One of the festivals held annually in PNG is the Goroka Show. I’ve learned that people across the world have heard of the Goroka Show even if they have no idea where PNG is! As for me…I hadn’t heard of it until I prepared to come. It’s meant to be a demonstration of traditional dress, music, dance, and art found in the Highlands and is quite the site to behold, each lain (family line) showing what lain they belong to through their colors and dress.
It was fascinating to see all the different performers, their costumes and dances. So much color and all done with things found around them. For example, the group found nearest to us has good red clay with which they paint themselves. Other groups have fruits and tree bark that give them bright yellows and reds and blues. Some smear themselves with a mixture of ash and oil making them into scary black shadows that move through their dances. Some have high bilas (decorations) that tower above them, carried about strapped to their backs. One man was walking around with a fluffy gray beard, only a loin cloth about his waist, a bow and arrow in his hands, and colorful “wings” strapped to his back, reminding me of a very old Cupid! Another group used mainly cotton balls strung together for their costumes (from the cotton they grow). Many used grasses and plants found in their gardens and around their ples (place). Most used feathers—bird of paradise, parrot, etc.—to form elaborate head dresses and bustles. Many also had various elements that were sewn or fashioned after bilums (knit-style bags). The mud-men are always one of the favorites and most easily recognized, with their bodies painted in a grayish mud and large hardened mud masks over their heads, carrying weapons or little mud-men statues to sell. The masks range from gruesome to fierce to comical. And even the youngest participated, with some groups being entirely made up of dancing children. Some groups were only women. Some were only men. And several were a mixed group of men, women and children. These were their customs, their dress and their lain (family line).
However, change was still evident in amongst the tradition. Some groups had more covering over themselves than in years past. One group is believed to have carried a long black log over their heads in past years but seem to have opted for a long cloth snake this year instead. (Easier to carry, no doubt!) And one of the mud-men was white! (Very strange to see!) Also, we began to recognize many dance moves that seem to be more MTV (PNG’s local TV station) than tradition!
A blending of the old and new was often seen. Traditional bilas with sunglasses. T-shirt and slacks, baseball cap, and the fringe headdress of his lain strapped around his forehead. Traditional bilas from head to toe with a touch-screen cell phone in one hand. All the men carrying a bilum except for one carrying a leather bag instead. One man I saw had a stuffed animal strapped to his back as he danced around! (Pretty sure great-grandpa didn’t have that!) And then there’s the “Coca-Cola” lain—one whole group dressed in red and white bilas with “Enjoy a Coca-Cola” written onto their elaborate headdresses! (And before you ask, no, there is no “Coca-Cola lain” in PNG! LOL!) All throughout the show the new was evident with the old.
And so many people came! They reserved the morning for non-nationals and tourists to come, take pictures, and enjoy the show before letting everyone else in and it was as fascinating to watch them as it was the dancers! You could definitely tell who was just there for the show with no understanding of the culture, no concept of how ridiculous they looked over-imitating the dances with the groups, and not much thought to the people behind the bilas. To them it was just a fun excursion to a “wild” country. Others seemed to be National Geographic-type photographers with their huge zoom lenses. I would have loved to see the kinds of pictures they’d been able to take! Their manners calmer than the tourists, more respectful of the people behind the bilas but still admiring the show going on around them and the pictures they were finding with every turn. And then there were those of us living here. We looked more like a mix of the two—not wildly interacting like the tourists but often stopping to pose with people from the various groups; not the big zoom lenses (at least most of us!) like the National Geographic-types but cameras out and flashing constantly. It was amazing to discover that I knew so many of the non-nationals and nationals alike who were at the show from my work in the clinic. I didn’t expect to know anyone outside my group that morning! And it was neat to be able to at least carry on small conversations with those who spoke Pisin. One man couldn’t get over his amazement that any waitpela man (white person) could speak Pisin! Who’d have thought it?!
Though I enjoyed the sites that day I had mixed emotions throughout. On the one hand, the color, the costumes, and the performances were fascinating to watch and fun to photograph, giving me some amazing pictures. But I’d grown up in a situation where we were performers somewhat like that—dressed different for special occasions like this—and I knew all of the work that went into it, how tiring the day was, how much it was looked forward to and enjoyed but how tiresome some peoples’ reactions could get. And how many pictures can you pose for before your smile wears out! Made me tired just thinking about it!
And then there’s the understanding of the dances themselves. Here they were being performed for show, for fun. But they have meanings. They have very deep-rooted beliefs tied to their performances that go far beyond simply being a tradition or simply a dance. Go home with them and you may see the real thing. Where many of these dances are used, fear and darkness reign. The dances are those of devotion to one spirit or another, a prevention against attack of a spirit, a cure for an illness or to ward off death, a ritual to “clean” someone or something, or to gain the favor and control over a spirit. Though I know at least a few of the dancers at the Goroka show are believers and were simply dancing for the show, I know that many others still live in fear, performing those traditional dances in order to control the spirits. And my heart breaks at the thought. Many would sorrow at the thought of traditions being forsaken or changed, saying that culture needs to be preserved. But, as evidenced, culture changes constantly whether we are there to influence it or not. Traditions become muddled and changed whether we are there to witness them or not. No, my heart breaks because most of their traditions stem from fear. They do not yet know or understand that God created them, loves them, that they walk in sin and in darkness but that He sent His Son, Jesus, to die, paying the penalty for sin and freeing them to walk in the light of the truth of a God that is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, loving, forgiving, just, good, and a God of peace! Many know. Many understand. Many live it. But so many more still need it!
The Goroka show was amazing but it left me with an odd mix of emotions that I’m still sorting through. Fascinating to see another aspect of the beautiful and unexpected land I’m privileged to live in but somehow unable to enjoy it as fully after being “behind the scenes” so many times before. Loving the color and creativity displayed all around me yet longing for them to know God fully and see their fears flee. Laughing at the antics of my fellow man while still wanting them to realize what they’re a part of, knowing that they see only a fragment of the picture. Encouraged by their courage in engaging other cultures but saddened that they understand so little of it. Praising God that He is at work, revealing His truth and salvation to all, and that He’s using us to do it. All of us! What an AMAZING God we serve!!!