Children gather to watch as Shahar Bitton of MyHeritage works with a member of their tribe on a computer. Children gather to watch as Shahar Bitton of MyHeritage works with a member of their tribe on a computer. Children gather to watch as Shahar Bitton of MyHeritage works with a member of their tribe on a computer. (Photo: MyHeritage)

Remote tribes in Papua New Guinea take their first family photos

Thanks to a genealogy website, tribal leaders record their family histories for future generations.

To say that technology has come late to the people of Papua New Guinea is an understatement. The South Pacific island just off the northern tip of Queensland, Australia, remained largely unexplored by Europeans until 1930, and even today there are still remote communities who have never seen a white-skinned person.

However, the advent of mobile technology means that times are changing in Papua New Guinea – and fast. There are more than 800 distinct languages in Papua, but the younger generations are largely learning English in school, which means that in many cases, when tribal elders pass away, they take their language and their stories with them.

Enter MyHeritage, a genealogy website with 200 employees headquartered in Israel. MyHeritage recently completed a three-week campaign to interview and catalog as many families and family stories as they could in Papua New Guinea. “It’s a very versatile place in terms of culture and people,” Ohad Nitzan, one of the Israeli developers and analysts at MyHeritage, told From the Grapevine. “We very passionately believe that this is a time to intervene to capture these moments, stories and history for future generations.”

The trip was part of MyHeritage’s new Tribal Quest initiative. The goal of the pro bono project is to record the family histories of communities around the world that lack access to modern technology. MyHeritage first launched Tribal Quest with a trip to Namibia to document the Himba people.

“Across a wide range of diverse cultures and traditions, we all have family in common; we all learn from and honor our ancestors," said Golan Levi, a user experience expert at MyHeritage and founder of the Tribal Quest project. “This project aims to allow people around the world – no matter where or how they live – to save their ancestors’ legacies forever, for the benefit of their descendants, and our descendants."

Nitzan, Levi and Tribal Quest team members Tal Pelli, Shahar Bitton and Tamar Friedland traveled to Papua New Guinea – a five-flight, 40-hour journey from their headquarters in Israel – carrying computers, Polaroid cameras and video cameras. They were accompanied by tour guide Raz Cherbelis, who has been traveling back and forth between Israel and Papua New Guinea for the better part of three decades.

For the first time ever, all of the elders of the Owolka tribe gathered together to speak with MyHeritage volunteers in the village of Konum in the Waghi Valley.For the first time ever, all of the elders of the Owolka tribe gathered together to speak with MyHeritage volunteers in the village of Konum in the Waghi Valley. (Photo: MyHeritage)

While the capital of Port Moresby and a few other small but established urban areas have modern buildings and amenities, the Tribal Quest team sought out Papua’s most remote communities.

“The first tribe we visited was the Karim tribe in the Yimas village, which is located in the East Sepik province," Nitzan told us. "We also visited the Owolka tribe in the Konum village in the Jiwaka province. In both of these places, there’s no electricity, there’s no running water. We showered in the river. These places are extremely isolated."

Indeed, for the people of the Yimas village, the nearest city is a day’s journey away by canoe – the most common form of transportation.

The effort to record each family’s stories, understand the family connections and birth dates to build a family tree and photograph individual family members took a long while. At the end of each session, Nitzan says they would gather the whole family together to take what was most likely their first family photo.

A Papua New Guinea tribal family sits for their first family photograph.A Papua New Guinea tribal family sits for their first family photograph. (Photo: MyHeritage)

MyHeritage team members lived alongside their hosts, sleeping in the same rudimentary structures that they sleep in and eating the same food they ate. Nitzan says their hosts adopted them as members of their own family.

“The people were so warm," he said during our interview. "We got to the villages and every single person smiled and waved to us. We traveled by foot and everyone came to shake our hands. We found people who live in the basic condition, but they are not basic at all. You can see their complexity and their warmth.”

All in all, the Tribal Quest team met with some 40 families from five different tribes in Papua New Guinea, cataloging the stories of more than 4,300 people. Once all the data collected is processed and organized, each family will receive a complete family tree with dates and photographs.

While most of the people documented will never see their online profile, MyHeritage says these families’ descendants most likely will have access to computers and will be able to log on to the site and learn about the traditions and customs of their ancestors.

MyHeritage's Tribal Quest project aims to record the ancient traditions of tribes like this one.MyHeritage's Tribal Quest project aims to record the ancient traditions of tribes like this one. (Photo: MyHeritage)

A secondary goal of the project is to inspire native peoples to continue the documentation work. Nitzan says in one village they met a man who had notebooks full of the stories of his tribe. MyHeritage hopes to be able to send tools to help this man and others like him to continue their work.

"In our three weeks in Papua New Guinea, we managed to visit and document the family history of five different tribes," Nitzan explained. "We know this is only a small segment of Papua New Guinea’s 800 tribes, but our bigger goal is to set an example and inspire people to continue what we started."

Between Papua New Guinea and Namibia, the Tribal Quest project has documented almost 7,000 people so far. MyHeritage says the project has been extremely successful, and is currently planning a third trip, although they have not yet revealed the location.

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