A Buai Warrior

Jessie T. Ponce's Photos of Papua New Guinea

“A Buai Warrior” / Central Province, Papua New Guinea / November 2013

He looked kingly in a fiery bird-feather crown, ferocious in those soul-piercing eyes deeply set above the war-painted cheeks, and horrifying with the gaping mouth displaying bloody teeth.  Indeed a stranger in Papua New Guinea getting in personal eye contact with him could get horrified with the morbid thought of the head-bashing, flesh-eating tribal warriors  for which PNG’s jungles have become notorious many years ago.  

But, save your movie-inspired thought and look again. Those eyes  are expressing a serene sentiment rather than a violent craving for human flesh; the open mouth is uttering a lovely melody rather than an evil curse; and those incisors are stained not by blood but by buai oareca nut (see The Buai Communion).  Yes, the man is not a warrior nor a cannibal (at least he did not try to eat me) but a buai-chomping, tune-chirping local performer rendering traditional songs and dances with a group in a seaside place in Kairuku, Central Province.  I could be wrong but the only wars he has fought were probably only those squabbles against his wife and the only flesh he has chewed were probably only those of buai and some local wildlife or livestock.

Chewing buai is a favorite pastime of Papua New Guineans. At least in all places I’ve visited in PNG, people from all walks of life chew and routinely share the nut almost like a holy ritual.  The habit is said to have effects similar to smoking but the immediately visible results are those stains left in the mouth and temporarily on the ground where blood-red spittle had to be discharged.  Somehow, in the PNG context, the sight of a seemingly bloody mouth revives stories of cannibalism in ones mind.