Papua New Guinea 2011

Papua New Guinea Expedition 2011

Birth in the Jungle –Kosua Tribe

In 2011, I decided to pursue my long-time dream to start a project involving indigenous people, exploration and photography. I decided to begin the project in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country I had visited in 1997, at the age of 17. I wanted to reconnect with this beautiful country and its people. I’ve been fortunate to join an expedition of cave explorers into the Darien Plateau in the Bosavi region, Souther Highlands. From Port Moresby, we flew to Mount Hagen in central highlands, then we made a 7-hour trip in an armed vehicle to a little town called Mendi. From Mendi, we had a third flight on a small private aircraft to Fogomayu, the largest and most accessible of the Bosavi villages, and where the cavers were based camp. I trekked a further 11 hours by foot through the jungle to reach Sienna Falls, one of the most islolated Bosavi villages.

It’s virtually impossible to properly describe the majesty and timelessness of a primary rainforest. They are living resources, overflowing with countless plant and animal species that have made the survival of humankind possible. Rainforests provide humans with food, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial raw materials, and medicine. I was facinated to learn how Kosua women are experiencing pregnancy and practice childbirth in this environment? How they relate to the rainforest ecosystem, and how they enact ecological knowledge during their pregnancies and in childbirth? How are the land, its minerals, plants and animals used in the women’s lives surrounding childbearing, such as in the ceremonies, pain management, and nutrition?

Field Notes:

I’m following Sibilato, a nine month pregnant Kosua woman. I am walking on a small trail through the rainforest, my hiking shoes rhythmically striking the forest floor – a floor that seems to be moving. There is so much activity under my feet, and everything I touch feels alive.  Sibilato is leading the way, her bare feet gliding gently over the rugged terrain. I am fascinated by her feet. How can such little feet carry her enlarged pregnant body so freely and lightly across the forest floor? We are walking towards the opening of a large cave, a place where her ancestors used to give birth. The cave emerges slowly from its hiding place in the jungle, almost invisible under layers of lush vegetation and exposed trees roots. There is a large fresh water pool at the opening of the cave, and  I can hear the distinct sound of water flowing somewhere within its depths.

Kosua Birthing Rituals

  •  Traditionally Kosua men builds a small shelter called a Quane, where their wives will stay for 7 days after the birth. The Kosua believe that if the husband sees his wife during this 7-day period after delivery, he will get sick and perhaps even die. The man uses sticks to create a flat platform, and then covers it with leaves and tree bark to make it more comfortable for mother and baby to sleep on. The quane walls are made with more branches, and leaves are layered on top of the shelter to create a roof. Since the husband cannot see his wife for 7 days, the tribe performs a ritual to let him know the gender of the new baby.  If the baby is a boy, a line of warriors shoots arrows high up in the sky, representing the bows and arrows that his son will grow up to use. If the baby is a girl, the husband will be given a sego stick, representing the sego work that his daughter will one day do in the village.
  • After the baby is born, the mother or her midwife will cut the baby’s umbilical cord using sharp bamboo. The umbilical cord and placenta are then buried in the soil next to the quane, symbolising the newborn’s connection to the tribe and their lands.
  •  Women rely on their spiritual beliefs to provide comfort throughout the challenging process. In the past Kosua women often gave birth under a big tree in the forest. Big trees are believed to contain spirits who watch over the forests and its inhabitants. The Kosua believe that women who give birth under the protection of these spirits will be safe from problems during the delivery. Many Kosua women used to give birth in caves as well, which are also believed to contain protective spirits. Stories of the mythological creatures that live in the caves are passed from generation to generation, shaping the Kosua’s spiritual development and belief system. Some young Kosua women also go to these caves to hunt kuyu (flying foxes) when they are ready to become pregnant. It’s believed that a successful hunt promises a successful conception.
  • Have you ever tried to remember the day you were born? The moment you took your first breath? If you close your eyes and try to imagine it, what would you see? What would you hear? What would you feel? I spend a few days in the quane watching Sibilato and her baby. The baby’s little body is still shaped like an embryo, with both legs bent close to her belly and hands closed in tight fists. Her movements have a subtle, gentle motion, as if she is still moving in embryonic fluid. I watch as Sibilato’s baby gradually begins to open her eyes more often and becomes increasingly aware of her environment. Her large, bright eyes focus on the pristine rainforest towering up to touch the bright blue sky. The expanse of green occasionally flashes with color when a red or blue parrot flaps its wings. The only sounds I can hear are frogs, birds, and the rhythm of the rain against the soil. A blue butterfly gently flies inside the quane and circles over our heads, before landing next to the baby.
  • Sibilato’s baby is completely intertwined with the forest. The forest will be her home, her playground, her food source. Even before she first opened her eyes, I assume she could hear and smell the forest. She could smell the wetness of the vegetation after a rainfall and hear the sounds of the birds singing at sunrise. Perhaps even when she was still in the womb, she could hear the frogs croaking and the dingoes howling at night. With every passing moment, she begins to know her environment better, laying the foundation for the instincts that will make it possible for her to survive in this environment. After Sibilato leaves the quane, I am surprised by how quickly she resumes her normal daily routines. She goes bush walking to gather vegetables and wood, carrying the baby on her back in a string bag called a Bilum. These bush walks aren’t just about gathering food for her family, they’re also about stimulating her new baby. As the baby is carried through the rainforest, she is able to experience her environment with all five senses: The sounds of the animals and the trees; the sight of the shifting sunlight; the feeling of the changing air texture. The baby is being introduced to the rhythm of life in the rainforest. Pressed against her mother’s back, the baby also begins to learn about instincts. She can sense her mother’s heart beat, her body temperature, her sweat, and all the other ways her mother’s body responds as she walks, hunts or works. When her mother senses danger, the baby feels it too. When her mother hunts a wild pig, the baby can feel how her body temperature and heart rate increase, how her emotions change.