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What happens when an Enga man hits western culture head on

Dorothy & Enga man (Tribes & Tribulations)DANIEL KUMBON

ONE evening in Cleveland, Ohio, two friends suggested we go for drinks at a bar often frequented by nurses.

I was a bit scared I might end up talking with the wrong woman. I didn’t want a husband, live-in boyfriend or fiancée to catch me talking with their beloved.

And I couldn’t stand it when a woman looked at me in the eyes as we talked. I was not used to women looking at men directly like that.

If she was a relative, yes, you can talk with direct eye contact. But it was uncomfortable talking with strange women.

In America, there was no distinction between a married woman and a single woman. They all dressed alike.

Married women in Papua New Guinea are expected to dress and act differently. And when they talk, they look away in a passive manner. They don’t look at men directly.

On the other hand, having come from PNG which expects girls to marry sometimes as young as 16 or 17, I could not believe that so many attractive young African American women were still single.

“Why is this so,” I asked my friend.

“Because a lot of black men of marriageable age are behind bars,” he said. Was he joking?

“Also some of the women do not want to get married. They earn their own keep and want to enjoy life on their own.”

According to an American study, marriage was often the only route to economic security for women 40 years ago but that’s no longer the case.

In fact, men and women told researchers that one of the reasons men want to get married is because the guys are looking to sponge off their women.

In traditional PNG society, girls were expected to marry so the bride price would enrich their relatives. Bride price was recognised as fulfilling the girl’s obligation. Relatives became worried when a girl failed to get marriage proposals from a suitor.

The older women would prepare young girls to establish a good name for themselves as they started families among different people in their husband’s homeland.

“Clean your ears and listen to your husband and obey his instructions,” they would say. “Do not look down on him, even if he is old, has a short nose or is poor.

“Once he has paid the bride price, you are his wife. He is your husband for life. Work hard for him, bear his children and raise his children.”

The girls were warned that if they did not perform their duties, they would likely be beaten by their husbands. If they committed a serious offence like adultery, they would be tortured.

They were also advised to refuse a marriage proposal if they did not like a man before the bride price was distributed. It would be too late after the warapae pigs were killed to conclude marriage proceedings.

At the time when explorers began to infiltrate Enga Province in the late 1930s, a married woman from my village was caught committing adultery. She was told to strip in front of the whole village in the public square where the tee or moka exchange took place.

Her lover was also ordered by tribal chiefs to strip and perform in public what they’d done in secret. The woman’s fingernails were then burnt slowly until she promised never to commit adultery again.

This was jungle justice approved by society. These forms of punishment were cruel. But people accepted them as necessary to contain people within the confines of established mores.

Traditional taboos were always observed. And the tough punishments ensured stability in the family.

There were few spoilt children, not many broken marriages and, once a woman was married, she remained so for the rest of her life. Not many people lived single lives or suffered in isolation. There was always a wantok with whom to share food with or who would provide consolation. Serious crimes like gang rapes and adultery were rare.

But I thought this trend would change. PNG girls would refuse to marry. They would live in their own apartments, drive their own cars, choose their own soul mate and set the time to get married. I was concerned there would be an increase in domestic violence.

In the United States, I met a young woman from a developing country.

Every time I tried to share my problems with her, she joked about them. She laughed when she saw my messy apartment. Worst of all, she called me a male chauvinist pig – a title I don’t think I deserved.

“What is the position of women in your country? Don’t they do much of the domestic work,” I asked her.

“You men expect us to do everything. Raise kids, cook food, keep house. What do you take us for? Sex objects or what? You male chauvinist pig!” she growled.

“Take it easy. You shouldn’t stereotype all men,” I said.

The patriarchal society I was accustomed to expects women to be submissive and respect men at all times. In America the position of women was different. They stood on an equal pedestal.

But my argument with the lady from the third world helped me to understand the reality of the changing status of women everywhere.

In my view, even in a changing society, married women in PNG would still be expected to dress and act differently from single women. National women who wore a lot of perfume were often rebuked as ‘smelling like a chemist.’

From a western standpoint, this behaviour may seem odd. But, as it was, the situation in PNG was interesting for both men and women as traditional teachings and western influence merged.

And, inevitably, there was change. Not always for the better.


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Chris Overland

Just for the record, I want to commend Daniel for raising this topic and articulating how so many PNG men perceive and understand the role of women.

My criticisms are aimed squarely at what I see as a serious flaw in many PNG cultures, not at Daniel personally.

I am sorry that his brave attempt to provoke debate on this thorny issue has attracted very limited responses from PNG women.

Their views clearly matter infinitely more than mine or my learned ex-kiap colleagues.

Also, I am acutely aware that the treatment of women in the western world frequently falls far short of the ideals or demands of feminist thinkers.

Any police officer can tell you this, as can any social worker.

Basically, there is a long way to go before women will routinely be treated fairly, let alone as equals, in our male dominated world.

We are all on the same journey as PNG when it comes to gender equality, just at different stages.

Paul Oates

I'm with Phil on this aspect in that the real issue is freedom of choice.

If people want to dress according to their taste then that should be the desired objective provided that they abide by commonly accepted decency standards. And that friends, is the rub.

What are the accepted standards and who set 'em?

I've seen western women wanting to don Muslim headress and Muslim women in say Turkey wanting not to. The problem starts when a society starts imposing enforced standards on everyone to conform. Mini skirts and bikinis offensive to some but smart to others?

Fashions change with the ages. Bare breasts aren't offensive to some but abhorred by the western missionaries who insisted PNG women cover up and then suffer skin fungus etc. when they did.

So should everyone be able to chose which society's rules they wish to follow without insisting everyone else follow what they want to do? Currently we have a situation in many western countries where some people from Muslim nations are migrating away from from where they lived but now want the same standards they left behind imposed on their new country. As the yanks say 'Go figure!'

FGM and child marriage are another hot topics that we could get bogged down in. Who is responsible for children who can't defend themselves?

The real issues here are being able to benefit from a broad based education and free communications, generally not being enforced to do something we don't want to do and not being led by superstition and the narrow minded. These are the enemies of totalitarianism.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure about that Chris.

I rather like the Trobriand custom where you advertise your single status by wearing a soulava necklet. Bit like the Polynesian hibiscus behind the ear.

In western society we wear wedding rings for the opposite purpose, to show we are already taken. How many blokes have quietly slipped off their wedding ring and gone into a singles bar?

I think you can equate the different style of dress between married and unmarried women the same way.

I suppose the difference is we don't force people to follow the custom. But then again, I don't think the Enga do either.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

Iam an advocate of change no doubt and try hard to educate all my children and encourage all children in my village to go to school.

But right now, as I write you won't see a lot of PNG men kiss their wives passiaonately in public places which to some might be a superior act.

PNG men expecting their wives to act or dress differently is not an issue here. The culture runs deep in the blood. It will take generations and inter-cultural marriages to take place before PNG will eventually change as a nation.

And like Elizabeth Bakri Dumu's father saw - education is the number one key for people to understand and accept other cultures and move forward. If I was not educated, I would not have gone to America to start this discussion

Chris Overland

In his most recent comment about PNG's many different cultures, Daniel Kumbon expresses his view that none is superior to any other.

At one level, it is hard to argue with this. After all, there appear to be no universally accepted criteria upon which we might determine the relative merits of one culture as opposed to another, especially when they are similar.

However, if you accept that there are, in fact, certain inalienable human rights, then there is a defensible basis for making such a judgement.

So, for example, a society in which some individuals have their life opportunities constrained or restricted solely due to their colour, gender or religion, would be judged manifestly unjust and a breach of human rights in the western world.

However, in many parts of India, where the caste you are born into effectively defines your life options, there are many who believe that this is simply the ways things are meant to be.

An individual's fate is deemed to be, literally, determined by the gods.

I totally reject the deterministic thinking behind the Indian caste system, believing it to be both completely unjustified and unjust, as well as hugely wasteful of human potential.

In doing so I am reflecting both a personal belief and, more broadly, the liberal, non-deterministic cultural norms of the society into which I was born.

In relation to this matter at least, I feel able to assert that western culture is manifestly superior to Indian culture.

However, thinking about western culture more broadly, I am very conscious that there is much that is not especially admirable, such as our unabashed consumerism and the associated chronic wastefulness or our overly sexualised, crass and narcissistic popular culture.

This ambivalence about western culture, which I think that I share with many others, is a relatively new phenomenon in western thinking.

I am quite sure that the builders of the British Empire were never troubled for a moment by such thoughts: exporting British culture was, for most of them at least, an expression of their moral obligation to impose the rule of law upon the uncivilised and ungodly, not simply a case of the strong dominating the weak.

In an age of moral uncertainty and ambiguity like today, I think that the insistence that all cultures should be equally respected, significantly impedes debate about human rights.

It does so because it enables western critics of, say, the often deplorable treatment of women in much of the world, to be depicted as "cultural imperialists" rather than people exposing the very real injustices that are inherent in some aspects of many traditional cultures.

At the risk of being labelled in this way, I say to Daniel that his idea that in PNG married women should dress and behave differently from single women is patently wrong, unjust and a clear breach of universal human rights.

In this case at least, western culture, despite its flaws, is superior to PNG traditions.

Elizabeth Bakri Dumu

Daniel, I am a little over 40 years, and was raised in rural PNG. Like every other girl in my age group, I was taught to make a 'bilum', raise pigs, plant 'kaukau', not to jump over food or walk across men's face, and to not walk out of the house after a quarrel or fight. However, they did not mention what I was supposed to do if my husband bashed me up. I reckon it was because my dad never bashed his two wives, so they did not expect me to marry an abusive husband. However, one thing my dad stressed was the importance of education, and where it could take me.

Looking back today, I tend to agree with Chris, every idea must be challenged, before accepting it as worthy, or not. However, the capability to challenge can only be found in a few who are truly free from 'fear'. In his primitive state, my father saw something in Education, and I think that is wisdom. Today, I am an independent woman, free from all forms of fear, including the freedom to dress however I want, and I choose modesty. It is a personal choice, a choice taken after challenging the ideas around 'appropriate dressing'.

Today, in a world where change is the only constant, we, from the less developed countries must develop the capability to 'challenge all thought processes', so that we do not struggle unnecessarily, especially when some changes are obviously needful. For instance, the need for the husband to stand in the kitchen if his wife had called and said she would be running late after from a board meeting.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

Look at all the religions of the world - all thinking that their God or deity or whatever they worship is the mighty one. And look at how some christan denominaions in PNG are influencing the Speaker of Parliament to destroy sacred artefacts believing they are doing it for God to clease PNG of its social woes and corruption etc..
I personally hold the view that none of the 800 or so cultural groups in PNG with different beliefs, languages, dressing, songs, style of builing houses are superior to others. And so is with the rest of the world. Imagine a Telefomin man wearing a penis gourd hunting with bow and arrows in the jungle with an Aboringine hunting wallabies with a bumarang in the outback? They were perfectly happy weren't they?

Phil Fitzpatrick

And how many problems are caused by people who don't understand that others might see the world differently to them?

It is one of the main causes of war and intolerance and racism.

As Paul notes, exposure to other cultures was one of the great, albeit discombobulating, experiences of working in PNG.

Chris Overland

Daniel Kumbon's article offers a great insight into the impact of culture on how people perceive and understand the world.

Daniel is doubtless a well educated and sophisticated man yet, as he so eloquently explains, he is thoroughly inculcated with the cultural norms that prevail within traditional PNG society.

Indeed, this still influences his thinking to the extent that he evidently believes that PNG women who are married must dress and act differently to single women.

However much this idea sits well within the traditional PNG social construct, Daniel clearly understands that it would be rejected outright by virtually all women living in Australia, the USA and most of Europe.

Daniel has provided a great example of how non-western societies will pick and choose the bits of western culture that they can accommodate within their traditional social framework.

They never adopt the whole western cultural "package" because it brings with it a whole lot of ideas and behaviours which are inconsistent with powerfully embedded traditional social norms.

People naturally want to hang onto what they see as the best aspects of their traditional culture and besides, there is a good deal about modern western culture that is not terribly attractive anyway.

However, where holding on to a tradition involves, say, female genital mutilation, the use of rape as a punishment for adultery or, as Daniel implies, compelling women to dress and behave in particular ways according to marital status, then it becomes quite problematic from a human rights viewpoint.

For me, one of the western world's truly great gifts to the world has been the philosophical view that no ideas are sacrosanct and that everything can and should be examined, challenged and, if necessary, changed or simply abandoned.

We should therefore be unsurprised, if not in agreement, when Daniel and others like him choose ways of seeing the world that sit very uneasily with our own.

Paul Oates

Hi Daniel, you've provided some very useful insights into what happens when people experience 'culture clash'.

We who originally left our culture and worked with yours for many years in the bush were dismayed when we returned to our culture. Many of us felt like fish out of water and had to try and adapt back into another society with different norms, language and customs.

The culture clash I felt returning to where I had come from was far worse than when I arrived in PNG.

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