In every place I’ve ever been and for everyone I’ve ever known, family – for better or for worse – is everything. They shape who you are. They influence who you become. Often, it is family who can make you or break you. Even those people who are not very close to their family, or don’t have much in the way of blood relatives, still describe close friendship circles as ‘like family’ to define how important the relationship is. There are many things that I don’t understand about the family unit in Papua New Guinea. I’ve never stayed with a family here and I expect I’ll return home still wondering about many family related things. That said, I have learnt some amazing things about the families I’ve met. Actually, I’m interested to hear what you, dear reader, think about what you read in this entry because I honestly think that the organisation of the family in East New Britain is insanely fascinating stuff.
In this entry, assume that all the family related stuff I talk about relates to a Tolai family, unless otherwise stated. Also, it probably goes without saying (if my own family is anything to go by) – even knowing one family from one culture intimately doesn’t help you predict the goings on of other families. Still, I’ll share what I know.
Families in PNG are generally big, extended and from this outsider’s perspective, complex. When I’ve been reading student autobiographical essays (I’ve read about 150), I’ve noticed the students often talk about their ‘cousin brother’ or ‘cousin sister’. I’ve tried to get them to just refer to this family member as a ‘cousin’ but this word doesn’t seem close enough for them. The students seem to have lots of ‘cousins’. They may not even know a lot of them, so the ones they know who are close to them seem to need a term which distinguishes them as such. People also sometimes use words like ‘smol mama’ to refer to their aunt – ‘auntie’ it seems is just too far removed. In the same way, some students make a point of referring to their mother as their ‘birth mother’ as if this needed extra clarification, which I guess around here, it does.
Many people in ENB are brought up by their parents plus whichever uncles and aunts are around. I’ve also been surprised by the amount of times I’ve heard people say that they were adopted, or that that have siblings who’ve been adopted or that they have adopted children themselves. It took me a while to decide that it would be OK to ask about these adoption cases (it’s obviously not a secret) and the most common reason I have found has been a very practical one. Someone in the family (often a sibling or cousin of the adopting parents) has passed away or is alive but unable to care for the child and so they’ve been taken in. Often it’s been decided that ‘sibling x’ will look after the child because it’s a girl and the couple have only boys.
I was chatting to a school teacher recently who has five children. She initially had two boys. Her sister then passed away after the death of her first child – a daughter. It was decided amongst the family that she would take in the child as she didn’t have any daughters herself. She then adopted someone else’s daughter (not sure what happened to the child’s original parents) to even up the numbers in her own family. Then, just when she thought she was past having children, she got pregnant- with a girl. So now she (very happily) has five kids – three of her own, one who’s really a niece and one who is not a blood relative at all. This scenario seems not so uncommon here – especially for couples who are professionals and therefore earn enough to support others’ children. I’ve also read, in Carol Kidu’s memoirs (a worthwhile read – Carol Kidu is a white Australian born woman who married a Papua New Guinean and is currently the only female member of parliament in PNG) that she and her husband adopted a niece because the mother (his sister) was unmarried. I’m not sure what the most likely reason for adoption is but it is sadly true that early death is much more common here than in Australia. When one parent dies (malaria, TB, mouth cancer, death in child birth are all very sadly, big killers), it’s very hard for the single parent to continue raising the kids. Fortunately, the extended family system kicks in.
In addition to actual adoption, there are also many kids who see their extended families more than their immediate family because of geography. Some kids have to attend schools very far from their village so they board on campus. When there’s a long weekend, they stay with extended family (to whom they may be quite distantly related) who live nearby. In this way, sometimes extended family members help to raise children and support the education of their wantoks’ kids.
I can’t believe I’ve actually come this far into the entry and only just now used the word ‘wantok’! Anyone who has ever had anything to do with PNG will be familiar with this word. It comes from English ‘one talk’ and can be used by the speaker to refer to anyone from their same language group. This may mean the same general language group – or more specifically, those who speak the exact same dialect. Or, it may more simply refer to your ‘clan’ or extended family. In PNG, the word ‘wantokism’ is also thrown around, sort of in place of ‘nepotism’. Basically, if someone’s your wantok you are obliged to help them if they’re in town, give them accommodation, give them a discount, vote for them, etc. It can mean great things in that the community looks after itself (which is crucial without a functioning welfare system) but it can also make it very hard for police to make necessary arrests, employers to employ fairly, etc. PNG is not the only place of course where the saying ‘it's who you know’ is king. In PNG though, ‘it’s who you’re related to’ that sometimes becomes even more important. Interestingly, I’ve even seen modern advertising catch on to the power of the word ‘wantok’. Digicel, a huge telecommunications company, has very fetching posters all around town which refer to everyone on the Digicel network as ‘digicel wantoks’ – Don Draper would most certainly approve.
From what I understand, the wantok system works all over PNG. How the family is structured though, seems to differ somewhat depending on the cultural group in question. As I’ve mentioned before, Tolai are matrilineal but patriarchal and so the highest authority in the family is the oldest male on one’s mother’s side. In order to understand a system so counter intuitive to me, I asked some colleagues to help me work out just who in my family would currently be the head.
First, it was established that I have no surviving grandparents. They then told me that my mother’s eldest brother would be the head of the family. Very good, but my mother has only two sisters. So, they asked, does the eldest sibling (of my mother’s) have any boys? Well yes, actually my wonderful Auntie Jan has two sons, the eldest being Stuart. Aha – they said, he is the head of your family clan. I emailed Stuart to tell him of his good fortune – clan leader! The bad news for Stuart is that although he must be consulted on important family matters, he doesn’t actually own any of our fictional land. Land is passed on to the female family members. Women own the land and take it with them when they marry and men have authority in important decisions (like how it is used). I ran a few scenarios by my colleagues and it seems that when bride price is paid (to the bride’s family), it is often the men on the bride’s side who gain financially. However, if the eldest male figure is any good, he will ensure that the bride’s husband treats her and their subsequent children well and can step in if things are not going smoothly. Not sure to what extent this actually happens though…..
Tolai people are also divided into 2 groups called Pikalaba and Marmar (this I know from reading student work). Traditionally you belong to one (depending on your family) and marry into the other. Punishment for a relationship within the one group was death. I guess in this way, intermarrying amongst families could be prevented. One student wrote though, that her parents were both Pikalaba (this doesn’t mean they are blood relatives, there are tens of thousands of people in one group) and so couldn’t marry according to custom. The community, (perhaps in recognition that they weren’t blood relatives?) decided to be practical and allow this love marriage to occur by holding a ceremony where the bride changed groups. The bride-to-be's parents distributed shell money to the witnesses and so she became a Marmar. They were then married and the community accepted it. I have heard other stories where the children of ‘same group’ marriages are referred to by offensive names but clearly, at least in some instances, the community is able to look at a particular situation and be flexible.
I’m aware that this entry is getting quite long – I hadn’t realised until I started that there is a lot to say about families – even with my limited knowledge. So, I’ll end with one more example of how families operate here in way that is unthinkable to your average outsider. I’ll explain the meaning of ‘tambu’ by telling the story of my very big intercultural misunderstanding.
This story involves two people. One local (Tolai) who we’ll call Rose. Another is from the mainland of PNG, we’ll call him Tom. Tom is a driver and Rose is the team leader of a project. Tom drives all the staff who work in the project to their work sites – Rose included. All the staff on the project are warm and friendly to each other. All refer to each other by their first name. All except for these two. Rose calls Tom ‘driver’ and Tom calls Rose ‘boss meri” (boss lady). Rose doesn’t sit near Tom and whilst they talk together in a friendly way, I can’t help but conclude that Rose is a bit of a snob. I feel somewhat bad for Tom as Rose is everyone’s boss, but only he seems expected to call her such. Then I notice that when they speak in Pidgin (as opposed to English), they call each other ‘tambu’. My understanding of this word is that ‘tambu’ means ‘banned’ or ‘prohibited’. Why on earth are they calling each other this?
It turns out that Rose and Tom are very distantly related in-laws. Her husband is from the same mainland province as Tom. They are, according to Tolai custom ‘tambu’ and therefore banned from addressing each other directly (they should not say each others’ names) or from contact with each other. In reality, many people these days are quite flexible about this arrangement. Tom and Rose regularly chat in the workplace and when Tom was helping Rose with her driving, they had to sit next to each other and this didn’t seem to worry them. They still do though, observe the ‘tambu’ cultural law in small ways, and one of those is finding words for each other that don’t involve a name. (This was a great relief to me as I really like Rose and couldn’t accept that she was snobby!) Tom and Rose are however, distant in-laws (and Tom is not a Tolai). I know other families where the wife’s mother has never spoken to or directly looked at, her son-in-law. Some of you may be thinking – this is the culture for me! No contact with the in-laws as an expected custom!
This kind of rule can however, create some challenges. Some of them small – like avoidance. One friend told me that her grandmother just uses her hand to shield her eyes when she passes her son-in-law (my friend’s father). Other problems are more serious. Such as, if a woman wants her mother to be with her when she delivers a baby (and many do), her husband can’t also be with her. I don’t know much about other parts of PNG but when I was in Moresby, I asked a highlander about his area and he said that ‘tambu’ must be treated with extra care and respect but that there were no prohibitions on contact. I clearly have to do some more research though before I can comment on how widespread the ‘in-law’ ‘tambu’ thing is.
I think that’s enough for now. To me, whilst the ‘wantok’ system seems to be not dissimilar to how extended families work in many parts of the world, the matrilineal system, the two group ‘Pikalaba’ and ‘Marmar’ system and the ‘tambu’ cultural rules seem so very very different to any of the ideas about family I have grown up with or heard of from my other travels abroad or from friends of various cultural back grounds.
I think my next entry will be on schools in East New Britain. By next month I should have spent some time in five different high schools. The challenges teachers and students face are many and varied. I’ve seriously had to pick my jaw off the floor when I’ve sat in on staff meetings. I’ll try not to be so tardy in getting the next entry done – and there’ll be pics!!