Papua New Guinea Highlands

Papua New Guinea, Ambua lodge Huli guard, PNG

A Huli wigman guard tucking away a posing tip into his cassowary bone dagger was our first sight of PNG’s greatest oddity, mandatory wigs to be worn, either daily wigs or ceremonial wigs, but both grown from the owner’s actual hair. Ambua Lodge is overpriced but very well located, comfortable and offers great guides and local tours of wigmen, waterfalls, orchids, bird sanctuaries and so on.

Huli Wigmen in Papua New Guinea Highlands

Huli warriors doing a traditional war dance at the annual Sing Sing festival in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea

Huli wigmen performing a ritual bouncing dance while beating little drums at a Highland Sing-Sing, aka ‘Culture Festival’, where tribes meet and try to scare the sh** out of each other while tourists pay handsomely to watch serious weirdness. Sing-Sings happen twice a year, once in Mt Hagen, once in Goroka.

Gone today, hair tomorrow, a school in Papua New Guinea Highlands

Papua New Guinea hair school, PNG

The College of Higher Hair Growth, PNG.

The principal, back left, is wearing a fetching primrose and sweet-paper decorated daily wig (arc shaped), while his assistant, back right, is more formally dressed in his expensive ceremonial wig (trapezoid), tinted red and tastefully adorned with bird’s wings and paradise feathers.
The two students are having their in-growth, bamboo-supported wigs (still attached to their heads as hair) watered and blessed, a vital daily ritual. The student on the right will soon be having his hair removed, in that shape, to be decorated and then worn daily.

Huli Wigs

Bizarre, inconvenient and expensive, huge, feather and flower-decked wigs are still worn by about half the 50, 000 Huli warriors in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea – often with faces painted in yellow, red, blue, white and black.

The Daily Wig is brown and mushroom shaped, while the Ceremonial Wig is red or black, with raised sides, and uses compacted hair, thus needing twice as much hair as the Daily wig. Both wigs are supported by bamboo frames and decorated with feathers from birds of paradise, eagles, parrots, and cassowaries, as well as daisies, hibiscus, possum, cat fur or colourful candy papers, according to the owner’s taste and wallet.

The wigs are made from the wearer’s own hair preferably, but using a relative’s hair or buying a complete wig on the open market is possible though spiritually unsound, not to mention expensive. A Daily wig, unadorned, costs $200 – about four times the average monthly wage for the few Hulis in employment. Since most Hulis are subsistence farmers spare cash for wigs is hard to come by, yet without the magic and instruction of a professional Hair Trainer, men cannot grow sufficient hair, of sufficient quality, in the right shape, to satisfy traditional wig requirements.

Leaving home, Papua New Guinea Highlands

Two women outside their thatched home, Highlands, Papua New Guinea

A typical Eastern Highland home and billum bag filled with sweet potatoes on the right.

Adibe Pakaya at the age of 19 had to go to school. Hair school. First he said a formal goodbye to the mother and sister that he wouldn’t see for more than four years. Tears streaked his mother’s red and yellow clan face paint as she gave him a new bark string Bilum bag in which to carry his spare kilt, his small collection of parrot feathers and possum fur, and his two precious shell leg bracelets.

Adibe then walked over to the hut his father shared with the other clan males, an arrow shot away. Like most couples in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, Adibe’s parents avoid contact wherever possible, leading separate lives – sleeping, cooking, eating and working apart – except for the occasional reproductively necessary act of sex in their garden. Women are the cause of sickness and debility, the Highlanders believe. The deadliest poison for the Huli man is menstrual blood.

In spite of the risks involved in being close to a woman, Adibe wanted to get married. He needed help in his garden, and anyway, he was ready for a new experience. His parents didn’t mind, since the intended bride was fat and hard working, and they could afford to pay the bride price of 200 Kina ($200) and 25 Pigs by trading part of their shell collection. But the Pakayas, traditionalists to the core, demanded a traditional wedding ceremony – and that required hair, lots of hair. Two personally grown wigs that needed four and a half years of strenuous hair treatment, to be exact.

The Cat in the Hat

Pakaya Senior’s daily wig was under repair after a little accident with a hatchet but still managed to look dapper with a stunning vertical ginger tomcat set off perfectly by bird of paradise wings and possum fur.
He offered Adibe his first official taste of betel nut. Adibe was grateful for this recognition of his maturity, and feigning inexperience of the Green Bullet, chewed and spat with studied amateurism. His father then presented him with a polished cassowary thigh bone dagger that served both as a weapon and as a tool to poke the powdered lime catalyst into Adibe’s betel stuffed cheek.

His generosity did not end there. He dug into his Bilum bag and pulled out more cassowary remnants, black wing bones that, worn as a necklace, endow the wearer with all the power, aggression and ferocity of the bird from which it came. Adibe was moved. He could hardly contain himself as he shook hands with his father, took the leash of his tuition fee — a large black pig — and set off barefoot down the stony road to school and manhood.

Adibe had a long way to go, but with betel juice pumping up his system and the excitement of his new possessions, not to mention a lucky two Kina ride on a passing truck, he soon got to the outer ditches demarking the school grounds.

A ten minute walk along the school’s labyrinthine trench system, ducking through a number of gates, brought Adibe to the muddy inner compound, the living area of the College of Certain Hair Growth in Papua New Guinea Highlands. He saluted the other three students, and handed his tuition fee’s leash over to the Principal, Pirigo Piribu, who greeted Adibe formally and read him the School Rules:

1) Do not sit near the fire in the sleeping hut.
2) Do not look at, speak to, or touch any woman.
3) Water your hair 12 times a day directly from the stream.
4) Hunt possums and Birds of Paradise for wig decoration.
5) Drink magic water from bamboo pipes prepared by the Principal.
6) Memorise Huli lore, as taught by the Principal.
7) Practice painting your face.
8) Wear the bamboo hair frame at all times.
9) Work every day cultivating the school garden.
10) Make sure the pigs don’t get sun stroke.

A typical PNG Highlands Bridal Outfit.

The rules were tough, but this was the PNG way, and Adibe knew that he would eventually leave this College of Higher Hair Growth with a wider knowledge of a man’s role in life and two spectacular wigs of colour-bedecked hair as graduation certificates. He would soon dance, like a Bird of Paradise mating ritual, in nearby villages, be a big man, a Huli warrior and a husband to a fat wife.

On the Warpath in the Papua New Guinea Highlands

A Huli 'warpath' between plots of land, plus warriors on the march, Papua New Guinea

A Huli ‘warpath’ between plots of land.

Hulis do not live in villages, but in small, scattered clans, each with its own plot of land on which to grow the staples such as sweet potatoes, taro and greens. These ‘gardens’ are surrounded by high mud walls and deep trenches that not only delineate clan territory and keep marauding pigs out, but also function as concealed warpaths, giving the area a kind of sunny, green, World War 1 trench ambience. Spiked fences with small access ports function as gates and ensure that any visitor is physically disadvantaged when coming or going – especially in haste; for example with an enraged axeman in pursuit.