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Better to be town mouse or village mouse?


Wilhelm lodge painting DURING THE LAST few years I’ve had some good discussions online with a number of PNG friends including David Kitchnoge, Gelab Piak and many others.

Reading Martyn Namorong’s article yesterday (The Melanesian way in a modern society) finally crystallised my thoughts about how societies change. But do they change for the better?

In a classic utterance from a PNG parliament of yesteryear, an MP rose to his feet during a debate about PNG’s progress. “But Mr Speaker,” said the MP, “you can have progress forwards and you can have progress backwards.”

Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states: “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.”

I well remember being told by people in rural villages about how they aspired to acquire the material goods of western society. I’d respond that not all things western were good and not all things about their own village life were bad. To this day, I can recall the dubious looks my explanation received.

During our training in Anthropology at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), we Kiaps were referred to as ‘agents of change’. Irrespective of our role as administrators, we effected change by our very presence.

Could Newton’s third law also apply to human societies? I think it could.

An initial mistake is to imagine that rural village life is backward and undesirable. Living in towns may seem better in terms of the obvious material benefits. Yet the progression from life in the village to life in a town creates many pressures and challenges.

What happens when the benefits of the town are compared with the benefits of village life? Many anthropologists and social commentators present a ‘march towards civilisation’ that is progressive and inevitable.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication and economy: 1) hunters and gatherers, 2) simple agricultural, 3) advanced agricultural, 4) industrial, and 5) special (e.g. fishing societies or maritime societies) - Wikipedia

But what is a society [quotes from Wikipedia]?

A human society is: (1) a group of people related to each other through persistent relations; (2) a large social grouping that shares the same geographical territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations

Human societies are most often organised according to their primary means of subsistence. Social scientists have identified hunter-gatherer societies, nomadic pastoral societies, horticulturalist or simple farming societies, and intensive agricultural societies, also called civilisations. Some consider industrial and post-industrial societies to be qualitatively different from traditional agricultural societies

So as PNG people started to ‘progress’ from village life to a more metropolitan existence, the benefits of two living (electricity, running water, on demand food supply, more robust shelter) were there but the benefits of village life (family support, less stress, embracing culture) may have decreased in direct proportion.

In other words, gains in material wealth were often offset by losses of social capital.

So is there a way of preserving social capital while taking on the metropolitan life? Many people who live in cities and yearn for a more simple life like to think so.

In Australia, the expressions ‘Grey Nomad’, ‘Sea Change’ and ‘Tree Change’ refer to people who, when they retire, can’t wait to exit the city and enjoy what appears on the surface to be a better lifestyle.

Perhaps the answer lies in a greater appreciation of our expectations and opportunities. The advantages of village life are often given away when migration to the city takes place.

In summary, perhaps both village and town life have their advantages and their disadvantages. You can’t have one without the other.

Photo: The traditional and the modern at Wilhelm Lodge [Peter Kranz]


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Paul Oates

Hi Icarus - Tru yetia, tasol. While PNG may be unique in many ways and there are many priceless cultures that need to be preserved, I suggest there are at least two common factors that ought not be overlooked.

The first is that people are people no matter wherever they live in the world, and they tend to react in the same way when they feel threatened. They look for leadership and protection.

The second is the loss of traditional land rights and the willing or enforced migration of those who have been dispossessed into towns and cities has occurred in many countries previously.

If we can’t learn from history then we are doomed to repeat it.

Two of the most pressing problems the present and next PNG government will have to deal with are land rights and, as Gelab has raised, the potential for armed insurrection currently brewing in the Highlands. Both would seem to be traditionally and inextricably intertwined.


Paul - Thanks for those words. Who was it who said 'the one sure thing in life is change'?

The challenge we appreciate is how PNGeans, as individuals and as a people, approach those changes and recalibrate the PNG attitude, eh laka?

We often carry our baggage with us - opinions, prejudices, rationalisations - without realising how they affect the way we see things. This may give us false expectations and blind us to opportunities.

Gelab Piak

What most people have said is fairly true, especially Kela Kapkora Sil Borkin's comments about returning home to the village and finding that, in your pursuit of a happy life, you have lost everything in your home ground.

As we Papua New Guineans say: 'em graun blo mi' (it's my land or ground')) or village. Also the part about expectations of fellow tribesmen is true. My friends from the Highlands tell me this also.

That is the new trend of the bigman culture; if you have loads of arms and you supply the tribe with arms, through your money or business dealings, then you are a bigman, because it is through you that the tribe and the land is being protected.

One of my friends told me, and I have observed many fights, that fighting to defend your land is not a thing of the past, of ancient time. Tribes, even today, fight others and try to get them off their land. And when they successfully take over that tribe's land, they stay there for good.

So if you are a supplier of arms, and the arms race is on for more high powered weapons such as M16s and SLRs, then you become a bigman.

Some young men, renounce their raskol ways only to go and become 'rambos' of tribal warfare, usually because they have access high powered weapons.

Thus they have an elevated status in the society because they are the 'strongman' defenders of their tribe and land.

Peter Kranz

Thank you, Sil.

I have experienced what you write about - although at second hand. This may be an object lesson for anyone interested.

Some of my wife's family moved to Banz a generation ago (1970's) and my wife's father bought some land from a local man. Some of the family have lived there ever since. Both the original people involved in the transaction have since died.

There is an ongoing dispute now about who owns the land. One descendant of the original owner says it belongs to the local people from Western Highlands, others say it was bought fair and square by my Simbu relatives.

Unfortunately the relevant documents were lost in a fire at the Minj admin headquarters some years ago, so now it seems to be up to which family has the biggest voice and the most muscle.

To make things worse, one of my brothers-in-law has started selling parts of the land on his own account - without the agreement of the family (which includes my wife who is the senior child and therefore should have the say).

So it is an unholy mess.

All I can say is stay out of PNG land disputes!

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Peter - The artist is one of your tambus from the Kundiawa Gembogl district. He is Simon Tagai.

Phil - My experience on social cohesion from the highlands context: it is fading at an alarming rate.

Once you return to the village after giving your prime years to the State or others, you find you’re an outcast.

Your lands are taken by your kinsmen because during your working years you have contributed little or nothing to buying firearms, bride price, funerals, rituals, school and medical fees, etc for your tribesmen.

For example, they thought - during the many tribal fights they fought to defend the tribal lands in the day and keeping a vigil in the night for enemies - that you were away in Port Moresby feeding on fried chicken and making love to your wife in a good bed.

With such perceptions, you cannot just return during your old age to sit on land that your kinsmen have shed blood to defend.

In order to be accepted into the society you have to return with a rifle or suitcase of cash as sugar coating. Don’t forget sanguma too…

Otherwise, buy land on the fringes of the town and squat and eventually make your children become children from a lost tribe.

Either way, there is economic irrationality and therefore I tend to see the contemporary structures in PNG with pessimism.

Peter Kranz

Phil - Who is the artist who painted the murals at Mt Wilhelm Lodge? Simon someone? I genuinely do not know.

He deserves an award.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Nice photograph; more of Simon's artwork in the background I see.

Anthropologists have a lot to answer for and I'd take anything they say with a grain of salt. The idea of capitalist style progression as a measure being one of them.

Anthropology, like most pseudo-sciences, experiences cyclic periods of fashion and that one is fairly dated.

I've always thought that evolution, as described by Darwin, can move both forwards and backwards.

The irascible Welsh archaeologist, Rhys Jones, demonstrated that technology among indigenous Tasmanians had done just that. The good artefacts were in the older deposits and the technologies of the contact period were limited.

Your very astute MP made the same point about progress.

This is why I doubt that society in PNG can be safely left to evolve over time. Left to do that there is a good chance it will go backwards.

We are, in fact, seeing this happen with the reversion to tribal politics and the warfare in the highlands.

Hopefully the bright new generation that is demonstrating it's abilities on PNG Attitude and in the Crocodile Prize competition will intervene and put it right. And that doesn't mean adopting western styles at the cost of the traditional.

Another thought provoking article, Paul

Peter Kranz

My family have experienced the same issues - moving from Gembogl (upper Simbu) to Kundiawa and then some of them to Moresby and Lae.

They have for the most part not found the anticipated advantages of town or city life, and many now realise that they had a better lifestyle back in the village.

I believe most of the problems of violence and poverty in the main PNG cities are the result of people's unrealistic expectations in moving to an urban area and finding they have no traditional social support, no employment and no money.

Values break down, poverty becomes an unbearable burden, there is no garden for food, there is no family for help - thus raskols are bred.

For the record (someone in years to come may need to know), the people in the picture are from left to right, Henry Mission (who does great work with the Catholic Church in helping development in Upper Simbu), my wife Rose, niece Josie, Mana Dau (mum-in-law) and cousin-sister Margaret.

The murals on the walls on Wilhelm Lodge in Kundiawa which you see are of traditional Simbu village activities, and are pretty spectacular. I don't know who painted them.

If they manage to open the airport again, it is well worth a visit to Kundiawa - stay at the lodge, travel up the valley to upper Simbu, spend some time at Betty's Trout Farm and maybe climb up the highest mountain in PNG - Mt Wilhelm.

You will receive a most friendly and generous welcome and will not be disappointed.

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