Pogapa Village

Deep in the interior of the Irian Jaya mountain range sits a remote village that is only accessible by foot and plane. A maze of rugged jungle trails allows villagers to trek from one village to another village, which often requires arduous, multiple day journeys. Getting anywhere else requires travel by bush plane. Pogapa is as remote as it gets without falling off the map.

Recently, two friends and I boarded MAF at the Timika Airport and headed to Pogapa for the weekend. MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing aid, relief, and mission projects to some of the world’s most isolated people. The organization uses Cessna caravan airplanes to transport food, medical supplies, building supplies and other necessary supplies and equipment to remote villages. For a small fee of Rp750,000/flight (about US$68.00), the pilot will transport adventurous travelers from jobsite to and from Pogapa.

Accompanied by boxes and bags chock-full of frozen chicken, bread, beans, flour, clothes, books, and toys for the village, we flew above the great and vast land of Papua. Rolling forest floors and meandering riverbeds continued beyond what our eyes could see. The most spectacular sight was flying within touching distance of an imposing sheer cliff. The same cliff where the crashed remains of a World War II U.S. military plane can be spotted by the discerning eye in the “Shangri-La” valley below.

After passing the cliff, the pilot turned the small plane into a wide-open valley, circled the village below, and then steered it toward nothing more than an elongated grassy patch. If that wasn’t nerve-racking enough, the landing strip was built with a drop-off at one end and a mountain slope at the other end. The landing took my breath away!

Our plane flying over Pogapa Village. The long strip in the heart of the village is the landing strip.

Our plane flying over Pogapa Village. The long, bare line running down the middle of the village is the landing strip.

Once we were on the ground, the men, women and children of Pogapa, and their long-time friend and advocate, John Cutts, warmly greeted us. Even a few visiting members of a distant tribe watched us fly in, but they chose to keep their distance and remained on the hill at the end of the landing strip.

People from all over the village lined up on both sides of the runway to welcome us to their home.

A group of people who came out to welcome us into their village.

This group of men, from a neighboring village, watched the plane arrive, but kept their distance. They were dressed in tribal paint, wore headdresses, and carried bows, arrows, and spears. I was hoping to get a better picture of them, but they ran off before I could. Narelle took this picture before they ran off.

This group of men, from a neighboring village, crouched down on the top of the hill and watched us arrive. Some of the men were dressed in tribal paint and wore headdresses. I was hoping to get a better picture of them, but they jumped up and ran off when I started walking toward them. My friend, Narelle, took this picture just moments before they left.

Women and children grabbed our bags and boxes of goods and took them to John's house for us.

Men, women, and children picked up our luggage, and the bags and boxes of goods that we brought with us, and carried them to John’s house where we stayed.

We thanked our helpers by giving them a bag of dry noodles to eat.

Narelle, Myriam and I thanked the people who carried our luggage by giving them bags of dry noodles (similar to “Itchiban” noodles that are available in the U.S.).

Our adventurous weekend in Moni land was filled with explorative walks around the village. The center of the village consists of the community church, a row of shops, traditional huts, wood plank houses, and vegetable gardens. Heavily used paths, leading in and out of the village, led us to the children’s school, a clinic, more huts and houses, more vegetable gardens, an incredible lookout point, and one of two recently crashed aircraft.

Villagers going about their daily activities.

A few villagers engaging in daily activities. During this trip, I learned that men carry bows and arrows, not for hunting, but for the sole purpose of being prepared for conflicts, battles, and tribal wars that can erupt at any given moment.

A man dressed in a traditional gourd.

A Moni man dressed in a koteka (a penis gourd). The length of the koteka indicates a man’s rank and influence. This man is viewed as a “Big Banana” in the village. He was excited about having his photo taken, and happily posed for several photos before continuing his walk up the landing strip.

A mini woman with her hands cupping her head. Notice finger

A Moni woman cupping her head with her time-worn hands. The top of her right pinkie finger is missing because she removed it during a mourning ritual after losing a loved one. When preforming the ritual, a finger is tightly bound with string and then amputated at the knuckle by a hatchet-like tool. The finger is then buried whole, or dried and burned. The ritual symbolizes the pain and suffering of losing a loved one.

Two

Two Moni boys peeking through a fence. The orange colored hair, on the boy standing to the left, indicates a protein deficiency. The people living in Pogapa have limited sources of protein because they are a tribe of gardeners and gatherers. With John’s help, rabbit breeding was recently introduced to the village to give them a healthy, sustainable source of protein.

Aircraft

This aircraft (not owned or operated by MAF) crashed upon landing. The pilot had very little experience landing on the difficult landing strip and wasn’t prepared to make his first solo trip into the village. The pilot and his passenger survived the crash, but the aircraft received substantial damage. The other aircraft (which crashed under similar circumstances) was removed from the village last month.

Martha and her garden.

Martha and her prolific garden!

We were graciously invited to attend a kindergarten graduation on Saturday morning and church services on Sunday morning. After Sunday’s church service, we assembled at the church leader’s house to participate in a traditional saigia. A saigia is a feast where food is placed in a shallow pit lined with banana leaves and cooked to perfection with red, hot rocks. Our feast included chicken, a mixture of native greens, and garden-fresh squash.

The church building.

The village church. It also serves as a community hall where other activities, including school graduation, take place.

Women and children socializing after church.

Women and children socializing after church.

Smoke billowing

The saigia began with a raging, hot bonfire to heat the rocks that were used to cook the food. John’s house (where we stayed) can be seen in the background.

While the rocks were heating, Myriam, Narelle and I helped the women line the pit with banana leaves.

While the rocks were heating, Myriam, Narelle and I helped the women line the pit with banana leaves.

When the rocks were thoroughly heated, a group of men and women used split sticks to move them over to the pit.

When the rocks were thoroughly heated, a group of men and women used split sticks to move them to the cooking pit.

Filling the pit with hot rocks.

I even tested my skills of manipulating a split stick to pick up and move a few rocks.

Filling the pit with fresh greens.

Another layer of banana leaves was placed over the hot rocks. After the rocks were covered, the women threw a heaping mixture of edible greens over the leaves.

Placing chicken and squash on top of the greens.

Whole chickens and quartered squash were placed on top of the greens.

Another layer of hot rrocks and banana leaves was placed on top of the food.

A final layer of banana leaves and hot rocks were placed in the pit before the vegetables and the meat were left to cook for several hours.

Our lunch!

Our lunch!

John

John Cutts is a second-generation missionary in Papua’s highlands. In 1942, his parents, Bill and Gracie Cutts, were one of the first white people to arrive in the interior of Irian Jaya as missionaries for The Christian and Missionary Alliance. John was raised with the Moni people from infancy, and continued the family’s legacy by raising his own children on the mountain. In addition to carrying on the ministry, John serves as their friend, teacher, brother, and advocate. He and his wife created a non-profit organization, Village Heartbeat, to help meet the social, educational, health and religious needs of the Moni people.

When we weren’t immersing ourselves in the day-to-day activities of the native culture, we were buying produce (avocados, heirloom tomatoes, numerous varieties of lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, and sweet potatoes) from local gardeners at John’s front door, while enjoying Myriam’s constant flow of hot Columbian coffee on the veranda at his backdoor. The mass collection of vegetables that we purchased were packed in boxes and taken back to jobsite. It was a special treat to make garden-fresh guacamole for Chris and the girls when I returned!

A Moni woman setting out lettuce and cucumbers for us to look at and buy.

A Moni woman setting out cucumbers for us to look at and buy.

A Moni woman setting out freshly picked heirloom tomatoes from her garden.

Another Moni woman setting out freshly picked heirloom tomatoes for us to look at and buy.

View from John's veranda.

The incredible view from John’s veranda.

We woke up early Monday morning to watch the sunrise and to pack our bags for our return flight home. The weather is always unpredictable in the mountains, so it was comforting to hear the Cessna’s single-engine turboprop dutifully spinning in the distance; and then, moments later, to see it clear the mounting clouds. We watched the small plane precariously fly toward the landing strip and then expertly set its wheels on the rough terrain. A perfect landing.

Plane flying in to pick us up.

Our pilot, Dennis, returning to pick us up.

Plance landing

The aircraft arriving at the end of the landing strip.

I was already boarded and ready to go, but everyone else was still taking pictures and saying good-bye. I was anxious about getting out of the village because I had to go to Jakarta the next day to have pages added to our passports before our trip home.

Making sure our backpacks were onboard before saying our final goodbyes to John and his Moni family.

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6 Responses to Pogapa Village

  1. David says:

    Great post about isolated community life. As usual, we see smiles and warmth from people living a simple life.

  2. Don Doody says:

    Kriste, your Posts are always so interesting and informative. I wish I had started out printing them to read later but , sadly, it didn’t occur to me until this morning. A little late. DANG!! Thanks for keeping me on your email list.

    Don

  3. Oh my gosh, what an incredible experience. I just finished a book about Margaret Mead, and the tribes she studied had many of these same cultural characteristics.

    • Kriste Rose says:

      It was an incredible experience; I’m glad I had the opportunity to go! If you’re looking for another book to read, “Lost in Shangri-La” is a New York Times bestseller about a group of WWII servicemen and WACs who went sightseeing in the Irian Jaya mountain range and ended up crashing their airplane (as I mentioned in the post). Most of them died. The few who lived had to survive the formidable terrain and native people who had never seen or heard of white people. Chris and I have both read it and enjoyed it! 🙂

  4. John Cutts says:

    WOW. . . I am just back in the usa and then back out to Pogapa before Christmas! I saw this today for the first time as I was hitting site for new movie Pogapa 2016 on youtube. Thanks so much for writing this article and hope to see you again!

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