Papua New Guinea (PNG): The Most Exotic Place on Earth

“The Drums of War” a PNG poem by Kumalau Tawali 

Their bodies painted in black and red stripes
Tell the story of their purpose.
They wait, tensely
They listen to the power songs.

“Tomorrow will be the day
when obsidian shall break
When the inland men
Shall lose many
And the beach shall chew betelnut.”

The garamut answers their voices
And a hundred agile warriors
Display their strength.
They shake, jump, shout in procession
To the rhythm of the drums.

They work hard.
Their minds grow light
And sweat falls like rain
On their hands, legs and eyes.
The treacherous spears
Tired of ceremony
Look hungry for the real thing.

*betelnut - a mild stimulant which is chewed by and spat out (like chewing tobacco) but the residue is red.

*garamut - a decorated ceremonial “slit” drum

***

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is as alien to America as any liveable place on earth. And the people too.

It is surprisingly large. Greenland is the only island bigger (not counting Australia which is classified as a continent). The country of Papua New Guinea claims the eastern side of the New Guinea island and several other large and small islands (Indonesia owns the western side of the island).

Tales of cannibalism and tribal warfare abound, languages too. Over 850. Scholars don’t agree on exactly how many there are (languages I mean, not cannibals). And in case you’re wondering, cannibalism is not legally practiced in the country today. But old customs die hard. There is talk that cannibalism is still practiced in places, but others claim that this is just talk to impress foreigners.

One missionary to the island writes in his book, Peace Child, of the warlike inhabitants of New Guinea. He moved his family from Canada to live among them in 1962. He saw that deception was a prized skill among the tribes. Trust was scarce. So when two tribes made peace, they took a nursing child from it’s mother and traded it with a babe from the other tribe. This was a truce they could trust.

Australia helped rule the island from 1920 to 1975. Under its oversight, colonization of Papua New Guinea was limited to the coastal areas. There had been virtually no real attempt to explore or map out the rugged and mountainous interior. It was simply assumed that because the highland terrain was so difficult, nobody could possibly be living there.

“Yet up in those highlands was a complete ecosystem of people living isolated and totally disconnected from the outside world.” (indopacificimages.com) The highland people lived out their lives in valleys, isolated from other inhabitants of the island by towering mountains.

This geographical reality informs their every thought. The Papua New Guineans “think” in valley and mountain. Their spatial thought is highly sophisticated and leaves traces in their languages. For instance, Yupno speakers use words such as “upvalley and “downvalley” to describe flat surfaces (blog.education.nationalgeographic.org). They imagine rivers and valleys running through their houses. They speak of the future as being upvalley and the past as being downvalley.

Even World War II, the most devastating conflict in the history of the world, hardly penetrated its depths. The Japanese invaded in January of 1941 and Allied operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea, included Operation Cartwheel and the Salamaua–Lae campaign, and continued into 1945 (wikipedia.com).

This sets the stage for PNG coffee.

In the remote, almost inaccessible highlands of this exotic locale, coffee is cultivated, grown and processed. Imagine the first European explaining it to a villager: hiring betelnut chewing porters to carry loads of coffee beans (for planting) “upvalley” to be harvested in the future “upvalley.”

The first to attempt coffee production was “Queen Emma of New Guinea” whose story is as exotic as the island itself. She was born in American Samoa in 1850 from a short marriage between an American diplomat and an island princess. But as a young adult she was chased off after her father made unpopular political decisions. She found herself 5000 miles west of Samoa on the PNG island of New Britain.

Though troubled, her upbringing in Samoa bequeathed to her administrative and business skills which she put to use in the wild frontier of New Guinea. She purchased land and made one good business decision after another. Interesting fact: she used part of her fortune to build a mansion which she furnished with articles previously owned by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Emma hired a protection detail of young men (Buka Boys) from a neighboring island. At the height of her operation she employed over 1000 people to do her bidding.

But Queen Emma, the American princess from Samoa, never turned coffee into a cash crop; she made her real money on copra (or coconut meat). (www.pngaa.net)

Today’s coffee cultivation in Papua New Guinea can be traced to beans from Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain region in 1937. This heritage is not lost in today’s Papua New Guinea coffees, which have flavor profiles that still exhibit similarities to the older style Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee (espressocoffeeguide.com).

PNG coffee is grown over the fertile highlands in remote microlots by a people who twenty years ago wore grass skirts and shot a bow and arrow. Many of these people only found out that white people existed in the 1970s. Some lived so remotely that they had no idea that other people lived in New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea(Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash)

Much of the PNG coffee is grown in the Mount Hagen area of the Island. Here, every square metre of land is owned by clans and families, showing just how important sustainable farming is to everyday life in Papua New Guinea (adventurebagging.co.uk).

When you drink this coffee, you are literally enjoying a beverage from the most exotic place on earth where the small farmer is rewarded by your purchase.

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