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Can the Melanesian Way guarantee a good life?

Tanya-zeriga-aloneTANYA ZERIGA ALONE

An entry in The Rivers Prize

WHEN THE AGREEMENT WAS SIGNED to reroute asylum seekers from the Middle East bound for Australia to Papua New Guinea, there was a public outcry against the move by majority of Papua New Guineans.

In the midst of all the animosity levelled against the decision, the more peace loving Papua New Guineans were using the social media to remind the rest of the people about the Melanesian Way. Papua New Guineans were urged to embrace the asylum seekers the Melanesian Way.

What then was the Melanesian Way that was supposed to make the asylum seekers welcome? Proponents of the Melanesian Way talked about love and acceptance and peace such that, if this concept was a picture, it would show a line of people standing along the beach with the bible in one hand, a lei in the other and a smile on the face.

Is the Melanesian Way a way of love?  Did our ancestors stand on the shores and sing songs of welcome when the Whiteman sailed into the harbours and coves of the island of New Guinea?

John Waiko (1) in his narration of the first contact between the Binandere with the Whiteman showed that the manner in which the different tribes approached the Whiteman was a direct reflection of their capacity to fight their tribal battles.

Some tribes were self-sufficient in their capacity to fight and maintain tribal lands and acquire new land from the losing tribes while other tribes were being run to extinction.

Those that could not defend their lands embraced the Whiteman as an ally in a hope that the Whiteman and the power of his shotgun could be used to fight their battle.

On the other hand, those that were self-sufficient saw the Whiteman as a threat and rejected the Whiteman and fought him off any chance they had and even ate the bodies of white man to assimilate the power of the Whiteman.

The Binandere people were portrayed as a scheming lot who forged alliances based on the benefits the alliance would bring to them to assist them fight their enemies. The Whiteman unfortunately was not aware of this agenda.

Other commentators define the Melanesian Way as the way of equality. Indeed, most PNG societies are egalitarian. Apart from a few societies that had chieftain systems, most tribes in PNG lived in a society where everybody had equal status.  (The introduction of sweet potato disrupted this system in some societies by breeding pigs, polygamy and the big man.)

The notable writer and blogger Martyn Namorong call this the Melanesian equilibrium wherein the “…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” (2) – a balancing act between the interests of the individual against those of the tribe.

But that was where it ended, within the tribe. No Melanesian Equilibrium was ever extended to those outside the tribe. Tribes were fiercely protective of their land and women.

John Fowke in his essay on The Melanesian Way says that  ...”the Melanesian Way is the way of a fragmented multi-tribal society. It’s a Way which facilitated the existence of such societies whilst they remained divided, multi-lingual, local, warlike and competitive. In PNG’s case, this was a society that existed successfully and independently for tens of thousands of years”. (3)

The “Way” that kept a fragmented multi-tribal society intact as referred by Fowke can be put down to one word - suspicion - suspicion of everything beyond the tribal boundaries, suspicion of the unknown kept tribes independent for thousands of years.

Any trade links and allies that existed were acquired, maintained and managed through marriages over time. The elaborate planning and ritual that went into arranging marriages and paying bride prices demonstrates how important marriages were for strategic purposes.  Though confusing to outsiders, the sometimes messy mortuary ritual that takes place to honor the “mama lain” and the “papa lain” when someone dies serves to reaffirm the links and allies.

Other commentators say that the Melanesian Way is an attempt to bring the thousand tribes with diverse tribal rules together as one nation. The Melanesian Way served to bring the thousand tribes “….under a new version of tradition as a bundle of values specific to no particular place but putatively shared by all”.

Is that what Bernard Narokobi meant when he coined the term back in the 1984? (4)

The rule of law which judges right from wrong is a concept absent in the Melanesian context.   Mr Narokobi recognized that and pointed out that there was no right way of making peace and that conflicts can be successfully settled by recognizing differences in the approaches and then coming up with the best mode to resolve the issue.

Through this method of considering all options, all parties win to some level and none lose. This ensures that relationships are maintained and none is estranged because one may need to call a favor in the near future.

This method of reaching a consensus had practical implications when the thousand tribes came together to become one nation. This method validated all the different customs that existed and through a show of respect and consideration for all the differences.  This method of dispute resolution was the Melanesian Way Mr Narokobi referred to.

Does a Melanesian Way exist and does it work? The answer is a yes. For instance, the Melanesian Way is the winner in land disputes cases. Through dialogue, the genealogy is constructed and the land divided according to the genealogy. All parties are satisfied.

 This however, is not so for those who go to the court of law – the law rules one the winner and awarded the land and the other the loser. This breeds animosity between blood relatives.

Despite its usefulness, the Melanesian Way open to manipulation and misuse because of the oral nature of the customary laws.

This misuse has been pervasive in the political arena. A commentator states this about the Melanesian Way in politics “Melanesian Way is whatever those in powers choose it to mean. Lacking any kind of scrutiny their personal lives are enriched by theft, bribery and corruption. The Rule of Law means nothing to them and corruption is so entrenched that it is the norm rather than the exception.”

After observing politics in PNG, the hard speaking commentator, Dr Susan Merrell says that Melanesian Way is  “….redolent with self-serving pragmatism and a fickle approach to commitment that can be called upon, or not, according to whim. “ (5)

This self-serving pattern exists because the parliament has two guiding principles. First is the one borrowed from the west and based on Christian tenets and the other is the custom.  The custom is however, not one custom but a thousand customs, unwritten and open to interpretation and which cannot be challenged in the court of law.

In such a dual system, with no rule to guide decisions, the trend has been to choose culture over the constitution when it seems beneficial to do so.  The Melanesian Way has become the excuse to break laws and circumvent obligations and hard decisions and even escape the grasp of the law.

Justice is not served when a compromise is reached outside the modern court of law to pay “bel kol moni” to the families of victims of rape and abuse. It is against human rights values when a young girl is forcefully married off by her family to an older man to settle old scores.

The Melanesian Way has become self-serving as pointed by the political commentators.  The Melanesian Way suppresses innovation and hard work because it rewards supporters and kin and not hard work.

Can the ‘Melanesian Way’ guarantee a good life for the people of Papua New Guinea?

The definition of a good life is subjective, but all people regardless of whether they live in glass house or grass huts desire a society where there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails.

We can make a good life for our people when we stop pretending that the Melanesian way is relevant in the 21st century because it is not. Every human being must abide by the rule of law and conduct their lives according to the moral code all human live by. 

Justice has to prevail. The troublemakers must be punished and the people must rise and fall not because of influence but because they have worked hard and earned a good life.

Papua New Guineans must become free from the oppression of the Melanesian Way.


(1)    Waiko, J (1989) Australian Administration under the Binandere thumb in Papua New Guinea: A Century of Colonial Impact 1884-1984 (ed S. lautukefu), pg 75-108



(4)    Narokobi, B (1989) Lo Bilong Yumi Yet: Law and Custom inMelanesia, Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of South Pacific, pg 4



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Anton Simbai

Like the article, great.

John Oakley | Western Province

Thanks Tanya for this great insight. We long for the day when, as you say, "there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails".

Each needs to do what they can and encourage others on that path, despite what we see happening (and not happening) around us.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you Tanya for a very interesting and thoughtful discussion on the good and bad aspects of the Melanesian Way.

I always used to say to my PNG students .."keep the good aspects of your culture and throw out the bad".

I come from a Scottish culture and although always proud of it I could see the good and the bad aspects of it.

My family tried to keep the good aspects and my sister-in-law went to the Highlands Gathering at Bundanoon yesterday, but I always knew my father was a bit over-fond of the whisky, which I felt had been a great curse on the Scottish nation in the past!

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