The blowgun hunters of West New Britain

The Melanesian Way in a modern society


“A long time ago, our people discovered the secret of life — live well, love well, have something good for every person and die a happy death” - the late Bernard Narokobi in his book ‘Melanesian Way’

OUR PEOPLE have for thousands of years lived in relatively independent societies. They managed their resources efficiently to cater for their needs. They lived in harmony with their environment if not always with their neighbours.

The environment was the source of their physical, spiritual and intellectual nourishment. They fed on the food it provided, the lessons it taught and the mythical spirits it harboured. The environment defined them and confined them to a locality such that there is an enormous diversity of linguistic, cultural and phenotypical features of tribes, even within the same region.

Everyone was deeply rooted to the land of their forefathers and fought to defend the integrity of the tribe. While individuals had certain property rights, such as the ownership of personal artifacts of value, the land was owned communally.

Hence the fruits of the land were regarded as communally owned and, as such, everyone in society expected a fair share – not necessarily an equal portion. This balancing act between the interests of the individual against those of the tribe is what I refer to as the Melanesian Equilibrium.

The Melanesian Equilibrium was the genius of our forefathers who juggled with the Economic Problem – human wants are infinite while the means of satisfying those wants are scarce.

Many beliefs, laws, values, practices and systems of social, economic and political organisation were aimed at achieving that balance. Hunting, gardening, fishing, marriage, birth and death all had cultural norms aimed at satisfying everyone and maintaining social order.

This is indeed still the case in many traditional Melanesian communities despite contact with the outside world. Melanesians in remote, isolated communities depend on their traditions as a means of survival. The modern State has little or no influence in how they live their lives.

It is this perceived ‘normality’ in many rural communities that sometimes causes western educated Melanesians to dispute references to poverty in Melanesia. This is what Sir Michael Somare was referring to when he told the Australian Press Club the no one in Papua New Guinea was going hungry.

Is it poverty, if a rural Telefomin man only wears astanget and does not own a laplap? Is it poverty that a child in Balimo eats sago for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

How do you define poverty and wealth in this present time when Melanesians live in two realities? We live in the reality of our ancestral land and in the reality of the modern State that exists on that land. Our cultural practices are as relevant to us as modern medicine, science and political organisation.

The failures of our modern State is not a reflection of the failure of our Melanesian traditions. In fact, the modern State has been arrogant and ignorant of the wisdom of traditional Melanesia.

Unlike our feudal Polynesian and Asian neighbors, we traditionally recognised leadership based on merit. It was always the strength of traditional Melanesian societies. Warrior leaders defended tribal lands and wise elders decided on gardening, trading missions, marriages, etc.

In the modern State, anyone can buy leadership, buy resources, buy decisions and buy their way anywhere. Instead of protecting the national interest, the State is a tool for pursuing personal ambitions.

The modern State steals from its people under legal pretexts of Constitutions and Acts of Parliament. Instead of sharing the fruits of the land with the people, individual purses are enriched.

Traditional Melanesian governance worked because the people and their leadership were always accountable to one and other. More importantly, the people had direct contact with the leadership and could shape decisions in the interest of the majority. That is not the case with the political arrangements of the modern State.

Modern leaders live in foreign countries or the national capital and are rarely with their people. There is a disconnect between both parties, thus the people are never heard or the leadership simply ignores their cries. The electoral cycle allows leaders to be totally unaccountable for five years at a time. Democracy lasts only as long as polling.

The Melanesian Equilibrium has been tried and tested for millennia, and that Melanesians continue to survive within that reality is testament to its robustness.

It is about leaders chosen on merit and being held accountable. It is about wise planning and decision-making based on respect for the people’s wishes and environmental sustainability.

It is about warriors defending the national interest and sovereignty. It is about a population educated to be of use to society. Above all it is about the fear of God and respect for the rule of Law.

Many Melanesians have sadly forgotten what defines them and how they came to be. Caught up in materialism, cargo cult, and the lure of power they will do anything to get what they want; even at the expense of their fellow citizens.


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Steve Gallagher Darong

Poverty in the Melanesian context is different from the Western context. Because of the globalised world, we now shift our definition to accept the Western concept of defining poverty.

Sir Michael Somare could be right in saying that there is no poverty in PNG. His statement is based on the Melanesian context.

In PNG the State does not own the land; the land is owned by people. We get all our basic needs from the land, no one stays without food for a day. Only the lazy people who depend on others sometimes stay without food for a day.

We Papua New Guineas are too lazy. I mean not all PNGeans but those who live on other people's strength.

I come from a simple family background. Me and my family own a small piece of land and we all work hard to cultivate this land to make a living. We don't have a luxury house, car or whatever, but we are not poor.

There are people who owns large areas of land, but they never work hard or make use of this land to earn their living.

People living in squatter settlement in towns and cities are lazy people. They don't want to live in a village because they found life is hard.

Really there is no need for us migrate in towns and cities in search of making a good living. Let people who have jobs in towns can live while we 'plesman stap lo ples' [villagers remaining in the village].

We don't have to cry to the government for bread and butter. The land is there, make good use of it and you will get the reward. Nothing on earth comes easy without hard work.

In Western countries, people can demand goverment for daily handouts because the state owns the land.

There must be some form of control over people's movement. Relocate squatter settlers or send them to the place where they come from.

People working and living in towns can have freedom to move, students and hard working people from rural areas can come to do their shopping.

We cannot just wait and the population in urban settlements increase. This will cause great trouble for us.

Of course many people living in squatter settlements have no village to return to; their forebears left the villages two or even three generations ago. It is unlikely that a 'village resettlement' program would be effective for such people - KJ

Peter Kranz

Sil - You speak true. All of us humans are capable of great stupidity, but some few people rise above this and are capable of wisdom.

I have great respect for John Momis. One of the fathers of PNG independence, and a great mind.

He sat next to me once on an Air Niugini flight to Buka, and said to me "we PNG people have made some mistakes, but some of us are trying to do the right thing for our children.

"Welcome to my Province, and I hope more travellers like you visit us. You are most welcome to my home."

He even got me a lift at the airport.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Tambu Peter - One has the conviction that his/her lineage or sect is better than the other simply because he/she is born and raised in that culture (cultural/environmental determinism).

For, example, an SDA pastor will defame the Pope instead of preaching something good at Tabari Place, whilst some thugs a small distance away will hold up some timid Solomon Islands students who come out from studies on Town Days and run away with their valuables in broad daylight.

Bystanders will not do anything but only lament "Trangu ol blong Solomon Island."

Some academics and politicians coin this word 'Melanesia' to refer to some people in the western South Pacific but in reality it is like accommodating a Jew and a Palestinian in the same hotel room with an Iranian and Uncle Sam as house keepers.


You are most welcome, Martin. We have all struggled with the issue of poverty, and will probably continue to do so.

I believe this is because it is in some ways a concept, and therefore must be understood in the context in which it is applied.

I'm glad to have shared my thoughts on this forum and thank you for providing the opportunity in this article.

It is good for us to generate debate about Melanesian and what it means for PNGeans to be Melanesian.

Peter Kranz is right to point out that the term is a 'category of convenience'. And it was meant to be a racial description.

But one must admit that we certainly don't do things in quite the same way as the other good people of our region. Or does anyone beg to differ?


Phil - There were creative reasons for continuing the misnomer of the young lass. I think it was pulled off quite well.

Martyn Namorong

My world view has in recent times being challenged as, in my state of dependence, the social security system of traditional Melanesia, aka Wantok System, has kept me above water.

I have always had the view that Melanesians had a choice between the past and the present and could not live in both continuums.

This essay is not so much about me trying to convince you about the wisdom of traditional Melanesia as much as it is about me convincing myself.

I thank you all for your comments. I am particularly grateful to Icarus, who has answered in some way the rhetorical question i posed on poverty.

I never had a clearer way of looking at it until i read his comments

Steve Gallagher Darong

The traditional Melanesian society is communal, the wealth is shared among the community.

There is no one person or family wnws the land. The land belongs to the society and everybody has the right to use it for the common good.

In the traditional Melanesian society, all people work for a common good. Women do the gardening, while men do the hunting or fishing. After the hard work, everybody share the food equally.

There are rules the governs the conduct of everyone in the society. The punishment of breaching the society's principles depends on the nature of the crime.

There is no individualism, elders are respected. There are also rules that govern the conduct of elders or leaders of the society.

The leaders who breach the rule are punished. People who kill other members of the community are killed and this act is accepted in the society.

Those who commit adultery, and any breach of society's principles, go through harsh punishment. In that way, the idea of common good existed in the community.

Today is different, and this is because our rules are not taught enough.

There is the concept of individual rights and other foreign principles that divide people within our societies. The land is now in the hands of only a few families or individuals in the community.

There was no concept of individual landownership existing in traditional times. The land is for the community. Everybody owns the land and it is used for common good. God does not give land to any individual person.

Papua New Guinea today is full of greedy, selfish people. We must change all this new system and go back to our old Melanesian way of owning resources based on the principle of equality.

There must be harsh or capital punishment for people who breach the law of the society. But before implementing this, we must get rid of corrupt people at the higher places and let good people, the people who love our country to govern us.

We must also make a new law that people who involve in business activities or politicians and public officials at higher places shall not involved in business activities.

I am say that we should get rid of corrupt people at higher places out doesn't mean I am pinpointing a certain group of people.

Sorry no offence, it will be offensive to you if you think that you are one of them. This article is for everyone.

God bless my country. Papua New Guinea

Peter Kranz

Phil and Yuambari - 'Melanesia' is a category of convenience but doesn't make much sense as a unifying notion either culturally or politically.

It is however useful in Anthropology and Genetics, but means little more than the term 'European' does. Just look at how kind and loving the English and French have been to each other over the years!

I always remember being rather shocked at the prejudiced views of many PNG people towards those from other provinces.

My good friend and sometime taxi driver Lucas from Hagan was always telling me "don't trust these coastal people here in Moresby, and never go out with a woman from Samarai - they are witches".

It worked both ways. I've had Motuan people say to me most sincerely "you can't trust a Highlander, and Simbus are the worst. We are scared of them".

And I ended up marrying one!

Phil Fitzpatrick

That's a very good point well made, Yuambari.

As far as I can determine being Melanesian simply means someone having dark skin and frizzy hair and living roughly in the south west Pacific area.

It is a useful term to distinguish those people from Polynesians, who have straighter hair and live on smaller islands.

The definition in no way implies any kind of unity or common way of thinking. And, as you point out, doesn't reflect reality. It is just another hangover from colonial times.

The current "commonality" being stressed seems to be an assumption of community spirit over individualism. It is a useful distinction for politicians and others to use to contrast with western society but that seems to be it's limit - it lacks any more depth.

I was a little put out when the debate moved the girl from the Western Province too. I think I know who is the culprit.

Yuambari Haihuie

I am beginning to wonder whether the concept of Melanesia is just a convenient justification for those in power to cement hegemony within the result of 19th Century colonialism, i.e. the modern Papua New Guinean state.

In reality what does being a Melanesian mean to the girl in Balimo (which is in Western Province, the others are thinking of Vanimo which is in Sandaun/West Sepik Province) and the man in Telefomin (which actually is in Sandaun/ West Sepik Province)?

More to the point, how does being a Melanesian empower us, if it doesn't than surely it is just an opiate to corral the 850 cultures that form the masses of this golem of a state into one shared identity.

If being a Melanesian does mean anything beyond a vote earner from disparate societies within a national electorate, then who decides on what it is to be a Melanesian?

Should it be our government which directly benefits from seeming to have an electoral consensus on what it means to be Melanesian, I mean they must be called National Alliance for a reason.

Is it based on geography, genealogy, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, politics, etc...?

Whenever one creates an identity for oneself, one immediately creates the other.

We must be careful not to allow the deceptively simple notion of a shared concept known as Melanesia blind as to both the complex myriad differences that exist within this manufactured state or to the tangled multi-layered relations beyond our borders.

Francis Hualupmomi

Martyn - An interesting and excellent piece. It should provide a theoretical foundation for researchers and policymakers in modelling development paradigms.


Martyn - Thank you, I found this to be a thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

Kela - I believe the Chief uses somewhat tinted lenses. But we must try not to do that too.

Jeffrey - We need to address that old Frankenstein to give more power back to the people, not the monster – by voting well.

Martyn, we all tend to accept the various descriptions of Greed but one wonders how we can manage to wean off that rival sibling, Poverty, without truly appreciating, and agreeing on its existence.

Let's avoid the academic definitions of poverty and get our hands dirty pulling it out by the roots.

There are many definitions of poverty but they generally operate on two dimensions that I note as time and knowledge.

If we think of poverty in those dimensions, then poverty exists at the moment a person knows that there is ‘better’, and not before that time. There was a time we used stone axes. Not now bubu, I’ve got a Husquavarna chainsaw!

In a way this means a definition of poverty should provide a realization of the ‘lack of’ and not the ‘lack of’ in itself.

Education and advancement of societies into the modern era changes us as a society and not only how we (Melanesians) live, but importantly, how we perceive the way we live.

Our goal posts in the context of our daily lives have changed because we know more about the world around us; and that there is better (or more) to be had by one and all (or one and fewer). The next step is desire. (This is the branching point of greed).

But who is it who knows of this ‘better’ and who is it who desires ‘better’?

Take your example of the young sago-eating Sepik lass, and yourself Martyn. Who is it who knows that there is better nutritionally appropriate food that she should be eating?

To be practical lets ask if it is a problem of resources or ability.

Is the nutritionally better food available or does the person know that it is available? i.e. If the girl knows that there is better food she should have but does not, then this is poverty – lacking.

If Martyn knows that she should be eating better, then his assessment will be that she lives in poverty of nutritionally balanced meals.

If no one in PNG Attitude tells the girl to eat nutritionally balanced meals, then we’re all poor. And the nation will lose out.

Think population growth, poor maternal health and infant mortality, because the sad picture is 30 years from now we’ll have six million more PNGen’s who will be lacking of even more.

If the young Sepik girl knows there is ‘better than sago three times a day’ and desires this, then there is a case for poverty. But what if Martyn desires this for her because he knows ‘better’?

The much flaunted Human Development Index is merely a yardstick by which to measure our own development progress (by UN standards); a better-meter if you like. This is to enable us to see where we are, in order to set achievable targets and make improvements that are measurable.

In short to really know how and when (knowledge and time) we’re doing OK. PNG statistics should be improved, but that’s another argument.

We can’t make any improvements unless we know where we are. By the same token, we can’t solve a problem if we don’t know (and admit) it exists.

Let’s stop thinking of poverty as a definition to be imposed on but as a situation to be improved on.

That’s progress towards Vision 2050 and beyond.

David Kitchnoge

Thanks Martyn – Nit picking aside, I like the essence of your message.

Our adopted methods of nationhood is like oil in the sea. It floats around on the surface and gives a false impression of the vast body of ocean beneath it.

We need to get underneath that oil and see how our society was able to regulate itself and how accountability was maintained to allow for our successful existence.

We need to rediscover ourselves and redefine our way forward in our own context. We must invoke the wisdom of our own ways to mould the future.

There is no need to try to be what we are not!

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

A man is a child of circumstances, of hardships and struggles.

Somare told the Australian Press Club that there is no poverty in PNG simply because he has not an iota of the experience that we have of struggling to make ends meet in the gorges and valleys of PNG to the fringes of the western citadels in Port Moresby.

His father was a colonial policeman so let's say he was well fed during that era and soon he was a public servant and politician.

The brunt of the obsolete democracy that the plebs cope everyday is not in Somare's sphere.

Barbara Short

It is obviously going to be much harder to govern a whole country than to just govern a small tribe.

But PNG as a country will only survive if they can make a national government work in the interests of every member of the country right down to the girl in the Sepik who eats sago for breakfast, lunch and tea.

I feel PNG must continue to try to make representative democracy work. It is not good if "modern leaders" live in foreign countries or the national capital and are rarely with their people.

Thank you, Martyn, for having a go at trying to work out a way whereby your traditional Melanesian Way can be incorporated into the modern way of running a country.

Don't give up, Jeffrey! Hopefully you can get rid of these corrupt, well-fed, arrogant fellows who have put themselves before the people that they represent. The elections are coming!

Jeffrey Febi

In the attempts by many politicians to modernise the Melanesian leadership style, they have created a monster that is all about deception, get-into-position-of-power and enrichment.

The picture of a leader painted here is no longer a warrior with a bow and his arrows; rather a pot-bellied anybody with a cowboy hat riding in a Toyota Landcruiser or anything that appears like one.

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