Karapao Ceremony, the Symbol of Communal Spirit among Kamoro People

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 The name “Kamoro” may not be as popular as Asmat or Dani, the more popular ethnic groups that live in West Papua. However, Kamoro people have a unique culture that is not eroded by modernity. Despite the coming of formal educations, infrastructures, and other modern aspects of life, Kamoro people still proudly keep their communal tradition.

Karapao ceremony is probably one of the most colorful Kamoro traditions. A form of initiation ceremony, karapao has been back into popularity among the Kamoro people for 20 years, after being obscured for long. Here are interesting details about this ceremony, and how important it is in keeping the spirit of community.

The Origins of Karapao Ceremony

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“Kamoro” is a name for several ethnic and linguistic groups that mostly live in the coastal areas of Mimika. The name originated from the Dutch colonial era, and the populations are now scattered in about 40 villages. Today, the Kamoros live peacefully in these villages, and many of them work, shop, or conduct various activities in Timika, the capital of Mimika, along with other ethnic groups and migrants. However, they don’t always live in peace.

Kamoro people used to get involved in neighboring villages, or had disputes between themselves. Years after West Papua went back into stability after the 1969 referendum, local governments and village elders tried to foster peace among the people. Karapao, a form of initiation ceremony performed for boys, became one of the traditions revived to unite people.

Between 1996 and 1997, karapao started to become routine events. People from all Kamoro villages gathered to prepare and celebrate it. The most common locations to celebrate it are Atuka, Timika Pantai (Coastal Timika), Hiripau, and Keakwa. However, there were times when the ceremony was held in other villages in the west. The long preparation and spectacles encourage villagers to gather and work together.

Preparations of Karapao Ceremony

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Karapao is a ceremony to mark the beginning of adulthood, and are mostly held for boys. There is no exact age ranges for the boys to enter this initiation ceremony. The average ages to be eligible for the ceremony are 10 years old. However, a 7-year old or 11-year old may join, depending on the judgments of the boy’s family members and surrounding communities.

Villagers may start gathering six months before the ceremony to prepare for karapao. The most important features include the making of giant mbitoros, large decorative poles that shaped like a giant oar, with curved paddles. These poles will be supported by the villagers, and then erected at the first stage of the ceremony.

When the ceremony day approaches, men will gather to construct a karapao building. This temporary structure is used to house boys during the initiation ceremony. Depending on the numbers of participants, the building can reach 30 meters in length. Artists will also create tauri apoka, a type of genital covering made of sago plants.

Details of Karapao Ceremony

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Shortly before the ceremony, men and women from the villages will gather sago, hunt, catch fish, and practice for song and dance performances. They bring the boys that will go through the initiation ceremony to the karapao building, and the male relatives or chaperones prepare them. This is where Kamoro people get creative; they will combine traditional body paints from natural pigments with decorative accessories, such as colorful sarongs, sandals, caps, hats, and even sunglasses.

The first stage of the ceremony starts in the early morning, with villagers hoisting heavy mbitoro poles high in the air, and several young men riding on them. They carry the poles to the ceremony venue, accompanied by the beating of drums and dancing women. Important members of village communities, and even local officials, will deliver short speeches.

The initiated boys must undergo several ritualistic steps to finish the ceremony. In the past, it involved painful nose piercing using large sticks, but it was later stopped due to the health risk. Now, the steps involve cracking snail shells on the shoulders of the boys, throwing white lime powder, standing on sago barks, and removing their initiation garbs to mark the entry into adulthood.

Meaning of Karapao Ceremony for the Kamoros

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Rituals and ceremonies have long become tools to create unity and communal sense among tribes, especially those that had been warring for centuries. Karapao is a ceremony that brings people from dozens of villages together, and it is a cultural tool that works well in bringing Kamoro people together. Local officials and respected elders also use the ceremony to remind people about the importance of communal bonds.

Karapao is also a venue for villagers to connect through marriages. During the ceremony, many parents or chaperones will talk about the arranged courtship between girls and boys that have reached certain ages. Often, the courtships happen between two youths from different villages, bringing two different families together in matrimonial unity.

The Kamoros are people that do not abandon tradition, even after modernity entered their communities. Traditions and cultures of West Papua are effective tools to create a sense of unity.