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05 April 2011


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I personally wish to thank those individuals who have served Nomad area, especially breaking into Biami tribe.

You came as a missionary or government officers, your commitment and sacrifice to walk through the jungles inflicted by leeches and poison snakes have liberated my old tribal evil practices.

One of that, as pointed out is cannibalism which was deeply rooted in anger and payback, which has changed over the last few decades. Thank God for bringing the gospel message of Jesus.

I take my hat off and put my hand up as a Biami man, and thank those of you who contributed meaningfully to my people in good ways and not tarnishing my people's good name.

Yes, I do accept the comments made but in the past my people eat human flesh out of anger to cool down their anger inside, thus the community stay with fear that they do not practice sorcery or any trouble.

Thanks for this article and the update information about the Biami people.

I visited Nomad in the early 1970's and at present I am sorting out my old photographs of Papua New Guinea where I lived for five years as an artist.

Do you know of any written accounts about the Biami people and their culture in the period from 1950-80?

Yes, Graham you were doing the right thing. If you didn't, then someone else would be doing it.

They would first of all: pacify the people from their savage ways using force (superior weapons).

Secondly, try to civilise them by introducing their Christian religion.

Thirdly, keep educating them to forcibly accept the white man's law of abiding by ‘the rule of law’, by living in peace with other new neighbours (tribes and the whole country), and

Last, cooperate with other tribes to work well together as a team of one big village to develop a totally new country forced upon the Papuans and New Guineans in 1975.

I had the privilege of growing up in the Biami (or more correctly Bedamuni) area, living first at Nomad and later at Mougulu. The writer of this blog will probably recognise my maiden name.

Yes, certainly cannibalism was practised and probably quite a bit later than 1970, however the Bedamuni people have made advances of which they and those who have assisted them may be proud.

In the space of two or three generations their society has changed immeasurably and daily they face many challenges which westerners would be totally overcome by.

Any media which portrays people as 'primitives' is blind to the richness of life in truly remote areas such as this. I saw some of the video segments and besides being amused at the looseness of the translation, I was somewhat disappointed that it focused only on cannibalism.

For the Bedamuni, victims of cannibalism were sometimes killed for pay-back but the main motivation seemed to be simply a desire for meat in a protein starved people.

However, as they say, 'any publicity is good publicity' and any show that brings the struggle of the Bedamuni and other Western Province people to light is good - as we speak they appear to be being robbed of their customary or tribal lands by their own government. Perhaps you could give some 'air space to this matter?

Regarding the music, is is possible that you were listening to a 'spirit sing' - lead and echo or response singing - still practised to this day during feasts but now with a story telling purpose or gospel message - one more indicator of the changes in Bedamuni life.

And my life has certainly been made richer by sharing theirs.

While I agree with the generalisation that PNG music needs to be preserved the stuff from around Nomad is a whole new ball game.

If what Graham heard is the same as what I heard, and I suspect that is the case, I think he would agree that it is very special.

The haunting and ethereal quality of the women's voices defy description - it is not song but more like a symphony.

Imagine a dozen voices humming different tunes that are inexplicably in harmony rising and falling like mist in a deep green forest at dawn. There are no words, just sound.

There are still some pretty bushy Biami, Gebusi and Samo about and no doubt they are still at it somewhere.

Talking about PNG music, I donated my Sepik flutes and various other PNG musical instruments and tapes of Sepik singsings to Prof Michael Atherton at the University of Western Sydney. He was very interested in ethno-musicology.

I taught music at Brandi High and still have music and records here of Sepik music collected by Gordon Spearitt. I collected village songs from my students and I could sing you some Sepik songs! Let me know if anyone is collecting them.

Paul - There was much traditional music recorded in PNG in the 60's, 70's and 80's and even before by ethno-musicologists (horrible word) - even some old recordings dating back to the 40's.

There was an amazing outburst of musical talent after independence which merged traditional music and local string and bamboo-band styles with a bit of gospel. Sadly now largely replaced by reggae and US influences.

I have been trying to track down some of the older stuff.

A bit is held by the Smithsonian, some by ANU - most was stored at the NBC in PNG but I think much of this has tragically been lost (eg, the Lae and Kundiawa archives).

Some is at the UPNG New Guinea Collection, and some at the National Archives, but most is on old analogue tape which may be beyond resurrection.

I would dearly love to promote a restoration and preservation project to digitise what remains. It would be a crying shame if this was lost.

Noted Australian musician and PNG music aficionado David Bridie has also been recording some traditional music recently. He sometimes posts on PNG Attitude. He recorded some traditional village music a fews ago by Simbu women which has not yet been released.

More info here -

And Google 'Club Mu'.

More traditional PNG music clips here -

We must face the fact that, although we may have been 'agents of change', we in turn were irrevocably changed ourselves by our experiences and our contact with PNG people and their culture.

I too remember some wonderful songs and yodels (singsing bilong mauntan) that are still with me after 40 years.

Maybe it's time someone in PNG started producing CDs with traditional music on them.

I can remember a small 45 record produced by the Capuchin monks that had some great songs and singsings on it. Alas it is no longer in my collection.

I had a similar experience coming back to Nomad from the Kanai country around 1970. The style of singing must be common to all the groups around Nomad.

It was a sort of humming lullaby led by the women. If you could put in in a bottle it would be worth a fortune.

Thank you for your comments, Taboi. It is so rewarding to have someone give recognition for your small contribution towards progress. I sometimes doubted if we were doing the right thing.

One night, camping near a newly built long-house in the Biami, I listened all night to some of the most beautiful singing imaginable. It was haunting, sad and some of the most striking harmonies I have experienced.

I do not know if it was a ceremony associated with the new building or (more likely) they were singing to keep awake and to let us know they were awake.

Here were a people demonstrating a rich depth of culture way beyond the fact that they indulged in cannibalism. Were we doing the right thing?

Knowingly exposing these people to all the corrosive and corrupting influences of the developed world along with the advantages. It is nice to know it was worthwhile.

Graham - The guy you met in 1994 whom you couldn't recall was Mr Dina Gabo. He and my dad (Mr Biaguni Yoto) were members of the Fly River Provincial Government representing the people of Nomad in 1994.

At that time Dina Gabo was the Speaker and my dad was the Forest Minister.

If you can remember the names of the tribes in Nomad, my dad was from the Biami tribe and he represented the people of Biami, while Dina Gabo was from the Samo tribe and he represented the people of Samo, Gubo, Gubosi Ododei and Aibae.

I would like to thank you for the commentary here and for your contribution towards civilising my people.

Thank you so much. Otherwise I would be a cannibal today probably, gobbling up a human flesh, planing the next attack, victim of an attack, slaughtering a human, or being slaughtered by the enemy.

Sounds a bit like communion to me.

Thank you, Graham, for an excellent piece.

I believe PNG has been battling against misperceptions of backwardness for a long time. The true story is of the modernisation of the country over the last two-three generations. Sensationalist nonsense like Piers Gibbon's film just ignores this in the hunt for a juicy story.

Cannibalism was undoubtedly a real practice in the past - as it was in many other countries. Westerners seem to have a gruesome obsession with it, however, which I think says more about our culture (the West) than it does about PNG.

There used to be a offence dealt with by 'Native Magistrates Courts' called "spreading lying reports". I don't know if it is still on the books, but it might be an appropriate charge today.

It is interesting to re-read what JHP Murray had to say about cannibalism 100 years ago [from a chapter in "Papua or British New Guinea", entitled 'The Administration of Justice', 1912]:.

"Cannibalism generally comes before the court as an incident to murder, but it is sometimes treated as a substantive oflence, and I see that there were four cannibals before the court in the year 1909-10.

"The offence is regarded as falling within a section of the Criminal Code, which was probably directed against 'body snatchers', and is punishable with two years.

"It is, in my opinion, a mistake to regard cannibalism in Papua as invariably connected with ceremony or ritual ; in some cases it is, but in others it is merely a case of food — certain natives like human flesh and do not see why they should not eat it.

"There are no doubt instances in which the idea of food has nothing whatever to do with the practice, as in a case mentioned by Chahners where a young man near Port Moresby was taken by a crocodile ; only part of the body was saved, and 'his wife, children, father, mother, and friends sat down and eat it,out of affection'."

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