baliem valley, Papua, Indonesia


In search of places that have not been polluted by modernisation and still had traditional culture that could be explored by occasional travellers I headed to Papua (previously known as Irian Jaya), right at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. Accessible by flight only, the Baliem Valley is a relatively small fertile area surrounded, for now, by impenetrable jungle and extremely high mountains.  The Dani tribe are its inhabitants.

Dani are welcoming, good humoured and open-minded society of farmers and ex-warriors. Most of the young people go to school set up by Indonesian government, where they wear a modest uniform that is hardly affordable for the local tribesmen. After school, the children take those uniforms off and replace them with a traditional straw skirt if they are girls, or nothing if they are boys. Mature tribesman wear kotekas (hollow gourds) over the penis, which seem to me to be a show of virility, though it is said they are worn in modesty.

After a death in the close family, women cut off part of their fingers using a stone knife. A death is celebrated with a feast and meat distributed to all villagers after the funeral. In the past, important people were mummified and I was shown a mummy aged 150-200 years  when I asked about rituals followed in the past.

Most Dani still live in idyllic villages of straw-covered circular or oval mud  houses. Food is plentiful, but bridges are badly maintained and can be dangerous to cross. Sadly, the capital of the valley, the small town of Wamena, already has big city problems like homelessness and alcohol abuse.

The Dani and the neighbouring peoples have traditionally engaged in tribal wars, the last of which had to be stopped by the Indonesian government in 1966. That event is nowadays used to justify the heavy presence of Indonesian security forces in Wamena.

The Dani have converted to Christianity, with the first missionary being parachuted to the area in 1954 (the valley and its people were only discovered in 1938).

A modern road is planned to reach from the coast all the way to the Baliem valley within the next decade and one doubts that the local culture can stay unchanged for much longer.

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