Papua New Guinea: A unique proposition

By Christine Cornege

From a bustling modern city to remote villages nestled in the world's largest unbroken rainforest, Papua New Guinea is a country of extremes. In exploring the rugged island's diverse culture, Christine Cornege contemplates her place in the world.

A village woman wearing traditional paint and headgear. Photo / Christine Cornege
A village woman wearing traditional paint and headgear. Photo / Christine Cornege

I'm glad I'm married.

However, if I wasn't, it is good to know that in Mount Hagen I would be considered an A-class wife. Thanks to my university education I could fetch a dowry of 60,000 kina - approximately $35,000 - and 60 pigs.

A B-class wife is high school-educated and can be bought for 40,000 kina and 25 pigs, while a C-class wife is a villager worth 15,000 kina and 15 pigs.

With 39,000 people, Mount Hagen is the capital of Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands province and the country's third largest city.

Only being introduced to Western culture in 1934, it has adapted quickly with supermarkets, banks, car yards and even a Coca-Cola factory. However, it lacks many of the niceties of a New Zealand town leaving a tense and frontier-like feel to the grubby streets of the sprawling mountain-ringed town.

Men can spend their whole lives saving to afford a wife, who, even after marriage, is still expected to earn her keep.

Women are employed in a variety of roles in the town working in banks, petrol stations and supermarkets and many also run street-side stalls selling cigarettes, betel nuts, fruit and vegetables. Outside the town in the fertile Wahgi Valley, agriculture remains the primary income source and wives are expected to tend coffee, sweet potatoes and pigs on the traditional subsistence farms.

If life in the Papua New Guinea highlands was an eye-opener, the transition to the lowlands of the Sepik river basin was a journey back in time.

Even being greeted by a group of naked children when we landed at the Karawari grass airstrip didn't prepare me for the simple lives of the river tribes who are only now being touched by western culture.

At Kundiman, a village on the banks of the Karawari River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik, life has changed little over hundreds of years.

While some villagers are partially clad in modern clothing, others wear only loincloths or grass skirts, though some of the dress and elaborate face painting appears contrived for our visit.

However, traditional art and culture is unchanged and genuine.

Painted masks, large wall panels and ancestral figures represent a vivid story of a tribe and adorn the village's Haus Tambaran or spirit house - a male-only domain where the village's sacred rites are performed.

Once compulsory, many young men still choose to go through a painful scarification ritual as an initiation to manhood. Their skin is sliced and packed with mud to cause raised scars that are set in patterns resembling crocodile skin, a creature sacred to the villages.

Before becoming men they are also required to undergo a period of complete separation from women, leaving their mothers and sisters to live in the "spirit house" while completing their biological and psychological transformation.

The spirit house also becomes home to married men while their wives are menstruating - perhaps an idea that could be adopted by our culture.

If I were a wife in Kundiman village, I'm told my university education would count for little and I would only be worth 400 kina. I could be a man's first or even second wife and would be expected to run the household while also providing food for the village.

A wife's daily duties include minding children, cooking, washing, fishing on the river in dugout canoes and the vital task of sago making.

Sago, made from the pith of a sago tree, is an important part of a villager's diet and is used to make sago pancakes and sago pudding. The pith is crushed and kneaded to release the starch before being washed and strained to extract the starch from the fibrous residue. The water, in which the raw starch is suspended, is left to evaporate leaving the starch which is used as flour.

Despite their primitive and demanding lifestyle the villagers of Kundiman seem more content than their counterparts in Mt Hagen or Port Moresby.

Children ran happily in varying degrees of undress, squealing, laughing and play fighting in an ultimate kids' playground.

With no computer games, cell phones or television, kids invent their own fun and it isn't unusual to see 5-year-olds paddling canoes or swimming in the river.

While I may not have the attributes of an ideal village wife, cruising down the Karawari I'd never felt more like a queen.

As we pass riverbank villages children waved furiously and were overjoyed to be photographed, their laughter surrounding me when I showed them their image on the back of my camera.

My blond hair, a novelty in this rarely visited part of Papua New Guinea, attracted most of the attention, though, one young girl gently stroked my arm to see what I felt like.

Another girl, no more than 3 years old, was fascinated by my camera - surely the largest she'd seen. Like an impertinent supermodel she planted herself in the centre of all my shots but was too scared to have her photo taken with me.

However, when it came time for me to leave her village, she ran behind me and waved until my boat disappeared down the river.

Returning to the Karawari airstrip and civilisation occurred too soon and it was difficult to leave this tranquil and largely untouched part of the world behind for Mount Hagen, Port Moresby and eventually home.

Speaking to one of the male staff at Karawari Lodge before departing I queried him about having more than one wife. When asked if he sought permission to take a second wife, his answer was "no".

How did his first wife feel about this?

"Not a happy time," he laughed, shaking his head, but assured me it is now "all okay".

The wives now live together and look after each other's children while he is away working at the lodge.

The idea is strange to my way of thinking, but, for them it works, the wives accept it and work together to produce a happy family.

I suppose it would solve the man drought - not that I am suggesting it to my husband.

Though, I guess if I did it would probably make me an A-class wife in New Zealand too.

Christine Cornege travelled as a guest of the PNG Tourism Authority.

- NZ Herald

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