Photo Essay: Triumphs and Tribulations
Chriswan Sungkono, WEEKENDER | Thu, 03/31/2011 11:34 AM |
Beneath the serene beauty of Papua’s Baliem Valley lurks a host of troubles that cripple the lives of its inhabitants.
It’s easy to understand why Baliem Valley is considered one of the last great wild places on Earth. Step out of the small plane – the only means to get there is by air – and Jayawijaya Mountain, perennially draped in white clouds, will greet you. Breathe deeply, and the crisp mountain air will impregnate you with a reviving zest. By the time you shake hands with the indigenous people, you’ll be completely enthralled.
Baliem Valley makes for a perfect vacation – for a week, that is. Stay longer, and the layer of bliss will be peeled off, leaving you with the realization that this place is no Eden. Rather, this is a valley shadowed with needless death and disease, severe poverty, frequent famines and extreme social disparities between the tribespeople and the more successful migrants.
These troubles largely stem from the tribes’ unpreparedness to deal with the onslaught of modernity. For thousands of years before coming into contact with outsiders, the valley had been their entire universe. But the world, it turns out, is greater and much more complicated than what their time-honored worldview can accommodate.
The breaking of isolation creates disorientation. The tribes of Baliem Valley need assistance to avoid heading toward collapse in the face of modernity. Aware of this, Wahana Visi Indonesia (WVI), present in Papua since the 1970s, is helping the indigenous peoples to steward their progress.
Inaccessibility, poverty, illiteracy, undernourishment and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS are but some of the enemies these tribes must combat, in order to adapt and survive in the modern world. Their war is far from over, but despite the enormous hurdles that lie ahead, some victories have been achieved.
Tuti Medlama, a WVI-supported health worker since 1992, has helped many women give birth. Each time a member of her family died, Tuti severed a finger as a display of grief, a practice she and most women in Baliem have now renounced.
Helena Medlama, 12, hopes to graduate from university before getting married. But many young Papuan women must marry as young as age 15, sometimes as the second or third wife of a much older man.
In traditional Papuan societies, women play second fiddle to men, although they still shoulder many responsibilities, such as cultivating fields, looking after children, raising pigs and weaving noken (bags woven from tree bark).
WVI introduced a simple chimney system in the honai (traditional Papuan house) that helps reduce the rate of respiratory problems among tribal communities. Soot and smoke inside unventilated honai remain a major cause of respiratory tract infections.
Yotelina’s younger sister started eating ipere when she was two months old. Consumed with all meals by the young and old alike, ipere (sweet potato) is a ubiquitous feature of Baliem Valley communities.
Children attending WVI-sponsored preschools are introduced to foodstuffs other than the sweet potato, such as vegetable porridge or mung bean soup, to make their diet more varied and hence more nutritious.
Manda Elementary School is one of the village schools built by WVI to make education more accessible for students. Schools in Papua are scarce and the teachers too few; half of the children do not finish high school.