Your Tour Guide

Hi, I’m Ron Meshanko.

Ron Meshanko in traditional Huli attire smoking a bamboo pipe with a Huli wigman and his daughter.
Ron Meshanko in traditional Huli attire with a wigman and his daughter.

I’m your guide for this adventure into Huli culture. I lived among the Huli people as a Catholic missionary for eight months, January 28 through October 3, 1983. I was oriented into Melanesian culture for four months before my sojourn into Huli culture at Ialibu, Southern Highlands Province. During the orientation period, I learned Neo-Melanesian English, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea, which is only spoken by educated Huli. I adapted to many Highland customs which are also customary amongst the Huli. Some of these include conversational style, male roles in society and basic etiquette. This orientation period also enabled me to be sensitive to basic elements of Melanesian religions (spirits, ancestral founders, sorcery, etc.), attuned my ears to mythological language, and opened my eyes to common Melanesian symbols (blood, pigs, oil, water, etc.).

Life in Tari

My main residence and base of operations amongst the Huli was at the Capuchin friary of St. Francis Catholic Church, Tari. Tari (Lumu Lumu) is the largest Huli town and the seat of the Hela provincial government. It headquarters the bank, post-office, hospital, police and courts for the entire Huli population. I spent seventy-five percent of my time living and working there with two other Capuchin missionaries from England. The remainder of my time was spent living and working in the neighboring outstations of Benalia, Natali, Wayana, Parate, Daberanda, Pawanda, Noimea, Pai, Tigibi, and Hangabo. I also visited the other major Huli towns of Koraba and Burani.

Beginning the Adventure

The first month of my stay amongst the Huli was devoted to learning the indigenous language. My beginner’s grasp of the language only enabled me to join in simple conversations and understand the gist of more complex discourse. I relied on interpreters to translate Huli into Neo-Melanesian English which I in turn translated into English. 

The initial two months were also devoted to reading all of the available literature on the Huli culture. I read the only book then published about the Huli, The Huli of Papua New Guinea, by Robert Glasse, (see Bibliography) as well as articles written by Glasse, Goldman, Gayalu and Aijmer and ethnographic notes compiled by fellow Capuchin missionaries. This study made me aware of the various components of the culture and enabled me to ask informed questions.

Living with Huli Men

Ron Meshanko in Huli dress lighting his bamboo pipe with a fire stick.
Ron Meshanko smoking a Huli bamboo pipe with native tobacco.

The remainder of my stay amongst the Huli was spent traversing the countryside and visiting the outstations previously listed. There I looked closely at social interactions on the road, in the men’s houses, and in the Catholic churches. I always lived in a Huli men’s house except when I stayed at the Capuchin houses at Tigibi, Koraba and Burani. This close contact with the people, especially the men, for the Huli frown upon a man mingling with women, provided many opportunities to observe the general life-style of the people and immerse myself in the Huli ethos. I also gained a good sense of the daily life of Huli men, for I would spend my day doing whatever my housemates did: working in the garden, building houses, going to the market, bathing in the rivers singing songs and telling stories at night, preparing and eating meals, gathering firewood, and finally, sleeping.

While I lived with these men I asked many questions about what was going on and why people did as they did. I also asked the men to chant their myths and love songs. to play their musical instruments and to teach me how to dance, smoke a pipe, wear Huli dress and prepare food. Almost every night was spent listening to the men tell stories about past events and explain the meaning of various myths and ritual events. I entered many observations in my journal and recorded some of the myths on a miniature tape recorder.

My Role Among the People

Ron Meshanko seated with a Huli speaker of the sacred myths.
Ron Meshanko seated with an elderly speaker of the myths.

My role among the people was that of a Capuchin missionary: catechist, teacher, preacher, saw-mill manager, youth club coordinator, general manager of the Tari and Tigabi mission stations and pastoral coordinator for the thirty churches in the Catholic parish of Saint Francis of Assisi centered in Kupari in the Tari area. The people perceived me as a “whiteman” and missionary who filled all of these roles in a peculiar way. They were not accustomed to seeing a missionary dress in Huli attire, smoke a Huli pipe, sleep in a men’s house with Huli men, and be so interested in the religious beliefs and practices of the past. 

My close contact with the people made me sensitive to their ethos and world-view and enabled me to make many observations about their culture. It also made me realize fully that I am and always will be an “outsider” and that my knowledge of the Huli culture will always be lacking.

Continuing My Study of the Huli 

When I retuned to the United States I continued to write reflections about my experience in my journal. I also sent two questionnaires to educated informants in an attempt to receive necessary information to fill in some lacunae in my observations as well as those of published authors.

Finally, I wrote my Master’s dissertation, “The Gospel Amongst the Huli,” at Washington Theological Union in 1985. This presentation is only the first section of the dissertation, the “Huli Ethnography.” The second section, the “Historical Background”, presents the History of the Huli Christian Churches, and was published in Catalyst Journal 16:3 & 4 (1986).  You may read it here.