The ‘Last Real Man’, is a documentary film that captures the sacred cane swallowing ritual of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The documentary took six years to produce due to the strict rituals and sacredness of the traditional practice.
Papua New Guinea (Bena) Tribe Initiation
Ruth Ketau became the first female filmmaker to make a breakthrough and record the Neheya Initiation. The initiation was a reserved practise for men in the Bena area of Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. The canes swallowing ritual (Neheya Initiation) was never filmed before. Ruth after extensive consultation, negotiations and research had convinced the elders from Sakanuga village to film the documentary.
Often referred to as ‘Drin Kol Wara’ (Drink Cold Water) by the Bena people of Eastern Highlands, the Neheya Initiation is practised only by men. It is sacred, women were never allowed to know about it, much less see it.
‘Neheya’ Initiation of Sakanuga Tribe, Bena
The traditional and sacred ritual is slowly dying due to western and religious influences. In an effort to preserve this ritual, the local men of Bena are now telling the true story of the Neheya Initiation.
‘Ritual is a source of knowledgde. It teaches men how to do things by learning from the ancestors and hold those teaching in trust. There is a duty to teach it and pass it on’ (ref).
The Neheya Initiation includes cane swallowing, and bleeding of the nose, including the tongue and male genitalia. It is then believed that upon initiation, young men would be good leaders in their community, attract beautiful women to marry and live a healthy and long life.
A Sacred Papua New Guinea Tribe Traditional Ritual
The cane swallowing ritual is for boys at puberty and young men. There is the sacred understanding that this ritual clears the mind and enlightens the heart and body.
It is considered as the purification or cleansing of the body after a man takes and eats food from a menstruating woman, or engages in coitus with a woman. Generally, the ritual is seen as a way to restore the inner strength of a man and inspire him to live a happy and successful life.
‘Traditionally, a menstruating woman is considered dangerous to men. It is percieved that the menstrual blood could cause a man to die, fall ill, or fail to find a game in hunting. Therefore a woman menstruating will not cook food for her husband or other men’ (ref).
Village elders, the practitioner of the ritual and Neheya experts speak well of past initiates recounting that those men did not get sick, were physically fit to run long distances to catch up with enemies and were generally strong people then.
‘Men should learn and know about the traditional notion of women mensurating to achieve successful outcomes in rites and traditions’ (ref).
‘Neheya’ Ritual Preparation
The cane is carefully carved to achieve a smooth surface, to allow for easy passage down the food pipe. Final touches are made to bend the cane into a U shape before hanging it to dry in kitchen huts.
It is then dried for about one month before been used. Once in a while, the dried cane is taken out and left in the water to regain moisture to maintain its outer covering. Its length may vary from two-three metres.
The initiation period may last for two-three months, depending on the amount of pork available for meals in the ‘Haus man (house for men)’. Mothers’ of young boys cry for their sons as they are taken away from them to learn their custom and embrace manhood.
Importantly, there must be no quarrels or disagreements between all family members of the initiates before the Neheya Initiation is carried out. Without peaceful consents from all parties, serious nasal, throat and tongue injuries (or even death) may occur during the initiation.
Papua New Guinea tribe right of passage – menhood
Boys and young men are required to lie on their backs and facing up to sleep. It is believed this straightens and elongates the intestines in preparation for the Neheya Initiation.
Meal provided for the initiates comprises of pork fat and boiled kaukau (sweet potato). The meal known as ‘Hosamaya’, ensures the smooth passing of the cane along the food pipe, oesophagus. It is prepared only by elderly women who have passed menopause.
Initiation rituals were practised in other societies of Papua New Guinea to represent men transitioning into adulthood. This also bestows on men the authority; and knowledge and understanding of the land and his people.
Village elders of the Bena Sakanuga Tribe then took this time to rebuke any transgressor of the unwritten laws of their society. Beatings often followed with instructions.
‘The presence of explicit rules was present and examining these rules, we learn about the society, an act in part of responsibilities for the well-being of the person and his growth, linked with manhood and participation in rites which men control’ (ref).
‘Nose bleeding’ ritual
As part of the Neheya and cane swallowing, initiates must undergo the ‘Nose bleeding’ ritual. Specific sharp-edged grass, known as the ‘nose bleeding grass’, or ‘bleeding arrow’, is shoved with force into both nostrils.
A Neheya expert shoves the grass into both nostrils while the initiate is held back by another participator. The head is then tilted to one side. Usually the right nostril due to the belief that the right nostril is bigger than the left so that the blood flows out easily.
Soon after the ‘nose bleeding’ ritual, the cane swallowing ritual follows.
Both the nose bleeding and cane swallowing rituals are carried out near a fast-flowing river so water washes away the blood. The participants (initiates) are led to the initiation site with chanting and singing.
The first-time initiates often require guidance from an older Neheya expert. The older, more experienced men, will guide them as they push down the cane with both hands through the mouth and down the oesophagus.
Running a 2-metre cane down the gullet
The young men must strike the correct pose so that a 2 metres cane slides done the gullet, or food pipe. Water is then splashed on an initiate’s chest and stomach to cool down his body temperature. Past initiates recall being afraid of the cane swallowing initiation, but they had to be brave. Because bravery is the epitome of the Traditional Neheya Initiation and Ritual.
One wrong move could result in a serious internal haemorrhage causing death. However, the Neheya ritual experts from the Bena Sakanuga Tribe of Papua New Guinea recalled some stories of unimaginable experiences. Some have claimed to have swallowed canes ten times in a day. And walked five hundred metres with the long cane still inside their bodies.
After expulsions of blood and saliva from the body, the initiates bathe in the rivers. They are, then, adorned with the best of the traditional attires and led back to the village, not as children, but as men. Men with the strength to defend their community; knowledge to care for their people; and beauty to find the women of their dreams.
Hosamaya dish – the final feast
A final feast follows with the inclusion of the Hosamaya dish. The final Hosamaya dish has medicinal ingredients for healing the pierced nostrils and prevents infection.
Although the initiation ends after the feast, these men would continue the rituals of cane swallowing and nose bleeding for the rest of their lives for purification purposes.
About the writer
SHIRLEY KOMOGI is from Bena, in the EHP. She completed her Computer Science degree program at Unitech in 2015. She enjoys writing. Her first story on Bena Sakanuga Tribe Papua New Guinea was printed in the Post Courier Weekender section back in 2017.
Shirley works as a Master Trainer at the newly established Centre of Excellence in IT at UPNG.
(Reference: Day Of Shining Red by Gilbert Lewis. Special thanks to Ruth Ketau and the National Film Institute-GOROKA)
We would like to thank Shirley for sharing this unique story with us. If you would like to participate in the PNG Writers Corner, send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org