10 December 2007

Telefomin, Barcelona, and Bulmer's Fruit Bat

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. 153-154 (NYT book review here):
Afektaman is a pretty little village overlooking the range which lies to the south of Telefomin. It is situated at the entrance to the Sepik Gorge, and is only about thirty kilometres in a straight line from Luplupwintem, which had been, until 1977, the sole roosting place of Bulmer's Fruit-bat.

On our arrival at Afektaman we immediately asked whether anyone called Woflayo lived there—and were led straight away, so easily, to a man of late middle-age who lived in a tiny collection of huts a kilometre or so from the village itself.

Woflayo invited us into his house, and offered us a cup of tea. As we talked, it became clear that Woflayo's Pidgin was rather limited. He was a conservative Telefol who clung fiercely to his traditions. He did not deign to learn the new lingua franca.

After we had explained the purpose of our visit, Woflayo commented that it was a good thing we had arrived that day, for later in the week he was leaving for Batalona. I was at first nonplussed as to where exactly Woflayo might be going. Batalona did not sound like any Telefol place name I had heard. After some more discussion it became apparent that Woflayo was off on a very long trip indeed. He was headed for Barcelona, where he would lead a Telefol dance troupe as part of the 1992 Olympic Games celebrations!

Woflayo's careful observance of tradition had clearly paid off. Of all Telefol, he was renowned as the one who knew the ancient dances best, and was thus the natural choice as leader of the troupe. What, I often wonder, did the good citizens of Barcelona make of Woflayo, bedecked in penis gourd, cane waistband and feathered head-dress, chanting and swaying to his Telefol rhythms?

After we drank our tea, Woflayo took us to a garden at the back of his hut. There, he showed us the stump of a small fig tree. It was in this tiup tree, he said, that he had shot the bat which he had sold to 'Masta Steve' [Van Dyke of the Queensland Museum] in 1984.

I was flattened. What an anticlimactic end to a journey which had begun with such excitement months ago and thousands of kilometres away!

A bat which Woflayo had shot in his back yard and thought nothing of had brought strangers to his door from another continent... And in a few days, he would dance to a crowd of tens of thousands on a continent as foreign to him as the far side of the moon.

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