The Kombai

Oliver Steeds describes the fast-changing world of the tree-dwelling Kombai tribe in Papua New Guinea, whose members are as fond of wisecracks as they are of the Sago grub.

  • Words: Oliver Steeds
  • Photography: Frédéric Lagrange

“Why do you live in tree houses?” I asked. It seemed like a sensible question at the time. “Well, it gives us protection from raiding parties, especially from the Asmat tribe. But that now happens less. We like building our houses up there. And we can. You get a better view; you’re away from the mud and swamp; you get a nice breeze and of course mosquitoes don’t fly up there.”

Three weeks later, we were sitting up in our newly built tree house, 80 feet up. The breeze, the view, the escape from mud, no sign of the Asmat… all were true. “There still seem to be mosquitoes though,” I mentioned in passing, hoping not to sound like a whinging outsider. For the next few minutes the five men I was with rolled around and cried with laughter. Finally Bayo, the chief of our little settlement, collected himself: “Of course there are mosquitoes; they have wings. They fly. You’re like the other white people who come here. You sink into the mud and believe anything we say.”

Hunter standing against a giant sago palm carrying bows and arrows made of cassowary bones and dry sugar cane stick.

Bayo and the other men from the village: Klowa, Gunare, Waflo and Leonari, then went on to explain how some people had come before – anthropologists – and had asked them lots of questions. After a couple of days of patiently answering, they decided to have some fun and see if they would write down “everything we said in their little books.” They did. It was consigned to weighty tome; but at least half of it was made up. Welcome to Kombai-land, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Papua is the third largest island in the world. Its history with outsiders is volatile. Captain James Cook was the first to land on the island in 1770, but, sensing a threat, quickly (and probably wisely) retreated. In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller went missing in the same region. Only this year, tribal chiefs have confirmed he was killed and eaten in revenge for the murder of five Asmat men by a Dutchman overseeing the colony.

Kombai hunter at rest. A few times I was asked why I was wearing clothes and was told that it would make my host less afraid and more at ease if we were all naked. 

A few hundred miles inland, it was only 35 years ago when a Dutch missionary made ‘first contact’ with the Kombai. Folklore now mists his experience. Locals were said to have given him a gift of some meat from a cassowary – a large, flightless, ostrich-like bird – that he happily chowed down on with his family. When he was subsequently told it was in fact human meat, he reportedly went mad and fled. Today, the greatest threat to the Papuans is from the Indonesian military. Under the New York agreement of 1963, West Papua (or Irian Jaya as it was known then) officially became part of Indonesia. Estimates by human rights groups suggest that over 100,000 Papuans have been killed by Indonesian soldiers in the past 50 years. The killing still continues today. And so do the operations of BP, Rio Tinto, Freeport and others, as they work hand in hand with the Indonesian government to exploit enormous gold and natural gas deposits. Everyone but the Papuans seems to profit from the island’s resources. Human rights groups call the silence by Western companies a clear and tacit complicity in this horrific genocide. It’s hard to see it any other way.

Mother carrying her baby in a root bag.

The missionary rather unfairly named Kombai-land ‘The Hell of the South’. No question, it is a hard place to live. The lowland forest is rarely more than a few metres above sea level. Seven metres of rain falls every year, making this one of the wettest places on Earth. The land is crisscrossed with rivers that can rise and fall by 10ft an hour, turning the forest into swamp. The ground is perpetually wet and so unstable that large trees cling to the ground with buttress roots, extending out like desperate claws.

The forest has defined the lives of the Kombai for tens of thousands of years, where tribal conflict has been common and life expectancy remains low. Spirits infuse their world. Traditionally, when sorcery and witchcraft were expected, the accused suangis, or witches, were killed and eaten. Today, 4,000 Kombai remain, and many, like the families of Bayo, Klowa, Leonari, Gunare and Waflo that we lived with, are hoping to retain their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.

Detail of hunter carrying a freshly killed pig on his back, with blood pouring onto his lower back. 

Whilst metal machetes and axes are creeping in, some still use stone axes – the stone traded from hundreds of miles away and kept within families for generations. The forest is both storehouse for food, and warehouse for building and clothes; the men wear penis gourds, the women grass skirts.

In many ways, life in these woods revolves around the Sago palm. The leaves provide roofing thatch, whilst the processed pulp, a floury, tasteless starch, is the staple food. At least twice a week we would take a trip into the swamp, into the Kombai fields, to harvest. Gunare and his wife Eena, the village elders, stayed behind to babysit the kids. Bayo and Klowa are the classic showmen – providing 30 minutes of precise axe work to claim the glory of palm-felling. They invariably then create a bed of sago leaves and take a long nap. The ladies, Mark and I are then tasked with a full day of hard graft to turn one palm into 30 or 40 kilos of their staple carbohydrate.

Hunter at rest in a tree house. Only men sleep in tree houses. Women sleep in small houses on the ground.

Like manual farms the world over, the Kombai fields are always filled with song to while away the repetitive work. “You come from far far away and sink into the mud with your big feet. You can’t cut trees and you can’t work the pulp. What are you good for?!” was one of their favourite numbers: just a tiny part of the constant barrage of insults that would flow, most often towards me, rather than Mark. And like the mosquito joke, malice has no place. In the four months I lived with the Kombai I must have laughed at least 10 times my London norm, and it remains the happiest place I have ever been on Earth.

Portrait of a hunter. His necklace is made of dogs’ teeth.

The Sago palms also provide the inhabiting grubs that are the Kombai’s caviar. The felled palms are split and lay rotting for three months for the capricorn beetles to lay eggs that can hatch into larvae grubs and grow fat on the fermenting sago. After this they metamorphose through the pupae stage (also edible) to become beetles (inedible). To a Western palette they are not quite a culinary nirvana. Biting into a sago grub is like weaponising it, causing the body to explode and fill your mouth with the bitter taste of stomach juices.

Giant cricket.

Depending on their particular wealth and the health of their palm plantations, a clan holds a Sago Grub Festival every five to 10 years to honour the spirits and restore balance in the world. They range in size from gatherings of dozens, to hundreds. They are part tribal summit, part speed dating and all centred and ritualised around the hallowed Sago grub. The gift of grubs is a symbol of friendship, a way to settle past debts of having attended other people’s festivals, and establishing the receiver in debt to you.

Man scrutinising the forest from a tree house.

The festival encapsulates the tradition, way of life, belief system and above all the spirit of the extended family community that binds and enables existence in this unforgiving environment. In favouring and supporting your genetic kin, in lauding reciprocation (“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”), as well as cultivating a reputation for kindness, generosity and hospitality, reciprocal altruism makes good sense.

Woman against a giant sago palm. The feathers Kombai women wear as a sign of beauty include those of chickens and cockatoos.

But how long will that spirit last? Kombai-land is changing fast, their isolation will be marginalised, their individuality and identity increasingly threatened by forces outside their control. One can only hope they will have a choice over what they do and what will happen to their way of life.

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