A “real” traditional village in the Baliem Valley
Bogor (Indonesia), October 12th 2012 

Jiwika is a small village in the Baliem Valley on Indonesian Papua. The village has houses and churches with corrugated iron plates, but when you follow the blue sign “Mummy”, you enter into a different world. This is the world that all wannabe National Geographic photographers dream about. Compounds of Honai huts made of grass are scattered through the entire Baliem Valley, but seldom will you see a compound that looks as neat and “authentic” as this one. No accidental solar cell or plastic bags lying around, but a “real” old kampung. This small piece of paradise at the northern edge of Jiwika is called Sumpaima. Sumpaima is organised in such a way that they can earn a decent living from the tourists that come to this valley to get a glimpse of traditional Papuan village life. Sumpaima has a head start over the other kampungs, because they have a mummy dating from the 17th century that attracts visitors who like to see this rarity. They could just sit back and collect entrance fees, but by showing the mummy in this perfectly beautiful village, the possibilities are much greater. A big parking space lies in front of the compound to be able to welcome tour groups during the high season. When we cross the parking lot, men in penis gourds gather around us. Bare breasted ladies position themselves in the doorway of the Honai huts and a man who speaks some English explains that by paying the entrance fee, you can make as much pictures of the mummy as you want. If you want to make pictures of the “traditional” people, you have to pay some money per person, per picture. In a European perspective, the tariffs are reasonable. For an amount that people otherwise spent on a picture postcard, you can make one yourself.

The models of Sumpaima

In many villages in the valley, penis gourds are still being worn by mainly older men. These guys are walking around basically naked with only a cover over their penis and a cord around their waist to keep that thing upright. You still see them while they are working on the fields or repairing the fences, but when we say that it is 1% of the population, it is an optimistic guess. In Sumpaima, the percentage of traditionally dressed people is almost 95% and when you pay some money, you can witness traditional dances or pigs feasts. This is the kind of village where the beautiful images are made that they show you on travel programs on television. There is not much wrong with this, although viewers may get the impression that everybody is still running around in traditional clothes and that people are always dancing around with spears. This deliberate deception is welcomed by all involved. Program makers get spectacular images, locals earn some money and tourism is more likely to grow when viewers see a man in penis gourd instead of him wearing an English football shirt. However, if you happen to think that this everyday life nowadays this might disappoint you.

This visit to Sumpaima, gives us however the opportunity to make a picture of the things that we saw on some places in real life. In a small kampung, we wouldn’t dare to make a picture of a bare breasted woman who is sitting at the side of the street. In Sumpaima, you can choose the most beautiful, characteristic and photogenic person and let him or her pose in the perfect light in front of the most perfect Honai hut. As we don’t feel comfortable when we have to direct people how they have to pose on a picture, we choose for a normal group picture of all those present. This way, all the “models” earn some money and we have a remembrance of the traditional clothing that we have seen in the last days. A small boy with a Liverpool jersey also wants to be on the picture, but he is corrected immediately by the adults. The people of Sumpaima know the wishes of the average photographer and this means that boy first has to take off his shirt before he can join. Photographers are paying for a 100% traditional picture, 90% is not enough.

If this picture is a reason for you to buy a ticket to the Baliem Valley, this is a wrong decision. You should come here is you want to enjoy the real everyday life. Colourful markets, chanting people who are crammed in the back of a truck and especially the long handshakes with the people who you will meet on the walking trails. The Baliem Valley is certainly worth a visit, with or without penis gourds. If you will come with that expectation, you will have a great trip.

© copyright - Babakoto.eu / 2012