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PAPUA NEW GUINEA – SEPIK RIVER AND WATAM VILLAGE (PHOTOS, POEM AND A VIDEO)

May 2, 2013

SEPIK RIVER AND WATAM VILLAGE

The meandering Sepik River is the longest river in Papua New Guinea and for years has been a major trading artery linking the coast and the interior. From the West Papuan border, the Sepik twists its way towards the coast where the river mouth is more than a mile wide.

Watam Village is the easternmost village in East Sepik Province and is situated at the northwestern end of Broken Water Bay. The Watam people originally came from further east in the lower sections f the Ramu River, where there are still spoken languages closely related to the Watam language. The Watam people migrated from there many generations ago along with the people of Kopar village at the mouth of the Sepik River. They purchased the land they now reside on, with an exchange of Women and Ritual Goods.

The social organization of the village is patrilineal, with the clan membership coming from one’s father. There are 7 clans today and each occupies a land section in the village. Each clan has its own Men’s house, around which ritual life revolves. Rituals involve platforms on which food and other offerings are placed, tallied and then distributed among villagers at important festivities and rituals. Unmarried men still sleep in the men’s houses.

The traditional religion was animistic, involving spirit and ancestor placating, but today all villages are nominally Catholic, although much of traditional ritual and beliefs survive.

We all boarded the Zodiacs to travel across to Watam, it was important that we all arrive as one group for the official welcome by the village. As we traveled across we were greeted by  boats full of Watam Villagers singing and drumming and dressed in traditional Ramu dress, they then escorted us around the corner and Watam came into view. A ceremonial arch had been constructed from Sago Palm leaves and we all entered to be welcomed by the village. This began with the singing of the National PNG anthem and the PNG Pledge by the Watam school children; we then  awaited arrival of the Dragon.

The Dragon is actually a long sea serpent type costume that we were required to follow into the village. By doing so we were allowed to view village life that otherwise would have been taboo. In the eyes of the village we were all “men”! This procession was stunning with all 90 guests following the Dragon and being joined by Watam villagers. Children held our hands, adults walked beside us and friends were made immediately.

The village itself is set in a small cove and each of the homes and men’s houses are built of traditional materials, primarily Sago, which is used for walls, ceilings and also as food. The surroundings are a stunning green that is hard to put into words and includes lush banana and sago palms and stunning orchids.

THE SEPIK

The Sepik region is an immense grassland reserve, surrounded by one of the world’s greatest rivers which run 1,126 kilometers from the origins in the mountains to the sea. The people along the river depend heavily on it for transportation water and food.. Their national links with the Sepik River are symbolized in many of the ancient and spiritual rituals, such as the manhood initiation. This requires painful carving of flesh on the backs of young men with razor blades. Patterns are that of a crocodile lying on the banks of the river.

The history of the Sepik region reflects the influence over the years of the missionaries, traders, labor recruiters and administrators. Parts of the Highlands remain untouched just as they were when first discovered in 1933. In fact, some more villages have yet to see a white man.
The Sepik River has long been world famous for the quantity and quality of its wood carvings and for the imposing architecture of its Haus Tambarans – Spirit Houses. Traditionally, art in the Sepik was created in the service of magic, myth and ritual. Spirit houses were lined with shields decorated with the faces of ancestors, mythical being and nature spirits, whose likenesses appear also on masks, suspension hooks for food and on the pillars which supported the great soaring roof of the house. Ritual cannibalism was practiced as a means of protection against the spirit of an enemy killed in battle and for capturing his physical and spiritual powers. Often, the head was not eaten but pained and hung in the doorway of the spirit house as a symbol of prowess and to bar entry to women and the uninitiated.

The Sepik River has no actual river delta and stains the sea brown for up to 50 kilometers. It is said islanders off the coast can draw fresh water straight from the sea. The Sepik is navigable for almost its entire length and winds down through the land resembling a huge, brown coiling serpent.

We headed out once again in the Zodiacs towards the mouth of the Sepik River. The river stains the sea brown for up to 50km, similar to a milk chocolate color. It was also a little choppy and we rode the waves which added to the excitement.
The dense vegetation and swampland to be seen along the river’s edge is home to many species of birds – Bromeny Kites, White Sea Eagles, Kingfishers and Bee Eaters. We also had the opportunity to get closer to local farming plots full of banana and sago.
The two local species of crocodile may also be seen if we are lucky.
We then followed local canoes across the Sepik, which may I say is very fast running, towards Kopar. Local villagers will canoe up the river and then cross above their intended destination, using the Sepik’s current to carry them to their village. Kopar is a sizeable village on the banks of the Sepik River. Children ran out to welcome us and played around the Zodiac while the rest of the village waved and smiled.

WATAM VILLAGERS WELCOME AND ESCORT US TO THE SHORE

WATAM VILLAGERS WELCOME AND ESCORT US TO THE SHORE

WE ARRIVE IN ZODIAC BOATS AND ARE WELCOMED BY THE VILLAGE

WE ARRIVE IN ZODIAC BOATS AND ARE WELCOMED BY THE VILLAGE

WE ARE WELCOMED BY THE WAITING VILLAGERS

WE ARE WELCOMED BY THE WAITING VILLAGERS

A VILLAGER WITH HER BABY

A VILLAGER WITH HER BABY

VILLAGERS ARE WAITING FOR THE DRAGON TOO EMERGE FROM A SACRED HOUSE

VILLAGERS ARE WAITING FOR THE DRAGON TOO EMERGE FROM A SACRED HOUSE

 THE CHILDREN ARE ASSEMBLED IN FRONT OF THEIR SCHOOL WITH THEIR TEACHER TO PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE PNG FLAGPNG anthem and the PNG Pledge by the Watam school children

THE CHILDREN ARE ASSEMBLED IN FRONT OF THEIR SCHOOL WITH THEIR TEACHER FOR SINGING OF THE PNG NATION ALANTHEM AND THE PNG PLEDGE BY THE WATAM SCHOOL CHILDREN

THE DRAGON  -  The Dragon is actually a long sea serpent type costume that we were required to follow into the village. By doing so we were allowed to view village life that otherwise would have been taboo. In the eyes of the village we were all “men”!

THE DRAGON – The Dragon is actually a long sea serpent type costume that we were required to follow into the village. By doing so we were allowed to view village life that otherwise would have been taboo. In the eyes of the village we were all “men”!

THE DRAGON IS ACCOMPANIED BY THE DANCERS AND THE DRUMMERS

THE DRAGON IS ACCOMPANIED BY THE DANCERS AND THE DRUMMERS

A MALE DRAGON DANCER

A MALE DRAGON DANCER

VILLAGE DRUMMER

VILLAGE DRUMMER

DRAGON DANCE WOMEN

DRAGON DANCE WOMEN

DRAGON DANCERS

DRAGON DANCERS

A DRAGON DANCER IN FULL REGALIA

A DRAGON DANCER IN FULL REGALIA

WATAM VILLAGE HAS SEVEN  DIFFERENT CLANS LIVING THERE

WATAM VILLAGE HAS SEVEN DIFFERENT CLANS LIVING THERE

A WATAM VILLAGE HOUSE WHERE A CLAN MIGHT LIVE

A WATAM VILLAGE HOUSE WHERE A CLAN MIGHT LIVE

A COUPLE WITH THEIR BABY STANDING IN FRONT OF A TYPICAL HOUSE IN THE VILLAGE SELLING BAGS AND A MASKTO SELL TO THE VISITORS

A COUPLE WITH THEIR BABY STANDING IN FRONT OF A TYPICAL HOUSE IN THE VILLAGE SELLING BAGS AND A MASKTO SELL TO THE VISITORS

A COMMUNITY HOUSE IN WATAM VILLAGE

A COMMUNITY HOUSE IN WATAM VILLAGE

WATCHING THE DRAGON DANCE AND THE VISITORS WHO HAVE COME TO THE VILLAGE

WATCHING THE DRAGON DANCE AND THE VISITORS WHO HAVE COME TO THE VILLAGE

CHILDREN HAPPY AND SMILING

CHILDREN HAPPY AND SMILING

CHILDREN OF THE VILLAGE SEEM HAPPY AND CONTENT

CHILDREN OF THE VILLAGE SEEM HAPPY AND CONTENT

CHILDREN LOVE TO POSE FOR THE VISITORS

CHILDREN LOVE TO POSE FOR THE VISITORS

THE VILLAGERS WATCH THE ACTION GOING ON

THE VILLAGERS WATCH THE ACTION GOING ON

WATAM VILLAGE MOTHER AND CHILD

WATAM VILLAGE MOTHER AND CHILD

MEN FROM NEIGHBORING VILLAGERS HAVE TO SELL THEIR MASKS

MEN FROM NEIGHBORING VILLAGERS HAVE TO SELL THEIR MASKS

IN ADDITION TO THE MASKS PEOPLE SELL BAGS, PLATES AND TRAYS

IN ADDITION TO THE MASKS PEOPLE SELL BAGS, PLATES AND TRAYS

THESE MASKS ARE CARVED AND MADE FROM QUILLA OR EBONY WOOD

THESE MASKS ARE CARVED AND MADE FROM QUILLA OR EBONY WOOD

THESE MASKS COME IN ALL SIZES AND THE LONG NOSE REFERS TOTHE CROCODILE

THESE MASKS COME IN ALL SIZES AND THE LONG NOSE REFERS TOTHE CROCODILE

 

 

THE SEPIK RIVER

CHILDREN SWIMMING  IN THE SEPIK RIVER

CHILDREN SWIMMING IN THE SEPIK RIVER

KOPAR VILLAGE ON THE SEPIK RIVER

KOPAR VILLAGE ON THE SEPIK RIVER

 

 

KOPAR VILLAGE

KOPAR VILLAGE

 

 

THATCHED HOUSES MADE FROM SAGO PALMS

THATCHED HOUSES MADE FROM SAGO PALMS

 

 

 

KOPAR VILLAGE HOUSE

KOPAR VILLAGE HOUSE

 

 

DUGOUT CANOES USED ON THE SEPIK RIVER

DUGOUT CANOES USED ON THE SEPIK RIVER

 

 

AT THE MOUTH OF THE SEPIK RIVER IN EASTERN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

AT THE MOUTH OF THE SEPIK RIVER IN EASTERN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

 

———————–

VIDEO:

DRAGON DANCE – WATAM VILLAGE – PAPUA NEW GUINEA

—————-

POEM:

The Sepik River  Written by: GERT W. KNOP

Vast and overgrown, the jungle,
rainforest,
crocodiles appear at the surface of the river,
at nightfall,
and disappear near the banks.

Mist,
covering the water like a fine-spun web,
nurish the forest green,
makes it flower,
from the dark, 
Light born from loneliness.

Only some times,
there, where a clearing has expelled the jungle,
some huts stand out,
nearly swallowed by the trees.
Solitary canoes prove life.  prove life.

---------------
PHOTOS: LEONARD EPSTEIN
VIDEO:  LEONARD EPSTEIN

 

 

 

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