Korowai people

Papua Island, Indonesia

The island of Papua can be easily reached by plane from all the larger islands, and we arrived there in 5 hours with a flight from Jakarta. We arrive at the Jayapura airport, which is the largest city.

Then to visit the Baliem Valley, with an hour of flight we landed in Wamena, which from a small village until a few decades ago, turned into a town with different services. However, reaching it by land is still almost impossible, except for several days of off-road travel, but without the certainty of reaching it. Instead it is absolutely impossible to reach the "low lands", the land of the Korowai people, by land.

We are in the heart of the island, an immense expanse of jungle, continually bathed by a web of small and large rivers that make it inaccessible. And so it was until the end of 1970. The Korowai had never had contact with anyone, not even with the other populations of Papua, due, or thanks, to the morphology of the island. To the north, an inaccessible mountain range has always divided them from the peoples of the Baliem valley, while to the south, millions of square kilometers of jungle and water, they never allowed him to approach the sea, where the Asmat live. Today, of course, everything has changed, but to get there you still need to organize a real expedition. In 20 minutes of flight from Wamena, flying over the high mountains, we reach Dekai, lying on the Braza river. An outpost recently built by the government to offer basic services, and port for boats sailing on the river. Here, in fact, you can stock up on everything you need and in 7/8 hours of motor canoe you get to Mapul, where you have to stop for the night. Mapul is also a small village built by the government, of about 500 people, some of whom have moved here from Sulawesi to trade. The other part of the population is made up of Korowai who have left their traditional life, a little by choice and a little because they are obliged.

Today children can attend school and also have a church where they can go to mass on Sundays. The last census, and perhaps the only one, made in 2010, counted about 3000 Korowai scattered in an immense territory, and it is not easy to meet them, you have to go on foot into the jungle. They also do not live in organized and permanent villages, but the single family, or extended family, often moves into the jungle and builds houses where it finds food. After the food is finished, or because the houses no longer hold, they move and build new homes. Loaded all the equipment with the help of 12 porters, the cook and the guide, as in a real documentary, forwarding us in the jungle, we managed to reach the family of Peter, the head of the family, who had opened a clearing in the thick vegetation about six months before and in less than a week he had built the new houses. The Korowai are the people who live in trees. The tallest house, which is called Luonkhaim, is Peter's house, and is 30 meters high, the 7 meter house is by Matios, the oldest, while women and children have a lower one. To control the territory, defend themselves from enemies, dangerous animals and mosquitoes, men have always slept in the sky. Today there are mosquitoes, dangerous animals there are almost no more, and even enemies. The Korowai have never made war against other tribes, but only among them, and the most frequent reason for the quarrels was because of women. Until about 40 years ago they ate the meat of the killed enemy, because in doing so they believed they were chasing away the evil demon, the Khakhua.

Even today, not having medical knowledge, they believe that the mysterious deaths are to be attributed to the Khakhua. The Korowai do not use drugs and the diseases are treated with herbs, so the mortality rate is very high, and generally do not reach 50 years of age and the deadly diseases are still malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis and anemia. Today they are at a crossroads, some of them have already chosen to change their lives, but many have remained in the jungle. But now everyone has already had contact with the outside world and they know that their life will change. We stayed with Peter and his extended family for 4 days, and we were lucky enough to follow them in their daily occupations. The main one is certainly the search for food, a very strenuous job that occupies almost everyone, men, women and children. With great agility they break down the sago palm, to obtain the sago that is their staple food, and from the same trunk left to rot for 3 months they collect very large larvae, which are their main source of protein. To catch some fish, women empty a piece of the river, building dams upstream and downstream. It can be said that the Korowai are completely in symbiosis with nature, they move easily and lightly in whatever situation they are in, it seems that they never struggle, they can disappear and blend into the dense jungle in an instant. From the vegetation they get anything they need, there is certainly an unwritten pact between nature and the Korowai.

And it's a shame to think that this magic will soon disappear. Peter told us that he and his family want to continue living in the jungle, although he would like to have a canoe to sail on the river.