Monday, August 29, 2016

Sepik river, where humans and crocodiles are one

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Lower Sepik (Source)
The Sepik, streaming north-east from the Highlands and zigzagging through the lush New Guinean rainforest, is one of the last untouched rivers of our planet.

This isn’t, though, the only richness that the second river in terms of length in Papua New Guinea can boast. Indeed, endemic to the many villages that local people have built along its course, there’s a remarkable cultural variety not yet known to the world beyond these wild landscapes.

Sepik's basin
For those living here, crocodiles are one of the steadiest presences: from the mouth, where you’d better watch yourself from the Saltwater ones (Crocodylus porosus), to inland, where it’s more common the less aggressive New Guinean one (Crocodylus Novaeguineae), these reptiles live all along the Sepik’s course.

From the very moment when they settled here, indigenous people have been sharing the Sepik with crocs, thus evolving the natural fear of these animals in a profound admiration which can sometimes become an artistic and physical emulation of the reptile.

A crocodile's head sculpture on a canoe (Source)
Men and crocodiles: a legend
According to a story which comes from the indigenous inhabitants of the Sepik's basin, there once was a man that while swimming in the river was caught and then dragged down to the bottom from a crocodile.
There, the reptile taught the unlucky native the principles of hunting, agriculture and, possibly, of animist religious cults, finally letting him go with another last "homework": to pass on that knowledge to humanity.

This legend shows us how crocodiles are the foundation of everyday human activities and cultures, thus explaining why the famous reptiles are represented everywhere, just as the Virgin Mary is found in every village in the Italian countryside: simply put, crocodiles aren't far from gods for some local traditions. 

Indigenous art: a crocodile getting out from
a man's mouth (Source)
With the support of the WWF, an annual Crocodile Festival has been indeed established to honor the relationship between humanity and crocs. But this relationship does also need protection, since some prefer considering these animals as preys rather than gods, or simply, creatures to protect. And this is unsurprising, considering how much their skin is worth in the global market, especially for a third world country like Papua New Guinea.

Kaningara people's Crocodile Ritual
Along the Blackwater, one of many Sepik's tributaries, the Kaningara people have developed an extreme emulation ritual with a deep spiritual meaning.

The skin of the bold who take part in it is cut in many tracts (often hundreds), especially in the chest and in the back, and is then let cicatrize. The segments will so resemble to the touch, and even to the sight, the skin of a crocodile.

The bloody ritual (Source)
But merely reproducing the crocs can't be the only reason why anyone would ever face 400 cuts on his skin, so what's behind the Kaningara's ceremony?

It may all come down to the extreme pain the young men face: by standing it, along with standing the fear of dying by infection and the fear of pain itself, the tribesmen demonstrate their strong will to become authentical sons of the Sepik. Simply put, they are getting into adulthood by passing through Hell's gate.

The replacement of women's influence on the boy is also a factor: in a rigid patriarchal society as the Papuan one, the normal skin of a son, still thought to be dirty from the birth because of his mother's blood, is replaced by the scars resembling the reptile, pure masculine strength.

The final aspect of the skin (Source)
In order to participate, every man must pay a certain sum: after that, they are supposed to spend some months, usually two, in the local Spirit Houses, impressive wood huts where lies the centre of the villages' spiritual life.
Here, an extra-effort will be required from the candidates: learning the history of their people, giving up contacts with the outside world and gaining body fat in order to make easier for their uncle to cut the skin.

A complex and expensive ceremony, isn't it?
But in spite of that, even as modern adventurers slowly start to travel this region more and to open it to the outside world, the ritual isn't losing its charm: pain is, after all, temporary, while deeply belonging to a tribe as a real man lasts forever.

Sunrise along the river (Source)

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