TUMBY BAY - Over the years that I’ve worked as a kiap, social mapper and writer, I’ve picked up a few notions about indigenous cultures that don’t exactly gel with the accepted canon.
These findings have come both from my own experience and, in the last few years, by reading the work of Papua New Guinean writers.
One of the first things I learnt about interpreting cultural matters in PNG was not to generalise or extrapolate. What happens in one place might not happen in others.
So let me zero in on one particular place to illustrate how one of these notions has evolved.
Some of the most interesting writers come from Simbu. Among them are Francis Nii, Mathias Kin and Sil Bolkin.
What I have found especially interesting about these guys is their take on the imposition of western values on traditional societies.
When I first studied anthropology in the 1960s, everyone was interested in social change. Books like Ian Hogbin’s ‘Social Change’ were regularly featured on reading lists back then.
However, what was missing - and is only now slowly emerging - is the perspective from the other side of the fence, the side where the change was actually happening.
It is a really intriguing perspective because it comes from a completely different mindset. What people like Hogbin saw wasn’t necessarily the same as what the people being studied were experiencing.
One of the ideas, or themes if you like, that I’ve picked up from the three writers is that balance was a significant factor in traditional life in Simbu and continues to be so well into the modern age.
By balance I mean that everything, be it environmental or social, has to have an equilibrium. And, if it doesn’t possess stability, it has to be fixed so that it does.
There’s probably some esoteric academic study on this that I don’t know about but I think I have preferred to learn it from the horse’s mouth.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Tribal wars in Simbu have long and complicated histories. The idea that warfare breaks out spontaneously for no apparent reason is far from the truth. In Simbu tribal wars are calculated matters.
These wars can go back generations. When fighting breaks out today, as it still does from time to time, its genesis could be something that happened a hundred years ago. What has sustained its longevity is the seesaw of balance. Payback begets payback, begets payback, begets ….. and so it goes.
To unravel the complexities of a particular war and explain why it is happening, you really have to be a participant.
To the outsider it sometimes appears that payback is exacted on people who are not even remotely connected to the combatants. They sometimes seem to just be the nearest convenient source of restoring the blood balance in a particular dispute.
While an eye for an eye can be quite indiscriminate, it’s the end balance that counts.
But what happens when this kind of cultural outlook runs up against imposed western values?
A lot of kiaps, especially in the highlands, spent an inordinate amount of time trying to stop tribal wars.
When two groups clashed they would wade into the middle with their police, force everyone back, confiscate and burn weapons and maybe arrest a few people. In the early days they sometimes became so embroiled that they were forced to use their firearms.
But when the dust settled they could go away knowing they had ended another tribal war. Or could they?
Not really. What they had actually done was become part of the balancing act. If they had shot someone, burnt a house down or slaughtered a pig they had contributed to the kilter of the balance just as much as if they had been actual tribesmen.
The balance would still have to be righted and the war would go on, muted and flaring as it had done in the past.
That’s why a lot of astute kiaps let the wars rage and only stood on the sidelines as a kind of referee to make sure the carnage was minimal, the balance was struck for the time being and everyone went home safely.
When they were eventually replaced by police riot squads, the kiaps could not make them understand this.
Back on the battlefield, when finally everyone was tired of the fighting, a compensation ceremony would ensue. The pluses and minuses would be argued over and calculated and finally settled and the balance would tip back into place – for a while at least.
I’ve used tribal warfare as an example but in my experience the need for balance still permeates just about every other aspect of life in Papua New Guinea.
A resource company comes in and extracts some valuable commodity. By doing this they tilt that particular balance and it has to be righted. If they pay adequate recompense the balance is restored and everyone is happy.
Unfortunately, most resource developers don’t realise that balance is important. Dazzled by the riches they are exploiting they fail to realise there is a pivot that demands tipping.
In western society success lies in tipping the scales in your favour. Creating inequality in relationships leads to profit.
In societies like Papua New Guinea creating such imbalance, no matter the legalities, is anathema to good social order and is highly disruptive.
Seeking balance is a good system. Creating equilibrium in everything might actually save the planet. Unfortunately the west doesn’t see it that way.
Is it any wonder that the two systems have never mixed well?