The Pogla Mudmen of Papua New Guinea

Cliff and I are on our second week of travel in Papua New Guinea. We've flown in a small 6-seater propeller plane from Karawari to Mount Hagen. There is no runway. The plane descends rapidly over a mountain crest, and as we touch down I realize that the landing area has a fair sized incline. The plane loses speed and comes to a halt as we ascend a hill on the ground.

Today we are going to see a reenactment of the Pogla Mudmen of Papua New Guinea in a village northwest of Goroka. Also referred to as the Asaro Mudmen, this tribe lived on a highland plateau for 1000 years. Typical of what we have seen on this trip, our subjects live in small agrarian clans isolated by harsh terrain. There are 600 different languages spoken on this island. Each tribe has their own vernacular that developed over the centuries due to constraints of geographic isolation, custom and tradition. We rely on our guide to communicate with them.

Reenactment of the Pogla Mudmen retaking their village

Reenactment of the Pogla Mudmen retaking their village

According to legend, the Pogla people were defeated by an enemy tribe, thus forcing the men to take refuge in and around the Asaro River, while leaving their women and children behind. In order to take back their tribe, these men covered themselves with grey mud. Because the mud from the Asaro River was thought to be poisonous, they covered their faces with masks that they created from pebbles heated with water from a waterfall. These had unique designs characterized by unusual ears, eyebrows, horns and mouths that were positioned sideways. At dusk the Mudmen approached their village. The enemy saw them and thought they were spirits causing them to flee in fear. The Pogla Mudmen had recaptured their village!

At the conclusion of the reenactment of the re-appropriation of their tribe, these actors remove their masks and have a conversation with us through our interpreter. Cliff takes a picture of them and sends it to his wife back in the United States. He receives a reply text from her within minutes, marveling at life on the other side of the planet. Watching Cliff using his cell phone engenders incredulity from these Mudmen players. Never having seen a cell phone before, they are amazed at the magic of global communication via satellite!

As we leave the Pogla Mudmen, our guide gives them a tip for their day's work in Papua New Guinean Kina. The colorful culture of these people fascinates me. I try to discern if my interest in the Mudmen stems from the inventiveness of their masks or their incredible isolation from the rest of the high tech world. I decide that both apply.