DAGUA - Betel nut chewing has strong Melanesian cultural roots, especially in traditional Papua New Guinea societies in the coastal and island regions. Betel nut, also called areca nut or buai in Tok Pisin, is the seed of the Areca catechu palm tree.
The history of betel nut goes back thousands of years. It has a long history in parts of Asia and the Pacific. It is estimated that 10-20% of the world’s population chews the nut.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 600 million people use some form of betel nut. It is placed fourth as the world’s most popular psychoactive substance after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine.
Betel nut chewing is a widely practised social pastime at village level. Buai, when mixed with mustard and lime, gives chewers an adrenaline rush as it contains the stimulant arecoline, a psychoactive ingredient similar to nicotine.
Oftentimes, you hear chewers remark ‘buai spakim mi ya’ [I’m intoxicated with betel nut] and see trails of sweat streaming down their faces.
Down in the village, betel nut is readily available during most gatherings: mediations, storytelling, feasts, festivals, gossiping and other social activities.
The habit of betel nut chewing in recent times is universal in Papua New Guinea. There are chewers from all walks of life and age groups from every corner of Papua New Guinea. It has reached regions that just a few decades ago were traditionally non chewers.
Some people even identify the red of the national flag as a representation of the reddish compound that manifests when betel nut is mixed in the mouth with mustard and lime.
In urban PNG, betel nut chewing is plain to see in the workplace, at markets, schools, sports events, entertainment, in church and at home. This is despite rules and regulations prohibiting the habit and governing professional conduct.
Betel nut has become a means to an end for generating profit and also for fulfilling some sort of identity gap for chewers who had no prior cultural association with it. Its values and cultural significance are depicted through its exchange and the friendship, celebration and peace these connote.
But buai is more suited as a rural pastime and is not well-matched to an urban setting. Just like flicking away a used cigarette butt, betel nut juice in the mouth eventually has to be disposed of. In towns and cities, this is done indiscriminately by chewers and has strong negative implications for public health, hygiene and the environment.
There’s a big difference between betel nut juice spat out on bare earth and spewed out on concrete. There’s a big difference between betel husk thrown into the bush and thrown along urban walkways and beside shops.
The red betel nut spittle and the litter of husks are eyesores. They pronounce serious deficiencies in our towns and cities. They are another way of saying ‘don’t care’; they are irresponsible. Our traditional disposal of this debris has not transitioned well into the urban setting.
This general disregard makes town authorities feel defeated in their attempts at controlling the betel nut trade. Our major towns are literally defaced and littered with betel nut spittle and husk.
Betel nut has its own clichés and sland – mit buai, drai buai, spak buai, wara buai, tirip buai, piksa buai, Sepik daka, Olan daka, simel daka, pawa lain, lip daka, kol kambang, posin kambang, kina kambang, coral kambamg and more.
Now for the really bad bit. There are a multitude of negative health effects of betel nut chewing.
There’s mouth cancer and gum disease and many cases of old people who have lost all their front teeth and who still chew their paste of betel nut, mustard and lime using their remaining molars.
And there are undocumented tales of unscrupulous people who intentionally mix cancer causing asbestos (from fibro walls previously used in building construction) with lime which accelerates the rate of mouth cancer as well as promoting other illnesses.
When it comes to chewing, there are different types of chewers with their own attitudes and behaviour. Some people will chew two to three nuts at once. Some use minimal lime while others dip their whole mustard in the lime.
There are cautious chewers who have their own personal lime containers while others use the lime provided by vendors. There’s greater health risks in using lime provided by vendors; chewers being more likely to develop gum diseases or contract tuberculosis.
Unused lime is said to have high potency and is used to ward off evil spirits. Spells and enchantments are also woven into he betel nut to attract and lure people of the opposite sex.
In PNG, betel nut will be a controversial topic for a long time yet. It is so intertwined within the social, political and economic fabric of PNG society.
Perhaps, over time, some other social custom will take over and buai will be done away with. Perhaps it will eventually lose its traditional and cultural significance.
But, from where I sit right now, I can see no sign of that.