GOLD COAST - Traditional Melanesian custom required the accumulation of wealth and influence to be a notional practice - referred to as ‘social capital’ to differentiate it from capital measured in terms of money.
This is because traditional wealth in Papua New Guinea was often measured in highly perishable items like food and animals.
In a tropical climate, with no means of preserving food, it had to be given away, creating recognised wealth in terms of obligation to the giver by the receiver. This wealth became measurable.
Giving away food animals was also important since there was a limit of how much fodder could be grown in most villages to feed a large number of food animals. By giving the animal away, this relieved the original owner of the need to continue to feed the animal while creating an obligation.
The benefit of sharing resources in small communities also helped create cohesion and the survivability of the whole community.
In many traditional PNG cultures, the term ‘Big Man’ referred to a wealthy person. Mostly this wealth was measured in social capital or perceived reciprocity and not in tangible assets or money. The Big Man would care for his community.
In order to attain perceived wealth and prestige, the Big Man had to distribute his wealth to obtain obligation. He would also be looked on as a father figure when help was needed.
This traditional custom came under threat when the means arrived to acquire wealth that could be stored indefinitely in the form of money and the availability of bank accounts.
Wealth could also be acquired from any number of sources (including paid labour) and stored or used as required. It also could be easily transferred between two or more parties, mostly without the knowledge of the public or anyone actually seeing the transaction.
So traditional PNG wealth accumulation in terms of social capital and reciprocal obligation has morphed into the modern ability of an individual to seek and accumulate personal wealth.
That has altered the concept of fostering a cohesive and self-sustaining society into one where individuals who attain wealth, by whatever means, can store it away from public view.
The original benefits of reciprocity in traditional Melanesian culture have been effectively destroyed. A chasm has now opened up between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Yet the concept of acquiring status and prestige by giving away wealth has not changed.
Once acquired, personal wealth can be used to gain advantage, including using wealth to secure loyalty or influence public opinion.
While there are laws that restrict the improper use of personal funds but, in the cultural context of traditional society, to put it bluntly, when does reciprocity become a bribe? When does the socially-orientated Big Man become nothing more than a Rich Man who can buy favours and control?
This conflation of tradition with modernity has become one of the major problems facing today’s PNG.
PHIL FITZPATRICK COMMENTS
Anthropologists have identified two categories of leadership in traditional PNG society. One is the Big Man, as set out in the article and the other is the Great Man.
The Big Man is peculiar to the highlands, whereas the Great Man tends to be seen in the coastal and island regions.
Where the Big Man achieves his power and prestige from the distribution of accumulated wealth the great man achieves his power through magico-religious, fight leadership and general charisma.
We tend to give everything Papua New Guinean a highlands flavour these days but the coastal and island people are still a large minority and very influential.
Accumulating pigs is not much different to accumulating money. A live pig is not perishable. The spin off from having a large holding of pigs is that you need more wives and more land to accommodate them, thus driving the economy.
As Francis Nii and others have pointed out on PNG Attitude, there haven’t been any large pig kills in the highlands since the late 1960s so I guess that marks the time that the traditional Big Man power crashed and was replaced by the Big Thief Man.