The Sambia Tribe
Gilbert H. Herdt, an anthropologist and professor at San Francisco State, studied in Papua, New Guinea doing field work for approximately two and a half years. During his time, he studied and explored the Sambia (pseudonym), a tribe located in the Eastern Highlands. The Sambia people are known to be mountain, horticultural people surrounded by rivers and valleys, where the men spend their time hunting. Men also garden, as do the women. The tribe is approximately 2,000 people living in small housing settlements. The family dynamics are patrilineal and the Sambian’s marital practices are initiated through infant betrothal or sister exchange. Herdt’s purpose and focus while in Papua, New Guinea was to study the relationship between culture and society and how sexual meanings are created within various contexts.
Women & Childbearing
Women play an interesting role among the Sambia Tribe. As mentioned earlier, their marriage can be arranged through betrothal or a reciprocal sister exchange. They are obviously the ones who carry and birth offspring and they are typically the ones that care for the children after birth. So what’s different about these women? Women of the Sambia are seen as contaminated and polluted (pulungatnyi). Due to this belief, men keep their physical distance away from women, posing concerns of trust. This poses another glitch in martial situations, considering the evident misogynistic practices and physical distancing between man and wife, generally leaving women in isolation. Due to this isolation, women seek attention and fulfillment of sexual desires from younger boys, but as you will learn from the initiation process, the boys are educated about the contamination of women and therefore, do not engage in sexual encounters with older women. Because women are seen as contaminated, the entire childbearing process is seen as pollution, and the child, therefore, is contaminated and polluted as well. After birth, children are cared for and spend the most time with their mothers. Separation from their mothers comes in two different forms for boys and girls. Girls live with their parents up until marriage, typically around age 15-17, when they then either move in with their husbands or with their parents in law. Boys, however, are separated from their mothers at first-stage initiation, typically around age 7-10.
Boys and Men
Grounded on the belief that women are contaminated and polluted, this puts boys at risk of contamination and of obtaining feminine qualities. The Sambia is built around masculinity and there are rules on the separation of sexes (i.e. women and men walk on different paths). To assure that boys fulfill the masculine identity, boys are separated from their mothers and any other females around age 7. This begins the first-stage initiation and boys are forbidden of any contact with women or females. Yes, this means no looking at, eating with, speaking with, and touching of any women – what is life without women? The boys are moved into hamlets that contain only men; men that are unmarried, not contaminated, and highly masculine. Think of these hamlets as a bachelor pad. While femaleness is expressed through natural development, specifically through menstrual and vaginal fluids (chenchi), maleness is expressed through personal achievement, obtained through the initiation process. The initiation process is theorized by masculinization and the idea that boys are to transform and be reborn as tough, warrior men.
Six Stages of Initiation
The boys are removed from their mothers and all other female contact and taken to a highly masculine, female free-zone, hamlet environment. One of the first things the older boys and men do to the newcomers is something called bloodletting. They find a sharp stick of cane and stick it up the boys’ noses, piercing the inside until blood is pouring out. Mind you, these boys are around 7 years old. This process of nose bleeding (chemboo-loruptu), is to release the contaminants that the boys have inhaled in the time that they have spent around their mothers. Their noses, wide open, are seen to be highly susceptible to the pollution that women release with every breath and word they speak. Following the nose bleeding, the boys are beaten and physically tortured, as a means to toughen them up and prepare them for warrior hood. So what happens after the beatings? Well, the boys become one step closer to obtaining a full masculine identity through homosexual activity, of course!
Boys perform oral sex on the older boys and men because, after releasing the contaminants from the women through their nasal bloodletting, the boys now must intake semen as a means of inhaling true male essence and of growing bigger and stronger. This is typically done out in the open and the older boys will typically initiative the process. During this part of the initiation, the younger boys seemingly develop erotic and sexual attraction towards their elders. It is important to note that “ritualized homoeroticism is a customary social practice with a defined role and obligatory expectations,” (Herdt 1999, p. 196).
This stage is a continuation of the first-stage: intake as much semen as possible and eat good food.
This stage is seen as a transformation from youth to adolescence, typically around age 13. The boys go from “eating penis” to getting their penis eaten. Only after some more nose bleeding and brutal beatings, of course. This transition to adolescence is a big step towards adulthood and manhood and they now are able to provide their penis and semen to the incoming young boys that are starting the initiation. But it’s okay, everybody’s doing it!
Marriage. Yay, something normal! Wives are typically chosen by their fathers or brothers and does not occur until after the girl has gone through her first menstrual period (menarche). Marriage generally occurs around age 20 for the young men. The fear of contamination and pollution of women is still evident and grounded in male belief and during intercourse, men are to not penetrate deeply. The belief is that if men penetrate too deeply, they are at risk for getting sick, specifically if they enter the urethra. Not so normal, after all, but it is built on the notion of fulfilling masculinity through heterosexual intercourse.
Men are still fearful of the all powerfully contaminated and polluted women, especially their wives. They must perform blood letting every time their wives are menstruating, because although women’s menarche are seen as natural, it is a polluted toxin that is released from the women’s body that puts men at risk. It is a form to ensure that men are protected from being contaminated. Women are encouraged to perform oral sex on their husbands and to sip some semen as well, in order to assure that their breast milk, specifically, is nourished by men for when they have children. Other forms of protection involve techniques during sexual intercourse. Men will put mint leaves in their nostrils and chew branches during intercourse, again, to ensure that they don’t inhale contaminants from women, specifically through the women’s genital odors. After intercourse, men bathe in mud and yet again perform blood letting. The tedious techniques and tasks that men must perform to remain clean and safe from women’s contaminants causes them to escalate the misogynistic beliefs that are founded in the Sambia, creating a pretty unhealthy relationship between men and women, not that it was ever healthy to begin with.
Have kids and be men. Men are encouraged to have one or two kids and is seen as the last step to obtaining full manhood. After their wives have children, they are to not have sexual intercourse with their wives for a few years. Extreme isolation occurs after childbirth, spending little to no time with their wives, and spending most of their time with other men.
The six-stages of initiation span across a man’s lifetime and some do not even achieve all six stages. The Sambia are misogynistic, women are “polluted” and therefore so are their children. Men are to be highly masculine and achieve this through performing oral sex and swallowing semen, as a means of nourishment. Men spend little time with their wives and most of their time with other men and performing or receiving oral sex depending on their age and stage. Part of achieving full masculinity is through performing heterosexual sexual intercourse, in which there are techniques and limitations while doing so. So, women take care of their babies while men hang out at their bachelor pads. Sounds about right. Girls remain with their mothers until marriage at about 15 year olds and boys are stripped from their mothers around age 7. Men of the Sambia spend essentially their entire lives surrounded by other men and away from women and their wives. Now that’s a super manly, warrior.
Herdt, Gilbert. 1982. “Sambia Nosebleeding Rites and Male Proximity to Women.” Ethos 10(3):189-231.
Herdt, Gilbert. 1999. Sambia Sexual Culture: Essays from the field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.