Devio Bastian Tekege got on his motorbike to ride to class, mathematics textbook in hand. But today, he chose to forgo his usual jeans and t-shirt and instead decided to wear only a koteka, a penis guard native to Papua.
As expected, he got a lot of attention. Even by Papuan standards, his choice was unconventional. Some of his professors asked to take a photo with him, but he declined.
“I’m sorry sir, but I didn’t come here for a fashion show, so I apologize,” Tekge reportedly told his professor. To him, the koteka is a symbol of freedom. He feels liberated when he wears it to campus, he told local media.
“This is part of my plan to preserve Papuan culture," Tekege said. "We can wear the koteka anytime and anywhere. Not just on special occasions.”
A koteka is a traditional penis sheath made from the skin of a pumpkin. It is commonly worn by mountain-dwelling Papuans, including the Dani, Yali, Lani, Amungme, Moni, and Mek tribes. But the regional garb is falling out of use, with young people less inclined to wear it in public and formal occasions.
As a result, the koteka only makes an appearance at traditional ceremonial events and in souvenir shops. It’s rare to see anyone wearing it to the market or on public transportation. And when we do see it in public, it’s usually an old man wearing it. In the Yali tribe, the koteka has fallen nearly completely out of use even in traditional ceremonies.
This probably has something to do with public stigma: many view the koteka as synonymous with “backwards” people. This is largely due to racism perpetuated by other ethnicities in Papua.
Tekege pledges to continue to wear the koteka to campus anytime he feels like it. Since he got the ball rolling, other students have joined his movement.
Other Papuan university students, including Albertus from the University of Science and Technology in Jayapura, followed Tekege’s footsteps. In a Tabloid Jubi report, Albertus says he fought back against professors who scolded him for wearing an “inappropriate” attire.
“This is an example to all my friends. Let’s wear our tradition proudly,” Albertus is quoted as saying. “What’s the difference between my being proud of the koteka and your being proud of your batik (traditional Indonesian cloth)?”
John Gobay, a Papauan legislator, applauded these students’ bold decisions. “To me, it’s an expression of their identity,” Gobay told local media.
Meanwhile, a researcher at the Papuan Archeological Board, Hari Suroto, told Kompas that less and less people have been wearing the koteka in the past ten years. He said a number of factors are leading to its demise, one of which is a general feeling of “embarrassment” in wearing it.
Hari believes that the cultural significance of the koteka should be part of school curriculums, especially in mountainous areas. “By teaching its history to the younger generations, this part of our culture won’t disappear,” he said.
Hari hopes the koteka will continue to be preserved as a symbol of Papuan identity. “The koteka is a part of our history that is inseparable from our people’s identity.”This article originally appeared on VICE ID.