Dec 07, 2023 Last Updated 1:42 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Faith, flags and festivities

Faith, flags and festivities

Jenny Munro

Young people from Wamena, the urban centre of the Papuan highlands, frequently find themselves having to sort out how to fit their traditions and aspirations into circumstances that emphasise modernisation and Indonesian nationalism. As there is no road transport to the highlands, it is often assumed that the area and the main indigenous group, the Dani, are isolated from ‘modern’ influences, or are even ‘timeless’. Highlanders feel, on the contrary, that their lives have changed significantly in the last 30 years. Older people see and feel the changes, but young people are more often actively in the middle of things. For example, today’s youth have been to school, and are fluent in the Indonesian language. As a result, they are more expected to portray their support for national Indonesian values, and yet also have more opportunities to pursue their own agendas. Some desire new experiences outside Papua. During 2005-2006 I spent 16 months with young people from Wamena while they were attending universities in North Sulawesi and also while some of them returned home to visit their families. In this photo essay I include some of the more memorable images of this time. Christian faith and Papuan nationalism give Wamena’s youth a strong sense of who they are, while cooking, eating, and celebrating with friends and family helps them manage the complexities of being Papuan highlanders in Indonesia.

01 - Students celebrate the end of examinations in North Sulawesi with a bakar batu (pig feast) in an isolated part of the National University of Manado (Unima) campus. In North Sulawesi there are several thousand Papuan students, approximately 500 of whom are from the Wamena area. Although it may seem unusual to be preparing hot rocks and banana leaves to steam pork, cassava, and vegetables on campus, Wamena students always celebrate their accomplishments this way, and have been doing so in particular spots on campus since the mid-1990s.


02 - Female students and older married women prepare cassava for a graduation feast in North Sulawesi. Although there are not many female students, the gardens they tend in addition to regular campus activities make celebratory feasts possible. Students tend to study economics, administration and engineering, and after graduation they return to Papua to seek employment in the public service.


 03 - These images of the Papuan independence flag, the Bintang Kejora, and Jesus, are decorations on a young man’s bedroom door in the Wamena dormitory on the Unima campus. Faith and Papuan nationalism are critical to youth culture, and much of their off-campus time is spent in student organisations that incorporate both Christian activities and discussions about politics. Highlanders strongly support Papuan independence, and Wamena has been the site of several major incidents in which indigenous people have been arrested or killed while participating in raising the flag. Students are active in independence politics and see themselves using their education to push for equality and self-determination.


04 - A young man from the Puncak Jaya region near Wamena is baptised in North Sulawesi. North Sulawesi is dominated by evangelical Protestant Christians. Many Papuans, who are also predominantly Christian, get involved in churches where they mix with local people and with student migrants from other regions. At home in Wamena, ethnic tensions keep young people largely separated from non-Papuans, thus these relationships are important new experiences. Still, even though they may bond over Christianity, students still experience racist stereotypes in North Sulawesi.


05 - Every year young people in Wamena dress up for karnaval. The parade, put on by school children, is held in August as part of Independence Day celebrations. Depending on what their school decides to showcase, they may dress up in ‘traditional’ costumes or as future teachers, priests, nuns, soldiers, doctors and sports heroes. This is one way that youth are involved in promoting Indonesian nationalism in Wamena.


06 – During karnaval youth carry signs with messages representing important national agendas, such as ‘bhinneka tunggal ika' (unity in diversity). The city of Wamena is home to equal numbers of indigenous people and non-Papuan settlers from diverse backgrounds. Non-Papuans overwhelmingly hold positions of economic, social, and military power, and thus indigenous people may associate even seemingly ‘average’ settlers with injustice, violence and the Indonesian state.


07 - Young Dani women dress in noken (netbags) for karnaval. Noken are woven bags women wear over their heads to carry things; they are also important as gifts. They are not traditionally worn as clothing.



08 - A young bride eats pork at her wedding in Pugima, a village near Wamena. Even though young women may attend school in the city or further afield, they may also marry at a young age and start a family.


09 - High school students in uniform line the streets in anticipation of President Yudhoyono’s visit to Wamena in July 2006. It was the first time any president of Indonesia had visited the highlands. Students featured prominently in the celebrations, but the streets were blocked to other locals who wore traditional dress to welcome the president.



10 - Students prepare Wamena’s famous buah merah (‘red fruit’) brought back to North Sulawesi by friends visiting home. The red fruit is reputed to have curative powers, and students sometimes distill it and sell it for extra cash. This is another way that students bring ‘Wamena’ with them into their new circumstances.


11 – Fans celebrate a match by Wamena’s soccer team, Persiwa, in North Sulawesi. Students love to spend time playing soccer themselves, and are proud of their team, partly because it often wins matches against teams from wealthier and more developed regions.     ii

Jenny Munro ( is writing a PhD thesis on highlanders' experiences of discrimination in North Sulawesi. She is based in the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 94: Oct-Dec 2008

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