The cloak of kinship

Phil Mercer

Spotlight Papua New Guinea

Tribal identity is often a stronger force than national identity in Papua New Guinea. But there are cultural traditions that help bind the nation together as well as uniting the population with other Melanesians

PNG tribe

From the extravagant Huli and Duna Wigmen of the rugged Southern Highlands to the unknown caves and volcanic peaks of West New Britain and the ritualistic sing sings in the Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea is a place like no other.

It is mesmerising, unpredictable and beautiful.

Prone to severe earthquakes and tsunamis, Australia’s nearest neighbour sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of often thunderous seismic activity, and is a golden treasure trove of history and traditions whose people speak more than 800 indigenous languages. Traditions are underpinned by the twin pillars of Papua New Guinean (PNG) society – the sanctity of land and the cloak of kinship.

Ancient rituals, where tribal warriors are painted in vivid colours, adorned with shells and striking costumes, have remained unchanged for generations. The famous Wigmen of the alpine peaks of the Southern Highlands worship birds, imitating them in dances and gilding their headdresses with feathers, flowers and possum fur.

Each of the nation’s 20 provinces proudly host cultural shows and festivals, celebrations of ancient ways and unparalleled opportunities for the world to glimpse unique cultural treasure at close quarters. The jewels include the Hiri Moale, held in the national capital Port Moresby, and the Goroka Show every September, drawing visitors from afar.

“It is the glue that is actually holding the country together,” says Alexander Rheeney, the editor of PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper, of his country’s diversity. “Papua New Guineans are entrenched in their cultural roots. Most will identify with their tribal affiliations rather than PNG as a state in itself. That is the challenge: how do you continue to unite citizens with their tribes rather than the nation?”

In the late 19th century Britain established a protectorate over the south-eastern parts of the island of New Guinea, while Germany annexed the northern areas. Papua New Guinea later became an Australian colony, while the western half of the island remains under Indonesian control.

On 16 September 1975 Papua New Guinea became an independent nation, and its disparate people were brought together under a common flag and government. But such rich and pronounced cultural variation has, according to Dr Victoria Stead, a research fellow at Deakin University, been both a blessing and an obstacle to national unity.

“It is accurate to say that the diversity does cause strain – it puts pressure on connections within the modern nation state. We often see this in post-colonial countries where a group of people, who in many ways are culturally quite distinct, are bound together in an enclosed political entity,” she explains.

PNG’s national fabric was shaken in the late 1980s by an armed campaign against the government in Port Moresby by separatist fighters on the island of Bougainville, known as the Bougainville Rebels. They proclaimed “republic of Bougainville” amid anger at the environmental impact of an Australian-owned copper mine and the profits that were leaving the island.

At the heart of the decade-long struggle was land. In Papua New Guinea – and elsewhere across Melanesia – as well as among Australia’s indigenous people, the earth is sacred. It is a source of power, a connection to ancestors and a direct link back to the time of creation. Bougainville’s separatist movement was fuelled by a belief that their ancient land rights had been violated, while the conflict was also fanned by money and political intrigue.

“Land is integral to people’s identities, who they are, where they come from,” says Sinclair Dinnen, a Melanesian expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. “That has manifested itself in conflicts of various kinds, perhaps most vividly in the context of the dispute on Bougainville, which resulted in what was in effect a civil war that lasted for close to a decade, and that was initially triggered around land disputes in relation to the giant Panguna (copper) mine.

“In egalitarian societies, those divisions begin to emerge in fairly dramatic ways that can cause internal conflict and can lead to, in the long term, a process of social disintegration,” he adds.

Papua New Guinea is keen to embrace the fundamentals of Western life, most notably education and health care, but there is an understanding it will be done within the framework of its heritage and its deep affiliation to ancestral lands.

Academics warn that the nation’s delicate social cohesion might be threatened by a mining bonanza, as exports of abundant natural resources, such as gas, copper and gold, promise great wealth. Will a taste of these riches unsettle communities and divide those who favour economic reward over responsible guardianship of tribal country?

It happened so disastrously in the recent past – in Bougainville – yet there are signs that PNG’s cultural heritage is strong enough to withstand the challenge. In June the fifth annual Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival opened in Port Moresby. It’s a celebration of life across Melanesia, a region that stretches from West Papua, through PNG and into Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia. A communal house made of wood has been one of the main attractions. A totem stands guard, protecting inhabitants from evil spirits that bring sickness.

It’s taken the sweat and guile of 30 men from the vast Western Province to build the Gogodala Longhouse. At three storeys high, it is a masterpiece of connecting logs and vines. Traditionally, an entire village – up to 1,000 people – would sleep in a single longhouse.

Herein lies the backbone of PNG society – the wantok system. Wantok is a pidgin term for ‘one talk’, which is loosely defined as those speaking the same language and ties extended families and tribes to an overarching kinship network.

“Effectively, the wantok system is the basis of a widespread social and cultural security net,” explains Stead.

Being part of a community is part of the rich cosmologies through which people in this fascinating corner of the South Pacific understand themselves and the land on which they live. Papua New Guinea’s challenge is to find a way to forge national unity through diversity.


Forest of plenty

Jade Fell

Papua New Guinea is known as one of the most diverse countries on Earth – and this diversity extends to the country’s rich fauna.

The nation is home to countless exotic creatures, many of which are only present in the vast rainforests and steep mountain ranges of Papua New Guinea. Included in the mix is the Bosavi woolly rat, which, discovered only in 2009, is believed to reside exclusively within the Mount Bosavi crater.

This year, a recent visit to a remote forest in PNG by an Australian-led expedition has resulted in the discovery of three additional previously unknown mammals.

The researchers set up 40 camera traps across two mountains in the Torricelli mountain range in the north-east, which captured the first photos of the hitherto unknown Docopsulus wallaby, a Dumbo mouse with giant ears and a shrew-like marsupial known as an antechinus.

The researchers responsible for conducting the study said that further work will be carried out to capture the new species and took DNA samples to confirm the findings. “It will be tricky to capture the animals but we hope we can turn the locals’ hunting skills to good in order to trap them,” ecologist Euan Ritchie told The Guardian.

The findings are expected to be put to use in pressing the government to take steps to ensure the mountain range is protected.

It is thought that further studies could result in the discovery of hundreds of other new specimens, not only of mammals, but also plants, insects and reptiles.

About the author:

Phil Mercer, a BBC correspondent in Sydney, is a regular visitor to Papua New Guinea


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International