Crocodile Prize: The wheels that drive the COG – Francis Nii

The corrosive effect of westernisation on nuptial tradition


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Literature

AMONG the problems that exist in marriage in Papua New Guinea today are the domino effects of disintegration and adulteration of customary nuptial principles by the callous forces of westernisation.

The other day I was returning from town back to Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital where I live.

Beside the road at Agua Market, I noticed a commotion. People were shouting obnoxious language. My helper (wheelchair pusher) and I stopped to find out what was going on.

A mother and her son-in-law were having a fracas and the mother was hurling all kinds of invective at her in-law.

Lukim em, sem blong em – Look at him, shame on him. Wanem taim bai yu baim Susan – When are you going to pay for Susan? Karim pikinini nating na nogat pay; yu mas sem long yu yet – Producing children without paying the bride price; you must be ashamed of yourself,” she shouted.

Nogat wok, nogat haus, pipia karim pikinini natingnating olsem dog – No job, no home, rubbish-bearing children senselessly like a dog.

Tupla pinis na namba tri klostu bai kam na kain piapia man olsem yu bai yu lukautim ol olsem wanem – Two already and the third one is about to come and a trash like you, how are you going to look after them?

Yupla olgeta lukim em, sem blong em – Everybody look at him, shame on him.”

The man retaliated with provocations and the woman was still barraging him with her diatribe as we left.

On the way my mind reflected on the fray and the sad reality dawned that I had witnessed an example of the disintegration and adulteration of customary nuptial principles.

The incident was a result of a classic domino effect triggered initially by the callous forces of westernisation.

In PNG, every ethnic group has its own traditional marriage kastom, but the triumph of peace, happiness and prosperity in marriage is a universal precept and Papua New guinea and Simbu present no exception.

In Simbu society, there are four main elements in the marriage enterprise. Building a new home and making a new garden. Bride price fixing and bride price payment. The marriage contract or holim bros bilong pik (holding pig’s breast). And the initiation of the groom and bride into manhood and womanhood (independent living).

There are slight variations in the order of the events and the manner in which the rituals are conducted in each tribal group but, on the whole, the four elements are the pillars of Simbu marriage custom.

In South Simbu, when a boy and a girl are in love and have agreed to get married, the first thing the boy’s relatives do is build a new house and make a new garden for the couple-to-be.

And then they look forward to the call by the girl’s relatives to set the bride price.

Word goes to the girl’s relatives that the boy’s people are ready to marry their daughter.

The girl’s relatives host a small feast and invite the boy’s relatives to attend.

The purpose of the feast is threefold: to give official recognition to the relationship (betrothal); to unite the two families; and, the core one, to fix the bride price – the girl’s relatives informing the boy’s relatives of the amount they want for their daughter.

In response the boy’s relatives set the tentative time they will pay the bride price.

The bride price amount set for a girl depends on whether she is working, the status of the parents and other minor factors.

If the girl is working or comes from a high class family, the bride price set is high and vice versa.

When the appointed time for payment comes, the boy’s relatives bring the bride price - mostly cash these days - to the girl’s people.

In the old days they used shell money, stone axes and birds of paradise feathers.

But today it is cold hard cash and, in some cases, a Toyota Land Cruiser is included, especially when the girl is highly educated and the boy’s parents are business tycoons.

The wedding feast is reciprocal. It is the bride’s people who host the first feast for the groom’s people and this is when the holim bros bilong pik rite is conducted.

Later, the groom’s people host the payback feast for the bride’s people and this time the bride and groom are initiated into manhood and womanhood.

The night before the bride’s people host the wedding feast, the groom and his people congregate with the bride and her people in the bride’s parents’ house or the hausman and the elders and sages of both sides give skul tok (edification).

The skul tok extends until dawn and covers all aspects of life from morality to survival, leadership, prosperity, charity, warfare, raising children and problem-solving interspersed with singing and tanim het (the turning head ritual), jokes and meals.

In the morning, the bride’s people line up the pigs, cattle, and goats they intend to slaughter for the groom’s people to inspect and agree - because they are going to match them in the payback feast.

Once a consensus is reached, the animals are slaughtered and cooked in big mumu pits.

While the mumu is cooking, all kinds of bilum, clothes and cooked and raw food that the bride’s people gathered for the groom’s people are given to them.

When the mumu is ready, the bride is dressed in the finest traditional regalia ready to be received by the groom’s people.

The groom and some strong men and women are also dressed in traditional regalia and await the call for holim bros bilong pik.

As soon as the mumu is removed from the pit, word goes out to the groom that it’s time for holim bros bilong pik. The groom and his friends sing and dance to the mumu place where the reception takes place.

The most colourful and exciting part of the ceremony is the receiving of the groom and bride by the respective sides.

Both sides mingle and dance in a warlike fashion and carry the bride and groom away before bringing them together for holim bros bilong pik, equivalent to the exchange of wedding rings in western culture.

The exchange and eating of the pigs’ breasts then proceeds. The bride holds one breast and the groom holds another and they exchange them. The marriage is sealed.

The groom and the bride each take a bit of pork and carry the breasts to their relatives who finish them.

This is followed by brief, wise and heart-moving speeches by both sides (which also includes the timing of the return feast) before the bride is released to the groom’s people amidst tears and dirges by close relatives.

The groom’s people take the bride, the meat and all the other stuff and return to their place.

The bride is taken to her new home and, in the days that follow, introduced to her new garden.

When the appointed time for the payback feast comes, the groom’s people repay all the bilum, clothes, foods and animals that were slaughtered for them and sometimes even extra.

Before the woman’s people go away with the food, the final ritual is conducted.

In front of the whole assembly, the woman is presented with a bilum (symbol of fertility), a spade (symbol of hard work), a female piglet (symbol of prosperity and wealth) and several kaukau vines (symbol of copiousness).

The man is presented with an axe (symbol of manhood, independence and hard work) and a sugar cane or banana seed of a special kind (symbol of prosperity and leadership).

Making a new home and garden, skul tok and initiating the bride and groom into womanhood and manhood are vital elements of the whole marriage venture for the Simbu people.

The couple is now well prepared to face the challenges of marriage and, a few months after the bridal ceremonies, they are living an independent life.

Today, though, the unfeeling influences of western culture have disintegrated and adulterated marriage kastom and some important elements of the vital nuptial rites are on the verge of dying out.

Skul tok and manhood and womanhood initiations are forlorn rituals.

Holim bros bilong pik has been replaced by the exchange of rings in church.

Traditional bilas is replaced by suits, ties and gowns.

For most marriages, the bride prices are not paid until some years after the women have children.

The couples don’t have their own means of survival. They depend on their parents for shelter, food and clothes. Even after they have children, they continue to depend on their parents and become a liability.

When the bride price is paid, they have not gone through the skul tok and other initiations and, as a result, don’t know how to start a new and independent life.

All they know is sex and they think this is what marriage is about, but it’s not. Only if they go through the skul tok will they know that marriage is more than having sex and producing children.

When problems confront them they are confused and don’t know how to handle them. Violence, desertion and marriage break-ups are the ultimate consequences.

Some even wander into promiscuity and end up with HIV and AIDS.

Worse still, the wider permeation of pronography is influencing young people to adopt marriage practices before they are betrothed or wedded.

The whole matter is a national issue. It affects the entire nation. It affects the moral fabric of our society.

Society is continuously evolving and, if this kind of cultural disintegration continues, PNG is heading for a culture embedded in lost identity and moral decadence.

Perhaps one way to preserve not only the nuptial but the other valuable and beneficial customs is to institutionalise them.

Each province could establish a cultural education institute where all the valuable and beneficial customs are documented in written and electronic form and are taught to the children in schools as part of their lessons.

This is a complex and difficult issue that has no easy solution. The best each and every ethnic group can do is to continue to practice the customs. In this way kastom is preserved; it is kept alive and passed from generation to generation.


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Michael Dom

Neither Islam nor Christianity may save PNG culture.

Neither religion may save souls either despite their claim.

How many people have burned in the fires of both?

And still do.

Peter Kranz

Jerry - get real. More than 95% of PNG people are Christians.

Jerry Bomai

Christianity is definitely not a religion for PNG. We should switch to Islam and embrace it because it will work well alongside our customs and traditions.

Western culture and Christianity have eroded our culture and traditions.

Peter Kranz

The ultimate movie about cultural difference must by Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. You must watch the whole thing, but here's a sample (music courtesy of Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti).

The Fifth Element is love.

Chris Overland

This is an excellent article, highlighting as it does that "Western Civilisation" is loaded with values, practices and beliefs that do not necessarily translate that well into other cultures.

While I understand the sentiments expressed by Francis, I am a little concerned that people without any background knowledge of PNG might jump to the conclusion that westernised marriage was imposed by the former colonial administration.

So, as a point of clarification, I feel obliged to mention that in the colonial era traditional forms of marriage were clearly recognised by law and regarded as being no different to a western form of marriage.

Both were seen to be what they actually are, which is a form of contractual arrangement between two parties, the terms of which are agreed upon before the contract takes effect.

The current western style marriage is the result of a long period of development. It reflects the triumph of the idea of romantic love, which is a surprisingly modern notion.

Early marriage forms in Britain and Western Europe were frequently the result of arrangements between the families of the bride and groom and were often intended to create and consolidate familial and business relationships. Love had nothing to do with it.

This was especially so amongst the nobility, where women in particular were regarded as little more than chattels or pawns in the never ending "game of thrones" that was such a feature of European history. The negotiation of a dowry (bride price) was a prominent part of such marriages.

Even in the 19th century it was not uncommon for the impoverished English or European aristocracy to arrange marriages with cashed up American heiresses in order to restore the family fortunes. Winston Churchill was born of exactly such an arrangement, although it seems that his parents did, in fact, have a great fondness for one another.

So, really not that much different to the traditional arrangements that Francis has described so eloquently.

Michael Dom

Yes, it's time we stopped taking our cultures for granted. Living in them does not mean that they will be preserved as the moral and practical elements that created cohesion in our society. We're already finding that out.

Despite the vast number of different cultures we so often boast about, each provincial government has done less than enough to preserve our customs.

Simply hosting a singsing is not enough.

Who teaches the songs? Who knows the story of the dances? Who understands the costume? Who appreciates the subtle movements and tone of voices?

We simply expect our cultures to go on without our intervention.

Wake up!

Barbara Short

I love the idea of a cultural education institute. Every ethnic group could have one. It could include all aspects of culture. Knowledge of pottery making could be passed on.

I guess that many aspects of the traditions associated with marriage will die out. There are many marriage traditions in the Christian European culture which I guess have now been adopted by people in PNG.

The main thing is to see that marriage works. Down here in Australia the number of divorces is rising every year and that is very sad.

`Robin Lillicrapp

Well done, Francis for raising the seminal topic of protecting the building block of society: family.

Your comments mirror a universal trend lamented even among the western communities.

To regain (if possible) traction in this arena, it is important to uphold efforts like the Croc-prize comp.

The resulting exponential increase in creation of, and respect for language rebuilds those lost years and quantum of understanding among thinking people concerned with preserving a balance amid aspects of decline.

Keep up the writing, Bro.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think every province needs one or more cultural centres where traditions can be preserved, taught and put on display. Many other traditions besides marriage are affected by westernization and need to be preserved.

With respect to the opening dispute between the man and his mother-in-law I couldn't help thinking about the custom of 'mother-in-law-avoidance which is common to many indigenous groups.

In Central Australia where I worked in the 1970s the tribal people still adhered to the rule. If you came across your mother-in-law the custom was to hightail it as quickly as possible.

Under no circumstances could you speak to her. It's a useful custom that could have gone the other way, passed from traditional culture to western culture.

Peter Kranz

Thank you Francis for this very important article. Rose and I have been weaving our way between different Kastom for some time now (10 years?).

The cultural differences are sometimes hard to understand.

- Where is the bride price?

- Why did you marry a PNG woman?

- Why didn't you dress properly?

- How many pigs did you pay?

- They will put a spell on you. Aren't you scared?

These are all questions I have been asked.

My one answer to Rose is - love is the most powerful magic.

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