When the first European explorers found their way into the Highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s, they didn’t find the mountain ranges they were expecting. Instead, they chanced upon heavily cultivated valleys and over one million people living here. Today, this part of the PNG is still the most densely populated area of the country and yet it remains the least developed region.
As the most remote part of the province, Tari is one of the new places in PNG where people still live in a very primitive manner and wear their traditional dresses on a daily basis. Clan and tribal loyalties are still very strong here, and tribal traditions live on especially in the rural areas. Pigs and gardening remain the two most important things in life and tribal fighting is still a common occurrence.
The Huli is the largest ethnic group in the Highlands, with a population somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 people, covering the whole of Tari. Huli men are best known for their custom of wearing decorative woven wigs, that are used as elaborate headdresses and decorated with bundles of multi-colored feathers during singsings (celebratory festivals). These wigs are specially made by a unique clan known as the Huli Wigmen, who attend wig schools and live together in isolation from the rest of the community.
Table of Contents
The Tribes of Papua New Guinea
Meet the Wig School Master
To learn about the Huli wigmen, we veer off a mud path along the Highlands Highway, the only main road that connects the entire Highlands region. I’m surprised that the Huli wigmen actually live so close to civilization, but Steven, my guide from TransNiugini Tours, clarifies that most wig schools are some distance from town and this particular one we’re visiting is about two hours by foot. To make it easier for tourist visits, they have set up a temporary hut here. “Nobody is allowed to go into wig schools — it is strictly for the students and master.”
I am first introduced to Kupunu, the teacher and owner of the Poroiba Akua wig school. An elderly but fit man in his early sixties, Kupunu wears a big headdress stuffed with multi-hued feathers, armbands made of rattan and nothing but a hip belt beneath. He’s warm and chirpy, wearing a broad smile — nothing like the school master I’d imagined.
Kupunu’s father was a wig school master who passed down the responsibility to him. He is now continuing on his legacy. “Not anyone can be a master, he needs to have powers and be able to cast spells.”
“Hair cannot grow into a wig by nature. It can only grow with the teacher’s spell.” Steven says with so much conviction that even I’m beginning to think Kupunu is some sort of wizard.
The Rules of Huli Wig-Growing Tradition
Kupunu starts to explain in Huli (with Steven translating) how it all works, “In Huli culture, boys live with their mothers until they are seven or eight years old, then they live with their fathers to learn skills like hunting with bow and arrow, building mud walls and making houses. When they are around 14 to 15 years old, they go to wig school and don’t return home at all until they graduate. Sometimes they stay with us for up to 10 years.”
At wig schools, they learn the fundamentals and rules of Huli traditional costumes: from growing their hair to collecting feathers and making armbands. Since these wigmen don’t receive formal education in public schools, they are illiterate and only speak Huli (not even Pidgin, the national language of PNG).
The wise wig master goes on, “To enter my school, the boy’s family pays me 200 Kinas (US$80) or a pig and they stay with me for 18 months to grow one wig. If they want to grow another, they stay longer and pay again. ” As mentioned, pigs are highly valued and treasured in the Highlands, and are often used to pay a bride’s dowry or for other settlements.
But not everyone is accepted as a student. Only young and virgin males can enter wig school. “I have to put a powerful spell on the student before he comes to my school. The spell will not work on someone who has had sexual relations.”
What about women? Do they go to wig school too?
Steven looks at me with a face of ridicule, “Of course not! Women don’t wear wigs and they don’t go to school.” I keep my silence. (I’ll cover what women do in my next post.)
Rituals and Spells for a Good Hair Day
Once accepted into the school, the students and master perform a special ritual. They reenact it for me and I watch with much awe. First, the master spits (thereby working his magic) into a bamboo pipe filled with water from the creek. The students each gulp down half of the water and spit it into the air so that the water will fall onto them and cleanse their souls. The other half is then drunk to cleanse the interior of the students’ bodies.
While in wig school, students have to keep their hair wet at least three times a day. That is why they usually live near a creek or other water source, to have constant access to water. It is their tradition to sing while using fern leaves to sprinkle water onto their big bouncy hairdo. They also have to follow a diet where certain types of food are not allowed, such as pig’s heart, pig’s fat, and spicy food. They even need to adopt a special sleeping position: perched on one elbow and neck resting on a wooden log — all to ensure a healthy growth of hair.
After 18 months of growing their hair out, the wigmen cut their hair out and hand them to Napata, the wig specialist, who then sews and weaves the students’ hair into wigs. Most wigmen have more than one wigs, but they must all be grown before he gets married. Some are used as daily wigs, while others are worn only on special occasions, as ceremonial wigs. These ceremonial wigs are made with two wigs combined together (in opposite directions) and shaped into a headdress that resembles the silhouette of a bird with its wings stretched out.
Once Napata weaves them into immaculate wigs, he goes to the market and sells them. Many Huli men who don’t grow their own hair will buy them to wear for singsings (festivals or major events). The daily wigs can go for as high as 600 Kinas (US$400), while the ceremonial ones fetch over double the price, up to 1,500 Kinas (US$900).
This money helps to go towards paying for the bride dowry, as marriage is always on the horizon when the wigmen graduate from school. On the day that the student graduates and leaves the school, he puts on a layer of ocher paint on his face and heads out to find a wife for himself.
A Dying Trade
I am curious to know if things are changing with modernization and influence from the outside world. After all, the resource development projects going on in Tari at the moment are set to open the region up.
On the other hand, a look at the primitive way of living here in Tari makes me think that changes won’t occur or impact the locals till at least a few decades later.
Kupunu responds with a sigh, “In the past, I received 20-30 students each term, but now I only get 10 or less. People prefer to go to public schools these days. They want different things now…”
While normalizing education is definitely a good thing for the Huli people, I can’t help but feel empathy for Kupunu. I wonder how long more his wig school – and most importantly, this wig-growing tradition – will live on for. Regardless of that, I’m sure these Huli wigmen will continue casting a magic spell on those curious enough to visit Papua New Guinea for a long time to come.
This experience was organized by Ambua Lodges in Tari. To book this tour, contact US based travel company Fly and Sea Dive Adventures who can arrange all your flights and accommodation.