From the air, my first view of Wamena was a broad, grassy valley dotted with traditional Dani hamlets surrounded by incredibly neat and extensive sweet potato and vegetable gardens. Then came the town itself: an untidy, rusting conglomeration of tin-roofed buildings whose streets were laid out in a grid pattern. The silver minaret on the mosque gave it a distinctively Javanese appearance, even from above.
In the streets of Wamena, you see an extraordinary mixture of humanity. Proud Dani men, still holding fiercely to their traditional dress of koteka (penis gourd) tied at its base to a protruding testicle, stalk down the street, beards thrust forward and hands clasped behind their backs. Nervous-looking Muslim women, the oval of their face the only flesh visible in a sea of cotton, whisk gracefully by, while military men in immaculate and tight-fitting uniforms swagger confidently down the middle of the road.
Surely it is a perverse twist of fate that has put a nation of mostly Muslim, mostly Javanese, people in control of a place like Irian Jaya. You could not imagine, even if you tried, two more antipathetic cultures. Muslims abhor pigs, while to highland Irianese they are the most highly esteemed of possessions. Javanese have a highly developed sense of modesty. They dress to cover most of their body and are affronted by overt sexuality. For most Irianese, near-nudity is the universally respectable state. Moreover, men from the mountain cultures of western New Guinea wear their sexuality proudly. The long penis gourd often has the erectile crest of the cockatoo attached to its tip, just in case the significance of the upright orange sheath is missed.
Javanese fear the forest and are happiest in towns. They attach much importance to bodily cleanliness, yet pollute their waterways horribly. Irianese treat the forest as their home. Many are indifferent to dirt on the skin, yet, through custom, protect the ecological health of their forests and rivers. Javanese respect of authority is typically Asian in its obsequiousness. Irianese are fiercely intolerant of attempts at domination. No Dani man would ever let another lord it over him as a tuan (prince) does a Javanese petani (peasant).
16 December 2007
Hijab vs. Koteka: West Papua Culture Clash
From Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), pp. 224-225: