The YALI PEOPLE West Papua, Indonesia - Novembre 2016

For many years, I had my eyes on a remote part of Indonesia called West Papua where tribes still live today traditionally, isolated from the modern world we know. They inhabit mountains above 1500m, reachable only by chartered plane or after several days walking through difficult terrain. Few people have travelled there, but the few photographs I saw and stories I read on these highlands tribes always inspired me greatly.

My decision to travel there was actually made when I saw the documentary ”The Salt of the Earth” from German filmmaker Win Wenders. It portrays the career and works of photographer Sebastião Salgado with a few sequences shot when he travelled to West Papua to photograph the Yali tribes in 2010. His images fascinated me and I needed to witness it myself.

So in November 2016, I flew from Singapore to Wamena, in the heart of the Baliem Valley in West Papua. From there, I started my journey to visit and photograph the Yali tribes.

This essay is a portrait of the Yali life in the village of Angurruk through their people and their traditions. It is also shows life on the mountain paths from Angurruk to Kurima, the trails Yali people walk for several days to connect with the rest of the world.

Angurruk - the air strip was first built in the early 1960's by missionaries and is served by chartered planes to bring supplies and health services to these distant tribes communities in Yali country. It takes about 25 minutes from Wamena in the Baliem valley to reach Angurruk by air and about 4 days walk through the mountains.
Angurruk – The landing and take-off of a plane, usually a Pilatus Porter from MAF, Susi Air or AMA is a special event with the airstrip splitting the village in two. One one side the ”terminal” and the other side the football field serving as market place twice a week. Kids love running down the stone tarmac after watching the plane soaring to the skies.
Angurruk - just outside the village school a group of students pause with a traditionally dressed Yali man. The satellite dish behind is an attempt to connect to the rest of the world when solar power is available through rechargeable batteries, the only viable source of electricity in these remote mountains. Fuel powered generators are not a option as flown-in benzin costs 5 times as much as in Wamena.
Angurruk - women have the responsibility of planting and growing food while men prepare the terrain in usually very steep location. Ubi (sweet potatoes), daun labu siam (a sort of spinach) and cabbage is the main source of alimentation in these remote areas, mixed at times with instant noodles to enhance taste.
Angurruk - on the way to Kampung Tulpa I met this traditionally dressed Yali man. While 90% percent of men have abandonned their koteka and rattan skirt, the older generation wears it all the time.
Angurruk - Twice a week, here a Friday, villagers from around Angurruk come down to the market mostly to sell/trade their fresh products, ubi, daun labu siamdaun petatas, sayur lilin, sugar cane, tobacco leaves and the beautiful Buah Merah (red fruit). The Buah Merah grows only in cool tropical mountain forest between 2000m and 3000m above sea level.
Angurruk – Friday morning market - Women wear a bag woven of orchid fibers. Whether empty or in use, it is held around the forehead and usually covers the entire back. It is incredibly resistant and I have seen in it pigs, babies, vegetables, wood... Man also wear woven bags but they are usually very small and never carry much more than tobacco, a lighter, small personal effects.
Angurruk – Friday morning market – This little man still has time but as soon as he will be fit enough, his responsibility will be to gather wood, used mostly for fire but also to build huts. Men travel sometimes far from the village on narrow paths through the forests armed with such sharp machetes.
Angurruk – Older men still wear the most simple apparel consisting of just a koteka, a penis cover made from a dried-out gourd. 95% walk barefoot and have an unsurpassed extraordinary agility and grip up and down the steep paths of these mountainous valleys. While I was happy to have trekking shoes I felt still pretty impaired...
Angurruk - Here he is again after chopping wood with his machete and on his way back to his hut
Augurruk - With great excitement women are extracting with their hand a red paste from the Buah Merah (red fruit) and spread it above ubi (sweet potatoes) which have just been cooked in the earth.
Angurruk – Yali people love their pigs and look after them very well. They effectively treat them as pets and as such pigs get to sleep in the hut with the family. They value them a lot and they could be offered as a gift or to repay a debt. Of course, on occasions like a wedding, the pigs would be on the menu…
Augurruk – A complete Yali family with their precious pet pigs.
Angurruk – It is fairly chilly at night at 1500m and above and all families keep a fire burning inside the hut all night.
Kampung Erika – Above Angurruk – A traditional village made of huts is going to disappear soon in the late afternoon mist coming up from the valleys.
Angurruk – Mist is invading the slopes above Angurruk
Angurruk – Yali men have cleared the trees so that they can grow ubi (sweet potatoes) and other vegetables which are the main source of alimentation. The mountains in the back towering at almost 4000m are on the path you need to take to reach the modern world, 4 days away.
Angurruk – Another elder from the Yala tribe in his most simple apparel
Sunday mass - Kampung Erika, above Angurruk. People in these valleys converted to Christianity from the 60's and most kampung have a church where Sunday service is held by a local missionary. On that day, a group of 6 young health workers were bidding farewell to the community after spending 8 months with these tribes providing them essential health services.
Sunday mass - Kampung Erika, above Angurruk - It was a very emotional moment especially when everyone lined up outside the church to hug the health workers, including babies.
Angurruk - Men have the duty to bring wood which will be used for construction but very much also to keep warm at night and cook. Here a Yali man goes to great height to chop wood with his machete. His strength and agility is impressive with bare hands, no shoes and the most simple apparel.
Kampung Walma – On the way to Kurima - It is almost 4pm, it started raining, it will be dark in one hour and my host is on the way from her hut to prepare a meal of ubi, rice and vegetables.
Impenetrable forest – On the way to Kurima - As you go up the valleys, you need to find your way through an extraordinary primeval rainforest with multi-layered canopies providing a great bio-diversity. Access is so difficult here that fortunately for now, deforestation is not happening.
Some 40km into the 61km walk from Angurruk to Kurima - Sharing a hut at 2600m with a group of Yali men carrying supplies on their back for 4 days to Angurruk. We are about to have dinner at 5:45pm. It is pitch dark outside and raining. On the menu we have ubi (sweet potatoes), nasi (rice) and some instant noodles. The only concession to modernity is a useful led lamp rechargeable through a portable solar panel.
The vegetation above 3000m on the plateau before going down in the valley is made of these large fern trees as tall as 2-3m. Simple huts like these provide a shelter for the night as there are no villages in these remote mountains
Some 40km into the 61km walk from Angurruk to Kurima – Just said farewell to the Yali men who were on their way to Angurruk, still 3 days of walk away.
Cemetery – People in these remote valleys have been Christianized by missionaries from the 60’s. They bury their dead and tombs are usually organised in small clusters like this one at close distance from homes.
I tracked my journey through the mountains and the valleys. It seems like such a walk in the park in Google Earth...
My journey through these valleys and 6 day walk was coming here to an end. On the other side of the bridge, I would hop onto a motorcycle to drive me to Wamena where it all started 10 days before. It was overall an amazing experience to be able to share life of these tribes in such remote locations and bring back these photographic memories which will stay with me a long long time.
Created By
Alain Schneuwly
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Words and photographs Copyright © Alain Schneuwly

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