The Neheya Initiation, also known as the ‘Drin Kol Wara’ (Drink Cold Water) ritual, is a customary practice of the Bena people of Eastern Highlands in Papua New Guinea. This initiation is performed exclusively by men, and women are not allowed to know about it, much less see it.
However, due to the fear that the ritual is slowly dying because of western and religious influences, the local men of Bena are now sharing their true story of the Neheya Initiation with the world.
According to the Bena people, rituals like the Neheya Initiation are a source of knowledge learned from ancestors and held in trust, with a duty to teach and pass it on.
The Neheya Initiation includes various rituals, such as the bleeding of the nose, tongue, and male genitalia. Upon initiation, young men are believed to be good leaders in their community and attract beautiful women to marry. The cane swallowing ritual is a purification or cleansing of the body, especially after a man eats food from a menstruating woman, engages in coitus with a woman, or feels weak to fight. The ritual is also believed to clear the mind and enlighten the heart and body weight.
The cane used in the Neheya Initiation is carefully carved to achieve a smooth surface, which allows for easy ingestion. After careful preparations, the cane is bent into a U-shape and left to dry for about a month in kitchen huts. Its length can vary from two to three meters, and it is periodically taken out and left in water to maintain its outer covering.
The initiation period may last two to three months, depending on the amount of pork available for meals in the ‘haus man’. During this time, initiates are required to lie on their backs, face-up to sleep, as it is believed to straighten and elongate the intestines in preparation for the cane swallowing ritual. Meals provided to the initiates comprise only pork fat and boiled kaukau (sweet potato), known as ‘Hosamaya’, which is believed to ensure the smooth passing of the cane along the digestive tract. Elderly women who have passed menopause prepare the dish.
Initiation rituals were practiced in other societies of Papua New Guinea, representing the transition into adulthood, authority, correction, and the sharing of knowledge. As part of the Neheya Initiation, initiates must undergo the ‘Nose bleeding’ ritual. Specific sharp-edged grass, known as the ‘nose bleeding grass,’ is shoved with force into both nostrils, causing the initiate’s head to be tilted to one side, so blood flows out easily. After the nose bleeding ritual, the cane swallowing ritual follows.
The nose bleeding and cane swallowing rituals are carried out near a water source, preferably a flowing creek where stones are cleared out so water washes away expulsions from the body. With much chanting and singing, initiates are led to start the ritual. For a first-timer, an initiate may require guidance from a Neheya expert in pushing down the cane with both hands through the mouth and slowly down the esophagus. Water is then splashed on the initiate’s chest and stomach to cool down his body temperature. Past initiates recall being afraid of the cane ingestion but had to be brave as bravery is of prime importance in a ritual like the Neheya. One wrong move could result in serious internal hemorrhage, causing death. After expulsions of blood and saliva from the body, the initiates are instructed to bathe and then are adorned with traditional attire and led back to their village as men.