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This project is a documentary and book about the Sawiyano who live the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.
This project is a documentary and book about the Sawiyano who live the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.
56 backers pledged $5,616 to help bring this project to life.

Editing has begun!

Hello Tumbuna project supporters! This is my first project update since being back in States and I've finally had time to review some of the photos and video. My friend Brian Nigus and I got to the Sawiyano area safely after spending a couple weeks on the coast in Wewak awaiting our ride to the bush. Only one pilot was willing to take us into the area due to the unknown and unreliable condition of the airstrip so we had til he was available. After acclimating to the heat and humidity – we were rested and ready to go deeper into the bush where there is no electricity or cell phone service. Brian quickly absorbed the Trade language of Tok Pisin so he was able to communicate. Thankfully, Tok Pisin is forever in my blood and my Sawiyano skills quickly returned. I brought a satellite phone for an emergency, but a plane was a few hours away (and only in daylight) so thankfully – we never needed to use it. 

The flight from Wewak to Ama is about 1.5 hours. There are more roads trailing in the rainforest than my last visit 12 years ago. But after about 45 minutes they disappeared and only the Sepik river was snaking below the Cessna. When we arrived in the area, the pilot flew a feet above the airstrip to make sure it was safe to land. My heart skipped when we pulled up and away. We had been warned that if he couldn’t land, he would fly to the nearest airstrip and we would have to hike for a couple days. Thankfully, he flew in a wide circle and descended again to the small strip of light green grass in the midst of the dark green jungle. 

Then I was home. My friends were waiting. Their kids stood next to them as we slowed to a stop where they had gathered at the side of the airstrip. A Sawiyano from a nearby village had just returned from the coast and had found out when we were planning to visit, so they had a couple days warning and many had worked hard to cut the long grass and plants that had been growing on the often neglected airstrip. The Wabualu village had actually moved its location. When I was young, it was near the Sai creek. It was near another creek during my last visit. Now it was situated along Wope creek. The families all had gardens in the area, past generations also planted their crops in the area. And the nearby swamps are also ancestral “gardens” where their main food source of sago is harvested almost daily. So in the last 40 years, they have migrated a distance of about a 20 minutes walk. 

We hiked about 1.5 hours to the newest Wabualu village that was to be home again for the next 37 days. I gave a couple cameras to my friends and after a couple short tutorials they were excited to start filming as this was their first time with cameras. The cameras I brought were waterproof, shatter-proof, and could withstand significant drops. The final documentary, Tumbuna, will be about 75% footage that the Sawiyano took supplemented with some of my footage. Lots of visitors from nearby villages came by to say hello and to pass on greetings to my family. I brought photos of my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews to share. 

I brought in basic medical supplies so I spent a couple hours most days tending to wounds and sores. This was nothing new to me as it is how I spent time in the mornings when I was a kid, cleaning sores and wrapping bandages. Tuberculosis has always been a big problem in the area but there is a new variation that has taken 20 young people, mostly young women, in the last 2 years. It has the tribe worried as there are only about 600 Sawiyano and when the young women are dying – fewer children will be born. My friend Vanimo died within a few days of my arrival, of TB. I visited her a short time and she couldn’t speak because she could barely breathe. Her mother is now looking after her young daughter. On my flight out of the area, I took out 2 sick kids with TB and a caretaker for them. I was informed they recently headed back to the tribe via boat after they finished their medications. Many more need heavy doses of medications but the political situation with the hospitals is dismal at best. I spoke with officials at the nearest main hospital and they lamented the issue but offered not solution. 

Though there were sad times, there were also times of fun and celebration. I was happy to be back in the jungle. My friend Boram had her 6th baby a week after we arrived, a boy, he was named Brian. Some children were a little afraid to be around me and Brian, as many hadn’t seen white skin yet. But soon they were chatting away and I tried to keep up with speed of the Sawiyano tongue. They brought hundreds of insects for us to photograph. At times they just played with the bugs, sometimes they threw them in the fire and ate a quick snack. Sometimes I drew the critters they brought and they kids loved watching the process of drawing. They also loved to draw. I had brought paper, pens and colored pencils and the kids and adults spend hours drawing. I have over a hundred drawings from the Sawiyano and will likely publish a book of them next year to raise funds for educational materials and medical supplies. 

Brian ate rat, bandicoot, wild boar and frogs for the first time. I ate them again. Mostly we ate food from the gardens; pumpkin, greens, taro, sweet potato, sugar cane, papaya and lots of plantains and bananas. We traded salt, matches, clothing and other personal items for food and crafts. Sleep was sometimes difficult between crying kids and rats fighting for food scraps in the house at night. A small solar panel kept everything charged most of the time. There were a few days of extra heavy rain and fog where the sun just wasn’t strong enough. But I had brought plenty of extra batteries we always had cameras ready to go.

I left a camera, memory cards, batteries and the solar panel with the Sawiyano. I hope someone will somehow get more footage to me soon. But I’m not waiting for it for the film. I have gone through about 1/2 of the footage I brought back and have begun cataloging and categorizing. I’m starting to form the plan on how to edit this film. Soon I will send an update with a link to images for those of you who donated and want a print. In the meantime, I have uploaded a short compilation of clips shot by the Mera brothers. For more info on the Tumbuna film, please visit Thanks for watching, Betni Kalk.


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    1. Matthew Barnes on

      Girl! These are amazing bits of footage! :) I am looking forward to the finished product. So glad you got to go home for a little while.