Experience 37: Grow your own wig with the Huli tribesmen of Tari

by Christa Larwood
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Five Huli tribesmen greeted us in a muddy, green-fringed clearing deep in Papua New Guinea’s mountainous Tari region. With lean brown frames partly covered in brightly coloured, feather-strewn skirts and elaborate shell-and-tooth necklets, they appeared as if from a bygone era when this region was a furnace of tribal tensions and headhunting a way of life. The men looked rather like they were ready for war. One had a six-inch, needle-thin spike through his nose, lending him a fierce severity only partially softened by his broad grin. 

Their most remarkable feature, however, sat atop their heads: great, blooming crops of springy, ginger-flecked dark hair crowned each like mushroom tops.

These were the Wigmen of Tari, whose job is to grow their hair into perfectly domed styles so that when they have achieved suitably impressive proportions, it can be carefully cut off and worn as a ceremonial wig by themselves or another lucky tribesman. This is part of a tradition stretching back countless generations and requires supreme dedication.

According to Mr Nabeda, the group’s teacher and spokesperson (who was, incidentally, sporting a moustache dyed a festive bright yellow) the men live a lifestyle carefully tailored to maximise the growth rate and quality of their hair. This means no sex – fraternisation with Huli ladies is strictly forbidden – as well as a special diet and a regime of rubbing the hair with oils and potions too secret to be revealed to the likes of us.

Down on a grassy riverbank, Mr Nabeda dipped a large gourd into the rushing water and began a vital part of the daily haircare process: the incantation. He whispered over the container, his eyes closed and sacred words drowned out by the river. He then passed the gourd to the Wigmen, who each took a large swig and in unison, with a spectacular abruptness that had us stepping swiftly backward, they spat the water straight up into the air, allowing the mist to land on their hair, forming a frosting of glistening droplets.

These mystic treatments certainly seemed to result in extraordinarily fast-growing hair. One man named Orolu, with a barnet so large it effectively doubled as a wide-brimmed sun hat, told us with great pride that it took him only 18 months to grow. And the Wigmen did seem remarkably happy and relaxed – though this was possibly also due to inhaling copious amounts of their ‘local tobacco’ (which despite its scent and appearance – we were gravely informed – was definitely not marijuana).

Before I got any ideas about quitting my job and starting anew as a professional hair-grower, however, Mr Nabeda informed me that this is strictly men’s business and not for ladies to attempt. But to my great satisfaction, he did lift a lock of my hair with an outstretched finger and, with a practised eye, declared that my hair would probably make a very good wig.

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