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Oceania Newsletter 16, November 1995


Anton Ploeg

In February this year I was briefly back in Bokondini, the area in the Central Highlands of Irian Jaya where I carried out my dissertation research in 1960-62. I had left the area when the Dutch administration of West New Guinea was about to be taken over by the UNTEA, the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority, an interim administration saving the Dutch the embarrassment of having to hand over power to the Indonesians themselves. Since that time I had not been back there. The immediate reason to go was a letter given by a group of Bokondini Dani to a tour organizer, who had studied anthropology at Utrecht University, and who hence knew who I was, and realized I was the addressee. The authors of the letter asked me to come to Bokondini. It seemed an invitation not to be declined.

I spent only six days in Bokondini, on a tourist visa. To go there, one also needs a surat jalan, a travel permit, to be obtained in Jayapura, the capital of the province Irian Jaya. Contrary to my expectations, I received one almost immediately. What is more, after arrival at the airstrip in Bokondini I was recognized (!) by a Dani who had worked at the government station at the time of my research. He brought me to the police office where I had to produce my permit and get it stamped, and told the policeman about me. Again, contrary to my expectations, the policeman merely asked if I had come as a tourist. When I said 'yes', he stamped my permit and I was allowed to go to Wanggulam, the community where I had lived before.

I saw my trip mainly as a sentimental journey, to meet the people again among whom I had tried to practise anthropological research for the first time. And I was anxious to get to know more about the effects of the violence between Indonesian policemen and the Dani, and among the Dani themselves, in the late 70s. I had heard it had taken many lives, but I had no idea how many.

From the start I was struck more by continuities than by changes. The countryside, the houses, the swiddens were immediately familiar. The fact that most people wore clothes rather than penis gourds and skirts made of local string mattered little. There were far fewer sores and open wounds than in the early 60s, and bodies were cleaner. Although there was not much evidence of monetary activities, people did have some money to spend. People told me that road construction would start soon so they would be able to grow more crops for sale. They quoted the amounts of money which, they had been told, the government was going to spend on the project.

What surprised me was the survival of the religious movement of which I had witnessed an early phase in 1960-2. It had led to mass conversion to Christianity and the rejection of the traditional wealth objects (except for pigs). Given the expectations which were part of it: a better and longer life, free from disease and quarrelling, and an end to women's deadly sorcery, I had not expected that it would last. A better and longer life had not come about; and women's sorcery, I was informed, had persisted. But people had remained Christians. They had built a church, with sawn timber and on a site which they had carefully levelled. The church service I witnessed was well attended, people listened to the sermon and tried to answer the questions which the pastor posed. The way people argued the rejection of their wealth objects had remained the same: "they made us quarrels and fight, so we threw them out".

During the more than thirty years between my research and my revisit, Christianity had changed from the religion of the colonial establishment to a minority one. The Dani appeared aware of this and claimed that the Indonesians would like them to become Muslims. They commented that they were not going to. Their opposition against the Indonesian government may have helped them to persist with Christianity.

Four Wanggulam had died when they fought the Indonesian rifles with their bows and arrows. It was claimed that many, many more Dani had died in the fighting. Comments on the Indonesian government were accordingly harsh and I was asked several times if Europeans would come back and take over. I could only sympathize with them. Nevertheless, I was reminded of how the Dani had criticised the representatives of the Dutch government in the early 60s, claiming they would like to kick them out. Although they had not killed a Wanggulam, the police commended by the Dutch had shot at them and had set fire to some of their houses. I also had to think of Papua New Guinea, where the government is unable or maybe not much interested in promoting the welfare of many rural Papua New Guineans, or in protecting them from the violence of inter-group warfare and of groups of modern style bandits. But I also realized also that these circumstances did not make the current plight of the Dani any less pressing.

Communication was hampered by my lack of command in both Lani, the local Dani language, and Indonesian. I regretted there was not a language like Tok Pisin, formerly a Pidgin English, now a Creole language, which at least English speakers can master very quickly. It provides them with a scope for expression much wider than I had at my disposal in Indonesian and in Lani during my brief stay in Bokondini.

It was striking was that the letter which had prompted me to go appeared to be a mystification, quite in line with the Bokondini Dani predisposition to quiz people. Its text made it seem that it had been written by two men, one known to me, in fact my closest companion in 1960-2, the other unknown. But once I was among the Wanggulam I was told that my companion had fled after the fights of 1977 and his current whereabouts were unknown. It was rumoured he was dead. Who the other man had been and who had handed the letter to my colleague anthropologist remained unknown.

When I answered the Indonesian policeman that I was in Bokondini as a tourist, this was not quite true. Anyway, everything a researcher observes and experiences after such a long absence amounts to data. But if at all possible, I wanted to clear up two points: oral tradition about the origins of the Bokondini Dani and the exact location of Apena, the locality to which they went after defeat or when their Bokondini harvests were poor. I had very often heard about it and had even marked its location on an aerial photograph at the back of my Wanggulam book, but that was merely an educated guess.

As for origin: my Wanggulam spokesmen claimed that their ancestors had come from the Grand Valley, to the South. That claim was in line with information from people in the upper Toli and in the North Balim Valley. The migration of Dani to the North did not go much further than Bokondini. The trip to Apena made that very clear. It was a six hour walk to the north over one ridge into a valley which was much less touched by humans. In Bokondini, tall forest is reduced to the top of the slopes and swiddens cover a lot of the rest, but in Apena seemingly primary forest reaches to the bottom of the valley in many places. Houses and swiddens were extremely scattered. The contrast with Bokondini impressed me a great deal. I was told that a few Dani also lived in the next valley to the north, like the Apena valley running from west to east, but that beyond there the mountains dropped off.

The trail from Bokondini to Apena was well maintained. We met a number of people carrying harvest produce; women tubers, men oil pandanus. While we were walking, my companions told about previous times they had been in Apena and/or about their possessions there. We spent the night with a Wanggulam family. The husband told me that he wanted to be out of reach of the Indonesian police. That mattered more to him than the absence of a school and of a medical aid post.

However, even in this remote location obvious signs of development Indonesian style, were noticeable. Upstream in Apena valley was a tourist hostel. It consisted of not more than a few houses built with local materials, but it was likely to promote the arrival of foreign tourists. There was also a small rice growing project undertaken by the Indonesian government. And, more ominously, there was a heli pad constructed to facilitate mineral exploration in the valley. My host seemed unaware of what might be in store for him, such as destruction of his swidden sites or forced resettlement. In fact, he had earned a bit of money doing odd jobs for the mining engineers.

My encounters with the Wanggulam were not over when I left Bokondini and returned to Wamena, in the Grand Valley. A Wanggulam man, one of my companions of the early 1960s, went with me, and took me to the house of his two sons, on land they and other Wanggulam had acquired from local Dani. The house was elementary, much simpler than the wooden structures in Dani villages. It seemed the beginning of a Wanggulam compound in Wamena, an enterprising move, since Wamena is by far the largest commercial, administrative and schooling centre in the Central Highlands. However, if events in Papua New Guinea are a gauge for what might happen in Irian Jaya, this compound might well become a source of friction between the inhabitants and those from whom they acquired rights to the land, especially if and when the Wanggulam to improve their houses and show other signs of financial health.

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