Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

by Dr. Michael Main

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 266-269.)

It is insufficient to describe violent conflict in Huli merely in terms of its material basis and its culturally meditated prosecution. James Komengi was always eager to impress upon me elements of the lived experience of violence in Hela Province, but it was not until I was able to describe to him my own experiences of violence and trauma that he felt I finally understood what he was trying to tell me. “Now you understand that this is what people in this society live their whole lives, and there are people everywhere running around doing things because they are so traumatised.” The material impact of trauma is crucial to understanding the proliferation of violence in Huli society. There is no word for trauma in Huli. As Komengi explained, when someone is traumatised they will often relate to their experience by assuming they are a victim of sorcery. When someone is suffering the emotional anguish caused by a traumatic event the response from friends and family is to take revenge on their behalf. As Komengi explained:

Someone is murdered okay and the son has seen his father [murdered], and the son could be a teenager. And he is already picking up a gun and paints his face up and he says I want to go to war. And what happens is everyone is right behind him, do not try to stop it. They are so sympathetic that they would allow a teenager who is so traumatised to make the decision and lead the whole community into battle. And so what happens is everyone engages in a battle and so many more lives are lost. Why? …We respect this trauma.

Huli may express the feeling of trauma idiomatically as “his bone is painted”, referring to the uneasy feeling that exists inside the body, one which cannot be scratched away, one that sticks unpleasantly to your bones and will never leave you alone. This is a very effective description of the physicality of trauma and its material experience in the body. Trauma is an extraordinarily physical experience, and it manifests as something very much outside of your control. It is an experience that demands to be controlled, and one way of taking control is to take forms of action that externalise your experience. Your trauma can be taken out of your body, placed into your hands, and wrought upon the external world. People will often recognise the wild suffering of someone who has experienced great loss and refer to that person as “head buggerup.” James Komengi:

Especially with respect to someone who has been traumatised who has witnessed a loss or something. And then they say “head buggerup”, because regardless of how long he stays in mourning you know they respect that he is in mourning. So people tend to be sort of gentle towards them and respect their opinion, so that opinion includes an opinion for revenge.

The actions of the wali hebo can be viewed in the same light.

What the women do is they keep provoking the minds of men. They are a reminder to their own men [that] we don’t go settle down. And their pressings and what they do sends the traumatised person to go for revenge.

In acting out the role of wali hebo women externalise their own trauma via the proxy actions of men. It is not possible to provide a meaningful account of violent conflict in Hela Province, or anywhere else, without close regard to the emotional experiences of the lived encounters with that violence. Violence is a habitus, a socially reproduced pattern of behaviour, fuelled by inter-generational trauma, that is acted out with the particular accoutrements of cultural expression. The history of violence is one of constant desire for an alternative future. Violence is a deviation from desired sociality and an aberration that people seek to prevent, and Huli warfare has always been thus. Crucial to an understanding of endemic warfare is the agency of intergenerational trauma that wreaks havoc on the Huli population. I conclude this chapter with an illustration of the impact of this inherited form of trauma. I have changed the names of those involved.

In Tari I lived with an extended family that included small children between the ages of two and four years. Sometimes at night gunfire would ring out as people were hunted down in the streets around us. The airport at Tari was closed on several occasions due to pitched gun battles in the centre of town. Our house contained some high-powered rifles for protection. Nearby at Hoyebia a man had his head sliced in two. The wives of neighbours were bashed and fights broke out in the street. On one particular occasion, someone threw large rocks at the tall, metal fence around our property, frightening everyone inside. Two women, Jane and Catherine responded by grabbing clubs and heading outside, insisting that I be kept within the property. Catherine had some fighting form and had recently attacked her brother’s lover with a club within the grounds of the Tari hospital. Catherine had a three year old daughter who could be a handful as any three year old can. Catherine’s daughter would sometimes fight with her toddler cousins and she had a penchant for throwing rocks.

One day I found myself the only adult about and Catherine’s daughter began to give her cousins too much of a hard time. She grabbed rocks and stones and started throwing them at the other children. I was forced to intervene as what began as a game was soon turning into something much darker. The more I tried to keep the peace the more the little girl resisted, grabbing bigger rocks and becoming agitated and angry. Eventually I was forced to restrain her lest she inflict grievous injury upon her young cousins. The little girl kicked and screamed and I held her down. She kicked at me and I had to remove the rocks from her fists. She kicked and screamed and urged to bash the living hell out of anything that got in her way and I held her down until her mother retuned. Her mother yelled at her and hit her and threatened her until her actions were repressed by fear, which at least had the effect of subduing her because was nothing I did had the effect of solving the problem when I held her down.

(Pictures courtesy of Sliweg Photography)

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