During a six-month trip through Southeast Asia in 2008, Canadian painter John Fairfull landed a gig as a riverboat captain in Papua New Guinea. For more than four years he ran adventure cruises along the wild waterways and tributaries of the Sepik, the country’s longest river.
Fairfull learned to speak Tok Pisin, the language used by more than two million people in Papua New Guinea. He became fascinated by the local folklore and culture of the Kabriman people, who live in a village near Blackwater Lakes. Of particular interest to him were the village’s spirit houses and mind-altering rituals involved in the Crocodile Man cutting ceremony, a rite of passage for young men into manhood. The crocodile is the apex predator of the Sepik, and the initiation is meant to endow a person with the animal’s power and wisdom.
The helmsman on Fairfull’s riverboat, a local, agreed to adopt the foreigner into his family—the first step for Fairfull in becoming eligible to undergo the initiation and its gruesome procedure. For months, Fairfull discussed his idea with the Kabriman village leaders, and eventually they agreed. He was instructed to abstain from sex for two months before the initiation—the Kabriman believe that releasing sexual energy diminishes the spiritual strength needed to survive the procedure.
During that time, “I also learned how my body would be cut to create scars representing crocodile skin,” Fairfull says. Some initiates have died from shock or infection during the process, but Fairfull wasn’t allowed to bring or use any medication. “I was told I would receive no special treatment as a waitman,” he says. “If I got sick, it meant I hadn’t followed the rules and would be punished. And if I died, it’s because that’s what the spirits wanted.”
Fairfull remained in Papua New Guinea for two-and-a-half years after the ceremony until, in 2012, he decided it was time to come home. Now a successful artist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Fairfull believes that becoming a Crocodile Man has given him a special strength and insights. We caught up with him to ask him what he learned, and how his life has changed since returning.
OUTSIDE: Why did you take on such a painful and dangerous experience?
FAIRFULL: Traveling for me is about making the unknown known, and there’s an element of searching within this. I was searching for something more, something different, something beyond my current understanding. And when I was invited to partake in the initiation, the opportunity encompassed all of that. I had developed a close affinity with the local people and was also looking for a better way to understand and participate in a culture that intrigued me. I was 30 years old at the time of the ceremony and it was a challenge that took all the strength I could muster.
What did other people in your life think of the idea?
When I asked for a leave of absence to go through the initiation, my bosses thought I’d been in the bush too long. However, they agreed to support me, on condition that I first took a break and still wanted to proceed afterwards. They bought me a plane ticket to Australia with instructions to “clear my head.” I had a great week in Cairns, visiting bars, clubs, and scuba diving, but it didn’t change my mind.
How were you prepared for the cutting ceremony?
I had to live in the Tambaran for several weeks with six other initiates. It meant we had left reality and were now part of the spiritual world. During that time, Crocodile Men from surrounding villages gathered in Kabriman, dressed in full regalia for epic sing sings around large fires to the beat of kundu drums. The nights were exhausting and we hardly slept. In the mornings, the other initiates and I had to go down to the river and press white mud all over our bodies. Differences disappeared. We were all the same color.
Do you think you had a spiritual experience?
I definitely felt something, but I’m also aware that dancing, chanting, fires, and sleep deprivation create an atmosphere where you start seeing things.
What happened in the ceremony?
We were laid down in the lap of an ‘uncle’ and expected to hold still while specially-qualified elders made the crocodile cuts. Sharpened bamboo is traditionally used for cutting, but I’d brought along packs of razor-blades, which were requested by the elders and distributed to all the initiates. The ritual lasted hours, leaving us covered in blood. I didn’t know what I was getting into, or the pain I’d go through. In fact I didn’t really understand what pain was until I went through the initiation. I really questioned my sanity.
What happened afterwards?
I was physically and emotionally exhausted. But felt better after two weeks of healing, testing, and further rituals. I was considered reborn as a Crocodile Man and given the name of Nurama.
How did the experience affect you?
Going into the spirit house gave me a sense of belonging and community I’d never experienced as an individual in Western culture. I learned how to listen, while elders shared stories of the Water Spirits, the Bush Spirits, and the first people who occupied the land. As an oral society, none of these stories are written down and the elders have incredible memories. Their people have an ancestry and know their origins from the very beginning. I’m a bit jealous of that. I know about my great grandfather, but not the history before him. This realization of the importance of community made me more open to the calls I’d received from family and friends to return to Canada after years away. And I have to admit it, I was also missing snow.
How has having them affected your life back in Canada?
When I look in the mirror I see myself as normal person, but with the past etched into my body as a living reminder that the Sepik is still part of me. I get a lot of stares when I’m on the beach or wearing a singlet. Some people are intrigued, especially when I visited South Africa. However one woman I dated was terrified to come close.
Now that you’re back home, how do you live as a Crocodile Man?
I’ve learned to be less judgmental of other cultures from a Western point of view and better able to deal with life’s challenges. To go through initiation takes strong will power and we were taught to think back to what happened in the spirit house whenever problems arise. They’d be nothing in comparison to what we experienced.
I decided to go back to school and study art. I want use art as a way of bringing the Sepik sense of community to Canada. The elders’ stories of “fascinating spirits, underwater worlds and amazing adventures” are perfect subjects for painting. In the Sepik, a storyteller will attract a large audience. One story will lead to another and soon the whole community is involved. When I exhibit my work in Halifax, many people begin to share their stories with me. Soon we have a gathering of storytellers and an incredible dialogue. It shows how art can strengthen communities everywhere.