August 08, 2022
West Papua
Fire and Salt

The Dani people of Indonesia make both — from scratch

By Merle English

We fly for hours through several time zones, and then trek over mountainous terrain to reach the Dani people in the remote central highlands of West Papua on the island of New Guinea.

But the effort to get here is worth it. We?ve come to watch Dani women make salt from sections of a banana plant soaked in a briny pool some 4,000 feet above sea level, and to see Dani men and women create fire, then catch, kill and roast a pig in an underground oven.

These are customs of a once-isolated people first encountered by Westerners in the 1930s, who still maintain Stone Age-era traditions. Dani men go naked, except for a long, narrow gourd, called a koteka, covering their penis. Women are bare-breasted and wear grass or woven string skirts, with string bags tied to their foreheads.

To visit the Dani in the Baliem Valley, and the sub-tribes known as Yani and Yali, visitors must have police permits.  They?ll walk about five miles from the main town, Wamena, or travel in four-wheel drive vehicles to the base of the Mili mountain in the village of Jiwiki.

Then comes about two hours of rigorous trudging through sticky mud, and clambering over slippery stones on a narrow path up the mountain, through a rainforest marked by waterfalls and rugged scenery. Dani men give us sturdy sticks to help us keep our footing.

As we make our way to the upper reaches of the mountain, we suddenly come upon an area of boulders framing a small spring.

Standing in the salty water, Dani women are soaking strips ripped from the heart of a banana plant. The salty strips ? which are quite tasty ? are taken home, dried, burnt and beaten into ashes. The ashes are used as salt. It?s an occupation solely for women, but a few men stand around at the salt pool, perhaps to guard them.

Anemoigi, another Dani village nearby, hosts the pig feast, a ceremony put on for special occasions such as weddings. At the entrance to a family compound where the feast is held, we receive an unexpected and exciting welcome.

Ferocious-looking men in feathered headdress, their legs and thighs daubed with paint, and carrying bows, arrows and long, pointed staves, suddenly swarm onto an open field where an armed male sentry stands guard atop a high, bamboo lookout tower. Older men with grease-blackened foreheads and with a semi-circular boar?s tusks in their nostrils look especially fearsome.

Circling the clearing, and hooting and hollering, the assemblage point their weapons at the visitors and let off a few arrows in their direction, but far enough away to fall short of their mark.

It?s all in fun, a mock battle re-enacting traditional war games. The performance goes on for about 10  minutes, and then we?re ushered into the compound, with the ?warriors? shaking our hands, and shouting ?Wah! Wah! meaning ?Welcome.? Women waiting inside ? some with white polka-dot body paint ? keep up a chant.

Round huts with overhanging thick thatched roofs partially encircle the compound, set under banana trees and pandanus palms. Some of the huts ? containing an upper level for sleeping and a lower level for cooking — are for the women. Others house the men and boys. There are also long huts for storing sweet potatoes, and for keeping pigs, a Dani symbol of wealth.

Colorful string bags, seed necklaces and other handicrafts made by the women are displayed on the ground for sale. Some of the older women have stumps where one or more joints are missing from their fingers, signifying the number of their dead relatives.

The ?warriors? gather in the center of the compound, then run back and forth, singing in a call-and-response fashion. We can easily pick out the chief. His face is blackened, and his headdress has the tallest feather. He greets us with warm handshakes.

As the main feature of the day?s festivities gets underway, men gather at one end of the compound. One rapidly pulls a grass strip across a piece of bamboo anchored by his foot. The swift motion produces smoke and flames. Placed on kindling and wood, the fire grows to heat stones red hot for the earth oven. This is a round pit about four feet wide and four feet deep, lined with wet straw and banana leaves.

Men pick up the hot stones with long, homemade wooden tongs and drop them into the pit. Women place leaves of the potato plant around the edge, and alternate layers of sweet potatoes and vegetables are put inside, and covered with the heated stones.

Now a suckling pig is let out of a pen, and run down by several men. It is cornered by a dog as it dashes into a hut, squealing. Men whoop and holler as the pig is captured; the women and children dance and chant. One man shoots an arrow into the pig?s heart. It squeals for the last time and dies.

Men singe its hairs, then scrape and gut it with bamboo knives, in preparation for cooking. Teenaged boys carry it to the pit, spread-eagled on banana leaves. It is lowered  on top of the potatoes and covered with banana and potato leaves, then with hot stones, more potatoes and vegetables.

The wet straw around the pit is now pushed over it as a cover, and tied with rattan vines. The earth oven is closed with a final heaping of hot stones.

Children roast strips of entrails over glowing embers and eat them, apparently a treat they?re allowed.

While the food is cooking, a figure we?re told is a 250-year-old, charcoal-blackened mummified man is carefully removed from a hut for us to see and photograph.

After about three hours, the barbecue is ready. The women leave off selling their handicrafts, move over to the pit and start removing and passing out the potatoes, vegetables and steamed greens (edible potato leaves and stems).

Young boys carry the cooked pork to the older men, who cut it up and share some among themselves, feeding the elders first. Then the boys serve the women, before returning to join the men.

The meat divided among the Dani is just enough for them. For whatever reason, none is offered to us. But we visitors get to sample the potatoes — bright yellow inside and delicious.

Merle English was a staff writer for Newsday for more than 20 years. She was born on the island of Jamaica and is a graduate of Hunter College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She travels widely, often with a group that meets and interacts with people of African descent in remote corners of the globe. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

3 comments about “Fire and Salt”

  1. Shobha Gallagher says:

    Great article - very visual and insightful. I loved every bit of detail and it was like I was right there watching their whole custom unfold. Hope to read more pieces from you!

  2. Jurgen Ankenbrand says:

    I have been there and have veruy similar images of the Dani people. Being teh only one with my guide I had a great time and did not feel l;ike a tourist at all and even stayed ijn theur village way high in the mountain fior several days. Now THA is what I call adventure travel, for me the ONLY way to do.

  3. Carole and Richard Witkover says:

    We have travelled to many interesting places but none compare to the Dani village. The article was very well written bringing the customs and people alive. The author’s insights were greatly appreciated.

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