A Papua New Guinea wedding: Face paint, grass aprons and pigs

Danielle, her mother and Komya villagers

It's not every day you get a chance to visit Papua New Guinea, and even rarer to be invited to a highland wedding, where grass aprons are de rigueur and the bride's value is measured in pigs.

It was a wedding I could not pass up - a traditional tribal ceremony in the remote southern highlands of Papua New Guinea and I was invited as family.

Komya village was once home for Moses, the bridegroom. After being abandoned as a child and on the verge of starvation, he was taken in by an Australian couple and ended up in Melbourne.

There he met Danielle - my niece. They were only 13 years old, but romance slowly blossomed and a decade later they decided to marry.

Though outwardly a genuine "dinky-die" Aussie who works as a nurse, Moses retained his cultural roots, so the young couple decided they would journey back to Komya for their wedding.

Moses entered the world as the fifth child, of the fifth wife, of the clan chief.

When his father died, his mother remarried into a rival clan, but her children were not welcome and had to stay behind and fend for themselves. They were rejected by their large extended family who were unable to grow enough sweet potato, the staple crop, to feed the extra mouths.

But in a strange twist of fate, Moses was now returning triumphant, with an unknown bride from an unfamiliar place. In Komya, this had never happened before.

800 languages

From a small airfield in the provincial capital, Mendi, our wedding party bounced its way along the pitted highway that cut through the lush rainforest.

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Throughout the three hour journey, locals waved at us, bringing our vehicles to a stop.

They wanted to chat to Moses, and peer curiously at all of us - white-skinned foreigners. Animated conversations took place in a mix of English and Pidgin - two of the more than 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea.

News of the big event had evidently spread far and wide. Hundreds of people walked to Komya for the ceremony.

Marriage in this part of the country is a commercial transaction. The groom's family negotiates a price with the family of a woman from another village.

Map of Papua New Guinea

If he can afford her, a deal is struck and she will move to the hut he will build on his land. The bride price is measured in pigs and shells, but these days bank notes are often thrown in for good measure.

In Port Moresby, the country's capital, our taxi driver told us he had paid 30 pigs for his second wife. This made me realise what a bargain Danielle had been.

My niece had been deemed a four-pig bride, and some of the hapless creatures, fattened for a year, would be slaughtered, baked and eaten at the bridal feast.

Dead birds

On the wedding day, a soft rain fell. The women separated from the men.

A group of giggling, bare-breasted women surrounded us females and gently removed our clothes. They dressed us in two grass aprons, open at the sides.

Moses and his mother The fifth wife of the former clan chief, with her fifth child - Moses

Our faces were carefully painted in the village style - white from the nose to jaw, with yellow streaks above the brow and on the cheekbones.

Along with the face paint, the men were given spears or bows and arrows. They wore leaves at the back, a chest pad made of shell and stringy fibre, decorative armbands and headgear containing brightly feathered dead birds.

Then the village women linked arms and we bounced up and down rhythmically, whilst making a strange hissing sound. The men, standing opposite, did the same.

Young girls in the crowd squealed with delight and Danielle and Moses were married.

Then the "handing over of the pigs" ceremony began.

The villagers lining up on four sides of a square, facing the tethered animals in the middle. The bride's relatives were summoned to inspect the pigs. That done, their ropes were untied and then they were handed over to Danielle's mother.

In the interests of establishing a good relationship with the in-laws, she returned two pigs to the groom's family. The other two had already been ear-marked for next day's wedding feast. This was to be held on a patch of land belonging to Moses' brothers.

Papua New Guinea

  • Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world, and grow all their own food
  • Australia administered the territory until it gained independence in 1975
  • Main exports: Gold, petroleum, copper, coffee, palm oil, logs
  • Two rival politicians are vying for the post of PM - officers staged a mutiny on Thursday in a failed bid to reinstate the man ousted six months ago

The pigs were baked on banana leaves in pits filled with hot stones.

We had brought balloons and Frisbees for the village children, and as they giggled and jumped, the adults sucked the fat from young fern leaves that had cradled the pork meat as it cooked.

Papua New Guinea is not a poor country. It has substantial mineral wealth and a liquefied natural gas pipeline in construction that will bring in vast amounts of money.

But so far little of this wealth has trickled down to the people in Komya, who live without electricity or water in woven huts with dirt floors.

As dusk gathered, and the villagers hiked barefoot through deep mud to their homes, they did not have a candle between them.

Yet when I took a glance at my smartphone, I noted the excellent signal. Whatever basic services the villagers here lack, texting is not a problem.

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