A movie, the Rabaul catastrophe & some thoughts on the past
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A discourse on marriage, sex & the population problem

Highlands womenDANIEL KUMBON

MY African-American friend from Cleveland was fascinated to hear about the practise of polygamy in Papua New Guinea and how a man was able to keep all his wives under the one roof and expect them to remain faithful to him.

He was blown away when I told him I had two wives.

“How do you know they will be faithful to you, all this time you will be here in the States?” he asked. “How do you fulfil their needs and wants? I mean, you know, are they not jealous? I am sorry if I offend you but these are immediate questions that come to mind.”

“I am not offended,” I said. “There are many reasons why a man marries multiple wives. One of my relatives - our first member of Parliament, Nenk Pasul MBE - married seven wives.”

Our big men often married many wives to expand their influence, gain power and prestige and to establish their positions in society.

“But you don’t get a woman free,” I said. “You know it costs something. You have to pay bride price for a maiden’s hand. Not in the sense of purchasing commodities at a supermarket but as a sign of goodwill and opportunity to display your wealth and give with generosity.”

Family ties were strengthened and every tribal group interlocked like a chain; every member in a tribe regarded as a brother.

“Back home while I am away,” I said, “I expect my brothers to protect my property, wives, children. I expect them to give them firewood, food and watch out for their general welfare.”

Fornication was out of the question. If a woman was found out, she would certainly be punished. Her very act would disgrace the family and the clan. I told my friend about the humiliation suffered by the fornicating couples in my village. Some women had their noses cut off.

“Does a man have to beat his wife every time she does something wrong?” my friend asked.

“No, a man has to be careful. A woman does not hang on a tree like fruit for the picking. She is paid something and the bridal wealth given is not all his. People may not contribute a second time if she runs away to her village or commits suicide after being maltreated.”

All men are born of a woman. They are expected to look after their wives as they would want their own kin to be treated. With love and respect.

“When a loved one dies, men and women cut their fingers or ears off,” I told my friend. “And the women smear white clay on their bodies and wear heavy necklaces for months on end. That’s a sign of love and true grief.”

“Can I believe that?” my bemused friend exclaimed.

The same subject popped up another evening, this time in the company of two African American female journalists with whom we were having dinner at a restaurant.

One of the girls asked me if I was married.

“Let’s not discuss such matters. We are people from worlds apart. Let us just enjoy the moment and live for it,” I protested.

“We agree, yes, but we want to let you know we are both single,” they said. “Will it hurt to tell us a bit about yourself?”

I knew where they were coming from. They wanted to tease me and provoke me to talk.

“Well, OK. But if I say I am not married you will think I am trying to woo you. And if I tell you I am married you won’t believe me either because I have two wives.”

“Oh really? Stop pulling our legs.”

“No, but it’s true,” my friend interjected. “The person sitting opposite is truly married. He has two wives.”

The girls laughed and laughed and I feared they might not stop. People were casting curious glances.

They remarked how greedy I was. I was one against two. But I didn’t feel any embarrassment. I was not joking either nor was I trying to woo them. We were mature people talking about adult matters.

They had reason to laugh. They could not possibly imagine a man having two wives living in the same house. The society they were brought up in was different.

“No, it’s not greed. The reason is not sexual gratification. It’s more than that. If one of you became the second or third wife of a man from my country, you would understand what I mean and find yourselves easily coping,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” they said in chorus and the laughter broke out again.

I kept on talking.

“Does the man sleep with all his wives on the one bed every night?” one of them asked.

“No, there are many rooms in the house. Each wife has her own room. But things are changing. Due to western influence traditional society is breaking down.”

Rivalries between wives has crept into families; some wives have even been killed. First wives by the second wife or vice versa. There is talk laws might be introduced to ban polygamy.

There were no control measures. Men traditionally stayed away from their wives in a hausman - a house especially for men - but now men and wives lived together. There were unnecessary childbirths.

With the introduction of liquor, men got drunk and apparently gave no second thought to the consequences.

The two girls were listening attentively, throwing in questions from time to time. It dawned on me that our conversation which started as a sort of joke had turned out to be something frightening – population explosion.

We agreed this was a global problem. It did not matter anymore that we were from different backgrounds, ideologies and ways of life. We were all part of a world community - the population was growing very rapidly and threatening all of us.

In the 1970s I learnt in school that the population of PNG was just over two million but growing at about 2.5% a year. Now the population stands at 7.7million.

The government must not fail to understand that great social and economic problems will result from over population.

I felt education would be the key. A literate person will understand how important it was to plan families and enjoy a quality life.


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Peter Kranz

Thank you Daniel for a brave and honest account. This is one area where Anthropology and Religion clash, as also does Western and Pacific culture.

It wasn't so long ago that in European society, women were regarded as male 'possessions'. They couldn't vote, they had a lesser standing in law, and were not expected to take part in higher education or join the professions (with a few notable exceptions).

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy tells of a man falling on hard times who decides to auction off his wife to the highest bidder at the local market. Although a great work of fiction Hardy always embedded his plots in his own experiences and recollections - so the chances are this really happened in early nineteenth century England.

As for polygamy in PNG traditional culture, I am sure it has lost it's original function of cementing inter-tribe relationships, preventing clan warfare and building extended families who could be relied on in the absence of any externally-imposed social welfare.

It is probably also relevant to say that in a time of very high infant mortality it provides some insurance for the continuation of a genetic line. European monarchies have been doing something similar for a thousand years or so.

The problem is this doesn't sit well with the messages people now get from Western culture and the resulting degradation of a man's social responsibilities.

Not to mention the rights of women.

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