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A Visit to the Maisin

In January this year, Patrick Anderson, a former director of the Rainforest Information Centre, and now with Greenpeace International, travelled to Papua New Guinea to meet with communities that Greenpeace has been assisting in developing traditional livelihoods and protecting forests. Following is a report on what he found there.

Port Moresby, January 27, 1997:

Just back from a week staying with the Maisin people of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province, North East Papua New Guinea. The Maisin live in eight villages of about 400 people each, along 30 kilometres of coastline. Their lands stretch from a coral reef three kilometres out from their beach, inland to the top of Mount Suckling, 60 kilometres to the South (at 4,000 metres, Mt Suckling is almost twice as high as Australia's Mt Kosciusco).

In all, the 4,000 Maisin people own some 200,000 hectares of rainforest, mangroves, swamps, heathlands, and coral reefs, an area the size of Australia's Wet Tropics World Heritage Site, and probably more biologically diverse. The Maisin elders have declared on several occasions in recent years their opposition to logging companies coming on to their lands.

As the customary land owners, the Maisin (and the other 500 indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea) have the right to determine what kind of development happens on their lands. But unlike many of the other indigenous peoples in PNG, the Maisin have taken a strong stand against logging because they can see their development aspirations (cash needs) being met by their own efforts. In their case, sale of their artwork, rather than through selling logging rights to their forests.

I travelled to the Maisin lands with two American friends: Lafcadio, who has been working with the Maisin for three years now, helping them to sell their traditional bark cloth art into national and international markets; and Andre, a writer who like me was on his first visit to PNG. We arrived in the Maisin village of Uiaku after travelling all day from Port Morseby by plane and then by dingy along the coast, to be greeted by the whole village. Forty of the older men and women had got dressed up in traditional festivities gear to welcome their honoured guests, and were dancing and singing with passion as our dingy came into view.

As we pulled up to the bank of the river and I went to step out of the boat, one of the chiefs, dressed up in all his finery, ran towards me and lunged at me with a spear. I let out a yelp and jumped back into the boat. Everyone burst out laughing at the expression of shock on my face at this most traditional of welcomes to a Maisin village.

If you want to be welcome in a Maisin village, you have to first run the gauntlet of the warriors. We proceeded ashore between two lines of singing, dancing and laughing Maisin. Twenty men were beating drums, and they, along with as many women dancing, were wearing the traditional Maisin costumes made of Tapa. Tapa cloth is made from beaten bark and is painted with red dye in designs that have been handed down within each family for generations.

The traditional clan designs they were wearing are never sold, but other designs can be bartered or sold. The singing and feasting went on into the evening, with everyone eager to hear what Lafcadio had been up to since his last visit six months previously.

Laf had been working hard to develop markets for Tapa cloth paintings and was able to tell the community about two art galleries in the US that are interested to host a display of Maisin art if the community is willing. In all, some $10,000 worth of Tapa paintings have been sold in the last two years, and this is starting to become a significant part of the cash income for the 200 - 300 village artists involved.

Typically, an artist will get about five dollars for a Tapa painting, and the community will also get five dollars, which is used to support community projects. Over the week we were there, Lafcadio spent night and day in meetings with the Maisin artists, who are mostly women, and with MICAD, the Maisin association set up to manage the commissions to artists, community funds and the finances of Tapa sales.

Tapa has been bartered or sold as far back as Maisin memory reaches, but the sales have been arranged by individual families, and previously, the market for Tapa has never reached beyond Papua New Guinea. The eight Maisin villages have no tradition of all working together except in times of war. But despite the lack of cohesion between the villages, it was decided to make MICAD and the Tapa project available to and involving of people from every village, in order to be fair and to stop the jealousies that would no doubt arise from benefits accruing to some villages and not others.

While Lafcadio spent the days in meetings, Andre and I hung out with the young men, gathering, planting and chewing betel nut (the seed of a palm which releases a mild, addictive stimulant when chewed with lime, leaving the chewer with a mild high and a mouth full of masticated nut and red saliva), going fishing, playing music, watching Tapa being made, and generally hanging out with the Maisin, and appreciating their life and culture, many aspects of which are probably not changed much from thousands of years ago.

I gave a presentation to the Maisin elders on the World Heritage Convention, as they had previously expressed an interest in the whole of their lands becoming a World Heritage Site. From my work in Russia I was able to explain about the Convention, and what it could mean for them. (Back in Port Moresby I discussed the World Heritage convention with staff from the Department of Environment and Conservation, but they will need a lot of help in working on World Heritage, and preparing a nomination with the Maisin is probably three years away).

While we were with the Maisin, a dance was held in the village of Sinapa, to celebrate the end of the mourning period for a women from that village who had died a year previously. The Maisin are serious dancers. In this instance, we were told that it was only a small dance, going for four days, and that only the little drums would be used. For serious dances, the big drums are brought out, and the dance must go on for a least three weeks, sometimes up to six weeks.

We were invited to the first night of the dance, and so sailed the five kilometres from Uiaku to Sinapa in a Maisin canoe with outrigger, gaff-rigged with a triangular sail. We arrived in the early afternoon, and everyone was busy getting their finery ready. During the afternoon, groups from every Maisin village turned up, some on foot, some by outrigger. By dusk, an open area in the centre of the village had been swept and mats placed around the edges. The dancers were ready to begin.

In the first instance, like the greeting I was subjected to, the group of fifty drummers and dancers entered the village and had to show that they could keep the rhythm while a similar sized group of women from Sinapa banged pots and pans and yelled, trying to distract them and make them lose their beat. All this was accompanied by much hilarity and mock jousting.

After about half an hour of this cacophony, the dancers had shown their ability to keep the rhythm and the pot banging women backed off, leaving the dance to proceed more calmly. Dusk fell, and the dancing settled into a pattern. With the elders, children and resting dancers sitting on Pandanus mats around the edge, the body of dancing men and women (which swelled and shrank during the night from between fifty and 150 people) progressed through a complex set of traditional dances, each with specific drum rhythm, steps, tune and words.

At one point I asked what the song was about, and was told that that particular song was a very old song, and that no-one knew exactly what it was about. (it is interesting to reflect on the rapid change that takes place in languages that are only transmitted orally. Chaucer's english is relatively unintelligible to us, even though since that time english has been written down. So much more change can be expected in 700 years in a wholly oral language. While the Maisin language has kept changing, many words [sounds, not meanings] from an older Maisin language were preserved within the rhythm, song and steps of dances that have been passed on through the generations).

It was clear that our hosts were interested in us joining in the dancing, and were delighted when we volunteered to let them dress us up in finery. Within a few minutes, all the necessary gear had been borrowed, and we were each fitted with a Koifi (a Tapa cloth for men which is worn like a loin cloth) and Badji (beads, shells, christmas decorations, and anything bright and jangley that can be attached to one's feet, ankles, arms, wrists, neck, head.

Each dance played out over some five to ten sections, with each section lasting less than five minutes. During the break between sections, the drumming would stop, and the dancers would stand in place, receiving advice or commendations from the elders, and allowing dancers to join or leave. So, dressed up in all the Maisin finery, Laf, Andre and I strode into the dancing line and took our places each behind someone who knew the steps.

The drum beats of the dances we attempted were simple, but the dance steps and body movements were complex. We didn't even attempt to sing. Following on as best we could, we proceeded with the dancing body, progressing through the stages of the dance which slowly moved in two lines from one end of the village square to the other. All along the way, the spectators that we danced past where in hysterics, no doubt filled with a mixture of pride, horror (at our poor rendition of the dances) and intense amusement at the three white guests who had joined them in celebration.

We had started dancing at ten o'clock, and danced on (with the spectator's hysteria at our performance little abated) until one a.m., when everyone stopped in order to feast on roast pig and taro. We heard the drums start up again at 3.00 a.m., but by this time we had given back the Koifi and Badji and were sleeping nearby in a thatched hut. At dawn's first light, we joined the circle watching the dancers, the energy of the whole group solemnly joyful as the light brought colour to the day.

We left the dance at midday to sail back to Uiaku, our canoe passing several going the other way, off to join the second day of dancing. Everyone delighting in the news that the foreign friends had donned Koifi and joined the dance. I was so impressed with the Maisin people: their simple, sustainable, lifestyle; the strength they maintain and derive from their own traditions such as being prepared to dance each night for six weeks; their commitment to their forests, to their ancestors, to those yet to come; their welcoming of visitors. I look forward to being able to assist them, in some small way, to fulfil their development aspirations, and to hang on to their priceless culture and forests.

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