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Past wisdom: Enga cultural values to be taught in schools

Ruth Minape, a schools cultural education coordinator, with Professor Polly WiessnerDANIEL KUMBON

CULTURAL history is to be taught in all Enga schools to help students draw knowledge and wisdom from past traditions and apply it in their lives.

Two books to be used in the pilot project across Grades 6–12 will be launched in Wabag next Friday.

The American ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Catherine Ebert-Gray, will be among government ministers, national politicians, education officials and other invited guests to witness the launch of this milestone event.

One of the books, ‘Enga Culture & Community, Wisdom from the Past’, is an ethnography that provides an overview of Enga culture including stories, songs, poems, kongali (words of wisdom), nemongo (magic formula), drawings and early photographs.

The second book is the ‘Teachers Guild for the Enga Cultural Education Pilot Program’ and provides recommendations, questions and activities to help teachers integrate material into the curriculum for Grade 6–12 subjects.

The two books are the result of 30 years of hard work, research and study on Enga culture by Professor Polly Wiessner, Akii Tumu and Nitze Pupu.

Two high school teachers, Ruth Minape and Leo Maso Malala, were recruited last year to coordinate the cultural education project in the province. They also helped write the teacher’s guide.

The pilot project is the first major attempt in PNG to teach the rich and fascinating oral traditions that have been passed down from elders to youths over so many generations.

These traditions hold valuable information on cultural principles, practices and values that made for a harmonious and prosperous society in the past.

The project has been designed to enrich the existing curriculum with materials to allow culture to be integrated into all subjects at all grade levels. Since culture is a part of all aspects of life, it will not be taught separately.

In the past, culture has been taught in private schools in PNG but not as a standard part of the curriculum. Primary schools have always featured some cultural activities but these have centred more on song, dance and material culture but not on values.

The new project is designed to teach these values as well as cultural history to students as part of Enga history. It is also hoped that the reference book will be widely read and enjoyed by the general public because learning and understanding are lifelong challenges.

“Engans are not a people if they don’t have a history,” says Professor Wiessner, a professor of anthrophony at the University of Utah, who has been conducting research in the province since 1985 along with Akii Tumu and Nitze Pupu.

Akii Tumu is the director of the Enga Cultural Centre where Nitze Pupu also works as research director. He is PNG’s first blind person to have received a law degree.

During their research, they realised that the rich oral traditions and cultural knowledge that used to be passed on in the men’s and women’s houses, known as Akalyanda and Endanda, were no longer being transmitted to younger generations.

Rapid change meant that the Enga people were experiencing change rapidly resulting in the loss of traditional frameworks for cultural education like rituals and feasts like the Sangai and Mena Yae that had brought people together were disappearing.

“From the beginning of our research, we have always dreamed of including cultural education in the Enga school curriculum,” pProfessor Wiessner said. “How else could the principles, practises and values of Enga society reach present and future generations?”

They realised that three books they published on Enga culture, numerous articles, history and women’s lives had not reached the people that mattered – the students and the people in local communities.

One of the three books, a major work on oral history, Historical Vines published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in Washington, sold over 4,000 copies but not many Enga people have read it or are aware of its existence.  

So in 2014, they asked the Enga provincial government to support a proposal to teach cultural education in schools and it was approved by the Enga Provincial Education Board and the Provincial Executive Council.

An example of what will be taught is birth control. It was said that people should not breed like pigs, but space their children between three and five years to have time to care for each child properly.

Men retired to men’s houses at night and women stayed in women’s houses with girls and boys under the age of eight. Women did not resume sexual relations with their husbands until their infants stopped breastfeeding at about three years.

Sometimes serious quarrels broke out when women wanted wider birth spacing than man. But social norms supported woman’s rights to decide. Magic spells, poto nemongo were used to avoid pregnancy, however there were no effective means of birth control.

Here is the poro nemongo magic spell to avoid pregnancy:

Wanaku naa poto puu lao pato pelyo,
Tatali puu lau pato pelyo
Dilya potai, mama potai.
Niki langapu, kana langapu.
Wanaku naa ingi potai, kondonge potai,
Dilya potai, mama potai,
Aikena puu lao pato pelyo.

I, this girl, will be like a poto vine
Will go like a tatali vine
Be strong like dilya wood,
be strong like mama wood.
Cheat the sun, cheat the moon.
I, this girl, stomach be strong,
intestines be strong.
Be strong like dilya wood,
Be strong like mama wood.
Be strong like aikena pandanus.

The launching of the pilot project on Friday is the result of that important provincial government decision - a decision which was greatly appreciated by Enga people themselves who saw their rich cultural heritage disappearing fast. 

In fact many people had asked Professor Wiessner, Akii Tumu and Nitze Pupu to write down all the valuable information they had gathered during their thirty years of research so it could be stored by modern means – books, drawings and photographs.

Their request will now be answered when the two books will be launched and the material taught to students as part of their education and draw wisdom from the rich cultural history of their province.


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Joshua Yapai

It seems that the project was well completed. However it must be introduced in the schools as soon as possible because the tradition and culture seems to be dying out.

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