The Sambia of Papua New GuineaThis is a featured page


The Sambia are located in Kratke Mountains bounded by the Lamari River, the alluvial Papuan lowlands and the adjacent river valleys of the Eastern Highland Province, Marawaka District. In 1989 the population of Sambia was estimated at 2,700 and the population density averages 1.5 persons per square kilometre though settlements are much higher. The villages (hamlets) range in size from approximately 40-250 persons and all villages distinct. There is much tension between some of the tribes and this leads to war. Sometimes it was even considered suicidal for tribes to pass through the territories of their neighbouring tribal areas. There is, however, much security to be found in one’s own hamlet; each nuclear family lives in a hut, though extended family members may at times sleep there. There are two other types of dwellings- menstrual hut built slightly below the village where menstrual events and women’s ceremonies are held and the other is the men’s club house where all males dwell after initiation [age 7-10] until after marriage [late teens to early 20s]-which reflects the gender dichotomy in the Sambia tribe. Military and secret male ritual activities occur in that clubhouse. The menstrual and men’s houses are taboo to the opposite gender. The Sambia tribe is not an egalitarian society.

“Women belong down below, men on top”

For Sambia men, the idea of masculinity is a state of being both chosen and necessary because Sambia belong to that group of warrior culture that stress ideas about strength. Jerungdu is a physical strength, the supreme essence of maleness in both personality and spirit. It provides men with the strength to do battle and to prove or reaffirm the fact of one’s masculine powers.

It is an outstanding problem, according to the Sambia, since it has to be achieved by external means since it is neither natural nor innate in a young boy. The Jerungdu is a bodily essence, a substance akin to life source and it is the semen [kweikoonbooku] that bestows this power. Therefore Jerungdu is thus a substance uniquely male produced and transmitted only by men. . The man believes his life force and existence hinge on possessing abundant Jerungdu.

The ideals of Jerungdu embody the essence of masculine state of being and serve as a guide for social behaviour and thus males must constantly strive to seem manly.
The male individual is thus motivated to dominate in warfare and in sexual intercourse. Sambia men rely upon their culture –values, symbols and myths other men accept- to justify their actions for the sake of their Jerungdu.

The male initiation rituals are thus seen as way of means for the young boys to attain Jerungdu from other warriors and this process shall be further explored.

the men of Sambia
Figure 1:
The Male Tribal leaders of the Sambia Tribe
photo credits:

Male initiation rituals of the Sambia tribe

Herdt describes the ceremony of ritualized “homosexuality” as the “penis and the flute” ceremony where bamboo flutes are played as a symbolic representation of the mechanics of the fellatio performed. The belief is held that the ingesting of semen of an older boy allows the younger pre-pubetal boys’s male genitals to grow into the size of the male whom he is fellating. This ritual is also seen as a way of ensuring the younger boy will be able to produce his own sperm in the future as sperms are viewed as sacred life-giving resource in the Sambian community(Jerungdu). Hence, this was seen as the necessary preparation a Sambian man had to take if he wanted to be able to impregnate his future wife.

Boys start to partake in this ritual from as young as 7 to 10 years old when they are separated from their mothers and the female community in order to be fully groomed and shaped into a man as a women was seen as a tainting influence on a boy who is on the road to achieving his “manliness”. When a boy reaches the age of 15, he becomes the “giver of semen” in the act whereby the younger boys perform fellatio on him. The age difference is important as it was deemed improper for boys of the same age to engage in fellatio. Friends were also not allowed to engage in this act together but it was seen as acceptable for enemies to do so. The interpersonal relationship and the dominance the insertor has over the one performing the fellation is seen as a pattern that continues into Sambian marriages where men exercise control over their wives.

After marriage, males must cease all “homosexual” behaviour and relationships. It would be deemed unclean for a married man to give his semen to a younger boy as the Sambian men believed that the wife’s reproductive organ infects the man’s genitals. Introducing “infected genitals” into the ritual is hence, seen ad polluting act and so Sambian men become exclusively heterosexual after their marriage. (Herdt: 1981: p. 252)

It is interesting to note that this cultural practice of secret initiation has been seen to have diminished across the 1980s. By the 1990 many Sambians no longer practiced the secret initiation rituals.
Sambia male initiation rites:nose-purge
Figure 2:
"Nose-purging" as a part of the male initiation rites
photo credits:

The Effects of the Rites on Gender

1. Gender Roles

Here in the Sambia society, we look at how initiation rites are influenced by gender stereotypes and at the same time how gender roles affect the rites in turn. From the rite discussed above, the gender dichotomy is clear. There is such low regard for women, that the males have to be separated from them physically so that their male “essence” will not become contaminated. It is interesting to note however, that guardian of the flute is in fact a female spirit.

2. Female Equivalence to Men

There is no equality between men and women though in recent times there have been more cases of “luv” marriages between men and women in the tribes and in general these marriages seem to have less difference between the man and the woman. However in general, there is a very large disparity of power between man and woman. This can be attributed to “Great man” complex in New Guinea which still underlies much of the Sambia masculinity and society.Masculine prestige came from one’s reputation as a warrior and the men have been conditioned since they were young boys to Men compete with one another and to establish their reputations as able marksmen, hunters and war leaders [aamooluku].

Both men and women have sharply defined places in behavioural environment. However, there is an exception; female shamans have power and respect of the tribe. This is evident during the rites in which they are allowed to take part.

3. Gendered Beliefs and Laws

The women are seen as sources for the contamination of the male essence and they are shunned by male initiates in the tribe. This disparity between the genders can be observed via the living arrangements as well as their work distributions. The living arrangements in the hamlets reflected gender differences; women have to walk lower than men and they are not allowed to walk above the club house which could contaminate the initiates, war weapons and ritual paraphernalia. The men rationalises such living arrangement by downgrading women because of their polluting vaginas. The zones of female movement are polluted according to male dogma and since no area is immune to contamination, everyone is restricted by taboos.

A Valuable Lesson Learned

We deem these forms of male initiation rites as seemingly strange or disgusting as we view them as ritualized “homosexuality” in the community when to a Sambian person; these acts are not viewed as unnatural or as going against any social norm. They deem what we see as “homosexual acts” as a necessary part of the route to manhood, it is simply a practiced ritual in the community. It is not regarded as straying from the societal norm of what a person’s sexuality should or should not be like.

The practice of such a rite shows how male and female separation in the community is bred generation after generation, which is hence seen to influence the social standing and treatment of each gender. The symbolic meaning behind the rite in terms of the suffering a man has to undergo to attain his “masculine” identity makes Sambian men see women as inferior beings. Therefore, even though this ritual is seen to take place only in the male sphere of the community, it still has dire effects on the people of Sambia as a whole.

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