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22/09/06

"Good story about cannibals. Pity it's not even close to the truth"

Great commentary (and a good example of engaged anthropology) by anthropologist Sarah Hewat about a recent TV story on Wa Wa, a Korowai boy in Papua, who should be "rescued" from "cannibals". Hewat says, the journalists should have read some work by anthropologist Rupert Stasch before talking about cannibalism. Stasch did his doctoral research on the Korowai of West Papua in the mid-1990s:

If they did, they would learn that as a Korowai, Wa-Wa does not live as a member of a lost tribe, tyrannised by tradition. (...)
The Korowai may live in the forest, but that does not exclude them from having a certain style of modern life. Korowai may fly in planes, go to church, attend school, have meetings with government officials, or sell produce at the market — or gaharu (agarwood) to black-market traders. Even in the peripheries of Korowai territory, where Wa-Wa lives, people no longer kill and eat witches. Times have changed, and in any case, they fear the barbaric repercussions of the Indonesian police.

Part of the story is Paul Raffaele, who brought the TV-team to Wa-Wa. Raffaele has written this doubtful article I've mentioned two weeks ago "They still eat their fellow tribesmen". Hewat writes about Raffaele:

His work does not enhance understanding of the KorowaI but panders to a Western public hungry to consume the primitive.

The Korowai, like other tribal groups portrayed by Raffaele, are presented by him through a series of either/ors: either they are bright-eyed upholders of a fragile Eden, or else they are darkly menacing, horrifying us with their cruel customs.

But if we pay attention to who they are rather than what we want them to be, then we will find ordinary people trying to come to terms with their place in the world. The Korowai, like other ethnic peoples in their position, are simply struggling to engage state and global forces in their own way.

In her view, the journalists should have rather talked with her and other people who have lived in Papua for years, about "the cannibalistic nature of the tourism industry" there. "Primitiveness" is, she writes, after natural resources, a prize commodity in Papua. Tour operators have perfected the art of selling "first contact tours". She continues:

I have known locals who have been paid a measly sum to take off their clothes, brandish spears and speak of a barbaric past to satisfy the voyeurism of white tourists, journalists or filmmakers seeking a close encounter with our ancestral past. The cash-strapped locals who stage such performances are, unfortunately, adjuncts to people who get paid much more to bring Westerners to them.

(...)

Our debates about human rights should focus on real issues: supporting the growth of democracy and the rule of law in Papua, building a strong education system that extends to the villages, and, not least, interrogating the exploitative relations between the West and the "primitive other" in the international tourist industry.

>> read the whole story in The Age

PS: Thanks to Peter Keough for alterting me to this article and sorry for not having posted more often recently

UPDATE (24.9.06): I've just found an Sydney Morning Herald article where Raffaele conceded he did not know Stasch's research, doesn't speak Indonesian or any Papuan language and had spent less than six weeks of his life in the restive province. And Wa-Wa is apparently not Korowai after all. Anthropologist Chris Ballard says, says that Raffaele, two television networks and millions of viewers were misled: The Korowai depend on the tourism trade and have learnt to say what rich foreigners want to hear. "Most of these groups have 10 years' experience in feeding this [cannibal] stuff to tourists," Ballard said.

MORE ABOUT THIS ISSUE:

Savage Minds: Breaking News: Intrepid Explorer’s First Contact with a Vanishing Race of Noble Savages

Australian networks clash over cannibal boy (afp, 15.9.06)

Spears fly over 'cannibal' expedition (The Age, 15.9.06)

Experts decry cannibalism claims (The Age, 15.9.06)

SEE ALSO:

Rubert Stasch: Giving up homicide: Korowai experience of witches and police (West Papua) (Oceania, Sep 2001)

"They still eat their fellow tribesmen"

Brief history of cannibal controversies

Our obsession with the notion of the primitive society

Ancient People: We are All Modern Now

On Savage Minds: Debate on the Construction of Indigenous Culture by Anthropologists

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