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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

What the world’s last happily isolated tribe can teach us about ignoring the rest of the globe

Not so long ago, I went to track down an old friend – a friend who lived in the forbidding Central Range of Papua New Guinea, tucked away in one of the most isolated settlements on the planet. A few from the community did venture out, it was said, but only rarely. No footpath led there, and no footpath led away.

Together with a handful of Papuan friends I set off up the mountain through a rugged treescape that was, thanks to its permanent cloud cover, less mapped than the Amazon. Through the mist we climbed, just as I had on my visit of almost thirty years before.  And as I slogged upslope, I became more and more determined to discover why this hamlet, just two hundred or so individuals collectively known as the Yaifo, had chosen to remain so isolated.

Finally, we arrived. There was consternation, suspicion – much worrying activity with bows and arrows – but soon this gave way to recognition and joy. I hugged my friend. ‘Benedik! Benedik!’ he kept repeating. In turn I repeated his name – ‘Korsai! Korsai!’ – and for a while just these two shared words seemed enough. A pig was killed, I passed around pictures I’d taken of us still in our prime, a generation ago.    

Later, Korsai and I had time to reflect properly on our lives – mine that of moderately typical Westerner, someone who was able, back home, to order a pizza or cab with a few taps on his phone. And his life, one restricted to the moss-laden trees.  Why then, had he stayed up here? What was to be gained from a – let’s face it – rather damp place that had a complete absence of modern healthcare. 

For, though there were people in the world as remote, the difference was that they – the last remaining bands of nomads in Brazil and the Sentinelese Islands – were scared, cornered, on the run. The Yaifo, on the other hand, could easily have headed off to Bisorio, the American mission station down in the lowlands, as all their neighbours had. Back in the 1980s the evangelists had certainly offered plenty of inducement, including free medicine, T-shirts and salvation. I put it to Korsai: ‘Didn’t you ever feel you were missing out?’

‘Not for long! Off our neighbours went, and we were left alone on the mountain. And we loved the missionaries – because they’d taken those neighbours away! We didn’t need to worry about being attacked anymore. Also, we didn’t have to get up in the night to attack them!’

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