Exploring the Mendi Valley: A Journey Through Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands

The people of the Mendi Valley, commonly referred to as “Mendi,” did not have a collective name for themselves in precolonial times. Today, they continue to speak various languages and dialects while maintaining longstanding sociopolitical relationships with neighboring peoples in places such as Ialibu, Tambul, Kandep, the Lai Valley, and Kagua.

Located in the Mendi Subprovince of the Southern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea, the Mendi Valley spans 40 kilometers and has a V-shaped topography. It is flanked by Mount Giluwe to the east and limestone ridges to the west, separating it from the Lai Valley. Most Mendi live north of Mendi town, which is the provincial government center at an altitude of approximately 1,620 meters above sea level. Gardens are planted up to about 2,400 meters above sea level, and a large boggy area exists in the far northeast around Lake Egari. The valley receives around 280 centimeters of rain per year, with a slight wet/dry seasonal contrast. The average daily temperature ranges from 7° to 24° C, with high-altitude areas regularly experiencing mild to severe crop-damaging frosts.

Anthropologists estimate that the Mendi population in the late 1950s was approximately 24,000, based on patrol reports dated between 1959-1960 and 1961. By the time of the 1976 government census, the population had increased to around 28,500. Population density is moderate by highlands standards, and Mendi are not land-short.

Mendi call their language “Angal Heneng,” which means “true words/talk” or normal speech. Dialects or closely related variants are spoken in the Lai Valley, by Wola people living in the Was (Wage) to the west, as well as by people living in the Nembi to the southwest and south. The languages have been classified as the Mendi-Pole Subfamily, which belongs to the West-Central Family of languages, along with Wiru, Kewa, Huli, Enga, and some others. However, people in the northeastern Mendi Valley primarily speak Imbonggu (or Aua), a language mostly heard in Ialibu Subprovince to Mendi’s east. These lmbonggu speakers are technically “Mendi” and belong to Mendi Valley tribes, but they speak a dialect of Hagen that belongs to the Central Family of languages spoken in the Western Highlands and Chimbu Provinces. Generally, in the Mendi area, as elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, there is no necessary relationship between language and cultural identity.

Under Australian rule, Mendi became administrative headquarters for the Southern Highlands (then “District”) in 1950-1951. However, it remains one of the least economically developed parts of Papua New Guinea, having been a significant site neither of expatriate nor of locally run market-oriented enterprises until recently. The colonial history of the province was dominated by government administrators and missionaries. However, soon after independence in 1975, the province initiated a large World Bank-funded integrated rural development project, which, together with the recent discovery of mineral resources, will undoubtedly have important repercussions. Mendi “history” predates the colonial period, with oral traditions recording shifting group alliances and expanding populations.

Indigenous localities in the Mendi Valley have perhaps 20-100 residents, while government “census units” mostly have populations between 200 and 800. Each locality, or “su,” is associated with an individual clan or subclan section and is socially centered around a clearing called “koma,” where meetings and collective events are held. 

There are also “hausman” or “hauslain” (houses for unmarried men and women) and smaller “hausboi” (houses for boys) scattered around the locality. In some areas, the traditional oval-shaped men’s house has been replaced with a rectangular building. The clearing where people congregate for meetings and events is usually surrounded by shade trees and sometimes features a ceremonial platform.

The Mendi traditionally practiced shifting cultivation, or “slash-and-burn” agriculture, rotating garden plots every few years to allow the land to recover. They grew sweet potatoes, taro, yams, bananas, sugarcane, and a variety of greens and vegetables. Pigs were an important part of their subsistence and social life, and were raised for feasts and exchanges.

Today, Mendi society is undergoing changes as a result of modernization, government policies, and outside influences. Education and Christianity have had a significant impact on the region, and many Mendi have adopted new practices and beliefs while retaining elements of their traditional culture. The recent discovery of mineral resources in the region has also brought new opportunities and challenges for the Mendi people and their way of life.