was able to partake and witness the transition from traditional to modern culture brought about by the influences of religion, education and the need to acquire modern wealth (money, cars, material goods, permanent houses, electronic goods).

The SDA church had a profound effect on abandoning the killing in Bena culture. Today, the Benas (including myself) are predominantly SDA and the majority of SDAs in Eastern Highlands are from the Bena Bena District.

The main objective of writing this paper was that, among other things, it will serve as a cultural education to modern day Benas of the new generation so they can reflect upon their cultural and traditional history and, if possible, resurrect some of it.

What is happening in all PNG is that most cultures (singsings, legends, folklore, dances, stories, practices , languages) are dying a natural or cultural death through a combined effect of all the aforementioned factors and influences.

When growing up as a child in Bena society, I witnessed and partook in some of the prominent and significant traditions and practices unique to our culture. They are highlighted in the document here which is available for download.

  Download Traditions of the Bena Bena


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Gipo Apaso

Correction: Mt Otto is known as Gatrofiali and Mt Helwig as Smanuga smahi.
Smanuga smahi refers to the exposed limestone glittering as the morning sun rising over the horizon of Finisterre Range of Morobe and Madang shines on them.

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