As more cuts loom, Australia's aid sector must confront its failures
Pomio landowners have a major court victory over logging giants

Don’t get lost in translation, PNG culture is similar to the west’s

Paul Oates - 'let's look for our similarities not our differences'


GOLD COAST - When I arrived in Papua New Guinea, I had a basic understanding of Melanesian culture and Pidgin English but I worked hard at it and nearly two years in the bush gave me much better communication and translation skills.

As Philip Kai Morre writes (‘The disorientation of a transitional people in a confused world’), the central issue relates to culture.

Yet, if we take a broader view, there are many similarities that exist between PNG and western culture.

Why? Because we are all human and most of us tend to think in parallel concepts.

If you begin drawing comparisons between traditional PNG cultures and western cultures, it’s a fair bet you will identify differences. If you start looking for dissimilarities, you will inevitably find them.

Sometimes they are glaring, creating a barrier for people trying to manage change and understand new concepts.

If however you start out looking for similarities, the reverse can be true. Looking at the similarities can ease make the cultural change required.

As an example: look at the western concept of cash money where there is an equivalent in traditional PNG ‘money’, whether this be shells, pigs or some other form of wealth. The concept of wealth and wealth transfer is just as important in traditional PNG culture as it is elsewhere.

If you look at the laws and policing, traditional PNG cultures had well developed laws and rules and effective ways of enforcing them.

Looking for similarities is all about understanding how the concept operates rather than how it looks.

The development of cargo cults, and the more recent money cults, is not new and isn’t restricted to PNG.

For example, Australians are susceptible to being conned by charlatans and criminals. Greed knows no cultural boundaries. You only have to go to a club with rows of poker machines or visit the horse races to see how westerners chance their wealth. Sori tumas! Las momo kani!

And consider the world's stock exchanges to see greed in full swing. A visit to Chicago's grain exchange sees people betting on harvests that have yet to be planted. How’s that for cargo cult behaviour?

During the 2008 global financial crisis, many people lost a lot of wealth as a result of global stock markets crashing. This has been going on for centuries. And looksl ike it will continue for many more.

So if you look at the broad concept and intentions and merely translate the methodology, PNG culture has many similarities with many other cultures including western culture. You just have to be careful not to lose sight of the concept and not get lost in translation.

What might help many PNG people move forward is an education process that translates the equivalent western concepts into their home grown perceptions.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

Great example Arthur. Well done 'ol mate.

One of the points you make about sharing wealth is a very important one. If you look at the conflict that others often mentions between "Capital' or management on one side and 'Workers' or unions on the other, the modern Germany, that powerhouse in today's Europe has some ideas that should be considered.

On a successful management board of many German companies are not only the managers but also the unions. Consequently, the benefits of a successful business then flow to everyone who works hard for the business.

Nothing like lateral thinking when vertical thinking doesn't work.

Arthur Williams

I enjoyed your post Paul because it suggests similarities of behaviour by peoples of all states and conditions of governance.

So often when we read or hear about land in PNG it is said to hold some special meaning to its citizens than for us elsewhere.

Yet I was always aware of the sanctity of land in the UK. Indeed over the years living in the PNG I explained how we had many rivers that held glorious sorts of fish. However I had to tell my listeners how I and they would not be allowed to catch any of those fish even if we were desperately hungry.

“Why not?” they would ask.

“Because they belong to the landowner of the area!”

I expanded on how in days gone by hungry peasants had been sentenced to all sorts of punishments for catching wild rabbits or deer on a big man’s land.

I could have explained how millions of ‘No Trespassing’ sign are found all over Britain as bigmen try to protect their hundreds even thousands of acres of inherited land that may have been ‘given’ to them hundreds of years before because they allowed the king to sleep with their daughter or even their wives.

Playing ‘Laki’ is not just a roadside trait of PNG but its worldwide with Australia perhaps heading the world for the annual individual cost gambling overall estimated at over $20 billion.

Most religions consider gambling a sin or a curse yet in the UK the Anglican Church has many million tied up in stock and shares that is considered a pure form of investment and so not ‘gambling’.

In Easter 1995 putative Prime Minster Tony Blair, somehow? - perhaps because I wasn’t at the party meeting, convinced the sheep to abolish Clause 4 the famous Labour Party statement from 1918 which stated clearly its socialist policy:

‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’

What none of his fellow travellers into the bright new world was that their beloved charlatan, after starting a dubious war in Iraq which would cause over a million deaths or more; would within 20 years own 10 houses and 27 flats valued at over £25 million. Or that he would be coining around $300,000 for an after dinner speech.

But greed and or rip off by the bigmen is not the sole sphere of western elites.

I soon learnt how Igua of the Baunung area on Lavongai Island that despite owning so much land it only took a couple of days using his alleged 100 wives or concubines and their relatives to make a new ‘garden’ or plantation of coconut.

Many years later in the 1970s his descendants would sell me the copra that they harvested from those ageing trees.

The corruption of too many African leaders has been well documented and I just read: Worth a read so I finish with a pithy comment from it. “So corrupt when compared to whom? The Chinese? If so, then I have the perfect joke:

Abubakar, a Nigerian businessman, goes to see his old university buddy Lao Wang, now living in Beijing. He arrives at Lao Wang’s apartment and notices a brand new Audi A6 parked outside, an Hermes belt gracing his belly and a brand new Rolex on his wrist.

“My friend,” says Abubakar, “You have done well for yourself!”

“Well,” says Lao Wang proudly, bringing him to the big bay window in his apartment, “Do you see that bridge over there?”

“Yes I do! It’s a beautiful bridge.”

“That’s my project!” Lao Wang grins, pointing a thumb at his chest.

Abubakar is impressed, and leaves Beijing with many thoughts on how to get rich. Years later, Lao Wang finds himself in Lagos and hits up his old friend Abubakar, who invites him to his home.

Lao Wang is almost bowled over by the opulence of the place. It is a mansion made of marble and gold. Two Rolls Royce are parked outside. He enters Abubakar’s massive office and immediately blurts out:

“My friend, you have done VERY well for yourself!”

“Well,” says Abubakar proudly, bringing him to a big bay window, “Do you see that bridge over there?”

Lao Wang looks and looks, but turns to Abubakar, confused. “What bridge?”

“That’s my project!” grins Abubakar.”

Maski ples daun!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)