The Sepik is considered one of the greatest river systems in the world. When viewed from above it feels as though you are approximating something godlike, and when experienced from within you are confronted by your own mortality. There are 400,000 Papua New Guineans who live along its uninterrupted skein of green fabric, which flows from the Victor Emanuel Ranges to where it greets the Bismarck Sea. With a 7.7 million-hectare drainage basin – equalling the size of Scotland – the region is among the largest and most intact water basins in the Asia-Pacific region.
Emmanuelle ‘Manu’ Peni returned to the Sepik River after several stints as a hospital worker in Boston, a university lecturer in New Zealand, a technician in a biscuit factory in Port Moresby and a taxi driver in Vanimo. Manu is a small man, who speaks with the economical precision of someone in the process of shedding the unnecessary aspects of themselves. Local legend has it that when German mercenaries arrived, Manu’s great-great-grandfather shot an arrow directly into the barrel of a musket. That same razor-sharp aim lives on in his work, only the spirit of resistance has been transmuted by what modernity demands of it.
His form of relaxation consists of drafting strongly worded emails to politicians. When we met, he had just recovered from a three-month bout of malaria. Those close to him tell me that this is his modus operandi — to work himself into a state of mental exhaustion only to re-emerge transformed.
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