Image by Ben Bohane


The plight for freedom or Independence has had a lot of heroic tales but at times there is one exceptional story that does hold the essence of the people and does remain as a true memory with everyone.

The story of the Upe was published in nearly all newspapers in the Pacific region and a lot of online news agency’s around the world wrote about this once in a lifetime phenomenon that will remain as the one tale that will be the memory of a struggle for the Bouganville people.

The late Fr. Walter Lini, Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, ate roasted Taro and Coconut throughout his walk for Vanuatu to be free, a symbolic meal that proved to be a humble gesture full of respect and dignity, that left a tale that later became symbolic to Vanuatu’s walk for freedom.

The violence in Bougainville began in the late 1980s, triggered by conflict over an enormous opencast copper mine at Panguna. The mine was a huge export earner for PNG, but many in Bougainville felt they got no benefit and resented the pollution and disruption to their traditional way of living.

As the Bouganville people move forward from years of turmoil, the Upe tale will be the memory of all the struggles and the tears for freedom as Upe is an initiation process that takes sons away from homes not for a short period of time, but for many years till they are mature and emerge as men.

During the referendum, special voting areas for men only were allocated to certain tribes whose people were in an initiation ceremony that sometimes last for 6 years in which because of certain traditional rules they must wear an Upe.

The UPE is a traditional hat worn by boys especially in Terra and Rau Constituencies in the Wakunai area, Central Bougainville. The hat is not worn randomly, only in specific rituals.

Image by Ben Bohane

The tradition sees young men, especially firstborn males, are taken high up in the mountain forests of Wakunai to be initiated into manhood.

During the voting, officials also gave the Upes a chance to vote at male-only polling stations which was one of many referendum firsts. Election officers hiked for two hours into the jungle to collect the votes.

The young Upe men can remain isolated from their communities for several years as they learn about culture, medicine, hunting, and other skills. During this time, they wear the tall, woven Upe hats that hide their hair and are forbidden to be seen by women.

Such ritual grounds are not allowed to be stepped upon by women. The consequence of breaking this taboo is believed to be a curse: sickness or, in worse cases, death. It is believed that nature knows who is at fault when violating the norm.

At such places in the forest, women are not even allowed to cross the ground where the people with the Upe have walked.

Image by Ben Bohane

Mothers are not allowed to see kids who have left the village when they are 10 years of age or above. Only older women who know about the tradition can see the Upe man whilst bringing food cooked on an open fire.

History tells two stories about how this initiation came into existence.

The first says that, in the early days ago, a man was walking in the bush when he saw a woman holding an Upe hat which she had acquired from a supernatural being.

As a result, knowledge was transferred to the woman by the unknown being. The Upe hat was beautiful and the man wanted it badly. But the woman refused to give him the hat, so he killed her and buried her body and took the Upe hat.

To keep his secret, no woman was ever allowed to view the hat.

The other story tells it that there once lived a couple who one day went into the bush. The husband told his wife to wait for him under a tree while he went out to hunt for possums

When the husband returned, he saw his wife holding a beautiful ringlike object which she had made from bamboo pieces whilst waiting for him to return.

It caused a great deal of thought in him. Some years later, he and his wife moved from the main village and settled in a small hamlet where they raised their first born son. When the boy was grown enough, his father built him a hausman and, at the same time, made him a ringlike hat. It was the very first Upe hat.

The villagers knew that the ringlike object was of great important value; thus the custom of Upe hat was  adopted long ago in the Wakunai area.

However, nowadays, when there is a big occasion with many people including women, there will be a special initiation to protect them from the harmful elements. This enables the Upe hat to be seen by others. Otherwise, they are hidden in the mountain forest away from the villages to protect the people from igniting the curse.

The initiation of Upe aims to teach and educate young males in preparation for their future lives as fathers, husbands, brothers, leaders and chiefs of their villages.

This practise has significant ethical and moral value. In the forest, the young boys are taught many things about life.The educators teach the young boys such things as hunting, planting, catching, building, fatherhood, leadership, war, how to make weapons, responsibility, honesty, respect, bush medicine, different types of plants and animals and their purpose of existence and uses.

This life in the forest is out of the normal but is very useful in the life of the community.

After some years in the bush, when the Upe leader and his helpers see that the boys have become men, they will initiate them to return home and make a normal living.

At this point many are now ready to be married and start a family. So, when they are back home, they can utilise what they have learned during their time in the jungle.

Today, the people are reviving the Upe culture and want to keep it holy and ethical. There is a Rotokas eco-tourism industry being set up to preserve the wildlife, fauna, culture, lifestyle, rivers, caves, mountains, forest, people and interesting places.

The good thing about the initiation is that it produces resourceful, ethical, respectful and wise people in the communities. And these people are known to be healthy and good looking. Their skin looks smooth, nourished and shiny as they come out of the ritual grounds up in the mountain forest.

When they are married, they produce healthy children with healthy lifestyles and are faithful to their wives and do not have two to three wives. These are some of the good things about the Upe initiation.

Ben Bohane wrote on his FB timeline that “they appeared in a fringe of forest at the edge of Teuapaii village; hesitant, ghostly, looking awed and slightly bewildered at the scene in front of them after their years of seclusion in the bush. People were chanting and danced in circles beneath a Bougainville flag nearby to welcome the handful of election monitors, and Upe initiates, as the village prepared to vote. Blown conch shells and bamboo wind pipes reverberated in the air.”