An entry in The Rivers Prize
Is there a national culture? In other words, is there a common identity whereby the ethnic groups can distinguish themselves as Papua New Guineans or Melanesians? Is there a Melanesian Way?
The answer is ‘yes’, there is a Melanesian Way, and, there is a national culture. It is rooted in the desires of individual Melanesians and can be seen through the consumption of commodities.
Commodity consumption has led to the transformation and formation of a national culture thus the Melanesian Way.
Perhaps one of the most commonly consumed commodities in Papua New Guinea that has contributed to the definition of national culture is betel nut: the commodity that was recently banned for public consumption in Port Moresby.
Scientifically known as areca nut, it is commonly referred to as betel nut after the betel plant (daka, in tokpisin) consumed with areca.
Betel nut, commonly referred to as buai in tok-pisin, is a significant cultural commodity in PNG (and other parts of Melanesia) that has been economised and has contributed to the transformation of PNG societies.
Betel nut is often used as a token of appreciation and friendship; different communities throughout PNG that ritually consumed betel nut in the past have their own significance in its exchange and consumption.
Despite the existence of the ritual of betel nut chewing in traditional Papua New Guinean societies, cleanliness was paramount. The neat practice of betel nut consumption has however deviated to careless consumption which poses health risks today.
Despite the improper chewing habits that has contributed to filth on the streets in Port Moresby, betel nut consumption serves as an important symbol of a national culture, its’ consumption a ritual that forges relationships among individuals within a diverse country thus connecting Papua New Guineans and enforcing the Melanesian way from the villages to the settlements and streets of towns throughout the country.
My cultural baggage into writing this article starts with my grandfather placing betel nut into my mouth when I was only a few months old. I grew up as a betel nut chewer and at one period of my childhood I remember it as the source of income that sustained my family.
I got into trouble one too many times for betel nut consumption but have never felt that sense of guilt one feels after doing something wrong, perhaps because, according to my conscience and nurturing, I know the consumption of my beloved betel nut is a culturally accepted norm.
I have however fallen victim to the use of betel nut in sorcery charms: I was the victim of another person using discarded betel nut skin for sorcery at one stage; and on another occasion I consumed betel nut enchanted with love spells.
I left betel nut several times, for months at one stage. It was not hard to have the will to say no to buai, what I found hard was turning away from offers of betel nut as a sign of friendship among family and friends. That I find to be the core of the Melanesian Way: gift exchange.
From my baggage I could pull out various aspects under the topic of betel nut, reflecting how intertwined and deeply rooted this one controversial nut is in my cosmic Melanesian worldview.
One must embrace the concept of individual relationships in the Melanesian context to understand the Melanesian Way of gift exchange. Here I not only refer to the literal exchange of gifts but also the meanings and expectations engendered by gift exchange.
The individual in Melanesia is viewed contrarily to western notions of the individual. The western notion views an individual as a single human being with distinctive human capacities, in other words it refers to an individual and his (or her) set of characteristics as assessed and judged by others that distinguishes him (or her) from another individual.
In traditional Melanesia, a person is the product of the contributions of other persons, or in other words, a person is seen as being composed of substances from other persons.
These substances include the labour of kin and relatives. For example, in a certain area it may be believed that physiologically a child may comprise the bones of the father and the blood of the mother.
Throughout this child’s life s/he is taken care of not only by his biological parents but also by other relatives perhaps his aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Thus he comprises each person that contributes to his being.
When a person contributes to another person he or she is detaching parts of himself or herself and attaching these parts to whoever it is that they are contributing to.
It is typical that all contributions are expected to be reciprocated. Gift exchange can also be seen as the basis of the much debated wantok system; which is often abused these days due to the changing notions of personhood and agency in Papua New Guinea.
Several anthropological studies reflect the importance of commodity consumption in PNG and various ways in which commodities are transforming PNG societies which in the is helping with the enactment of new identities and modes of personhood.
The abuse of the wantok system is an example of commodity consumption being at odds with notions of nationhood; it undermines an individual yet engages the individual with the nation-state.
The definition of an individual in Papua New Guinea today therefore comprises the blending of both traditional and Western commodities and their engendered meanings.
In the past commodities were more prone to one location, the formation of a nation state has however led to the flow of commodities from defined localities to other areas throughout the country. This has led to the transformation of the definition of an individual in communities throughout the country and the formation of new identities.
The ritual of betel nut consumption among individuals represents a desire to fit in to a larger group: a national culture of Papua New Guinea, the forging of many different tribal groups to one nation. Thus assuming betel nut consumption is an important practice that has led to nation building.
The economising of betel nut has led to a new flow of commodities into communities leading to alternating sets of transformation in villages, gender relations and notions of the person.
This means that betel nut consumption, once a cultural practice for only certain areas in Papua New Guinea, has spread throughout the country to areas where betel nut was not a traditional commodity and is being consumed. Through betel nut sales people have secured an income to acquire their desires of clothing, food, and other material gains as well as the attached meanings.
Given the important role betel nut and other common commodities in Papua New Guinea play in gift exchange; the core of the Melanesian way, there is a need to regulate the consumption of commodities in order to foster a safe and healthy Melanesian society.
The recent betel nut ban in Port Moresby highlights the need for Papua New Guineans to engage in cultural and economic practices in a healthier way and to rethink their attitude in the consumption of commodities.
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