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Ancient Traditions and Modern Taboos Clash in the 21st Century


Before the Europeans came to tropical New Guinea, the people there tended to wear very little clothing. Women wore grass skirts and little else, and as far as men were concerned, penis gourds, called horim or koteka by the indigenous people and phallocrypts in the west, were quite adequate. When the Europeans arrived, often in the form of missionaries, they insisted on various forms of laplap (cloth covering), because this traditional garb offended their sensibilities.

These days most New Guineans wear t-shirts and shorts, particularly in the cities, where the horim has become a hot tourist item. The Sepiks make a substantial number of the gourd phallocrypts for tourists, elaborately decorated with dangling adornments and woven faces, and there's a lot of joking when these are sold.

But there are more primitive areas. In the Baliem Valley and the surrounding mountain areas of Irian Jaya, phallocrypts are just everyday wear, appropriate for any occasion. The Dani men are quite modest, and none would venture out in public without his horim, because then he would be naked. A Dani man will maintain a wardrobe of several gourds for various occasions, decorated with shells, seeds, fur and feathers. The gourd is supported on the body by two strings, or three strings in the case of an especially long one that needs extra help to maintain the appropriate jaunty angle (usually vertical). They are also used as a pocket to stash cash, cigarettes, and other necessary items.

In 1963, at the hands of the United Nations, Indonesia gained control over Irian Jaya. The Free Papua Movement claims that the land was taken from them with almost no remuneration or compensation. On top of that, in the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to ban the traditional horim. The Dani, unfazed, continued to wear them. Efforts to eradicate their use pretty much failed, although a ban is still in effect in government offices; if someone has business there, he must appear encumbered in western clothes, totally unsuitable for the tropical environment.

Wearing a penis gourd is now seen by the Jakarta government as an act of defiance, and they don't tolerate defiance well. The recent escape of East Timor's from Jakarta's iron rule is perhaps the best known sign of unrest, but the next bloodbath could break out in of Irian Jaya, where recent settlers have absolutely nothing in common with the primitive indigenous inhabitants. An elder named Sopaluma Elosak was asked by a reporter how he felt about Indonesia. He clutched his erect gourd and exclaimed "Freedom to Papua."

Irian Jayan locals have been massacred by an Indonesian Army intent on exploiting the region's gold, copper, oil and forest resources. If the Indonesian government wants to keep West Papua from becoming another East Timor, it will have to give the indigenous tribesman some reason to belong to the nation, and to respect their customs.

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