Living with the Mek: Beliefs 16Mar09

By popular demand, here is an extract from my journals whilst living with the Mek in West Papua. It refers to the events in episode 7: Beliefs, trade, past and future, change and choice… Sorry it’s quite long but love to hear anyone’s thoughts on it… 


Oliver Steeds’ Journals: Living with the Mek


We’ve been here for months now and have received nothing but kindness and hospitality from our new friends. It is time to give something back – the most appropriate gift here is a pig – the basis of the traditional economy – it many ways its like a bank account (a piggy bank if you pardon the pun) – as a piglet grows it accrues in value and can be used for bride price, settling disputes (including tribal war) but also it carries the added benefit that, when fatted, can be sacrificed for ceremony or just eaten. Having just built the bridge across the River Inba, it has opened up the other side of the valley and our neighbours in Minai are now in easier reach. We have nothing of material value so, with only cold cash at our disposal, Mark and I have decided to strike out towards Minai in the hope that there is more of a cash economy there and we will be able to buy pigs – one for Mark’s clan the Wizobels and one for mine, the Busops. If Minai proves unfruitful, we plan to continue on towards Kosarek, the largest settlement in the area where we hear that at the right price, people will gladly part with their pigs. Every morning, we wake to look across the valleys towards the fields of Minai, and having met Chief Yakob whilst building the bridge, the journey will hopefully provide an opportunity to explore a bit of the neighborhood. Living on a thin 100ft ridge, no more than 20ft wide for months on end, has at times felt claustrophobic, so its with a spring that we depart to the chimes of the Merengmen ladies, mothering us with reminders to be careful on the paths and when crossing the bridge but above all to watch out for the troublesome people of Minai.

Even though we’ve been here for a while and have acclimatized, I still have yet to come to grips with this terrain. The walk down to the river was once again more slide than step and in crossing the bridge we crossed the territory line between Merengmen and Minai, the first time for three months where we were on new ground. To travel into the unknown (at least unknown to me) is always one of the great privileges in life – senses sharpen and the mind reinvigorates like a fresh beginning. The walk up to Minai was a reminder of just why these settlements are so isolated. For nearly 40,000 years, many of the people of New Guinea have remained out of the reach of the rest of the world, valleys that divide settlements like Minai and Merengmen, and mountains that divide tribes like the Mek and the Yali, who despite living less than 10-miles apart, historically have had little contact and have completely different languages. On first impressions, it is clear that the outside world has arrived in Minai, there is a large church with a congregated tin roof, a preacher and at least half of the village were in clothes. It’s always astonishing to see what clothes make it to an outpost of indigenous life like this one, and alarmingly we were not the first signs of England to arrive here – our most potent export had previously visited, and now some of the people were clad in the markings of Premiership Football teams, Manchester United and Chelsea, seemingly, although unknowingly, even here they remain the most popular. On the surface of things, much remains the same – the people still live in the traditional round houses and their lives revolve around farming. Mark went off on a mission to buy some pigs whilst I began an excavation to try and to find out when the missionaries arrived and what impact they had had. First stop was Chief Yakob, still in traditional dress but sadly too unwell to have a long chat, suggesting instead I should speak to both his number two, Yansai and the preacher.

The preacher was a quietly spoken man from a village on the outskirts of Kosarek and remembered the arrival of the Missionaries. 30 years ago, they arrived in his village but were chased away with bows and arrows, but not before they managed to let off a few rifle shots that hardly displays the peaceful arrival of a Christian God. A few months later they returned. ‘God brought a thick fog to the valley”, the preacher explained, ‘through which the Missionaries managed to creep in, undetected and leave tempting gifts of machetes, clothes, salt and MSG”. More gifts would follow, but only if the Mek would renounce their traditional beliefs and accept the new Christian God – at best this could seem like giving the Mek a choice for their future, at worst it is blackmail towards people who with no contact from the outside world, had little comprehension of the implications were of their choices. Today, he assured me, the people of Minai were all good Christians, and no one still held onto the old beliefs and anyone that returned to them would incur the wrath of the Christian God. Although in rather stark contradiction, this menacing, vengeful God, displayed a kind liberalism towards me, who in the eyes of the Preacher, would be considerate to my alternatives beliefs. The preacher was proud of his new church, the money raised to build it came from his congregation, who in five years of saving what small amounts of cash they could scrape together from selling vegetables in nearby Kosarek, they had raised enough to buy the raw materials required for its construction. Sadly we couldn’t go in, as frustratingly the key-keeper had left for the fields in the morning and wasn’t due back until the following Sunday.

The two chiefs of the village, Yakob and Yansai reflect the changing landscape of modern Minai – Yakob, still in traditional dress in stark contrast to Yansai, dressed in shorts and t-shirt and sporting a dark blue baseball cap. The old beliefs were gone, he assured me, he was too young to remember them and welcomes in the change, unconcerned about the loss of some of their cultural heritage. Everyone wanted clothes even the people in Merengmen, he assured me, but because they were closer to the market in Kosarek, were in a better position to sell vegetables and earn cash to buy clothes. But from a western perspective, the surface of life in Minai lay in sharp contrast to our friends in Merengmen – the tatty, dirty clothes, wherever and by whoever they are worn in the world, are usually associated with poverty – and yet in a romantic idealized light, as if they were snapshots from a National Geographic magazine, the traditional gourds and grass skirts represented a picture perfect personification of indigenous people. This is a culture in transition, and beyond the clothes and church and the symbols of external influence, there is a different atmosphere in Minai and in my shallow excavations, it was not immediately clear where the soul of this village was. In Merengmen their soul is in the eyes and smiles of every man, woman and child and radiates with dignity, pride and identity.


It was time to go back and find out what, if any of these influences had reached Merengmen, whether they had been accepted or rejected and what impact it had on their traditional beliefs. I met up with Mark to find him armed with two small pigs, both male, big enough to impress our families in Merengmen but small enough to maneuver, and if required, carry home. Pig husbandry is a skill that I have somehow failed to acquire over my years and as the battle between Man and Pig opened with a salvo of grunts and screeches of displeasure from being taken away from his friends and family, I began to wish I knew more. For some reason, something I can only put down to assuming he must have had bad knees, he had great difficulty descending hills, forcing me to carry him for long stretches. When he did choose to walk on his four trotters he occasionally drove like a Ferrari, 3000 break pig-power, other times like a Chieftain Tank unable to turn, but sadly for his driver, he was usually a 1977 Ford Escort – a classic car in its day, a beautiful subtle aesthetic, but sadly powered by an shot engine. My little friend, on the other hand, would probably argue that it was the driver that was at fault. Luckily for him, he was been versed only in Mek and my threats of physical violence, castration and even quotes from Star Wars (‘If you destroy me, I will become more powerful that you can possibly imagine’) fell on deaf little piggy ears. The bridge was approaching, and a safe crossing would necessitate man and pig to work in perfect, synchronized, symbiotic harmony.

It’s at times of desperation like these, when man can be made or broken. I had begun the spiral into a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair and had begun speaking in tongues, in the vaguest of hopes that one such accent would resonate with his internal rhythm and we would find a way to understand each other. The more I experience of this world, the less I understand, the very experience becomes the meaning, and the journey becomes the destination, always surprising, but few as surprising as this. Unknown to myself, I had slipped into a criminally bad Sean Connery impression, and the pig began to follow my every command. “Oh yes, little piggy, good little piggy, lets see those trotters move, keep on like this, and you’ll be having lots of Little Miss Piggy’s to play with soon”. The pig saw the bridge first, stopped in his tracks, turned and lifted his head to me. Eye to eye we understood each other. To cross the bridge I would need to carry him under one arm and use the other to hold onto the rattan handrail. If he flipped out I would lose my footing and need both hands to prevent falling, forcing me to jettison my cargo, and test one of the great mysteries of the world – whether pigs could fly, because if not this pig would have to learn to swim and quickly. This situation was clearly, and understandably unacceptable to the pig, who having never crossed a bridge before, was unsure how we would react. Together, we decided it would be best if we followed the river upstream and try and find a shallow, slow-flowing point where I could wade across, carrying and controlling him with two hands. Fortunately, there had been little rainfall and it took us only 10-minutes to find a crossing point. Now back in the lands of Merengmen, sharing a mutually compatible language, with only the uphill to contend with, my little friend happily trotted ahead, continuing one of the greatest pig adventures in the history of Mekland.

PART 3: Illness and witches

We arrived just before dark to find the village strangely silent. We tied up the pigs outside our hut and went to investigate. Chief Markus was still sick, with what Mark had diagnosed as malaria perhaps complicated by a flu virus that was circulating the village. We had left him with pills, confident that he would recover. Mark (the acting expedition doctor) checked the Chief’s vital signs and if anything he seemed to be physically in better shape than when we left. Something was afoot, although it was unclear exactly what was going on. With the Chief out of action, and the village concerned for his health, the atmosphere wasn’t as upbeat as we had hoped when we envisaged presenting our families with the surprise gifts of pigs. We decided to delay and take a reading on the situation in the morning.

By morning, Markus’ condition hadn’t worsened although in the light of day, he looked gaunt, thin and uneasy. The village gathered outside his hut and Eonos and Henoch lead what seemed to be a Christian prayer, asking for the Chief’s health to be restored. After the prayer, Eonos, Markus’ right-hand man agreed, but only in complete secrecy, to shed some light on what was going on. Far from the village he explained that Markus thought he was under attack from a witch and with the help of his ‘old eyes’ had identified the witch to be Ferinsina, a 16 year old teenage girl, a cousin of Simeon that was visiting from the village of Tiblai, a place active with sorcery, where only last year, two women had been hung for witchcraft.

Markus claimed to have seen her come for him at night, trying to claw through the floorboards of his hut and drink his blood like a vampire. Markus was the only one in the village with the ability to identify witches and if he pointed the finger, everyone believed. There was no recourse, no debate, no jury. Ferinsina, in the eyes of everyone in the village was now a witch. Secrecy was implicit because everyone felt, that if she found out that people recognized her as a witch or even cooked up an excuse to ask her to leave, she would become angry, and a vengeful witch was by a far more dangerous prospect. By day, she had to be treated with kindness and respect, fed and given what she wanted, but as night fell, everyone rushed for their houses, shut their doors as best they could and lay awake in the fear, that somewhere out in the darkness, there was a witch, that at anytime, could come and try to drink their blood and kill them. For our friends here, they were living their nightmares, shadows that are rooted in their belief system that they cannot escape from.

The following morning, without much sleep, people staggered around the village, complaining of unusual aches and pains, some in their backs, some in their legs and arms, but always the cause was the same. Ferinsina, was not just after Markus anymore, but the entire village, and if anyone had fallen asleep, they believed she had attacked them and drunk some of their blood. A type of nettle was collected and anyone that felt that they had been attacked, had the area rubbed down, causing the skin to rise in an irritating itch that succeeded in displacing the original ache. The hysteria was growing and something had to give. The worst case was if someone unexpectedly died, she would be blamed and if the stories in Tiblai are to be believed, the punishment for witchcraft is death. Clearly if there was any chance that Ferinsina was going to be killed, Mark and I would try to step in. When traveling, I am keen to leave nothing but my footprints in the soil I walk on, but of course there is always a line – and here it was clear – I would not be able to stand by and see a teenage girl killed for anything, especially in the name of a belief system I did not subscribe to. But until those threats materialised, we had to remain impartial observers and keep an eye on Ferinsina. Despite everyone’s attempts to conceal their fears of her by day, she cant have failed to sense a change in their approach. A few days later, some friends of hers arrived from Tiblai and by morning she was gone. I can’t help but feel incredible sorry for her – in my eyes she is just a teenage girl, who’s life will be now profoundly affected by these accusations. The jungle drums bang loudly in these valleys, and wherever she goes, she will be stalked by the shadow that people think she is a witch. How will she find a husband? Will her family reject her? Questions we will probably never answer.

Part 4: Sacred shields

The belief in witches is rooted in a far deeper belief structure which in conceptual terms is little different from any other belief, in any other part of the world. Like others it provides an explanation of their existence and forms the basis of how they see the world around them and a guide to how they relate to that world. Often it is a leap of faith to explain the inexplicable and at times of fear, the belief structure can provide protection, consolation and even understanding. But were the traditional beliefs starting to change, as they appeared to be across the valley in Minai? Henoch confirmed that the prayer that was given for Markus was Christian, but that just opened up a can of contradiction I didn’t understand. On the one side, the witches were part of the web of ancestral beliefs, but the prayer, their source of protection and consolation was aimed squarely towards the new Christian God. It reminded me of the competition for beliefs in Europe during the Dark Ages, when despite the arrival of Christianity hundreds of years before, the belief in witchcraft was still prevalent. Henoch explained how Christianity had arrived here, corroborating the Minai preacher’s version of events but then going further. The Missionaries asked (or demanded – depends how you look at it) for everyone to burn their sacred objects, totems of their traditions, to symbolically and spiritually break their link with thousands of years of history and their ancestral beliefs – because only then would they be in a position to accept Christianity. The most valuable of these were their sacred shields, of which all were burnt. In many ways those acts represented a wanton destruction of cultural heritage, that could be seen as little different in cause and effect to the modern day destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Today, he went on, there was great pressure in the valleys to conform to the new belief, and no one wanted a reputation of being heathens or still believing in any of the old ways. But everyone, in both Minai and Merengmen still believed in witches, and despite the outward expression of Christianity, some of the traditional beliefs still remained.

I turned to Kornelius and Jonas, two of the Elders in the village, in the hope that they could remember the sacred shields and still know about the traditional beliefs. They were both young when the Missionaries arrived and remembered their parents being asked to burn the shields. They had never made one since, but still remembered how they looked and agreed, with some persuasion to try to make one. We went out to the forest to find a tree, not any tree, but a particular kind. They led me into a new part of the forest, new to me, but old to them. The paths were overgrown, lost to the past, to a time when their ancestors believed that spirits lived in these trees, and those spirits could protect against witches, whilst also giving strength for their children to grow strong and their harvests to be full. One of the ancestors had once seen the spirit by a particular type of tree, and it would be from this that we would carve a shield. We felled the tree and carved a three-foot chunk from the middle, not because it represented the heart of the tree, but simply because it was the straightest part. Jonas and Kornelius worked the wood with a machete until it was a foot wide and three inches thick. But before we could carve it, the wood had to dry, but until it was completed, I was told it must not leave the forest. And so, as their fathers had done, we built a small shelter and left the shield for a few days respite out of the elements.

Back in the village Markus had made a full recovery – physically with the help of the drugs administered, and probably psychosomatically lifted by the departure of Ferinisina. Order had been restored and the mood in the village had lifted, everyone was back to their sparkling best, thoughts of witchcraft banished as quickly as they had arrived. And finally it was time for Mark and I to hand over our pigs to our families. It is one of the great privileges in life to be able to give something to someone you love and respect and make them happy. I briefed my little friend that his great pig adventure was now going to continue amongst a new family, the Busops, wonderful and caring, they would look after him, and as they would treat him with respect and kindness, so he should treat them in a similar way. He grunted a resigned acknowledgment and upon meeting his new owners, seemed to thoughtfully and happily accept his new role in life. Seeing Musa and Miriam’s face light up with delight was one of the most magical moments here. Until then, they had no pigs, and now finally they were a family of property and wealth.

When the wood had dried sufficiently, Jonas and Kornelius led me back to the shelter to begin carving the design. For months I have tried to build up trust and respect and finally it was beginning to pay off, for as they carved their actions slowly began to open the doors to their identity and reveal their ancient beliefs. The design would represent a human form, not in exact linear form but in impression. The handle, the belly button, was carved out of the back first. Then with incredible precision and enthusiasm, they carefully etched out the design, straight lines, horizontal and vertical at first and finishing with circles on either side a third of the way down from the top and representing the eyes. As they worked, it seemed far more than two Elders just carving a shield as their forefathers had once done, as there seemed to be a belief that went into their creation – in making the shield they were embodying the spirit of their God. In a western sense, there are so few forms of art here, but throughout their lives, their craft, whether constructing a new hut, whittling a bow and arrow, or weaving a string bag, it is as much a creative expression as anything we have in the west. But this shield represents art in its most ancient and traditional form – from the oldest cave paintings in aboriginal Australia to the Mek in these mountains, art has linked the physical world with the spiritual world. Kornelius and I left Jonas to finish off the carving and went in search of the pigments to stain the wood. We needed three kinds – ‘qat’ – a grey clay that dried white, ‘mope’ – a deep black-current berry, and ‘hainang’ – a radiant orange seed that hides inside a shell not unlike the casing of a rambuttan. In painting, the materials were less precise to use than brushes, and when applied, with an inexperienced hand, gave a rough, natural and impressionistic feel. The three colours represented the three major clans of Merengmen – the Wizobels were orange, the black-current – the Busops and the white – the Nabiels – and in completion, the shield transformed to represent, not a single person, but the entire village. The final act was to take the shield, not to the village, but like their fathers had done to the heart of their fields, and leave it inside a farming shelter, because it was here, in the heart of their world, where they required their God – to keep them safe and to provide for them.

Part 5: Sacred Cave: A journey to the beginning

The origins of their belief and their relationship to their ancestors still remained a mystery, a subject no one was willing to discuss. Having completed the shield, one of the Elders in the village, Eonos, decided to take me aside and explain. He took me out of the village and in a cloud of confused mutterings refused to reveal what was going on. We walked for an hour or so deep into the jungle, until he finally stopped and sat me down in the shade of red pandanos tree.

“When you arrived your skin was white, now it is dark like ours”, he began. “You have been living with us, learning about our history and culture, we have become friends and now I want to show you our most sacred place, so you can understand what we really believe”. He was going to take me to the soul of the Mek’s cosmology, kept secret from the missionaries to ensure they wouldn’t destroy it. Eonos explained how the Mek believed they came into being. When God made the world, he made Mek who came out of a particular cave, some miles away, over the mountains to the south and east. (The Missionaries subsequently added that the first to come out were white men, who left to live in distant lands.) But God did not make Mek in human form, but as birds, animals that crawled along the ground and some that lived beneath the ground. They spread through the world and his particular ancestors, were descended from the animals that lived underground but surfaced to feed. One day, as they left their cave, they became man, Mekman. The spirits of their ancestors, who remain embodied as ‘rodents’, still lived in the cave, their influence still felt by everyone. If treated well, the spirits would provide good harvests and widespread health. But if treated badly, they could be vengeful, and they must be continually placated with offerings of potato, yam, fruit, red pandanos, even pig. Their displeasure is witnessed with the cry of small bats, that on rare occasion, usually as dusk falls, can be seen circling and swooping the village, their high pitch song, an alarm call for all in Merengmen. Sometimes they were forewarning war, death, landslides, witches or disease, and without fail, bad luck would follow. When the Missionaries arrived, and everyone burnt their sacred objects, the Elders believed that they had angered their Ancestors and so in the hope of not disturbing them further, had chosen never to visit the sacred cave again. But the force of their ancestral spirits was still being felt – once when Kornelios’ dog killed a rodent in the cave, the bats came and a few people in the village mysteriously died. Other times, Chief Markos and Eonos had seen the bats, and soon some of their children had died – Markos lost a son and daughter and Eonos, three daughters.

Since we had arrived, the bats had been spotted only twice – once before the Busops houses caught fire and once when a witch was sighted. Occasionally they still return to the cave to make offerings, but in recent years no one had visited. Today, they prefer to protect themselves from their creator and the vengeful spirits of their ancestors, by praying to their new Christian God and make offerings to the church. As taught by the missionaries, the Christian God, the fundamentalist Old Testament God, was vengeful and violent if angered. But in many ways, this new God seemed little different from their traditional God, the belief system had not really changed, only the name of their God. When we arrived at the cave, he instructed, we must be quiet and respectful so as not to disturb them.

We left the shade of our tree and trekked further into the forest, cutting paths through thick, undisturbed forest as we went, journeying deeper into their past. We reached a stream, flowing fast with the recent rains, over grown with fallen dead trees covered in well established vines, that were heavy with moss and weaved their way towards the canopy. Eonos turned and pointed to an overhanging rock, an open cave. Inside lay bones and the skull of a pig, with its teeth still intact. This marked the edge of the sacred place, the doorway where they left their offerings. A hundred yards ahead lay the caves of their ancestors. We cut our path up from the stream, through jurassic looking jungle until Eonos suddenly stopped and pointed ahead. In front of us, hidden until that moment, were large boulders, covered in thick moss, overhanging rocks creating a series of small cave openings. Eonos gestured silently for me to go ahead and look inside the cave. He would stay as this was the place that the previous visitor, Kornelius’ dog, had come and disturbed the spirits. The cave was no more than a foot high at its entrance, light penetrated only a foot inside illuminating a clutter of small rocks and the prints of small rodents. He pulled me away after less than a minute and led me up the hill, leaving his machete at the base. I followed close behind, trying hopelessly to copy Eonos’ effortless silence as we climbed through densely knotted, brackish vines, half crawling, half crouching in a slow plod. The ground underfoot was littered with loose boulders, each step was purposeful, aimed to ensure no stone was dislodged, no vine broken. After a few minutes we arrived at two more small openings in the ground, part burrow, part cave. In his mind, this was the place of creation, the origin of his identity, the home of his ancestral God. He never looked directly, and after a few seconds, visibly started to shake, shielded his eyes for a few moments, before turning and disappearing back down the hill, leaving me alone. The two holes swallowed the light, making it strangely impossible to see beyond a few inches deep, but the entrance was scoured with the markings of more rodents. I sat for a moment staring into the black hole. Months ago, I had landed here as a stranger in a strange land, slowly scratching away at the surface trying to understand this new world. Through their generosity and trust, they had slowly opened windows onto their lives, leading me deeper and deeper in, until finally we arrived at the beginning, at their source. Believing in the power of his God to wreak furious anger, it was an incredible risk for Eonos, nothing more dangerous in his world, than taking me to his sacred place. It was the most profound and humbling privilege to be taken there, impossible to compare with anything in our world. To be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, is only the beginning of cultural understanding, but in that moment, that was part of gift he gave me. Perhaps it was the power of seeing a man, a friend who believed he was in the presence of his God, the way he shook and shielded his eyes and fled in fear, that the cave in front of me, the heaving canopy and breathing forest seemed to connect for a moment in the power of the place. I rejoined him at the stream and we silently walked backed to the village, united in our experience, but perhaps distanced by its meaning.

Since the Missionaries arrived 30 years ago, the doors to the outside world have been opened and now they can never be closed. For the first time since their ancestors arrived in these lands, nearly 40,000 years ago, or the first time their ancestors crawled out of the sacred caves, the Mek can see beyond these mountains. The outside world has arrived in these valleys and the process of change has already begun. In some parts, people are wearing clothes, others have rejected their past, the different generations revealing their hopes of different futures. The Elders, like Eonos, hold onto their traditional beliefs, will always wear their gourds, and continue to educate the young about their past, scolding anyone who tries to ignore it. But for the younger generations, as they gain greater knowledge of the world around them, they are increasingly lured away from their past to what they perceive is a future of clothes, towns, education and health. Perhaps some will stay and continue to uphold their culture, others may go and try the towns, some may succeed there, but most will be probably fail. To an outsider, the Mek are part of the dwindling cultural diversity, that continues to be rapidly eroded on our planet. But for the Mek, this is their world and it will be their future, an uncertain future that they will face. I can only hope, the choice will be theirs, and they truly understand the implications of their choices. Today, some of their cultural heritage and ancient knowledge has already been lost, in name at least they have changed their God to a Christian God. This is now a culture in transition with competing beliefs, the old versus the new. But the Mek still believe that these forests are infused with spirits, both good and bad, they still rely on their natural environment for everything, and they still understand their strengths and weaknesses in relationship to what happens in their fields. This remains their world, and for the moment at least, their identity is still rooted to the ways and words of their ancestors.

17 Responses to “Living with the Mek: Beliefs”

  1. Mary Anne Says:

    Olly: This is phenomenal. Thank you for sharing it with us. You are a brilliant observer and wonderful writer. I look forward to reading more. :-)

  2. Ana Maria Says:

    I have this to say…WOW! You have the beginnings of what could be a very succesful book here. Your sensitivity to the spiritual side of the Mek is outstanding. I am a journalist as well, and as one writer to another, I encourage you to pursue the development and publication of your material into book form. Find yourself a wickedly good editor and make a run for it, Olly! Let us read more…are these your writings as they came straight out of your journals, or did you edit them?

  3. Tan Says:

    Dear, Olly
    This was the most insight of how you really looking into life itself. I felt like I was there watching the story being unfold, especially when you went to the sacred cave. How do you feel exactly when you were sitting there in front of the two dark opening of the cave by youself? Do you think about God? You said, you were humbling, do you have peace with yourselves? Olly, do you ever wonder where else life can take you? I know you said, you always make mistakes and the best things you ever did was learn from it. Do you sometime wonder if those mistake is not a mistake at all, but is the path you must do to learn and have wisdom in life? Have you ever wonder that your life is already a choosing path from God? Sometime, I think it is.( for me anyway and trust me I try it my way first, consider my free will was a gift) I like how you felt when you gave the pig for a gift, I think life is not about money or material weath, is all about how you made other feel and how you feel about it. I remember some part of the bible something like “everything is vanity under the sun”. Make you think real deep about what exactly consider as “vanity,” don’t you think so. I think I start to like you even more than before, (not sure where before was) but I do like how you think and how you see others. You”re seeing them as who they really are, not the outside, but the core of they being. I wish more people would be like you. No need to apologize for the story being long. I will say that no one would complain about it, a matter of fact, thank you for writing it. You have a good heart and I think you will never change. You are touching so many lives with your thought and words. Hope you take care of yourself and stay safe. Will write more next time, Tan.

  4. Sara M Says:

    Wow. Thanks for bringing us back to the Mek. I remember watching each of those events when the series originally aired, but certainly have gotten more out of them by being able to read your thoughts/writing. There is definitely a book in you. I can’t wait for you to find it!

    Sara M

  5. katie Says:

    You asked us to tell you what we think about what you wrote… and for me my favorite line was, “new to me, old to them.”

    Your best writing is the familiar tone with the simple language. It is definitely a gift, and most likely the reason for so many kind responses from your blogging sheep. We all appreciate your personal touch, and yes, it was a bit long, no need to be too wordy, we get it; especially when you reveal your feelings about what you observed, not just the experience itself.

    On NPR this week, there were pieces about the economy, society, where we are going, and one in particular noted the drive of christians to bring more faith to africa, that is the “new economy” for their churches, ripe for the picking… …just sad. And in reading the beginnings of your novel, I appreciate that you reveal the danger in what god can bring if it comes with conditions.

    History, tradition, memories are part of us, to be honored – and hold the greatest gift of education for the future.

    thank you again, write on…


  6. Mo Says:

    Aloha Olly,

    Thank you so much for posting this. The experience you write about here is so much more profound and moving than the small glimpse that was featured on the show.

    This and some of the issues brought up in the 6th ep of the Machigenga show answer some of the questions I had about outside influences. Not necessarily in a good way.

    It’s a bit of a bind – on the one hand, they are naturally drawn to the supposed luxuries of modern life, however they are asked to sacrifice much in exchange for it. It’s disheartening to hear that just 30ish years ago – within my lifetime – the Mek were subjected to the exact same exploitation at the hands of Missionaries that tribes were subjected to hundreds of years ago. Maybe they weren’t murdered by greedy Conquistadors, but being made to burn their most sacred, holy and cultural relics is… heartbreaking, I guess is the word.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

    Mahalo nui loa,

  7. Kat Says:

    Hi Olly,

    Thanks for posting this, I adored the Mek. Convince those bosses it is time to return to West Papua. I wonder if that bridge is still standing :o).

    I agree with everyone who believes you should write a book. You have a strong voice and engaging narrative. I was wholly absorbed in The Great Pig Drive, light-hearted and humorous yet still filled with the beauty of words. “the very experience becomes the meaning, and the journey becomes the destination”- gorgeous and moving line, Olly. I know first hand the trial it can be at times to put pen to paper just be conscious of your pacing and remember the only bad page is a blank one.

    I eagerly await the story of your adventures in the Gobi dessert. I am imagining a Clive Cussler novel gone horribly wrong :o)

    Hope you are feeling better


  8. K.E.M. Says:

    The comments on contradicting beliefs, i.e., Christianity versus traditional, makes me think back to a conversation I had this summer with a Navajo American man. He told me many Native American Indians believe both Catholicism (brought of course by missionaries) as well as their traditional beliefs. Seeing the confusion in my face, he said, “Our hearts are open to both. It is all truth. Let us honor everything.” How truely insightful.
    P.S. – “forcing me to jettison my cargo, and test one of the great mysteries of the world – whether pigs could fly” – made me laugh out loud as I read it at work. Well done.

  9. Lissa Says:

    Hi Olly,
    I enjoy watching the Machigenga, but the Meks are also my favorite-so far. I too can foresee a book in your future. Judging by my previous posts, one can conclude that I’m neither an editor nor a writer, but yes to being a writer wannabe! My opinion on the subject may not matter much, but please do me a favor and read on.

    “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is before all to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything.” – Joseph Conrad, Prefaces

    That to me summarizes your writing style. Vivid imagery, characterization, quotable quotes, best of all your humor are what hooked me to read your entries. Some of the lines that I like from the entry above are: “To travel into the unknown…one of the great privileges in life-senses sharpen…mind reinvigorates like a fresh beginning” and “The pig saw the bridge first…turned and lifted his head to me. Eye to eye we understood each other.”

    Your entry is long, but I assume it is just the first draft. I think it’s best to keep writing until done, then edit after. I edit as I write, thus often prone to writer’s block. Do you keep an outline?

    I believe your book is within your grasp…just waiting for you to make the move. Hope you’ll find the time and energy to make it happen.

  10. McKaya Says:


    Thank you for sharing your journal entries. I’ve followed your adventures beginning with the Kombai and find them captivating. I have a few questions that I hope you will be able to answer. I am African American. My father is African and his tribe is located not far from Cameroon. We are a people rich in the knowledge of traditions and beliefs. My mother is American and I currently reside in the midwest. I shared such a strong identity with my African ancestry that I am absolutely fascinated by the lifestyles of indigenous tribes. Although I don’t subscribe to the Mek’s religious beliefs, I do in part understand it.

    In your journal entry you wrote: “When you arrived your skin was white, now it is dark like ours”, he began. “You have been living with us, learning about our history and culture, we have become friends…..”

    Now to my questions. I know that the Mek have met people with white skin but have the Mek people met anyone whose skin is dark like theirs
    apart from their own circle of influence? Have they met people with dark skin from Europe or the United States or Africa or even South America?
    Have they seen pictures of us in magazines or books? If so, do you know what their thoughts are towards people who look much like them as far as skin but are different in other ways? Do they know what it means to be “bi-racial”? Do they know about braiding or the platting of hair? If you can shed any light on these questions, I would be most appreciative. Thanks again Olly!

    ~ McKaya

    P.S. I lived in England for three years. I had a home in the Lakenheath/Mildenhall area – not too far from Bury St. Edmonds – do you know the area? Love it! Hope to return to England again.

  11. Carmen Says:

    Thank you so much, Olly, for posting your journals. I have read and reread them several times, always wanting more. One of my first thoughts upon reading them, like so many of the others, was that you need to find a way to publish them. If not in a book, then at least in some sort of a companion book or booklet with the series DVDs. (Although, it could truly be so much more than that.) And unlike some of the others, I do not think it’s too long at all, on the contrary, I could have kept reading more.

    I’ve never really understood evangelizing. The thought that there is one and only one way to believe and the need to have others believe as you say. It has always seemed to me that if missionaries go into an area and try to evangelize by means of bribes, threats (of an angry, vengeful God) and coercion that that would prove the weakness of their God, not the strength. If that God is all powerful, what does he have to fear? Certainly not us mere mortals.

    Re: your piggy adventure… Too funny… You, your pig and the Sean Connery impression must have been a sight to behold! It sounds as though you and the piggy forged a zen like understanding of one another… lucky for the piggy. It was nice of you to carry the poor little guy across the river. And I did love seeing you (on the program) give the Busops the pig. How wonderful.

    Re: Ferensina… If you and Mark ever do get to go back to Merengmen (which, I think I speak for most of us when I say that we would love to see that), it would be great to know how Ferensina is fairing. I think a lot of people have wondered about her.

    Re: part 4 Isn’t it interesting that both the Mek’s and Machigenga’s spiritual lives involve a cave? And that a cave is where they both believe their spirits go to when they die? I hadn’t thought of that before, but it just struck me when reading. It would be interesting to check into the prevalence of caves in belief systems. I know I is a fairly common thread.
    Regardless,in both cases, what a high honor that they chose to allow you to visit them.

    If only there was a way to embrace change for the better, while still preserving our past history and culture. Every society struggles to find that balance. More often than not, we don’t find it at all, and we do end up losing so much of our traditions and culture. I love the saying, ‘Every time an old person dies, it’s like a library burning to the ground’. How true.


    machigenga/reincarnation/ jose’s new son/ son that drowned

  12. Carmen Says:

    Oops… As you can see by my weird little note at the bottom of my previous post, I had meant to ask you if the Machigenga believed in reincarnation referencing the fact that after his new son was born, Jose had said that his son had come back to him. (Sorry about that!)


  13. admin Says:

    Thank you for all your lovely support with my mixed, mashed up writing…one day hopefully, it’ll all come together in a book…

    Ana Maria: journals: Thank you for your kind words. It’s a bit of hit and miss with the writing – but I reckon about 75% is just a brain dump on paper and the rest is edited, although I’m not a very patient editor or writer sadly. There’s always something else to do…good luck with your journalism.

    Tan: the Mek Cave: There was incredible peace to be found there and to be found in the company of Eonos and the Mek. I think it was Emerson who wrote: “you can go into the world in search of the beautiful, but you wont find it unless you carry it with you”. Guess that might be enlightenment if you can nail that! But I think there’s something in it, for sure.

    Monica: Your line: “The more things change, the more they stay the same” – your absolutely right. I remember my history teacher at school saying something similar, saying this is the most important thing I will ever teach you: ““everything must change so that everything can stay the same” – from a film called the Leopard about the Italian Risorgimento. Few times have such words of wisdom been spoken.

    McKaya: Mek: I’m not sure exactly who else they’ve met. It’s a good point and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t find out.

  14. Kerri Smith Says:

    I just started watching your program on the Travel channel and I was hooked. I am so intrigued by what you have chosen to do with your life. I loved the Machegenga? sp.) tribe, they were amazing people. I look forward to living vicariously through your next adventure.
    ( as a God lover myself) I guess I can only be ” categorized” as that It breaks my heart to read about how western thoughts on religion was introduced to them. I have the unique, I guess you could call it that amongst other things, history in my family. I am the the great- granddaughter of just those very people. My great grandfather, was a missionary in Borneo in the 30s and 40s. He was one of the founders of Mission Aviation Fellowship. I have seen pictures and books with my grandmother being held by a person native to a tribe in Borneo. Its amazing. My grand parents and parents were also missionaries. What’s not so amazing is that they were convinced that they needed to modernize these people. In stead of introducing them to love and kindness, human love and kindness as the Christian belief is and should always be, they tried to change them by forcing a ideological boxed up God on them. I don’t know what it did. I wasn’t there. I don’t think I would have been part of it. The only ” mission” worked I have carried on, is to go to the impoverished and build houses, repair hospitals, make it possible for them to have clean water, hold babies, feed orphans and leave with a broken heart because I want to bring them all home. This is how I show them God, I’m his hands in an unforgiving world. I don’t go to change them, I am always changed by them.
    I just wanted you to know that not all people who do missionary work are not out to change people. Unfortunately it’s not true for all, but I believe that just serving and giving my time and energy makes a greater impact. I have a few to many branches of evangelical missionaries in my family tree, I hope I can be the one that makes mission work serve as a mission to help others. . I once asked my grand mother, after a long story about MAF, what if they ( people from cultures unlike ours) came here and tried to tell you everything you know is wrong? She became angry, evaded the question and I ended up raking the yard that day. I have always hung on to that thought. After watching how you intimately become part of those peoples lives, I know my question was legitimate.
    I see what you are saying by the stripping away of their identifiable culture. I hold on to my Irish roots dearly, I know that my children are one generation away from not having anything to identify with and I believe that is important. I also hope that my children can Identify themselves with a family that want to serve and not dominate and displace. ( I am the first one to not commit to ” being a missionary” on my father’s side of the family. I’m the rebel. Thank goodness for the Irish family.: )
    You experienced something amazing when you went with the man to his holiest place. That is truly an honor.
    I look forward to watching you travel and meet new amazing people.
    P.S. not that it matters, but the missionaries were originally from Germany, and the Irish side, my mom’s, well, owned pubs in good ole’ Kerry. IRE
    Kerri Smith,

  15. Don W Says:

    Ollie, I loved the show and hope something can be done to preserve their culture in today’s world. Through you, I’ve come to love these people very much and hope they are doing well.
    There was one point at the beginning where they were questioning why you guys would come out into the jungle without women to satify your ‘needs’, and they were worried that you would have “relations” with their women, The chief was also worried that because you guys didn’t bring women, that you two might have homosexual relations, and warned that he would “shove hot peppers up your butts” if you did. So it is clear that homosexuality in the Macheganga culture is strictly taboo.
    I found it very interesting that a culture that has never had any outside influences, such as Christianity, would find homosexuality taboo.
    Did the chief ever explain why they hold disdain for homosexuality?
    I’m a heterosexual male Christian, finding myself on the defensive on why I don’t think homosexuals, who are generally atheists, should be allowed to be married.

  16. Garth Louk Says:

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  17. Ajulufo Ifeanyi Says:

    Olly, I love this. I have wondered what life might be like in that remote place; and I can’t help seeing it over and over on the discovery world channel. Please when next you visit those guys, take some clothes with you for the villagers. I wish to know more about Ferensina. I think that she is innocent and I would like to know more about her. Greet mark for me. You guys are great!

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