| PNG Insight
PORT MORESBY - ‘Last Real Man’ is a documentary film that captures the sacred cane swallowing ritual of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province and took six years to produce.
After extensive consultation, negotiation and research, Ruth Ketau convinced the elders from Sakanuga village in the Bena area that she should become the first filmmaker to record the Neheya initiation, a cane swallowing ritual.
Often referred to as drin kol wara (drink cold water), the Neheya initiation is sacred male practice which women were never told about, much less allowed to see.
The sacred ritual is dying out now because of other Western and religious influences. In an effort to preserve the ritual, men of Bena decided to tell the story, saying “ritual is a source of knowledge. It teaches men how to do things by learning from the ancestors and hold those teaching in trust. There is a duty to teach it and pass it on.”
The Neheya initiation includes cane swallowing and bleeding the nose, the tongue and genitalia. It is believed that upon initiation, young men will be good leaders in their community, attract beautiful women to marry and live a healthy and long life.
The cane swallowing ritual is for boys at puberty and young men. There is the sacred understanding that this ritual clears the mind and enlightens the heart and body.
It is considered as a purification of the body after a man takes and eats food from a menstruating woman, or engages in coitus with a woman.
Generally, the ritual is seen as a way to restore the inner strength of a man and inspire him to live a happy and successful life.
“Traditionally, a menstruating woman is considered dangerous to men. It is perceived that the menstrual blood could cause a man to die, fall ill, or fail to find a game in hunting. Therefore a woman menstruating will not cook food for her husband or other men.”
Village elders speak well of past initiates, recounting that they did not get sick, were physically fit, ran long distances to catch enemies and were generally strong people.
The cane is carefully carved to achieve a smooth surface and allow for easy passage down the oesophagus.
Final touches are made to bend the cane into a U-shape before hanging it to dry in cooking huts.
It is dried for about a month before been used.
Once in a while, the dried cane is taken out and left in the water to regain moisture and maintain its outer covering. Its length varies from two to three metres.
The initiation period last for two or three months, depending on the amount of pork available for meals in the hausman (men’s house). Mothers of young boys cry for their sons as they are taken away to learn their customs and embrace manhood.
It is important that there must be no quarrels or disagreements between family members of the initiates before the Neheya initiation. Without peaceful consent from all parties, it is felt that serious nasal, throat and tongue injuries (or even death) may occur during the initiation.
The boys and young men are also required to lie on their backs, face up, to sleep. It is believed this straightens and elongates the intestines in preparation for the Initiation.
Meals provided for the initiates comprise pork fat and boiled kaukau (sweet potato). The meal known as hosamaya ensures the smooth passing of the cane along the oesophagus. It is prepared only by elderly women who have passed menopause.
Initiation rituals are practised in many other PNG societies to transition men into adulthood. They also bestow upon men the authority, knowledge and understanding of the land and the people.
As part of the Neheya and cane swallowing, initiates must also undergo the nose bleeding ritual. Sharp-edged grass, known as ‘bleeding arrow’ is forced into both nostrils while the initiate is held back by another participant.
The head is tilted to one side so that the blood flows out easily.
The nose bleeding and cane swallowing rituals are carried out near a fast-flowing river so water washes away the blood. The initiates are led to the site amidst chanting and singing.
The young men must strike the correct pose so that a two metre cane can slide down the gullet. Water is splashed on an initiate’s chest and stomach to cool his body. Past initiates recall being afraid of the cane swallowing initiation, but were determined to be brave.
One wrong move could result in a serious internal haemorrhage causing death. Some Neheya ritual experts claim to have swallowed canes ten times in a day, and walked 500 metres with the long cane inside their bodies.
After expelling blood and saliva from the body, the initiates bathe in the river.
They are then adorned with the best traditional attire and led back to the village, not as children but as men with the strength to defend their community; knowledge to care for their people and beauty to find the women of their dreams.
After the rituals there is a final feast including the hosamaya dish with medicinal ingredients to heal the pierced nostrils and prevent infection.
Although the initiation ends after the feast, men can continue cane swallowing and nose bleeding for the rest of their lives for purification.
Shirley Komogi is from Bena and is a master trainer at the Centre of Excellence in Information Technology at the University of PNG