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How ignoring cultural balance has disrupted PNG’s social order

Tribal warfare between two clans in the 1960s - such conflict has been widespread for thousands of years


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?


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Your comments flow on naturally from the last paragraph in my article Chris.

If we added something about the subversion of tradition to meet the interests of the selfish we'd have a nice treatise.

By the latter I mean the way the bigman tradition has been changed, how bride price has become a largely commercial matter and how the idea of compensation has morphed into a gamer's chance.

There are people in Hela trying to claim compensation from the disaster funds for trees destroyed by the earthquake. How sick is that?

Chris Overland

Phil has made a reasonable point I think. Most societies operate on the basis of achieving some level of balance between the various competing forces within them.

However, to my mind at least, the larger issue is that PNG, in common with much of the former colonial world, is a socially regressive society.

By this I mean that the way these various societies work (or, more often, don't work) is directly related to the extent to which traditional social norms have been resumed in the post colonial period.

This is most strikingly obvious in Africa where, for example, the appalling atrocities in Rwanda reflected a very long standing antipathy between two rival tribal groups which had been suppressed but not extinguished by the colonial regime.

Once the order imposed by the colonial power was removed, then the suspicions and hostilities of the past rapidly reasserted themselves.

In a similar way, we see Russia, freed from the ideological constraints imposed by communism, now reverting to its traditional posture in relation to Western Europe, which is one of suspicion, paranoia and distrust. Vladimir Putin has brilliantly exploited this situation to claim and retain power.

To some extent, even the USA is regressing to the role it played pre World War 2, which is that of a powerful but fundamentally inward looking nation, more concerned about promoting its business and economic interests than assuming a wider global role.

As President Calvin Coolidge famously said: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."

I am sure that Donald Trump would heartedly endorse this sentiment as he practises his "art of the deal" over trade with the rest of the world.

So, I would contend, that PNG is in its current state mostly because of the impact of traditional cultural norms.

Australia simply wasn't there long enough to truly entrench the sorts of values and ideas that are necessary pre-requisite for a viable representative democracy.

Indeed, you could argue that these values and principles now are often more honoured in their omission than their observance in our current political culture in places like Australia, the UK, the USA and Europe.

In his book "Democracy and its Crisis", philosopher A C Grayling, asserts that representative democracy is really just a way in which the legitimate needs of the often ignorant and inchoate masses are carefully balanced off against the interests of a dominant elite (typically made up of the wealthiest segment of the population).

Whenever this delicate balance is disrupted by, for example, the elite forgetting that they hold power only at the express will of the masses, then things can get really ugly.

So, says Grayling, the ruling elite have to balance off their needs and wants against those of the masses they purport to lead.

Right now, in PNG and elsewhere, it seems that the ruling elites have chosen to forget this important observation (assuming they ever knew it).

Little wonder then that post colonial societies fall back upon the cultural values and traditions of the past, even if this includes things like tribal fighting.

At least those engaged in the fighting understand the rules that pertain to it, which is more than can be said for the dysfunctional "democracy" which purportedly is there to further their interests.

In relation to Paul's reference to the War of Jenkin's Ear, I have read that there is real doubt that the pickled object presented to the British Parliament by the indignant Captain Jenkins was, in fact, any part of his anatomy at all and maybe not even a human ear.

It seems that Captain Jenkins wore a very sturdy wig with which he protected his allegedly ravaged ear and gentlemanly dignity from being infringed upon by the morbidly curious.

Whatever the real circumstances, the story was sufficient to trigger the war over trade that so many of England's merchant class apparently wanted.

Paul Oates

Yes Phil, remember the war over Jenkin's ear?

I agree with you about the issue of balance. That was the central problem when the allies reportedly tried to "Squeeze the German lemon to make the pips squeak", after the First World War. This assisted the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

The problem now in PNG is that there is no adjudicator and the 'balance' has swung in favour of the few as opposed to the many. Examples of where that has happened in the past of human history abound. Often those who seem to be in front suffer a 'sticky end'.

Look at the French revolution, the Russian revolution and more recently Rumania, Lybia and Iraq, etc. etc.

The human race doesn't seem to be able to evolve past a certain point.

Maybe that's the real lesson we seem to be unable to accept.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I wasn't really trying to explain tribal warfare Paul. It manifests itself in so many different ways that a generic explanation is nigh on impossible.

I was just trying to explain, using it as an example, how balance is a key factor in Papua New Guinean society.

One of the things that the three Simbu writers I refer to all agree on (I think?) is that the participants in the wars enjoy them and that there are rules for their conduct.

This was one of the big problems when the early kiaps interfered - they did not follow the rules. Later on the kiaps learned the rules and played the game properly. Just like a football match as you note.

I think a lot of human males enjoy fighting - how else can you explain our history? And they will go to war on the most feeble excuse.

JK Domyal

I totally agree with your account of the experiences you had during your early encounters with the natives of PNG.

The natives tied their values, creed, daily living sustenance and genealogy to land and ancestry and it remains in their blood for many years, not a single drop of Western influence will change it. The natives were well civilised without Western décor and civilisation.

I am referring to natives' ways of organising the family unit, structuring the clans, developing territorial boundaries to build gardens and villages, oral rules of family and individual moral and ethical conduct, how to trade with other clans, tribal dispute resolutions and inter-marriage well blended into their lives from generation to generation.

The Westerners assumed that PNG natives were nomads and dwellers of a Stone Age generation and possessing sub-human traits.

Today, PNGians still honour the native civilisation and are gradually blending it with the Western version of religious practise brought in by the early missionaries. But to absorb a fully fledged Western influence (lifestyle) will take some generations and will face strong setbacks.

Today you often hear people saying “do business the PNG way and not your way”. What this means you have correctly explained in your story.

Therefore, to blend two cultures into one will not work or it will take some generations to settle, even if you try to legislate it and expect compliance as the new way of doing business or lifestyle in PNG.

Paul Oates

Sorry Phil but I think you missed the point in trying (logically) to explain tribal warfare.

Tribal warfare is alive and well in most societies and that includes so called western societies. In western societies it is called sport and the various codes of football are just typical manifestations of this phenomena.

Just look at how many of us support a team and wear team colours etc. The military are past masters at exemplifying this factor by promoting the regiment and having exclusive traditions and uniforms or badges. The ancient Romans were just as cognisant of this as we are today.

Humans, wherever they exist can usually point to some factor that they can identify and exemplify as a unifying force.

Kiaps were required to perform police duties as part of their modus operandi. In this aspect, we had a duty to our employers (both the Australian and PNG people), and the external influencers like the UN.

Western society however is merely a mirror of any human society and one can only look at the history of almost any nation to see the wars and civil wars that have broken out from time to time. We have just become more aware of the forces and factors involved and how societies may be manipulated to understand how these forces coalesce and manifest themselves when they reach their tipping point.

The situation in China and in Russia today is merely an extension of previous grievances that are being exploited to promote national pride and opportunism.

Only by understanding the issues and having an acceptable arbiter to both sides can there ever be an end (however temporary), to warfare.

The essence of a Kiap’s role at the time was to tread a fine line and exhibit enough power to promote ‘Pax Australiana’ without dramatically changing the local culture. That allowed the benefits of education, health, travel, communications and agriculture to be put in place without having them destroyed by clan warfare. By ensuring that there was a commonly introduced system and benefits ensured no one could point the finger of envy at some receiving more than others.

When the structure of control (read constitutional law), enforced by Kiaps was intentionally removed by those who had only an inkling but no real insight into this aspect, there followed a period of awakening that those who dared to pursue personal gain could do so without any real fear of retribution.

Escalate that aspect into today’s world. We now see this aspect emerging again in the world where some nations are only too aware that the UN or any other nation is a toothless tiger and doesn’t have the authority to enforce any determination it makes about warfare between member nations and their supporters.

Hugh Tavonavona

Reminds me of Roy Rappaport's 'Pigs for the Ancestors' (1968) take on the Tsembaga-Maring-speaking people of Simbai; their environment (ecology), subsistence (gardening/pig rearing etc), warfare and Kaiko (pig-killing ceremonies).

A ritual cycle to maintain an homeostasis equilibrium on their ecology. There is always a 'limiting factor' and balance is essential.

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