logo Village Heartbeat

John and Joy Cutts - Village Heartbeat

Growing Up Moni

by John Cutts, founder of Village Heartbeat

A Childhood in the Highlands

Top: John Cutts as a child in the highlands, with his friends, Alice and Abe, two orphans adopted by Bill and Gracie Cutts.
                      Bottom: John Cutts today, chatting with some of his friends in the Moni lands east of Enarotali.

The 25,000 Moni live in the highlands east of the Paniai Lakes and Enarotali, which was the first Dutch post in the central highlands. Despite this proximity and that the Moni are one of the highlands' largest groups, little has been written about them. Unlike the Ekari around the Paniai Lakes, the Moni have proudly resisted assimilation. Western encounters with the group seem always to produce strong reactions: "sarcastic," "a tribe of all chiefs and no Indians," and even "treacherous," are often heard. Other observers find much to admire: "they have such gentle features," and "they have inherited all the good points of the tribes around them and blended them into one." Having grown up with the Moni, I can only say that none of these is accurate. Or perhaps, they all are. First contacts The first documented meeting between a European and the Moni took place in 1937, when Dr. J. W. Cator, the Assistant Resident at Fakfak, flew from the coast to Lake Paniai and trekked to the village of Kugapa. In 1939, Controleur Dr. Jean Victor de Bruijn mounted an expedition to Kugapa and continued on into the heart of Moni country to the village of Sanepa in the Kemandoga Valley. His first impressions were condescending (in the habit of the time), but positive: "The Miganis [Monis] are a superior race and are very conscious of being so. Not only are they superior in warfare, but ordinarily conduct themselves with better manners and greater dignity. They are a proud people, more reserved, and unlike the Ekaris, will never ask or beg." De Bruijn spent the better part of five years learning about the Moni and living in their villages while supplying information to the Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service on Japanese troop movements in west New Guinea. To this day legends abound among the Moni about "Kontolull" (Controleur), whose men floated to the ground on "clouds" and shot their enemies with "rain fire" arrows. (Presumably tracer bullets.) After the war ended, several missionary families landed on Lake Paniai in amphibious aircraft and began the treacherous walk into the highlands east of Enarotali. One of these pioneer couples was Bill Cutts and his wife Grace. They had heard of the Moni tribe and were prepared to face bone-wearying elements and unpredictable encounters in order to win a place in the hearts of the Moni. Days blurred into weeks, and weeks into months as they grappled with Moni idiom and syntax, the Moni's fear and suspicion of the "bleached white spirits," and the logistical nightmare of establishing a base a day's walk from the end of the earth.

The little white spirit

Into this already complicated situation came the "little white spirit," later to be named Zani Mala by the Moni. This was their best effort at saying "Johnny," which is difficult when your language has no "J" sound. The name has stuck to this day. While the missionary couple struggled eight hours a day trying to comprehend this unwritten language, Zani Mala was being tutored by villagers, who were themselves quite curious about the strange people who blew their noses into a piece of cloth and saved it, and performed many other abnormal rituals. The elder Cuttses began to find out that the shifting and decentralized Moni social structure made their work of proselytizing more difficult. The younger Cutts, however, was found to be very impressionable and overly talkative, thus challenging these Moni to expose Zani Mala to their customs and traditions. It might even be possible to transform this outsider into a no-nonsense Moni chief. The scene was set for major conflict between the elder Cuttses, who felt it was their duty to "civilize" Johnny during the few remaining hours left after a grueling day conjugating Moni verbs, and the Moni, who monopolized Zani Mala from dawn till dusk.

No easy task

I found out that being a Moni son was no easy task. The "how to make" category was endless, and included bows, arrows, various traps, bird blinds, huts, fences, bark string, nets, woven bracelets, and fire starting sticks. Bows could only be made from four types of trees, which I had to learn to identify. Mineral springs attracted birds, and I had to learn to find these. I had to learn to see the evidence of faint animal trails, so I would know where to set traps. There is also no place for a Moni with a weak stomach. The Moni's "what you can eat" list would make the average person break into a cold sweat: certain species of spiders, several types of beetles, a type of wild cockroach, praying mantis egg cases, and many types of worms and grubs. A special treat were colonies of zigi worms, an indigenous species of silk worm. Certain trees would become infested with the caterpillars, which would strip off all the leaves and spin a large silk nest. Discovering one of these moving, pulsating colonies in a bare tree not only assured us of a feast for all, but the silk shroud made a fine head ornament. Stacking branches at the base of the silk tree was the Moni way of saying "Mbai Maia" (No Trespassing). Thus the worms could be allowed to mature, and still be harvested by the one who first discovered them. The horrified looks on the faces of Mom and Dad when witnessing a worm feast brought squeals of delight from the Moni, who loved shocking these finicky eaters. Not wanting to be outdone by my mentors, I too introduced a new type of shock treatment. An electric fence had been installed to keep pigs off the grass runway. I would hold onto the fence (wearing rubber boots) and beckon some poor, unsuspecting man just back from the forest to come greet me. Imagine his total bewilderment when his body began to tingle unexplainably from top to toenail. To add insult to injury, the whole village was spread out on the grass in fits of uncontrollable laughter.

Natural resources

We youngsters were also kept busy learning the identifying features and uses of various plants and other natural products. The leaves of the zumba tree produced suds when pounded with water, and served as a kind of soap, even removing grease. The bark from the domo and migi trees made the best roofs for huts, while that of the zembelo and butala were more suited to making carrying nets, skirts and string. The fibrous core of the dago togo tree was perfect for soaking up the brine in the famous Moni salt wells. Mese, a plant with an abrasive leaf, is the medicine of choice for aches, pains, and general external discomfort. The leaf is rubbed on the aching spot and welts appear immediately. The Moni are well tuned to the resources of their Land, and the list of useful plants is endless. I found this information fascinating. After daily classes and field trips of this kind, it is no wonder that boarding school at age six seemed like prison camp.

Leadership and cowrie shells

The term sonowi in Moni means chief, and growing up among these people meant daily reinforcement of the absolute necessity of becoming a chief, and outlining of the steps that could bring about this coveted status. Chief Isasabo, in particular, went out of his way to include me in his muna dia sessions (a kind of negotiation that precedes a business deal) so I could learn about money, which among the Moni was based on pigs and cowrie shells. One cannot barter or trade successfully without understanding the six grades of cowrie shells and their worth. Cowrie shells take years to travel from the coastal areas where they are collected to the highlands, passing through many hands en route. The Moni are well-known for their skill with cowrie shells. According to the Moni legend, they and their neighbors all came out of an area near the Wose caves called Mbubumbaba. The Moni were given the job of naming all the shells and setting up a monetary system. The Dani were given special skills in breeding pigs and were given the ability to work tirelessly, but no talent in dealing cowrie shells. The value of the shells varies widely: sae, about 5O cents; munga, from $10 to $20; kubawi, from $40 to $75; indo lagupa, from $50 to $100; hondo, from $200 to $1,500; and indo, from $250 to $2,500. Within each grade, value is determined by color, the number of bumps, and the style in which the back was cut off. Shells of the top three grades are all given names, and accompanied by a detailed history of every transaction in which they were involved. Over time, this history also adds value to the shell. Sitting around the fire of a men's hut, I was offered a key strategy to becoming a successful chief. "A real chief will build his hut on a major crossroads. He will thus have many visitors, who will be indebted to him for his hospitality. Weary travelers will spread his fame by word of mouth." A boy wanting to become a chief could begin with clearing a patch of jungle and planting sweet potatoes. The sale of this crop, together with the sale of bows and arrows he made or salt he collected, could yield enough shells to buy a baby female pig. Fattening the pig will result in more pigs to be raised and sold. Eventually, with the help of family members, he may accumulate enough pigs and shells to buy a wife. A wife doubles his capabilities, and a second or third wife boosts his potential further. Of course, like anywhere else, there are sometimes confidence artists. Chiefs serve as the "banks" in Moni culture, so individuals with shells or pigs that they don't have an immediate use for will "invest" them with a chief they trust. Because of his position, he will have many more opportunities to trade, and will be able to do so more successfully. The end result should benefit both him and his "investors."

Wealth and politics

However, a fast-talking con artist can hoodwink investors into believing he has enough personal wealth to repay their investment, when in reality he has borrowed from hundreds of people and only shuffled their pigs and shells around (much like a U.S. bank, in fact). If too many debts come due at the same time, the whole pyramid collapses. A famous chief, Wanda Wome, died with thirty borrowed high-grade indo shells lent out to clans scattered around his village. A war nearly broke out when it was discovered he had no wealth of his own to cover these debts. A genuine chief with real assets is called a mbusu-maga nanga-baga; a light-weight chief is said to be a mbogo. Hoarding is not the answer, however. A fine line needs to be walked. The more generous a chief is with lending, the larger the group of loyal followers he has, and thus the more political clout he can wield. This very importance form of social cohesion has been threatened with the arrival of outside sources of money. The importance of lending and not hoarding money was brought home to me recently. A group of prominent Moni leaders gathered in the yard, and spoke to me. "You're a chief today because we raised you with Moni insight and wisdom. You are young, and still learning how to tell good shells from bad, evaluate people as honest or not, and talk chief's talk and ideas convincingly. You're a chief, but you don't divide your wealth properly. You have much to learn still." My attempts at community development by advancing their cause by helping them help themselves was only seen by these villagers as selfishness and a desire to hoard wealth I obviously had. The industrial capabilities of the Moni have never been developed. Always during my time with them they wanted explanations: How do planes fly? Where do steel axes come from? How are clothes found? Never having seen these items made, of course, they are very susceptible to a kind of cargo cult thinking.

Development and discontent

Unus, a close friend for 15 years, turned to me one day and asked: "Where did you find that shirt?" I replied that I bought it in a store. At this point he lowered his voice. "Listen. Have we not been friends for years? Please tell me where is the hole in the ground that yields all these treasures. I promise I won't tell another soul." Recently, a group of Moni men approached me and said they believed I returned to the Monis and the place of my childhood because I knew there was a mountain of hidden treasure here. A breathless team of men had arrived to report that 50 people had died in the past several months in an area just a day's walk away. They had also found a rusty machete along a river bank. Could it be that the fumes from an underground factory, pushing to the surface, had killed these people? The real question coming from the Moni is: How can we improve the condition we are in? Which leads to: Why do you have all you need and we don't? And finally, the question that hurts the most: Are you somehow keeping this cargo from us, its rightful owners? These questions are difficult and persistent, and I struggle with them to this day. My involvement in a full-scale community development effort with Village Heartbeat which is strengthening church and village leaders to address their basic needs, encourages me to believe they will find answers to these questions. Helping them discover their capabilities and then providing avenues through which they can express these skills in a changing world can replace vain hopes with tangible results that can be understood. Recently, on the way to a "killing of a white pig" ceremony I asked my Moni companions: "Do you feel the coming of the missionaries and other outside influences have hurt you as a tribe?" The question was answered very explicitly. "If the missionaries had not come, today we would be killing one of our own warriors to even the score of battle and bring peace. Instead, we will give 63 pigs in exchange for his life. We are glad your parents came and taught us about God and loving others. It is good not to live in constant fear." I must add that I too am glad. It was a privilege to be raised in the midst of such beautiful people. And with that privilege comes an awesome responsibility.