Little girl lost in a savage forest of cliche

Jungle Child
March 24, 2006

We are used to identity crises in the indigenous peoples of our globalised world. In Sabine Kuegler's case, however, the key is that she is not a jungle child but rather a missionary child. Such characters are not infrequently casualties.

In 1980, as a seven-year-old, she went to live in what was then Irian Jaya, the easternmost province of Indonesia that lies on the island of New Guinea. Her parents were preparing the ground for missionary activity by studying the language of the Fayu people. Newly contacted, the Fayu can have had little notion of what lay in store for them. Indeed, the difficult business of culture change has little place in this book, which is very much a personal memoir. It has a sweet, innocent flavour since it deals with the perceptions of a child and centres around young Kuegler and her family with little awareness of the wider world.

It seethes with cliches and stereotypes as multifarious as the horrid bugs and yukky moments of Kuegler's memories. There are floods and storms and fevers and tender moments all embedded in the jostling, contradictory myths of Us and Them. The Fayu seem curiously lacking in culture. They are fading away both numerically and intellectually. They are forgetting their own history. They have no means of marriage except by brutal capture. Alone of the peoples of New Guinea, they know nothing of exchange. They have chiefs and taboos and live in primal terror. They smear themselves with rotting bodies and burn their own possessions after contact with death, but such funerary practices are not greatly inquired into and are explained away by their emotions. They have culture only to be prisoners of it. Trapped in their ignorance of natural causes, all deaths become the subject of their sorcery accusations and feuds. It is naturally in keeping with a missionary paradigm that the Fayu have to be saved from all this and it is only thanks to Kuegler's papa that peace-making becomes the fashion and the primal strife is finally rolled back a little.

Nowhere in this book does the omnivorous Indonesian state make its presence felt. Here, the brown faces are blanked out as completely as the intrusive white faces in standard anthropological accounts. Only thus is it possible for Kuegler to pass from the jungle directly to total disorientation in a Swiss finishing academy. Sustained periods of schooling in Jayapura (capital of the province) and the US are expunged to allow our heroine to arrive in Europe blissfully innocent of TV and cinema, puzzled by how shops work, unable to ride a bus or a train, ignorant that you do not greet strangers in a city and unaware of the function of a condom. The doctors on the extensive Indonesian birth-control campaign would weep to hear of her traumatic education with a banana.

Her panic attacks, depression and attempted suicide are all attributed simply to her loss of Eden, so that Kuegler embodies all the ravages of contemporary culture change in her own slight person. Yet there is no return, cut off as she is by the responsibilities of adult life and the death of Fayu loved ones. Paradise is irrevocably lost and remains only as an image of her childhood - or is it the other way around?

Nigel Barley is a writer and anthropologist and was formerly a curator at the British Museum.

Jungle Child

Author - Sabine Kuegler
Publisher - Virago
Pages - 4
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 1 84408 261 X

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