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N’gego – Melanesia’s house of governance

Haus Tambaram  Palambei  Middle Sepik
Haus Tambaran, Palambei, Middle Sepik. Duncan Gavin argues that PNG’s Parliament House should not be called a Haus Tambaran

| Aunamelo Independent Blog

MADANG – Papua New Guinea’s parliament house is one of the world’s most fascinating examples of public architecture.

The building incorporates various structural features found in PNG but the design that dominates is the architectural style of Maprik in East Sepik Province.

Sepik boasts some of the finest architects of the ancient world, which can be seen in the magnificent structures they erected. One incorporated into the design of the parliament house is what we know as the Haus Tambaran or Haus Man or Spirit House.

Indeed, parliament house is commonly referred to as the Haus Tambaran in reference to the original structural design it has borrowed from.

The building has at times in the past received strong criticism from the people of PNG.

For example, the design and the carved figures and totems on display have been blamed for causing our politicians’ shortcomings, corruption and more generally for moral decay in our society.

And so, as a son of Melanesia, I am obligated to clear misconceptions and defend my cultural heritage by writing from a Melanesian perspective.

I have argued that the names Haus Tambaran and Spirit House carry a negative connotation and do not truly portray the house.

Of course, spirits and the deities dwell there, carved into beautiful and often frightening figures and totems, but that is just one aspect of the building and everything that goes on within.

It is important to define terms before we go any further.

Tambaran in Tok Pisin means evil spirit or demon if you are religious. Calling the building a Haus Tambaran offers a clear sign that evil spirits inhabit the building and that those people who go in there, do so to do magic, cast evil spells or engage in some evil rituals.

Foreign anthropologists have studied our cultures and written about them from what I would call the etic approach.

There are two kinds of field research viewpoints: emic, from within the social group (that is from the perspective of the subject), and etic, from outside (from the perspective of the observer).

I employed the emic approach to understand the structure and functions of the Haus Tambaran during my stay in one of the villages in the Middle Sepik River region.

While there, I was given the privilege to sit in the Haus and talk about the issues concerning the society.

In the Iatmul culture of Middle Sepik, the building is called N’gego - a place of meeting or gathering. Other parts of Sepik have their own names.

The Haus serves a number of high level functions. It is a governing body, a complex system of governance developed over thousands of years.

It is a Melanesian school of thought, we would call that a university, where the learned men of society impart to the younger generation the knowledge of their ancestors and traditional values that weave the moral fabric of the society.

Philosophy, politics, law and art are the main subjects. There are others.

The Haus is also a temple where the spirts and deities are honoured.

It houses the spirits of the ancestors and the deities, which are carved into wooden figures or totems. Some are beautiful and some fierce and frightening to behold.

The most notable practice in the N’gego is the initiation ceremony.

This involves young men transitioning into adulthood by acquiring the knowledge of the land and undergoing the painful scarification practice.

The initiated have pass these tests to be eligible to sit in the N’gego and talk among men and discuss matters of importance.

Those not been initiated are not allowed to enter the N’gego.

In my time in the Sepik, I found that the building has these important functions in society. Here, however, I will discuss only the Melanesian governance function of the N’gego.

The N’gego is a single chamber legislative body consisting of male members of different clans.

Each clan is represented by its chief along with initiated men of the clan.

Each clan has a platform. In the village where I was, there were four platforms in the Haus for the four big clans, there could be more in bigger villages.

The big clans share their platform with their sub-clans. The village chief is the overall chief in the Haus and seated at its north end.

A debating or speaking stool is situated in the middle of the house. It is a carved human figure standing almost a meter and a half high.

The figure has a stool carved just above the groin and on it are clusters of coconut leaves tied in a small bundle.

Anyone who wants to speak in the Haus walks to the stool, picks up a cluster of leaves and starts speaking.

When finished, he uses the cluster to strike the stool, leaves the cluster and returns to his platform. Following speakers will do the same.

This allows order in the Haus and ensures respect for the speaker. Those in agreement with a speaker usually say ‘huuuuuu’ in a chorus.

I did not hear anyone make a sound of disagreement, so I do not know what that would be.

Only the initiated male members of the village come to meet, debate issues and look for solutions to problems. They enforce the laws, punish offenders and ensure justice is done and peace prevails.

The N’gego is recognised as the centre of the village and the pillar of Iatmul society.

Without it, society would collapse into a state of anarchy.

To ensure that the men in the N’gego do not have too much power and behave in an authoritarian way, it is the women who maintain the checks and balances.

Even though the women are not allowed into the N’gego, they are an important part of the whole system and not excluded from decision-making.

In Iatmul culture, the women are referred to as Niamun, translating as ‘elder’. In Iatmul culture, the women are regarded as older and wiser than the men.

The men are referred to as Suambu, translating as young or small. They are seen to be sometimes lacking in wisdom.

During major meetings and debates in the N’gego, to maintain checks and balances, a protocol known as Niamun Suambu Bangra takes place.

When the Haus is in session, the women sit outside the N’gego and listen. The men inside talk and debate.

When a matter cannot be resolved quickly and requires special advice, the village chief splits a betel nut (bangra) bunch in half and sends it outside to the women.

The women chew the betel nut and speak. This practice is the Niamun Suambu Bangra, literally translated as ‘older, younger, betel nut’.

The younger (male) gives betel nut to the elder so the elder (female) can advise him on what to do or how to approach the issue so there is no conflict between different parties.

The women are full of insight and knowledge and so in a better position to advise and provide counsel to the men. The women address matters pertaining to land and other issues.

This paints a picture of a N’gego in which both genders are accommodated. Iatmul culture has it that women must have a voice and an important role in decision-making and governance.

National Parliament House (Mellah Kilangit)
Papua New Guinea’s Parliament House in Port Moresby (Mellah Kilangit)

So our parliament house in Port Moresby is rightly designed after the Sepik house of governance.

I would say the architects were not wrong in their planning, though I do not know if they understood the significance and importance of the Sepik governance structure being incorporated within a modern government system.

But this structure is not a Haus Tambaran and I am calling for the removal of this word when referring to parliament house. I believe this is disrespectful to our Melanesian heritage and way of life.

Duncan Gabi
Duncan Gabi

The Melanesian values of the Haus are no longer held in high regard and practiced by those who go into parliament house to make decisions on behalf of the people they represent.

With the current government, there is also no representation or voice of women to advise men on important national issues and correct them.

But, then again, the cultures, traditions and values of Melanesian societies are not uniform.


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John Greenshields

Parliament's architect Cec Hogan had Sepik Haus Tambaran elements guiding the external design. His entry was selected by competition.

The design brief has sketches of men sitting on platforms in a long house. It also has sketches of Haus Tambarans, a Trobriand house and Highlands round houses as possible design cues.

The brief draws upon the Constitution for design philosophy/ideology. The Committee consisted of prominent PNG national and expats: Barry Holloway, Naipuri Maina, Martin Tovadek, Prof Neville Quarry, Cec Hogan, Tom Craig, Stalin Yawa, Mr A F Elly, Mark Yere, Martin Fowler [co-ordinator] - note no women.

A Summary states: "This brief represents an outline of the scope of design work and implications in designing a truly Papua New Guinean National Parliament, as a prime symbol and example in the manner of the 'Haus Man' in a village society. As with designing a 'Haus Man' it is very important to Melanesian attitudes to involve everyone concerned and reach a consensus."

I doubt there is much consensus from PNG women about the performance of the all-male Parliament.

Review of many things seems overdue, including Martyn Namarong's article suggesting a review of the Constitution.

I also like Stephen Charteris's mischievous suggestion of a female upper house. It is somewhat similar to my notion of each electorate having a male and female MP, with much larger electorates, to reduce the current big-clan bias.

However, this is up to PNG nationals to decide. The flaws in the current system are making the country dysfunctional and fractured.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure that the word tambaran necessarily means "evil spirit or demon" Duncan - even if you are religious.

I've always understood it to simply mean 'ghost' or 'spirit' in an ancestral sense. There are particular words that apply to evil ghosts and spirits such as masalai.

The ghosts and spirits residing in a haus tambaran tend to be benign and fonts of wisdom.

Stephen Charteris

Duncan, thank you for these wonderful insights into the role of the traditional Haus N’gego that informed the design of the Bik Haus N’gego in Port Moresby. Henceforth, I shall not refer to it as the Haus T.

I am not surprised by the inclusion of the Niamun Suambu Bangra in the middle Sepik. I believe we see this in one form or another in other parts of PNG. I particularly mention Milne Bay where women’s views on land are paramount.

I have witnessed the deconstruction and removal of a fully completed permanent material dwelling after the matriarch quietly advised she had not been consulted and the dwelling was not approved.

In relation to the Bik Haus N’gego, the creation of an upper chamber of parliament comprised of women drawn from every province with the power to veto or return legislation they did not agree with might be the governance oversight that is lacking.

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