Meet Lelyame Yongapen

Lelyame Yongapen is from the Kamaniwane Tribe of Kaiap Village in Wabag, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. Her father was an expert in Enga history and culture. She became interested in cultural study by listening to his stories. Lelayme lives with her husband and seven children. She supports her family by subsistence gardening, raising pigs and working with the Take Anda Tradition and Transition Center in Wabag, where she helps to preserve Enga culture, prepare exhibits and provide school children with cultural education. She has also worked as a research assistant for over twenty years and has collected information about and translated women's traditions, songs, poetry, children's stories and other subjects. She organized and collected children’s stories and drawings for the de Young Museum, one of which is featured in the field guide for school children Exploring the Highlands: Art, Science, and Conservation.

Lelyame visited the de Young Museum in October 2010 as a Jolika Fellow. She prepared this statement to share with students and visitors.

Lelyame's Story

Home and Family

My home is in Enga Province in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. My husband works as a village court clerk. I have seven children: five boys and two girls. All of my kids go to school. My first born is a boy and he is doing his grade 12; my second is a boy also and he is doing his grade 9; my third is another boy and he is doing his grade 5; my fourth is a girl and she is doing her grade 4; my fifth and sixth born are twins, a boy and a girl, and they are doing grade three; my last birth is a boy and he is doing his elementary prep [preschool].

To see a map of Lelyame's house and the road she follows, click here.

Making a Garden and Growing Food

I have three big gardens where I grow sweet potato, which is my staple food. I also grow green and yellow soft beans, peas, corn and round head cabbages. Around my house I grow spinach. I live way up in the mountains, about eight kilometers away from Wabag Town, where I work in our small Center.

First, I want to say something about making sweet potato gardens: if the garden is an old garden, we collect compost from around the garden and put it in shallow holes in the middle of a mound. We are careful to not leave bits of compost lying around. Then we use spades to dig the soil and bury the compost with it. Next we break up the soil and make sure it is smooth and fine. We plant sweet potato vines first. In between the sweet potato vines we plant cabbage. Then we plant beans and peas in one hole and corn in another.

Secondly, if you are making a sweet potato garden for the very first time, you gather compost and dig the soil up to the top of the mounds. Leave it like that for two to three months for the soil to break down. When the sun shines and the rain falls on the fresh soil, it breaks down the big lumps and makes it easy to break up for planting crops on the mounds. Then, you plant the same way I have said above and repeat the process many times. Sweet potato is a crop that is harvested multiple times and you can grow sweet potato from the same mounds for three to four harvests. Taro is a one-time harvest.

To see a map of Lelyame's garden, click here.

The Art of Making Bilums

When I was a small girl I learned to make bilums (string bags). I learned from my eldest sister, step by step, using modern yarn, and gradually learned to make bilums with several designs and patterns using all kinds colors. I use ten or twelve needles to make different, complicated patterns. My mother used bark fiber to weave bilums. In her day, it took a long time to make the string to weave a bilum. Now, it is very easy because we use acrylic yarn. The women of my village have not been trained to make bilum designs—we use our imagination to make them.

Education and Work

I speak three languages Enga, Pidgin and I am still learning English. In 1982, I dropped out of grade ten and stayed with my parents until I met the anthropologist, Dr. Polly Weissner, who asked me if I could do some cultural research about my home province. So I worked with her for three years and stopped for a while, then some years later I began working with her again. I love doing this work.

At the Take Anda Tradition and Transition Center, I take the visitors around the main gallery explaining the things we have on exhibit. I take them to the Ladies Section showing the stages from childhood to old age and I also take them through the exhibit Exploring Enga, which describes Enga culture from the past to the present.

For school groups the Center has lessons in a topic called MAL, which stands for “Making A Living.” Children come in classes of two to three to learn how our ancestors lived in the past. We describe their cultural activities and the food they ate. Before the introduction of the sweet potato, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, getting food from the bush. They ate food like cherries and nuts from breadfruit and pandanus trees. They also hunted Cassowary birds and marsupials.

Natural Resources and Conservation in Papua New Guinea


I want to tell you something that I normally say to my sons about the environment and trees: whenever you cut down a tree, big or small, always plant a new tree (of the kind you have just cut) by the side of the trunk to replace it—you will benefit from that. We have a saying for boys in my province: “You are not like a young girl that will go away to get married to a man and stay in his place. You are a man and you will stay for the rest of your life on your own land.” In my society, girls usually marry and move to their husband’s land and start a new family there. When boys get married, they stay on the land where they were born. Sometimes young girls bring their husbands to their parents place. What this saying really means is that if you keep cutting down trees without replacing them, after about five to ten years, we will not have any trees left for future generations to use. This is a conservation process that was followed by our ancestors.

I also warn my kids not to cut down young trees for no reason; one should only cut a tree if it is not growing properly or for some good use. Also, we don’t cut down selected, very strong trees used for building our houses and making fences.


We don’t cut trees or clear bushes at the head of a stream. It is believed that the trees and bushes produce the water. If this advice is not followed the water dries up. People are not allowed to bury dead bodies or build toilets at the head of the stream because the waste of the excreta and fluids from the dead body will run into the water we drink and we might die.

Comparing Life in the United States and Papua New Guinea

Visiting San Francisco, California

My stay in San Francisco at the de Young Museum was most interesting. At night, I stayed at the home of curator Christina Hellmich, with her husband and children. Every night I watched a film I enjoyed a lot. I had difficulties using all the electrical appliances in her home. I don’t drive, but I thought to myself that driving a car here would be very, very difficult for me.

Lelyame visits the California Academy of Sciences' living roof.


There are many different styles of vehicles and complicated streets to drive on—even underground roads beneath the sea. There are more busy streets than I have ever seen in my life! I have seen a few cars in PNG’s capital city, Port Moresby, but nothing like I have seen in the USA.


From what I have seen, all the buildings are tall, with many stories. The highest I have seen is 48 stories or floors. All of the houses are very close to each other. All buildings seem to have elevators and electricity.


There are all kinds of food from all over the world being sold in the shops here. We have some similar food in PNG, but we get most of our food from our own gardens. For example, I grow my own food.

Types of language

Kids here learn many languages in school like French, Italian, Spanish, German, and maybe one or two more.


I have seen that there are people in great numbers like Asians, Africans, Chinese, and other people.

Photo (above right): Lelyame in front of an exhibit at the Enga Take Anda Tradition and Transition Center.