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Enga’s annual show highlights people, tradition & identity

Kinjap - Sili Muli girls prepare for the show
Sili Muli dancers prepare for the Enga show


PORT MORESBY - We can safely say there is enough evidence for us to know that more than 25,000 years ago the Melanesian people crossed land bridges from Indochina to inhabit what we refer to as Papua New Guinea.

When Engan son and prolific writer Daniel Kumbon paused at the display of Engan artefacts at the African American Cultural Centre in Dayton, United States, he addressed black Americans with the words:

“Like some of you, we too are black. Like you, our roots are rich and deep. We are your distant cousins, sharing a common African heritage but now scattered in different parts of the world.”

“Maybe black Americans have appreciated the [Engan] display more than others,” said Dr Paul Brennan, the American anthropologist, when he saw the love and admiration of his culture on Daniel’s face.

Later Kumbon wrote in one of his articles, “One little girl asked me if Engans see themselves as black people. I thought that was provoking. I told her, Engans are black.”

Kinjap - Young boys from EngaDr Brennan’s Engan collection, some of it saved from destruction by ruthless missionaries, was probably the largest from the PNG highlands to be found anywhere in America or Europe, if not second to Professor Marilyn Strathern’s collection of Western Highlands items at Cambridge University.

Engans saw danger everywhere, Dr. Brennan told people – in fast flowing rivers, the rugged terrain, ancestral spirits and more - but the real enemies were the people who lived on the other side of the ridge or river.

A clan had to defend itself when pigs were stolen, insults shouted, boundaries disputed and especially when blood was shed. But the main reasons for Engan warfare were to ensure the territorial integrity of the clan and to enhance its prestige.

Dr Brennan lived in Enga from 1968-77, a period of much change, and he established the Enga Cultural Show as a display of living Engan culture. Every year from then on Engans and tribes from nearby provinces have proudly displayed their identities.

Kinjap - Dancers from Tambul at the Enga showThis showcase of a rich cultural heritage set amidst a stunning natural landscape is held in August each year at Wabag town showground.

Enga is the only province in Papua New Guinea where the people all speak the same language, and the event highlights a largely intact traditional culture with a festival drawcard being the Sili Muli dancers with their iconic black painted faces and unique headdresses.

The show is the highlight of the annual calendar for Enga Province - offering three days of culture, heritage and performance from communities in the five districts of the province. It also shows off the rare orchid Dendrobium Engae, found only in Enga.

Engans recognise the importance of preserving their traditional culture. They adore their culture, hundreds of people with elaborate headdresses and bodies painted in rich earthy colours dancing in unison, long feathers swaying to the rhythmic thumping of kundu drums. The background music for the Enga Cultural Show can be very contagious.

Kinjap - Enga men performingThe famous Suli Muli dancers have fiercely-painted faces and wear giant round hats of moss, plant fibre and even their own hair. Forming an aesthetic spear line, they rhythmically leap up and down in unison to the beat of the kundu and singing “suli muli”, giving the tribe its name.

Apart from cultural displays, traditional salt making is another trademark of Enga. The salt is produced from a specific tree and was used as an important trade item between provinces and in bride price ceremonies. The people leave tree logs in the lake for several weeks so the salt is dissolved in the wood. Then the wood is dried and burned, and the ashes strained to extract the salt.

Traditional salt makers at the showground demonstrate this and give out packets of salt wrapped in leaves and attached to a wooden stick for ease of transportation. If you attend an Engan Cultural Show, you drive home with not only with a gift of traditional salt but also with a sense that tribal identity remains a strong source of pride for  Papua New Guineans.

In 2019, the exotic Enga Cultural Show will be held from 10-12 August in Wabag. Air Niugini and PNG Air offer direct weekly flights to Wapenamanda airport located about 45 minutes drive from Wabag.

There is limited amount of accommodation in Wabag and, in terms of quality, Wabag Lodge is the best option.

Alternatives include Wildlife Lodge in Wabag and, popular among birdwatchers, Kumul Lodge built on the slopes of the Mt Hagen in the midst of a forest.

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


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Garry Roche

Peter, in the third photo, a very colourful one, the dancers (from Tambul) seem to be wearing what was called 'pigs tails aprons'.

I heard a talk from Dr Paul Brennan many years ago and he was very positive about Enga and its culture. I remember some very interesting studies on cultural aspects of the initiation ceremonies (sangai - sandalu).

As you know the name Enga comes from the Melpa language in the Western Highlands, and may be related to the word for eight - Engaka.

Central Hageners referred to Nebyler area as 'Tempagah' (four) and Wabag area as 'Enga'. Some think the numerical association may have had a directional meaning also.

And of course while the Hagen language is called Melpa, they themselves never called it that. In Hagen language 'Melpa' referred to the area in the direction of Kuli, Banz and Minj.

Philip Kai Morre

Enga people are unique despite law and order problems. They keep their culture and identity alive.

In institutions, universities and colleges you can identify Engans easily because they still speak their own language or tokples while other provinces speak Tok Pisin.

They can be aggressive people and can confront situations aggressively but once you are with them you find them different.

Joe Herman

Nice work Peter. Excellent opportunity to showcase the province.

Daniel Kumbon

Thank you for this article, Peter. You remind me of a lone bird of paradise I saw at Cleveland Zoo, a tree kangaroo and ground pigeons, the types you see at the Nature Park.

Dr Paul Brennan has done a lot of work in Enga preserving a lot of artefacts, some of which he had taken with him. But most he displayed at the Enga Cultural Centre, now renamed Enga Take Anda after IT was renovated and improved on by Dr Polly Weisner.

I was a committee member to establish the Enga Cultural Show in 1994 long after Dr Paul Brennan had gone. Enga Show continuous to be one of the major attractions to the province

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