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The Goroka Show reflects the face of a changing nation

Asaro mud men prepare their masks at the Australian Museum in Sydney (Ian Neubaueri)


PORT MORESBY - Since the beginning of human society, festivals and other events have provided a means for people to relax, enjoy, and escape from the routine of their daily lives by celebrating and enjoying themselves.

Papua New Guinea, steeped in a rich culture and with a fascinating history, plays host to many events throughout the year. Not only do they showcase the unique attributes of PNG, they also bring together communities, tribes and tourists.

The oldest regional show in PNG is the Goroka Cultural Show, launched in 1957 and since 1975 always coinciding with the week the country celebrates its independence. It brings together the customs of more than one hundred tribes that populate the highlands which gather for music, dancing, extraordinary tribal rituals and plain showing-off.

A popular attraction featured at the show is the tribe of Asaro mud men, known for their ghoulish clay masks adorned with pigs' teeth and shells.

They look fearsome and ghastly, and they are meant to. The eerie masks, bamboo finger spikes and mud-smeared bodies of the mud men were originally adorned to scare enemies.

The men from Asaro Green Valley, a village near Goroka, are Papua New Guinean cultural icons. They can be seen at various cultural events well beyond their highlands territory.

The mud men dance with a sluggish motion dragging their feet at three second  intervals.

With no written history, there is no way of pinpointing when the Asaro men began making these masks, though it is believed the practice has existed for for generations.

But, when the Australian Museum in Sydney asked Klinit Berry about the origins of the custom, she said that when an Asaro man got married everyone wore traditional costumes.

Mudman ( IAN NEUBAUERI)"There was an occasion when one man had no costume so he took an old bilum [string bag], cut two holes for his eyes, dipped it in mud and covered his skin with mud.

“That was his costume. However, when he arrived at the wedding, the other people thought he was a ghost and, so instead of celebrating, they fled."

Another story is that the mud men’s ancestors had escaped to a nearby village after being attacked by enemies. When they emerged they were covered in white clay, scaring the enemies who mistook them for spirits.

But some anthropologists disagree, believing the idea was invented by the village leader in 1957, when the organisers of the very first Goroka Cultural Show requested that his people take part in the extravaganza.

A lot has changed over the past 60 years around the world — and perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Papua New Guinea's rugged highlands.

Even in the 1950s, hundreds of tribes were living in total isolation from the rest of the country, let alone the world where the story of the mud men began.

But in 1957, things changed when Australian kiaps [patrol officers] introduced the Goroka Show; a chance for dozens of groups to come together from across the region, to show off their traditional dress and dances.

It brought together an eclectic mix of cultural groups from right across the country.

It was also a competition to see which was the best organised and administered district.

The event soon became a showcase for traditions of PNG's many tribes and language groups.

The mud men took the stage with simple bilums immersed in clay to become a popular part of the show.

Their masks are now made from a special clay that dries in the sun over a few days — no two masks are ever the same, with some men fashioning them as monkeys, others as skeletons.

Joachim Kaugla, 75, is a retired Catholic teacher born in a village near PNG’s tallest mountain, Mt Wilhelm, during World War II.

Joachim went to his first Goroka Show in 1961 and believes it is just as important today as it was in 1957, giving Papua New Guineans the chance to learn about each other’s cultures.

But he has some gripes about the changes he has witnessed over the past 60 years.

"Special dressing used really pure materials from the bush, their own bush," he said.

"Nowadays they've mixed this with the materials from factories, overseas materials. We’ve seen that is not nice."

Traditional dancers from Bonga Lower Kaguel
Traditional dancers from Bonga, Lower Kaugel, Tambul-Nebilyer district in Western Highlands (Peter Kinjap)

The traditional kundu drums, meticulously carved out of wood and covered with lizard skin, are now often made from plastic pipes and covered in more plastic.

While the Goroka Cultural Show may be evolving, elders like Joachim say it does need to stay for the next 60 years and beyond.

"The show is very, very important to teaching other people what is culture," he said.

"Sharing and laughing, respecting, all these things come from the soul."

The 2019 Goroka Cultural Show, a loud and vibrant sea of colour, will be held on the  weekend of14-15 September. Not to be missed, bigger and better!

Peter Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email: [email protected]


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