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On the hospitality of the Melanesian people

Roberto Colombo is a PhD candidate researching codes of revenge ('payback') and codes of hospitality. He wrote asking me if I 'd encountered evidence of a ‘culture of hospitality’ amongst Bougainvilleans. I replied as you will see below, and opened Roberto's enquiry to ask our readers to respond in terms of Melanesian (not just Bougainvillean) hospitality. I hope you can contribute

A Traditional-dancers-in-Bougainville


GLASGOW - I am a PhD student at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom and currently working on a thesis which explores the ways in which traditional socio-cultural codes shape the dynamics of civil wars and insurgencies.

I’m reaching out because I've read with interest your articles on Bougainville, which I am considering using as a case study to show how socio-cultural codes provided the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Bougainville Resistance Force elements with mechanisms for recruitment and support during the civil war of 1988-98.

Specifically, I am looking at the code of revenge (or 'payback') and code of hospitality.

Regarding the latter, I have found very little in the existing literature.

May I ask whether you encountered evidence of a ‘culture of hospitality’ practiced amongst Bougainvilleans, similar to the codes and concepts of hospitality characterising other cultures, such as Bedouin/Arab tribes, Corsica or the Caucasus?

It would help me greatly in my research planning!


Keith Jackson writes:

B peopleOne of the great experiences of my life as a very young teacher (aged 19) when I began my career in PNG was to find the hospitality and warmth offered to me by the Simbu people of the PNG Highlands.

Some years later, I took up my career in broadcasting and moved to Kieta to manage Radio Bougainville. It was 1970 and the people were agitated about the mining that was about to take place at Panguna and for which considerable tracts of land were being acquired by Bougainville Copper Limited against the wishes of the people of Central Bougainville.

As most readers will know, some years later this led to a disastrous civil war.

That said, at a personal level, I found the Bougainville people always treated me with kindness and respect. The radio station was in Central Bougainville and many of the people we lived amongst saw it as a ‘propaganda machine’ for the colonial Administration and the copper company. Never were they hostile to me, my family nor Radio Bougainville employees.

Early in my three years at the station, I made changes to its programming to render our news and information broadcasts more even-handed, and this was well received by the people. To further signal our goodwill, I also employed two broadcast trainees from the local Nasioi people.

If any readers would like to share their thoughts on Melanesian hospitality, and whether perhaps it has changed over the years, I encourage you to comment below or get in direct touch with Roberto Colombo at [email protected]


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Philip Kai Morre

I have nothing to offer or add on to Melanesian hospitality but it has some elements of Christian teaching of doing good to other people including enemies.

Hospitality demands total commitment, love and sacrifice and its unconditional.

Psychoanalysts will see hospitality as an urge or internal drive within us that motivate us to do good to other people in need despite creed, color, nationality, rich or poor, etc.

Roberto Colombo

Dear Garrett, Thank you for your email and willingness to share your interesting story and comments!

They provide an insightful perspective into the customs of the area. I am still in the process of collecting information from people and researchers who have visited Bougainville, and hopefully their comments will help me figuring out whether this makes a good case for my thesis. Should I find solid information, I might arrange a fieldwork in Bougainville, which would be most exciting.

Keith, thanks again for your post on PNG Attitude, it means a lot to me!

Fr Garrett Roche SVD

Roberto, I saw your item on PNG Attitude. What follows is a brief comment on the ‘code of revenge (or 'payback') and code of hospitality’, referring more to the Highlands than Bougainville, but it may still be interesting.

I have never been to Bougainville, though I have known many people from there. My remarks here concern hospitality of Melanesians in general, but perhaps more specifically hospitality of the Highlanders of mainland New Guinea.

I have had experience of physical encounters with PNG highlanders, (and not just on the rugby field!). One incident could have been quite serious, but looking back I could see a positive side. Back in 1972 in Ulga in Nebyler Valley in the Western Highlands I had fight with a local man who I thought was trying to steal chickens.


My experience after that encounter in Ulga (Western Highlands Province) was that the local community were sympathetic and understanding. As I mentioned in the account, the tribesmen of the man involved in the scuffle paid me some compensation a few days after the incident, and only later did I reflect that in accord with local custom I could have given something in return. The incident did not detract from the hospitality of the local community towards myself, and neither in the immediate aftermath or years later did I feel any hostility towards myself in the area.

Prior to my time in Ulga I had spent a full year in the Jimi valley (1971-1972). The roads there were rough, landslides were not uncommon. Local people were always very helpful in situations where vehicles got bogged down or broke down. They did not ask for payments for their assistance. I remember even being freely offered shelter from pouring rain after my motorbike got punctured.

In brief, when there was a real need, there was real hospitality. In later years there have been reports of people on the Highlands Highway demanding money in return for assistance to vehicles which had been bogged down or caught in landslides. I would suggest that this attitude is a later development and that in earlier times there was a genuine willingness to help the stranger.

We do not always fully understand other cultures, we do not always fully understand each other. However, if there is a basic respect for different customs and cultures, there is a greater possibility of having hospitality for the stranger.

It may be that where living conditions are more difficult there actually may be a greater mutual respect for each other and thus greater hospitality.

Perhaps we should also keep in mind that outsiders sometimes unintentionally brought serious illnesses with them. Many native peoples in the Americas suffered because of illnesses brought in by Europeans. Hostile reaction to outsiders might well be based on previous bad experiences.

The film and the book ‘First Contact’ (by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson) would give plenty examples of the manner in which those ‘outsiders’ who entered the Highlands in the early 1930’s were received.
Among the Melpa speaking people of the Western Highlands there existed a specific exchange system called ‘Moka’ that was aimed at achieving reconciliation and restoring friendship among tribes that were at enmity with each other. The book ‘The Rope of Moka’ by Andrew Strathern contains a full description of this exchange system.

Chris Overland

My personal experience with Papua New Guineans was that they were generally polite and good humoured, tolerating the mostly good but occasionally inconsiderate behaviours of a very young and inexperienced kiap.

I rarely felt other than quite safe amongst Papua New Guineans, even those who were still living a traditional lifestyle and so were habitually armed to the teeth. I almost never carried weapons although my patrol police did.

Even the notoriously hot tempered and violent Kukukuku people living in the mountains north of Kerema in the Gulf Province treated me with a surprising degree of patience and indulgence. They were very kind to me when I became extremely sick with malaria.

That said, traditional Papua New Guineans were of a rather mercurial temperament and could be stirred up to commit acts of great violence.

Amongst kiaps, it was commonly agreed that most of the violence in PNG could be put down to disputes over land, pigs and women, in that order.

Payback killings were and apparently remain a real problem in PNG. Efforts to terminate tribal fighting invariably revolved around the payment of appropriate compensation to the aggrieved parties.

This could often work but some intractable conflicts did not appear capable of permanent resolution.

It needs to be understood that in traditional PNG societies strangers were regarded with undisguised suspicion.

Until proven otherwise, such people were deemed to be an actual or potential threat, so a wise stranger would go to elaborate efforts to indicate that he or she was of entirely peaceful intent.

It was a very unwise person indeed who knowingly intruded onto someone else's tribal lands without first securing permission to do so.

Proper social etiquette required the securing of such permission and flouting convention could have literally fatal consequences.

The context for this is that land, gardens and domestic animals were essential for both survival and for participation in the various rituals of life associated with things like coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage and death.

Anything that even looked like threatening such things such as stealing food or animals or assaulting young women would provoke a savage response.

On the other hand, known neighbours or trading partners with whom there were well established relationships, and especially relatives, could expect to be received courteously and freely offered hospitality.

There was more or less constant usually low-level conflict within and between traditional PNG societies because, people being people, you could rely upon someone doing the wrong thing. In that sense, Papua New Guineans were and are no different to anyone else.

The current Russo-Ukraine war is merely an example of these same forces at work, albeit on an industrial scale. The Bougainville Civil War was sparked by a complex mix of issues the most obvious of which was the struggle over the Panguna mine.

Bill Brown's eloquent dissertation of this latter issue neatly illustrates how a combination of greed, ignorance, stupidity and callous indifference to the needs and wishes of people dismissed as 'the natives' conspired to create a social time bomb that would inevitably explode.

The consequences of this are still reverberating today.

So, PNG societies were and presumably remain much like all other human societies when it comes to things like the desire for revenge or the offering of hospitality. Both responses are contextual in nature.

In the absence of the effective rule of law, which seems to be evident in many parts of PNG, then people will resort to their traditional behaviours when it comes to revenge. This is desperately sad, but it does not make them less human as a consequence.

As kiaps, we strove long and hard to impose the rule of law in PNG. This included an understanding that the people needed to have confidence that the law would be imposed fairly and impartially, and that criminal conduct would be punished.

This is one of the critical aspects of the implied 'contract' between the people and those who seek to govern them.

In the absence of such a contract, people will naturally resort to the social contract that prevailed in traditional societies, where both open-handed hospitality and revenge killings were part and parcel of everyday life.

Martin Hadlow

The ABC 'Nightlife' travel segment on Bougainville with Ben Groundwater is available here at 1.18:05 into the overall program:

Martin Hadlow

Last night on the ABC's 'Nightlife' radio program (hosted by Philip Clark), the travel segment concerned tourism on Bougainville.

A chap who has just been there with a tour operator told of his experiences. It was quite fascinating. They flew into Buka from POM and then drove all the way to Buin on (understandably) dreadful 'roads'.

He even visited Yamamoto's aircraft wreck in the south and walked 6kms into the bush to get to it. He claimed the aircraft is still visible with wings, fuselage etc.

He also attended an 'Upe initiation' which was a most interesting tale.

From the sound of the whole travel story, Bougainville is in hugely bad shape, financially and infrastructure-wise. In passing, he visited Panguna and it's still a big hole in the ground. You can listen back to the whole piece on the ABC website.

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