By Betty Gabriel Wakia

Despite tribal warfare and the bad reputation that follows, Hela is one of the provinces that puts Papua New Guinea on the world map. In terms of its natural resources and culture, the people of Hela strongly and proudly uphold their tradition and culture. Hela always participates in special occasions, to showcase and promote its unique culture. Today Hela culture is a significant most tourist attraction in PNG.

Huli wigman sleeping using a log for a pillow.
Huli wigman sleeps on a pole at night so his hair is not disturbed.

Papua New Guineans sometimes believe that education only comes from Western countries. But for thousands of years we had education as well. Traditional education. The Huli wig school is one of the oldest traditional schools in Hela Province and possibly PNG. Its lessons have been passed down from generation to generation and still exist today. Huli men are best known for their custom of wearing decorative woven wigs, elaborate head-dresses decorated with bundles of multi-coloured feathers and adopted a celebratory festivals. The famous Huli Wigmen attend the wig school, in which they live together in isolation from the rest of the community. Wig masters are normally elders who have special powers and are able to cast spells to enable the growth of hair.

At wig school, they learn the fundamentals and rules of Huli traditional customs: growing their hair; collecting feathers; and making armbands. One of the rules of Huli culture is that boys live with their mothers until they are seven or eight years old, then they live with their fathers to learn skills like hunting with bows and arrows, building mud walls and making houses. When they are 14 to 15 years old, they go to wig school and don’t return home until they graduate. Sometimes they stay there for 10 years and may be given the choice between returning to their villages or to staying in the forest to learn more and improve their skills.

Huli man teasing a ceremonial wig.
Huli wig specialist

To enter the wig school, the boys’ families pays the wig master in cash or with a pig. The boys stay with the wig master for 18 months to grow one wig. If they want to grow another, they stay longer and pay again. Not everyone is accepted as a student. Only young, virgin males can enter wig school. Before the student arrives, the wig master has to put a powerful spell on the students. The spell will not work on someone who has had a sexual relations. Women are not allowed to go to wig schools because they don’t wear wigs. Once accepted into the school, the students and master perform a special ritual near a creek or other water source.

Huli wigmen performing a water ritual to grow their wigs.
Symbolic of drinking and spitting of water to cleanse the body

First, the master spits into a bamboo pipe filled with water from the creek. The students each gulp down half of the water and spit it into the air so the water falls onto them and cleans their souls. The other half is then drunk to cleanse the interior of the students’ bodies. Students have to wet their hair at least three times a day. Students sing while using fern leaves to sprinkle water onto the big bouncy hairdo. They also have to follow a diet where certain types of food are not allowed, such as pig hearts, pig fat and spicy food. They must adopt a special sleeping position: perched on one elbow and neck resting on a wooden log, all to ensure the healthy growth of hair.

Elderly man creating a Huli manda hare ceremonial wig.
Huli wig specialist creating a ceremonial wig.

After 18 months of growing their hair, the wigmen cut their hair and hand it to the wig specialist, who then sews and weaves the hair into wigs. The wigs are decorated with feathers from various birds, including parrots, birds of paradise and killer cassowaries. Most wigmen have more than one wig, but they must all be grown before they get married. Some are used as daily wigs, while other ceremonial wigs are worn only on special occasions. The ceremonial wigs are made with two wigs combined and shaped into a headdress that resembles the silhouette of a bird with wings stretched out.

Once the wig specialist weaves the immaculate wigs, he goes to market and sells them. Many Huli men who don’t grow their own hair will buy them to wear for festivals or major events. The daily wigs can cost as much as K600 to K700, while the ceremonial ones fetch double that price, K1,500 or more depending on their appearance of the wigs. This money helps pay for the bride dowry, as marriage is always on the horizon when wigmen graduate from school. On the day that the students graduate and leave the school, they put ochre on their face and head and go out to find a wife. They carry with them two or three wigs that can be used in festive times, festivals, weddings and for greeting tourists. In the past the Huli wig school took in 20 to 30 students each term, but now it’s only gets 10 or less. More Huli men prefer to go to public schools these days.

Today most of the wig schools are some distance from the Tari town and difficult to find, so tourists need to organise transport with a guesthouse in Tari or join a tour. Often some of the wigmen students supplement their income by travelling to town to demonstrate how they grow and care for their hair. Tourists should ask permission before photographing anyone in full traditional dress. Hulis are usually happy to be snapped and do not ask for payment. Make your thanks known and offer to send them copies of the photos. The main market day in Tari is on Saturday and this is a particularly good time to meet Hulis in their full traditional attire.

(feature photo courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours).