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A Papua New Guinea Chief's Singular Discovery Of The "Tribe Of The French"

Mundiya Kepanga's "Memoir of a Papuan in the Western World"
Mundiya Kepanga's "Memoir of a Papuan in the Western World"
Marie-France Etchegoin

PARIS – For the past ten years, Mundiya, head of the Hulis tribe, has been traveling across France, finding things, movies… to bring home with him to his native Papua New Guinea. His last find – three showgirls from the Lido.

There are many things Mundiya Kepanga could export to France. He could start by introducing France to the way people settle conflicts in the land of the Hulis.

As he picks up his old Nokia cell phone to answer our call in his remote region of Papua New Guinea, he has just found an agreement after what seemed like endless negotiations. He is happy: "All the pigs have been handed over," he said.

This happy resolution comes after months of conflict – with bows and arrows, axes and machetes. In the New Guinea Highlands, feuds with neighbors are frequent. Conflicts whose origins have been forgotten over time, honors to avenge, family feuds and tribal squabbles spanning generations – that are settled through the exchange of pigs, during "compensation ceremonies." In the Huli tribe, a death is worth around 50 of the livestock. Isn’t this five times more than a spouse, we ask him? "You have plenty of good comments under your tongue," answers the man.

Mundiya (pronounce “Mudeejay” in New Guinean) has quite a sense of humor, although he cannot read or write. His diet consists of the sweet potatoes he grows around his hut. And when enemy tribes attack his village, he turns into a warrior. However, he is also undoubtedly the Papuan farmer who knows France best.

"Honestly, you guys are savages!" he says. One of his favorite jokes is to imitate the stressed out Parisians he has seen walking across the La Défense business district. His mimed imitation, which he calls "your powerful men stuck to their cellphones, are like the ones we have back home, they are chatterboxes," is hilarious. Fun aside, there is no chance he will ever get rid of the cellphone he brought home from his last trip in Paris – even though he has to walk hours through the dense rainforest to reach the nearest mining company in order to charge his phone battery.

Mundiya is not trying to imitate Raoni, the wise and respected Amazonian chief who travels the world to promote indigenous culture. His aim is to try out and taste everything from this new world – regardless what people think. He is just a mischievous tourist – a Huli tribesman on the road.

During his six trips to France, his round face and his bushy beard, his puzzled expressions followed by sudden bursts of laughter, his endless curiosity as well as his keen sense of observation have seduced everyone he has met on his way: provincial aristocrats, fishermen from Cancale in Brittany, mountain guides, members of Parliament, punks, kindergarten children, Moulin-Rouge showgirls. Without giving up his feathers and the thin stick that pierces his nostrils, Mundiya has stayed with locals, loved “goose confit” in the South West of France and hated oysters ("you people eat live animals").

Improbable hero of a picaresque novel New Guinea style, he has learnt how to drive a tractor, tried his hand at bullfighting in the Landes region, climbed one of the highest Pyrenees peaks, won his first ski honors in the Alps, sailed on a trawler and attended glamorous parties. "Tell your readers that I'm coming back to Paris in April for a conference. I hope they will also like my movie. It is even better than the first one." Not so long ago, Mundiya had never even seen a world map.

It was love at first sight. At the end of 2000, the exuberant Huli saw "a tall man, skinny like a coconut tree" arrive in his village. It was Marc Dozier, a French photographer from Grenoble who had left the cold and grey Western life "to shoot" tribal chiefs wearing featherheads in remote areas for magazines.

He was invited to stay with the tribe, fed and initiated to local customs, – to the beats of the drums during the colorful parades of the "feather men." Sitting around the fire where people chew areca nuts that turn red in mouth, or in the jungle where one always need to be careful and on the lookout for ambushes. "These past ten years, it is with Mundiya that I have spent most of my time," says Dozier, who has turned the smoky hut of his Highlands hosts into a second home. One day, he decided to return the favor. Why couldn’t a New Guinean be a tourist too?

Nothing annoys him more than the suspicious looks of those who see him like a performing dog. Without Marc Dozier, who served as a ghostwriter, to write his Memoir of a Papuan in the Western World ("Au Pays des Hommes Blancs", published by Niugini), and his second French friend, Jean-Marie Barrière who shot two amazing movies about his visits to France, he wouldn’t have had these overseas adventures.

Dressing up for a party

During his first trip in 2003, he first walked around dressed as in “civilian clothes,” wearing old pants and shoes that were too small. He still sees himself two days after he first arrived, staring at a street performance near the Hotel de Ville square in Paris. Suddenly, a squad of policemen circled him and searched him. In the crowd, a man had accused him –wrongly – of stealing his iPhone. Mundiya, a citizen from a country riddled by violence and corruption, quickly got over it.

That same night, he was invited for dinner in a cozy apartment belonging to a doctor. Like every tourist, he had brought some party clothes along with him just in case: his manda – the Huli headgear made of beautiful feathers – his apron made of bark cloth, his wristbands and necklaces, his painted body, … Under the skeptical watch of his photographer friend, he "dressed up" for the party. On the way, he only faced smiles and friendly looks.

Accused of stealing a cellphone in the morning, prince of the city at night… Mundiya never travels without his feathers. For “normal days,” he has a finely crafted flashy plumed helmet. For “special occasions,” he wears the whole garb, from head to toe. "No! Please, not the jewelry," the photographer often whispers, exasperated after waiting long hours for his friend to get ready in the bathroom; the difficulty of getting into a taxi; the big umbrellas that are needed when it’s raining.

Mundiya's trip quickly became as surrealistic as it was cinematographic. In 2006, when he arrived once more in Paris, trailing along his cousin Polobi, Jean-Marie Barrère followed him around, shooting a four-month road movie throughout France: L'Exploration Inversée "Reverse Exploration".

In the province of Ile et Vilaine, in North-West France, he visited the "house of the ancients" (a retirement home) where old people seemed well fed but so "alone." In Grenoble, a city near the Alps that he has come to know well, he got around riding a Vélib (public bicycle) and spent some time at a trendy hairdresser’s, fascinated with die-jobs and the obsession with « looking younger » that is so popular among "the tribe of the French." At the Omaha Beach American cemetery, on the site of the D-Day landing in Normandy, he seemed stunned, staring at the graves that stretch as far as eye can see.

Mundiya is not a "good savage." He disappoints all the Westerners that expect to discover through him a lost paradise or some untouched nature. When it comes to sexual topics, he shares the same opinion than the Catholic Cardinal Barbarin ("a male must breed with a female") and a Mormon-like modesty ("White people have no shame, they eat each other's mouths in public"). Mundiya is not a polygamist. He had three wives (in a row), including one he gave a hiding to with the flat side of his machete. But then, he gave her thirteen pigs in compensation.

For Marc Dozier, who upon his arrival in Papua New Guinea was hoping to witness ritualistic orgies celebrating the cult of love, disillusionment came quickly – in the Hulis tribe, men and women, even when they are married, sleep in separate huts. Lovemaking is very basic, followed by a purification session in the river.

Showgirls and feather culture

When Mundiya first attended a performance at the Moulin Rouge cabaret, he simply could not believe his eyes. There were feathers of all shapes and colors: flashy pink, fluffy, tousled and fanned out.

After the performance, Mundiya went backstage to greet the dancers and of course, ended up charming them. "Careful, I will burst your breasts with my stick," he joked when kissing Julie Bruyère, a six-foot tall showgirl. For five years, the dancer and the New Guinean kept in touch, working together on a ludicrous project – to win the annual dancing competition organized in Papua New Guinea and that is meant to ease tribal tensions across the country.

Hervé Duperret the head of the Lido cabaret, who was now Julie’s employer, thought he was hallucinating when he saw a short man wearing an awkward headdress enter his office and talking like a manager: "We both are chiefs and we share the same feather culture. Come visit us." It was an offer "Papa Lido," as Mundiya nicknamed him, could not turn down.

In 2011, he landed in a tiny remote airport, with Julie and two other showgirls. Their heavy suitcases, filled with rustles, were carried on people's backs to the village located a day away. In the village, Mundiya was just finishing to build "a bed and breakfast," equipped with a special net to keep rats away at night. A truce had just been reached with the neighboring tribes.

The small Lido crew settled there – escorted by painted warriors and armed to the teeth – before the circumspect eyes of the women from the Huli tribe, who themselves are not allowed to dance or even touch the sacred feathers. The training sessions directed by Julie and Mundiya, in which the tribesmen took part were epic. "To know if we won the competition, you need to watch our film," says the Huli chief. Dance with the Papuans was broadcast on Jan. 1st by a French channel.

The adventures of this strange dancing crew embody Mundiya Kepanga's dream: "Let my children have the best of your world and mine too."

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