239 Things

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239 Things

Papuans love to smoke. To make your stay among them as smooth as possible, it’s well advised to take with you a considerable amount of tobacco. I’ve never seen smokers make trouble. I offer Barnabas Betakam a pack of Lampion Lilin rolling tobacco for our shared peace pipe. To my surprise, he declines, stating that all he smokes are Surya or Gudang Garan filter cigarettes. I’m amazed at his ability to afford his expensive addiction, but he’s apparently willing to abstain from his favourite stimulant for the sake of pride. In his eyes, smoking filter cigarettes is a sign of upward mobility.

Betakam is witness to a booming economy. Among the Indonesians, who since the takeover in 1962 have been residing in areas traditionally exclusively inhabited by Papuans, the amount of motorboats owned per capita is increasing daily. These units are the best expression of the difference between the transmigrates from the overpopulated Indonesian archipelago and the Asmat, indigenous inhabitants of the tropical rainforest of the delta swamp in the former Dutch New Guinea. Yamaha outboard motors versus oars, generators and electric light versus wood-fuelled fires, half burned candles and darkness; colourful television programmes and song and dance to tunes played on home-made ukuleles and guitars strung with fishing line thread.

Batakam gives the impression that he’s never quite asked himself how the Indonesian immigrants and visitors from the West acquire their covetable wares. It’s widely accepted that the white men use their own magic; church services and the bible are seen as exponents of their magical practice. It’s not uncommon for Westerners to be taken for pastors. Pastors are loved in the Asmat for the good deeds they’ve done there, which is a good reason to not bring up the status of clergymen when visiting the peoples.

The Dutch pastor Gerard Zegward was the first white man to enter the region that was to be pacified in 1953. He arrived all alone and there's no doubt that he made quite an impression. It's probably because he wasn't part of their familiar societal systems of headhunters and tribal wars that the Asmat must assumed him to be invincible. In fact, they initially believed him to be immortal. In his unpublished memoirs, Gerard writes: “While I was in Sawa, I wanted to retreat to do a number two. But I was accompanied by a group of thirty men. They held my hand to keep me from falling into the blubber and shouted in unison: ‘Be careful, don’t slip.’ Sticks were laid out for me to stand on. A few men dug a small hole for me to expel my excrements into. In full view, I did my deed and was promptly offered a handful of leaves as a substitute for toilet paper. I didn’t turn to look back, but I’m quite sure that they studied my faeces profusely’. Having understood Zegwaard to be a reincarnation of their ancestors, the above study must have led to some confusion.

Betakam’s father – a prominent warlord from the Basim village on the Fayit River – most likely contacted Zegwaard during this period. He’d probably have told him, with the air of a man proud of his profession, that he’d scalped five heads during his lifetime. His trophies of war – jawbones or cervical bones decorated with white feathers – were worn by his wife on a necklace during village feasts. The skulls of the unfortunate were hung as Christmas decorations along the doorpost of his hut.
In the crucifix that Zegward left behind, Betakam saw an important ancestor and hero for the white man. This was because there are striking resemblances to the manner in which the Asmat portray important deceased members of the community. But no matter how much discussion ensued, he probably never understood that the crucified victim – unlike within his own culture – was not avenged by his family. On the other hand, the copious amount of glittering items Zegwaard brought with him would likely have been convincing enough to a person with any worldview.