Getting to know the Dani, the "savages" of the Baliem valley, in West Papua
August 2012. The small aircraft lands at the primitive airport of Wamena, at the Baliem valley. At last we reached the land of Papua, the land of the savages.
Our first sight was an outdoors "lounge" and a few people outside of it. It was a big surprise to see a nude savage Dani at close quarters, with his sole "garment" a "koteka", a penile sheath to hide and protect his male organ. We had come to meet just these people, but did not expect to find them here but in their villages, deep in the valley jungle!
Although the Dani people were discovered relatively late (in 1938), they are the best known tribe in Guinea, the main reason being that access to their quarters, the Baliem valley (one of the most fertile areas in the Papua land) is easy. Wamena is the "capital" of the valley and the starting point for all tourist groups. Not really a city; a small village, with a half-way decent hotel!
The Dani are one of the most genuine "savages", as they maintain, almost intact, their way of life, traditions, customs and code of ethics. They are one of the most "decorated" tribes in West Papua and are really impressive! Men wear only the long, slender koteka, a penile sheath made of pumpkin, that is fixed by a strap or line around their waist, and ….. as shown in the close up photos! A lot of times the koteka have unusual shapes galore!
Koteka is used by most of the Papuan tribes; its shape and size are characteristics of each tribe. In Wamena I met a man of the Lani tribe whose koteka are short and thick.
Their love for body decoration is most obvious during warfare. Perhaps you have seen famous photos of tribesmen wearing boar tusks in their noses and their heads are adorned with feathers of exotic birds. Dominant colors for their face painting are black and, white with, sometimes, red brush strokes!
The Dani were the most dreaded head hunter tribes in the island, following suite of the majority of other Papua tribes. War was, in the past, a common practice among tribes, fighting for domination and small-scale warfare among rival villages, is an integral part of their traditional culture and continues to this date. We were welcomed with a war ritual!
Women are bare-breasted and sometimes decorate their bodies and faces with white blots and lines. They wear short skirts made of straw and orchid fibers, the form and the length of which depends on their family status. Their heads are decorated with wreathes made of flowers and feathers, sometimes with elaborate crowns at the top.
An indispensable accessory of their attire is the noken, the huge knit bag-purse that is strapped on their heads and hangs on their backs. Apart from decoration this accessory serves to carry provisions, stuff for sale and whatever else you can imagine!
In Wamena, both men and women walk around normally dressed with only a few exceptions, such as the Dani man that "welcomed" us at the airport and the Lani we saw at the market of Rasar Nayak!
I was a shocked by a barbaric custom, to clip off the fingers of women, that starts with their widowhood and continues for every male relative that dies, as indication of respect and mourning. In villages near Wamena the custom is gradually fading out, as it has been banned by the government; nevertheless, I met several old women with many fingers maimed.
In Wamena, markets Rasar Nayak and Sinakma are mosaics of images that can cause a cultural shock. Sweet potatoes are the favorite product while the people's "beloved" pigs are omnipresent! It is their favorite source of meals. They cook pork with vegetables and they slaughter the animals with knives made from bamboo stalks.
The Danis are known for their "smoked mummies". In the village Jiwika we saw the 250-year old mummy of the famous chieftain Wimontok Mabel, whose black corpse is the best preserved and easiest accessible of its kind near Wamena.
Apart from Jiwika we also visited the villages Opigia and Anomoge where I was impressed by the environmental adaptation of the structure of their straw roofed huts and the necessary composite fencing but above all I was impressed by the warm reception of the "savages" despite the welcome war ritual!
Although the Dani have a most horrific reputation, among the other "savages" of this area, (since they were the most ferocious head hunters), they were friendly, warm and polite with us. Through "body language" we were able to communicate efficiently with them and approach their simple, traditional way of life.
And me of course, i loved the youngest members of the tribe, the children!
I wish that these genuine human beings hold onto their strong feeling of identity and protect their traditions from changes that the tourist traffic causes and stay the "people of the stone age; the savages of the Baliem valley".