Meridijani, June 2007

Papua New Guinea is probably the most undeveloped and most traditional country in the world today. Just seventy years ago, one gold digger reached an unknown mountain massif while exploring new possibilities for finding gold. There he discovered more than a million people practically living in the Stone Age. They still hadn’t made discoveries such as writing, the wheel, or metal, and they hadn’t had a clue that beyond their mountains there lies a different, modern, “developed” world. 40 years later, these same people got political independence, formed a parliament, and had to run their country according to the principles of modern democracy. This year, on the country’s 31st birthday, Papua New Guinea is swarmed with problems. Its urban societies are hurling towards wild capitalism and the rural ones are returning back to the Stone Age.

To understand Papua New Guinea (PNG), one has to understand its natural conditions, history, and culture. New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, where its west half belongs to Indonesia and its east half to PNG. Geographically it is situated in the West Pacific, and by its population and culture, it is a part of Melanesia. PNG is also considered to have one of the most diverse biological systems and the most preserved wilderness and natural resources.

It is important to distinct its natural regions. The most developed part is the one along the coast and on the islands, because that is where white people first arrived. Serious colonization, however, began relatively late: at the end of the 19th century. Other important regions are the great lowlands of the north and the south, with swamp confluences of the great tropical rivers Sepik and Fly. White men came to these parts in the early 20th century and discovered great tribal diversity. During the thirties, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead studied three tribes that lived within the same small area: the peaceful, gentle and kind Arapesh, the blood-thirsty and cannibalistic Mundugumuras, and the fancy and elegant head hunters Chumbulas.

From those lowlands to the center of the island rises a great mountain massif that is always covered in clouds. A whole ring of arduous mountain cliffs is almost uninhabited and unreachable. It rains every day there and the ground is an impervious mud. Therefore it was believed that people did not inhabit those mountains. But those “mountains” are actually two mountain ranges higher than 4000 meters, between which lie fertile valleys with an everlasting spring and perfect living conditions. While other parts of PNG have typical tropic climates, these valleys have an isolated microclimate similar to the Alps, with constantly moderate temperatures and enough rain and sun to grow food during the whole year. There are no rainy or dry seasons, nor are there four seasons as we know them. There is just an everlasting springtime.

People situated by the sea depend on it, and those in the lowlands live by hunting, gathering wild fruits, and fishing in the rivers. Despite the great wilderness, living by hunting isn’t possible. In the rainforest and cloud forest, steps and savannah, swamps and barren mountaintops, there are no big mammals. The biggest animals are the little tree kangaroos, cus cus, wild pigs that were imported only later, and the non-flying bird emu. Due to a lack of big predators, a whole world of smaller animals developed: birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians.

Because they had nothing to hunt along the edge of the mountains, and because there they couldn’t even light a fire from the rain, explorers just didn’t go to the mountains. But still, all that time a million indigenous people lived there, and are considered to be one of the first farmers in the history of the world. They worked on the land of their fertile valley, planted sweet potatoes, taro and yam, and raised pigs.

Those tribes were strictly territorial. Their land gave them all they needed and beyond the borders were always other hostile tribes against whom they fought. Therefore, they didn’t travel outside their territories nor had any idea that there was another world out there. Since every tribe evolved in isolation, with minimal contact even with the neighboring tribes, each of them developed its own culture, distinguished artistic style, and special language. For this reason, PNG is the country with the greatest number of active languages in the world, 867 counted so far!

When talking about this tribal, Stone Age history of  PNG’s mountains, we are not referring to something that happened a long time ago, but to something that is still alive today. There are still old people who remember the first arrival of white men, and life actually has not changed much since then. In the villages far from the roads, people still walk barefooted, use bows and arrows, do not keep track of the years or know their age, and don’t know their people’s history further than what they heard from their grandfathers.

In the most remote villages, women still wear grass skirts and ornate themselves with shells, bones and feathers. The only things in those villages that come from civilization are some textile clothes, machetes, and knives. But even PNG’s cities do not resemble those in the rest of the world. In the capital, Port Moresby, half of the population walks barefooted, sleeps on the fields, and uses open fires for cooking.

In the Nupaha village in the mountains, near the city of Goroka, I met an old man named Pupuno Gumula, who still remembers the first arrival of white people. “I was still just a boy. I remember women started screaming, and all of us children started crying when we saw a row of white people walking through the village. We thought they were ghosts of our ancestors coming back for us. They just set their mobile village on the edge of our own and surrounded it with wire. We all gathered on the other side of that wire. Their chief took one of our pigs, raised his cane towards it, made a loud bursting sound, and the pig dropped dead. We all ran away out of fear, for we had never before witnessed the power of a rifle. They said that if we crossed the wire the same thing would happen to us. We were afraid, but still spent the entire time during those days and nights, on the outside of the wire, watching what the white men were doing and observing what other strange things they had. One day, as they left, we hastily went in and looked for whatever they might have left inside. Broken matches, empty cans, and bags. All those things were of great value to us. My father got hold of an empty fish can and put it on his ceremonial headdress. After that, everyone respected him more!”

Pupuno’s village is a typical Papuan mountain village with about one hundred people total in four different clans. People get married and start their families outside their clan, and in addition, the women leave to live in their husband’s village. Villages are not centralized, but are divided into a number of widely spread hamlets. In each of these hamlets live a few families that work together on the land around their houses. They mostly grow sweet potatoes, which are their main food, comprising about 90% of all the food they consume. They eat sweet potatoes three times a day, roasted on a fire or boiled in water, and distinguish over 60 forms and consistencies of them.

Houses are oval, with walls made from wood and rattan, while rooftops are cone-shaped and made of a thick layer of dry grass. Every hamlet has one “men’s house” in which live all of the initiated men, and also a few “women’s houses” for the women. There they prepare food for the men and also take care of the children who live with their mothers until they reach their teens. Male children, who live a carefree childhood until the onset of puberty, must then go through a shocking and sudden initiation. They are given only a month to step into the world of the grown-ups. During the initiation, boys are isolated in the “men’s house”, put through rituals of suffering and endurance, and are taught the spiritual secrets of their animistic world.

Girls, on the other hand, are initiated into womanhood at an earlier age. At the age of about ten, they already care for the smaller children, and help their mothers in the garden and around the house. Hence, their growing-up transition isn’t as extreme. But just until recently, there existed special women’s houses outside the village where women would go into isolation during menstruation, or for childbirth. To males, female blood was a taboo, a source of fear and disgust. Today, women mostly don’t go into isolation while bleeding, and male initiation is a bit less important and frequent. Other than that, everything else is the same as it was before.

There are special houses in the hamlets used only for pigs, which are the most important animals to these people. They are treated as family members and it is totally normal to see a woman breastfeeding an orphaned piglet. Pigs are their most valuable possessions. Before the arrival of white people, Papuans used shells and pigs as currency. Today, they are replaced with paper money, but pigs are still used as a means of payment.

Tribes on that developmental level didn’t know about hierarchy or the institutions of government. Nevertheless, certain people called “big men” gathered people who stood by them and who owed them some debt. But the institution of big men isn’t solid, it isn’t secured or inherited. Every smart, determined, and cunning young boy can become a big man. He has to slowly gather his goods in shells, potatoes, pigs, and women. When he gathers enough, he has to organize a celebration call “moka” in which he will share all of those goods to as many people he knows as possible. In that way, he gets allegiance from those people who are bound to repay him with even greater gifts. Personal wealth in PNG is not measured by what goods you posses, but by how much of it you have shared with others. The greater the number of people who owe you is, the richer you are.

Pupuno became a big man in his village Nupaha. “Before the arrival of the white man, our village had few treasures. Shells were sparse and extremely valuable. But in the years that followed, white men came more often, and exchanged the shells for potatoes, so we could organize mokas more frequently and become big men more quickly. ” In the next twenty years after the first contact with white people there was a rush of inflation of values so they went through some sort of a golden age.

“I remember the first airplane that landed in the neighboring village!” says Pupuno. “We thought it was a great bird, and were greatly amazed afterwards… First from its inside came a white man, and then he took out huge boxes filled with shells! Before white men, our whole village had maybe ten shells altogether! Now all of a sudden, we could easily earn hundreds of them!”

During that time, some Papuan women slept with white men for the first time, so the word spread that they were just normal people and not the ghosts of the ancestors. Papuans started believing that white people are better than them and wanted to become like them. They accepted their god, their religion, and believed what they were told, just so they could become as rich as the white people.

Little by little, white men took them to the outer world, to the coast and to the cities, so Papuans from the mountains slowly started to understand what was going on round them. Those white people were Australians who colonized PNG and took advantage of its resources and people, but still brought them riches, built roads, hospitals and schools. And just as young Pupuno grew up and became a man, the world he hadn’t yet understood, the world where the Second World War and the Geneva human rights convention took place, ordered Australia to stop its colonialism and help Papua New Guinea become an independent republic. People like Pupuno, influential big men of their villages, ended up in the institutions of government and eventually in the parliament itself!

Joanne McErvalle is an Australian volunteer who still, after 31 years of independence, teaches Papuan politicians about the foundations of democracy, human rights, and parliamentary. “Their independence came too early, and they weren’t ready for it,” she explained. “The world thought it was unacceptable for colonies to still exist in the year of 1975, but Papuans weren’t ready for changes of such magnitude. Every influential big man understood that politics gave him power. But to reach that high position, he needed help from many people. According to their traditional economical system, once in a position, he has those that helped him. That’s why politics here still function only towards a small part of wantoks (people belonging to the same clan) and not towards the whole society. Politicians don’t understand that their role is not to rule the people but to represent them! Other major problems that make PNG’s government non-functional today are the country’s territorial spread and lack of traffic connectivity, big cultural differences in the country, and the non-existence of a national consciousness. When you ask a Papuan where he belongs, he will name his clan or tribe, because nobody feels like a citizen of PNG. Only recently did most of the people start talking in Pidgin, an official language, which is a lingua franca of sorts, based on English, German and two local languages. How was it even possible to govern a country with over 800 different languages?!”

All development in PNG happened soon after the 1975. After that short period, roads were not built anymore and the one that already existed started to decay. Medicine, education, everything started to devolve. Crime started to spread; some tribes even armed themselves and started a war with the government. People in the developed parts grew lazy and started thinking that the government must do everything for them. In one remote village on the Strickland River I met some people who were gambling. I found out they were hungry because they had no food. They had money, but didn’t have where to spend it, since the nearest marketplace was a few days walk away. When I asked them why they don’t live like they did before, from a fertile land that always gave them enough food, they blamed it all on the politicians who promised them lots of things which they never fulfilled.

It is difficult to understand these people, so totally different from us, but still wanting to become just like us. They had lived in the Stone Age until recently, while we exited it some 5000 years ago. I looked everywhere for a politician who could explain to me his part of the story but I always hit a wall. Still, one of the less important politicians of the Oksapmin village brightly said to me, “You white people are way ahead of us and we will need a lot of time to reach that. We are not interested in our customs or traditions right now because we want to become the same as you. And when we do, we’ll regret losing our culture just the same as you regret losing your own, so you travel to countries like PNG to see other peoples’ cultures that are still alive!”