Enga unique and still intact culture, total immersion into extravaganza of colours, body and face paint, impressive headdresses, traditional songs and frenzied dances make Enga Cultural Show a spectacular event. Its off-the-beaten-path location and beautiful setting among lush green mountains make it a perfect destination for photographers coming to Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea culture and traditions: Enga Province
I am standing in the middle of the showground surrounded by hundreds of people with elaborate headdresses and bodies painted in rich earthy colours. The performers are singing and dancing, or rather jumping, in unison, with long feathers swaying to the rhythmic thumping of kundu, traditional drums of Papua New Guinea. This contagious sound will be the background music for the next three days of Enga Show.
They are the famous Suli Muli dancers from Enga Province with fierce-looking painted faces and giant round hats made of moss, plant fibres or even their own hair, similar to Huli wigmen from Hela province of Papua New Guinea. Forming an aesthetic spear line they are rhythmically jumping up and down in unison to the beat of their kundu drums and singing “suli muli”, giving the tribe its name. The rhythmic stamping of their feet is throbbing deep in my chest and rising clouds of dust from the ground.
Soon, the showground becomes an extravaganza of colourful face and body paint, impressive headdresses, traditional songs and rhythmic dances. Hundreds of sing sing groups, a Melanesian pidgin term for people gathering dressed in their traditional attire for ceremonial dancing, have travelled for days on foot, by bus and trucks to gather in Wabag for this annual event to showcase the best of their culture.
Walking around the showground I come across some women from Kompiam-Ambum district of Enga province, with their faces painted in black and white, wearing skirts and headdresses made of green foliage and chests covered with necklaces made of sea shells.
There are also women from Lagaip-Porgera district of Enga province, with faces painted in red and yellow, wearing grass skirts and headdresses made of couscous fur. Other women are wearing round hats decorated with green foliage.
There are women women wearing long grass skirts, big kina shells around their necks, and large traditional string bags made from tree bark, known as bilums, serving them as headdresses.
The variety of tribes coming solely from Enga province is amazing. Located in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea and referred to as “the last frontier”, the rugged Enga province possesses rich and diverse culture, which remains unchanged over many generations. Enga is also unique in that it has only one language spoken throughout the province making Engans the largest ethnic and linguistic group in the country with over 800 different languages. Although speaking the same language, the Engan culture is diverse, and traditional attire and dances vary from district to district.
In one corner of the showground I notice Lyano Spiders sing sing group, with their bodies painted with mud and clay, and headdresses made of moss covered in white dots. They come from a small village of Lyano situated on a hill and known to have a lot of garden spiders giving these people its name. Stamping their feet to the rhythmic beats of kundu drums, they are violently shaking their arse grass, a bunch of tanket leaves stuck into belts to cover the backside.
Some bare-chested women, with thick layers of shell necklaces, are also wearing similar headdresses with white dots.
The world-famous Mt Hagen festival, with its impressive number of sing sing groups, set my expectations high. But Enga Cultural Show, known as a smaller version of Mt Hagen festival and Goroka show, attracts almost as many sing sing groups as Mt Hagen festival. With its beautiful setting among untouched lush green mountains, its unique culture and just a handful of tourists compared to the touristy-crowded Mt Hagen festival, Enga Show is more intimate and truly spectacular. But it still remains to be uncovered by visitors. During my first visit a few years ago, I surprisingly found myself to be the only tourist. I was happy to see tourists coming to the show next year.
Cultural shows in Enga have been organised on ad-hoc basis since 1982. The motivation and dedication of the Committee members, and in particular, the efforts of Margaret Potane, the energetic chairlady, made Enga Show an annual event. Since 1994 it has become a meeting point of sing sing groups from all around Enga province as well as other provinces of the country.
Chimbu women do not get unnoticed with their impressive huge headdresses made of bird of paradise feathers, an ornithologist’s nightmare. With some up to one meter long, their headdresses originated as a way to intimidate their enemies. Their bodies, painted with mud and clay, are glimmering from the oil from plants and pig’s fat used to keep them warm during the cold time. They proudly wear large kina shells displaying their wealth. Coming from the coastal regions of Papua New Guinea, kina shells are highly valued in the Highlands.
All of a sudden, loud war-like cries and whooping sounds draw my attention. Armed with bows and arrows, a group of fierce-looking Hewa people strike poses for curious onlookers. One young boy gets within a striking distance, emits a loud cry and leaps forward. The crowd shrieks and scatters, laughing.
For a while they simulate battles they have fought but soon, the fierce warriors put down their spears and make fire from rubbing stones and light a cigarette or two.
Kundu drums thunder and the ground trembles as brightly painted women from Western Highlands and Jiwaka provinces of Papua New Guinea stomp and chant next to Hewa people. Their shining breasts are sporting as many layers of shells as they possess, and their impressive headdresses decorated with huge feathers are wildly moving to the beat of kundu. The blazing sun does not stop the proud dancers.
Walking around the showground, it is impossible to remain a simple bystander. Soon, I find myself joining the boisterous dancers. Proud of their culture, smiling and curious locals are eager to chat and tell stories behind their attire, songs and dances.
The women are followed by brightly-coloured Mt Hagen warriors, who loudly march across the showground in line threatening the onlookers with spears and axes. The men, with their stunning but intimidating face painting and even beards paint in the same colour as their faces, utter high-pitched battle cries making the onlookers keep a distance.
Soon, the showground becomes a whirlwind of pounding feet and bouncing heads. The attire of each tribe has a distinctive style, and I cannot stop admiring the stunning variety of sing sing groups.
Mingling and chatting with the locals during the whole day, I join my newly acquired friends for their “make-up session”.
The next day early morning fog is yet to lift but sing sing groups have already started getting ready for the show. Both men and women are spending hours painting their bodies and faces in all range of colours, arranging impressive feathers and elaborate, headdresses, tucking leaves around their waist and arms. The air is fresh during this time of the day but the performers seem not to notice the cold excited to be part of the show.
For the next two days of Enga Cultural Show, the showground becomes the explosion of colours and a constant parade of stunningly dressed sing sing groups accompanied by pounding sounds of feet and kundu drums. Within a few hours, the field becomes an eclectic mixture of bouncing headdresses and grass skirts, stomping feet and rising dust.
Among all the tribes, Huli wigmen from Hela province of Papua New Guinea clearly stand out with their famous towering wigs made of human hair, bodies and faces brightly painted in red and yellow, and hornbill beaks on their backs. Forming a perfect line, they jump up and down in unison to the beats of kundu drums, with feathers on their heads rhythmically shaking and pounding feet rising dust.
There are also tribes coming as far as Manus, the remote coastal province consisting of a group of islands.
There are sing sing groups in red laplap from East New Britain province.
There are tribes decorated with white chicken-like feathers.
There are young boys carrying wooden guns and resembling Australian colonial patrol officers.
There is also a whole delegation of people coming from the Sepik River region. Dressed in their stunning traditional attire, they are dancing with crocodiles in hand, some fake and some alive. One live crocodile has been offered as a gift, together with other presents from Sepik, to Enga Provincial Governor Sir Peter Ipatas.
If in the past twenty years Enga Show attracted sing sing groups from other provinces of Papua New Guinea, a couple of years ago the Organising Committee took an important decision not to invite performers from outside Enga in order to preserve and promote Enga culture. The only exception was given to Hela province as the two provinces have strong links. They are considered descendants of the same forefathers and have similar customs and traditions. In addition, to encourage young Engans to uphold their rich cultural heritage, all schools around Enga provinces have been encouraged to perform on the first day of the show.
Enga Cultural Show is not only the opportunity to admire traditional performers but also to see the creativity and skills of local craftsmen. Some Engan men are proudly making their famous round hats using their own hair.
Some are busy demonstrating the construction of traditional Engan houses, bridges and fences.
In one corner, there are local artists making sand paintings unique to Enga province. “I grind up coloured stones to get fine sand of natural earth colours,” a local artist is eager to explain. Enga does not have beaches, and the artists are using the technique invented by a student of National Art School in Port Moresby in the early 1980s. While explaining the sand painting, the artist is drawing the design on the piece of plywood, usually depicting traditional Enga daily life, putting some glue on the drawing and sprinkling coloured sand on top.
Apart from sand painting, traditional salt making is another trademark of Enga province. The salt, locally produced from a specific tree, was used as an important trade item between provinces and used in bride price ceremonies. “We leave the tree logs in the lake for several weeks so that the salt is dissolved in the wood, dry and burn the wood, then take the ashes and strain the salt,” explains Marcus, one of the few remaining traditional salt makers. His demonstration of traditional salt making attracts curious crowds, and I end up with a precious gift of two bunches of salt wrapped in leaves and attached to a wooden stick for the ease of transportation. Its grey colour and distinctive flavour will be reminding me for a long time of Enga and its kind and hospitable people.
I returned from Enga Show not only with the gift of traditional salt but also with a sense that tribal identity is still a strong source of pride for many Papua New Guineans. In the recent years, the country has undergone through significant changes, and globalisation and Western influence put it at risk of losing its rich cultural heritage. But many people recognise the importance of preserving their unique traditional culture. Enthusiasm demonstrated by the show participants, dedication and efforts by the Organising Committee, to maintain Enga culture rise hope that it will remain alive for future generations.
Dates: Enga Cultural Show is an annual event held in August, a week-end prior to Mt Hagen festival. In 2018, it will be held on 10-12 August. For further information, visit the Enga Cultural Show website.
Location: Enga Cultural Show is held in Wabag town, the captial of Enga Province of Papua New Guinea.
Where to stay and eat: There is a limited number of accommodation options in Wabag. In terms of price-quality, Wabag Lodge is the best option. Wabag Lodge email or Margaret Potane email phone (+675 547-1210). More accommodation options can be found on Enga Cultural Show website.
Other options include Wildlife Lodge located in Wabag town (+675 547 1138) and lodges popular among birdwatchers located outside Wabag (about 1 hour drive) such as Kumul Lodge built on the slopes of the Mt Hagen Ranges in the midst of a forest (+675 7163-5393) and Yaskomo Hotel & Resort overlooking the Lake Surunki (+675 7336-3741).
Additional information: Don’t forget to bring warm clothes. Enga is the highest province in Papua New Guinea with elevations of up to 2’000m, and it can be cold, especially early in the morning.