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FEATURE: Dani tribe keeps traditions alive amid modernization.

JIWIKA, Indonesia, Feb. 8 Kyodo

Albertus Mabel, a member of the Dani tribe in Indonesia's remote Papua province, was one of dozens of tribesmen performing a mock tribal war for visiting tourists on a recent Sunday morning.

Like all men and boys taking part in the mock war on a grass field in the Baliem Valley of Papua's central highland, the 17-year-old wore nothing but a headdress and penis gourd, a dried vegetable sheath held in place by a string around his waist.

Appearing in full war regalia by decorating his naked body with mud and an elaborate headdress made of feathers from a bird of paradise, he chose a long wooden spear as his weapon, while some others went with arrows and bows.

Along with the others, he also chanted war songs, and soon after the ''war'' he proceeded into a complex of circular thatched huts, where bare-breasted women with grass or fiber skirts chanted other traditional songs, ready to join their men to start a traditional pig festival.

They produced fire by rubbing a piece of dried bamboo against a special wood, and then used the fire to heat dozens of stones to cook a young pig, vegetables and sweet potatoes, their main staples.

All proceedings in cooking the pig were done in an elaborate ritual with spirited singing and dancing that lasted around three hours. Some tourists also joined the popular traditional festival, with some women going bare-breasted and men wearing only penis gourds, locally called ''koteka.''

Mabel said he returned home that Sunday to Anemajugi village in Jiwika district from the nearby city of Wamena, where he lives with his relatives while studying at a senior high school.

He took off his T-shirt, pants and shoes and wore the koteka for the Sunday event as he has been groomed to succeed his father, Yali Mabel, 45, as a village chief.

Mabel said he has been entrusted by his tribal-leader father to assist various ceremonial activities as a way to prepare him as his father's successor to protect one of the world's last Stone Age traditions.

''We have to fight against modernization because we have to maintain our tradition and culture,'' said Mabel's father, who wears the koteka everywhere he goes, including to church and a bank office in Wamena.

''If we lose our tradition, tourists will not come here anymore,'' he said, adding he and his clans have lived as their ancestors did for generations as Neolithic warriors and farmers.

Mabel said he has been thinking about a future beyond the tribal world.

''I want to become a military official, a high-ranking one, because I don't like to be ordered to do this or that by the others,'' he said, when asked what he wants to be after graduating from school.

His younger brother, Wamilik, 14, who also attends the same school and lives with his older brother in Wamena, said that he wants to be a government official.

''I want to become the head of a district, wearing a civil servant uniform,'' he said.

The two brothers, who apparently wear nothing but koteka for the sake of tourists only, said they are proud of their culture and are willing to spend time wearing their orange penis gourds whenever they have to.

But outside influences, which bring modern life, have led not only the two young brothers but also more and more other Dani people, the largest ethnic group in Papua Province, to gradually abandon their tradition for modern convenience.

In Wamena's Misi traditional market, Willem Matuan, 60, was the only person wearing only a koteka and bird-feather headdress. For 15,000 rupiah (about $1.20), he agreed to be photographed.

Sitting next to him was Jhon Eselom, 16, who is from the same village as Matuan.

Like other Dani people, he is dark-skinned and has curly hair. But he wore modern clothing as do most Dani people who live in or visit Wamena.

''Koteka is for the old people only. I am ashamed to wear one,'' Eselom said.

Unlike five or 10 years ago, the number of topless women and koteka-attired men walking around Wamena has been declining steadily, local people said.

All of them now are old tribesmen and women, who ask tourists for money if they take their pictures.

Found by an American explorer in 1938, the valley, which is only accessible by air, has since been gradually exposed to the outside world after being hidden by mountain walls for centuries.

By the 1950s, missionaries started flying in to convert the many tribes from animist beliefs to Christianity, although not all of them were willing to convert.

Old tribesmen, tribal leaders and anthropologists have been concerned about young people who gradually abandon their traditions for modern living as they are influenced by the spread of religions, especially Christianity, besides the influx of migrants from other Indonesian islands and by tourists.

If the trend continues, it is not impossible that within a few decades Dani customs could only be practiced by professional performers or actors for tourists only, or by those Dani people living in a few isolated villages that have little or no contact with the outside world.

Back at the festival, after eating the pig with vegetables and sweet potatoes, most of the people dispersed, with only the tribal leader Yali Mabel and a few men left.

Before saying goodbye, Mabel, who once visited Japan for a television show, finally disclosed his mobile phone number.

Leaving the village, an old woman wearing a modern cotton shirt and skirt approached a tourist for a bottle of mineral water he was holding.

The woman apparently was one of the bare-breasted Dani performing in the pig festival a short ago.

Upon receiving the bottle from the tourist, she chanted, ''Wah, wah, wah!'' which means ''Thank you!'' in Dani.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Feb 10, 2009
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