The Ultimate Culture Clash...
By DONAL MACINTYRE
Last updated at 22:58 28 April 2007
Courtesy of DailyMail.co.uk
We were entertaining our new house guests over tea and biscuits. Their conversational gambits were proving to be somewhat unusual.
"How much did you pay for your wife?" Samuel coolly asked me. "I, er...I...well...", I spluttered.
"Do you mind if your husband have baby with another woman?" Samuel's spouse Christina asked my seven-months pregnant wife Ameera, who almost choked on her tea.
"Who is the boss?" asked Samuel, casting a knowing glance towards Ameera.
I think it's fair to say that crocodile-hunting polygamists from Papua New Guinea would add a certain frisson to any polite Wimbledon soiree.
Samuel and Christina, one of his two wives, are members of the 250-strong Insect tribe–hunter-gatherers who are less than a generation away from cannibalism.
They hunt crocodiles with spears and stalk wild boar with bows and arrows. They speak their own language, Ngala, and worship their glassy-eyed totem–the praying mantis.
They practise polygamy, paying for wives' dowries, rather poetically, with seashells. One tribesman has 12 wives, another is said to have 112 children.
Family planning comes in the form of a potion, the manufacture of which involves spiders' webs and numerous incantations to the ancestors—the tribe claim a 100 per cent success rate.
I first met them last year as I travelled the world to observe how ancient cultures and tribes were engaging with the ever-encroaching modern world.
I spent time with the nomadic Bedouin of the Arabian Sands, the sea gypsies of Borneo and the llama traders of the Bolivian Andes. But it was the Insect tribe that stole my travel-weary heart. I lived in their remote village, Swagup, ate their food, shared their shelters and mined their intimate family secrets.
The tribe had everything they wanted. The village's witchdoctor serviced all medical and spiritual requirements. Everything else—fish, boar, fruit, building and hunting materials—was gathered from the jungle.
The tribespeople thought of their home as a land of plenty—a paradise that has provided their livelihood for thousands of years.
They had robustly defended their culture against all-comers, from intrepid Christian evangelists to Japanese soldiers in the Second World War.
Their one concession was allowing the missionaries to school them in basic English. The village school still teaches them the language today.
The tribespeople revealed themselves to be as curious about my world as I was about theirs. They bombarded me with questions about Britain and our "chief"—or the Queen, as we call her.
As PNG is a Commonwealth country, Her Majesty is also their chief. She is regarded with a mixture of fascination and awe which I never expected of a people living on the edge of existence.
The tribe's own chief, a rather colourful character called Joseph, is elected by majority every five years, but once in power carries supreme authority.
Sitting in his wooden, three-storey palace, the chief and I got to talking and, to return the overwhelming hospitality and kindness that they had shown me, I invited him and his kin to undertake the 12,000-mile journey to my home in Wimbledon, South-West London.
It wasn't any great anthropological experiment or an outrageous idea for a new reality show—it was just old-fashioned good manners.
I had investigated them and their lives and now they wanted to turn tradition on its head, share our hospitality and, rather unnervingly, examine the way we live.
The tribespeople have never before travelled beyond their local stamping ground. The furthest they go is a few miles by canoe to trade with other villages or settlements.
Swagup is the epitome of isolation—two days' paddle from the nearest road.
Making the journey were Joseph, Samuel, Christina, Steven and one of his three wives, Delma, and James. Together they made up the Swagup Six, a party of Stone Age travellers coming to a microchip world.
After a barrage of inoculations and much homage to the spirits, they began their four-day journey to London. "I don't know what magic they have in Britain but I'm about to find out," the chief declared.
At Heathrow, every escalator was met with terror and every lift with suspicion until one of them, usually Steven, an expert crocodile hunter, ventured forth, followed by the rest of the tribe.
A revolving door induced staggers and wonder. "It is an invisible hand that moves this. I can't believe it," Samuel said.
From Terminal 4, with spears on their backs and bows over their shoulders, the Swagup Six bravely ventured into our world.
As a culinary introduction to our country, I gave the troop porridge and a full English breakfast. Hunters who never know where their next meal is coming from tend to have insatiable appetites and a profound appreciation of food.
But that doesn't mean they'll eat any old rubbish, as their stinging criticisms of airline food demonstrated.
My guests were fascinated by everyday scenes and situations that we would not give a second thought to. They believed the barren winter trees were dead.
An ice dispenser on a fridge was sorcery. But James was thrilled by the shower—he had never felt warm water on his skin before.
The battery-powered cries of my daughter's doll drew shrieks from the women. Delma was also bemused as I cut my daughter Allegra's lunchtime sandwiches into shapes to encourage her to eat them.
Delma said if her children didn't eat, they went hungry: "They soon learn."
When Delma and Christina accompanied Ameera to her seven-month scan, they were initially convinced that the images on the screen were the ghost of the baby. But, ashen-faced, they stayed to share the experience with Ameera.
Samuel and Christina were interested in how Ameera and I related to each other. They seemed to suspect it was Ameera who wore the trousers—a situation that is unthinkable in their world.
Women there who challenge the male dominance of society risk the wrath of the spirits. "It may be by lightning or disease but women who break the law die," Yam Krow, the tribe's witchdoctor had told me in PNG.
Such transgressions include standing up while paddling a canoe or entering a spirit house, rights reserved exclusively for men.
But whatever Samuel and Christina secretly thought of my unorthodox marriage, they maintained a public front of broad-mindedness. The chief's guiding principle was: "When in London..."
Nonetheless, some of the capital's tourist spots proved something of a challenge. At the London Eye, the tribe held congress in the shadow of the huge wheel. "It not meant for humans," was the consensus. "Not for PNG people."
But suddenly, breaking out of traditional gender roles, Delma urged them on, shouting: "We've come this far, haven't we?"
Eventually the chief decided that they should try to enjoy the bird's-eye view of London. "As we were on the wheel, all our hearts were hanging," said Samuel later.
'I couldn't believe I was so high above the land. All the buildings were joined up, and the building was huge, looked like trees, with branches—there's no end, no mountain, only buildings. I was wondering how the wheel goes round, what gods make this turn."
When their capsule reached the summit, the chief asked for our "spirit house" to be pointed out.
He found the great dome of St Paul's Cathedral remarkable—not for its grandeur but for its diminutive stature. "In our village, no building can be bigger than the spirit house. Nothing is more important to us than our gods and spirits," he said.
His remark highlighted a change in our values, how the architecture of business and commerce surpassed the grandeur of our great churches many centuries ago.
It was a point worth noting. When we moved on to St Paul's, the chief gave the women special dispensation to enter. This was in deference to his host but also testament to his firm belief that our gods simply were not as powerful as his.
But all were impressed by Sir Christopher Wren's work. "This building must have formed with this earth. It could not be made by man," said Delma.
In stark contrast to what its daily passengers think of it, London Underground also inspired awe. Astounded by the enormity of the network, James was convinced the Underground was built first, with the rest of London built on top later.
However, the adventure was halted when the train driver announced that a passenger in another carriage had defecated on the seats. We had never expected London to be a civilising influence and we weren't disappointed.
However, spirits were raised by the prospect of a visit to Buckingham Palace. For the chief it presented the possibility of a meeting of minds.
After all, as a tribal leader in a Commonwealth country, Joseph regards himself as the Queen's representative in Swagup. She is his head of state and he is a visiting dignitary. We dutifully put in a request for a meeting, but unfortunately it was declined.
"Why can't I go in there?" he asked with an injured tone as we stood outside. "I will return to my village and I will get old and die. I will never return to London. She should respect."
In his part of the world, he is a king. Here, sadly, he is just another tourist.
But as they walked away, the six caught sight of the squirrels in St James's Park, their first view of British wildlife.
Hunting this time with cameras rather than spears, they chased them up the trees and even considered bringing dinner home to Wimbledon for us.
I suggested an Indian takeaway instead—another concept alien to people for whom 'takeaway' means fishing and cooking lunch on their canoes.
After our trip to London we spent some time in Wales where the Swagup Six were introduced to falconry. They stood aghast. "Hunting's for humans," they said, as if their own jobs were under threat.
It was also in Wales that the group encountered snow for the first time. "This is strange sand that falls from the sky," the chief said. "When will it stop?"
However, they were soon throwing snowballs with pinpoint accuracy.
Having missed out on meeting the old Royalty there was just one chance that the tribe could meet royalty of another kind.
The Make-A-Wish foundation, a charity dedicated to helping fulfil the wishes of dying children, had invited me to a function at the Dorchester Hotel.
I took my wife and Joseph in his ceremonial headgear. The chief walked by the clicking paparazzi and into the arms of Melinda Messenger and Keith Chegwin.
Comedian Mel Smith came bounding over to find out about the man who even upstaged Jude Law, one of the guests that night.
Joseph, meanwhile, was working the table like a pro. He charmed two lottery winners into volunteering to travel to PNG and bring with them medical and educational supplies.
However, it wasn't all fun and games. Much of what the tribespeople said gave me pause for thought. When they visited an apartment block reserved exclusively for the elderly, they were distressed that the "elders" are not the responsibility of their children.
"It is not right," said Steven, shaking his head. "They brought you up when you were naked. They cared for you and when they are old you must care for them."
"You have such busy lives," James said. "Do strangers talk or even have time to breathe? I think you need too much money to stand still."
Their attitude and enthusiasm highlighted for me how jaded we have become, and how indifferent we are to wonderful sights on our own doorstep.
Yet there was no sign that the Swagup Six were contaminated by their stay here. They embraced our culture without renouncing an ounce of their own.
The goodbyes at Heathrow were emotional. "It was the first time I saw the white man cry," James said. "We come from the same pot." Samuel was standing beside his first wife Christina.
"What do you most miss from home? I asked. "My second wife," he said without a blink.
They left convinced that it is they who have it right and we who are primitive. I don't think they would swap our world for their own, a world where everything they need is free and plentiful, a world where everything is shared and where the only things treasured are the values of family and community.
Back at my home, a carved praying mantis stands on my mantelpiece and a spear stands in the corner, reminders of a life we have left behind and a people who still live in paradise.