Category Archives: Melanesian Philosophy

The Melanesian Way in a modern society


“A long time ago, our people discovered the secret of life — live well, love well, have something good for every person and die a happy death” – the late Bernard Narokobi in his book ‘Melanesian Way’

OUR PEOPLE have for thousands of years lived in relatively independent societies. They managed their resources efficiently to cater for their needs. They lived in harmony with their environment if not always with their neighbours.

The environment was the source of their physical, spiritual and intellectual nourishment. They fed on the food it provided, the lessons it taught and the mythical spirits it harboured. The environment defined them and confined them to a locality such that there is an enormous diversity of linguistic, cultural and phenotypical features of tribes, even within the same region.

Everyone was deeply rooted to the land of their forefathers and fought to defend the integrity of the tribe. While individuals had certain property rights, such as the ownership of personal artifacts of value, the land was owned communally.

Hence the fruits of the land were regarded as communally owned and, as such, everyone in society expected a fair share – not necessarily an equal portion. This balancing act between the interests of the individual against those of the tribe is what I refer to as the Melanesian Equilibrium.

The Melanesian Equilibrium was the genius of our forefathers who juggled with the Economic Problem – human wants are infinite while the means of satisfying those wants are scarce.

Many beliefs, laws, values, practices and systems of social, economic and political organisation were aimed at achieving that balance. Hunting, gardening, fishing, marriage, birth and death all had cultural norms aimed at satisfying everyone and maintaining social order.

This is indeed still the case in many traditional Melanesian communities despite contact with the outside world. Melanesians in remote, isolated communities depend on their traditions as a means of survival. The modern State has little or no influence in how they live their lives.

It is this perceived ‘normality’ in many rural communities that sometimes causes western educated Melanesians to dispute references to poverty in Melanesia. This is what Sir Michael Somare was referring to when he told the Australian Press Club the no one in Papua New Guinea was going hungry.

Is it poverty, if a rural Telefomin man only wears astanget and does not own a laplap? Is it poverty that a child in Balimo eats sago for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

How do you define poverty and wealth in this present time when Melanesians live in two realities? We live in the reality of our ancestral land and in the reality of the modern State that exists on that land. Our cultural practices are as relevant to us as modern medicine, science and political organisation.

The failures of our modern State is not a reflection of the failure of our Melanesian traditions. In fact, the modern State has been arrogant and ignorant of the wisdom of traditional Melanesia.

Unlike our feudal Polynesian and Asian neighbors, we traditionally recognised leadership based on merit. It was always the strength of traditional Melanesian societies. Warrior leaders defended tribal lands and wise elders decided on gardening, trading missions, marriages, etc.

In the modern State, anyone can buy leadership, buy resources, buy decisions and buy their way anywhere. Instead of protecting the national interest, the State is a tool for pursuing personal ambitions.

The modern State steals from its people under legal pretexts of Constitutions and Acts of Parliament. Instead of sharing the fruits of the land with the people, individual purses are enriched.

Traditional Melanesian governance worked because the people and their leadership were always accountable to one and other. More importantly, the people had direct contact with the leadership and could shape decisions in the interest of the majority. That is not the case with the political arrangements of the modern State.

Modern leaders live in foreign countries or the national capital and are rarely with their people. There is a disconnect between both parties, thus the people are never heard or the leadership simply ignores their cries. The electoral cycle allows leaders to be totally unaccountable for five years at a time. Democracy lasts only as long as polling.

The Melanesian Equilibrium has been tried and tested for millennia, and that Melanesians continue to survive within that reality is testament to its robustness.

It is about leaders chosen on merit and being held accountable. It is about wise planning and decision-making based on respect for the people’s wishes and environmental sustainability.

It is about warriors defending the national interest and sovereignty. It is about a population educated to be of use to society. Above all it is about the fear of God and respect for the rule of Law.

Many Melanesians have sadly forgotten what defines them and how they came to be. Caught up in materialism, cargo cult, and the lure of power they will do anything to get what they want; even at the expense of their fellow citizens.


The Importance of traditional cultures and indigenous practices

We loved and enjoyed the dance but tired now and know nothing about what it means?”

We have heard comments that our cultures and traditions are old-fashioned; they hold back progress in nation building and that we should completely forget about them and adopt new ways of life. Some say they are ‘dirty’ and ‘primitive’. They are perceived as negative by the new generation. Adding on all these claims, a report by the Pacific Women Against Violence (Volume 1, Issue 10) stated that Pacific Islands cultures and unequal relationship between men and women contribute largely to violence against women in the region. But the report then challenges its own findings that domestic violence is an international problem that is thriving locally – not alone grown by Melanesian way of life.

Many of us do not agree with all these comments because some of us are living examples of what our cultures and traditions did for us when we were young. They helped us develop and mould our attitudes and characters to be productive, useful, purposely and progressive lives. Many of us reject immoral living and corruption, laziness and conning. Hunger for wealth, power and glory are unknown in our cultural and traditional ways of life. This is complemented by a jewel of thought coined by Thomas Burke: “I wish it would possible for every child to spend its first 10 years close to the soil, tracing the cultures and traditions. If I had had children of my own I would, at any convenience to myself, have moved to the country – in the village just enough to grasp the atmosphere of the practices of the cultures and traditions, and not alone for considerations of their physical health.

I would have them brought up in the country so that for the rest of their lives they should have had a mental background of the fields and trees and wide skies and the smell of the earth and the riches of cultures and traditions. Upon this basic culture all that they might later acquire would, I know, have grown more readily and more richly than it grows in the town child. The town child has no roots. He has quick brains, sharp moments, keen understanding of men; but he is an unfinished product.

“To have no cultural and traditional and country background to your memories is equal to having no education. Lover of town as I am, I realise that I owe a dept to my early country life. Again and again, in hours of disquiet, I have gone back in spirit to those country days of childhood, and have always found something in recollected smell of the earth and picture of my old village to rest upon”.

The Papua New Guinea’s rich traditional cultures and indigenous systems may be lost if not regularly and with passionate practiced, properly recorded and preserved, and proudly and widely promoted. The young generation today need to practice the rich cultures of the country so that they are preserved for the future generations. Our traditions and cultures will be lost if they are not passed on. Papua New Guinea has very unique cultures and ways of life, but these were at high risk with western influence. The blending of one culture with another also had the potential of killing off cultures. The challenge is to preserve our cultures by practicing and making them part of our lives. We must make an effort to sustain our cultures and not to depend on others.

We now find ourselves caught in between two contemporary cultures – the traditional and the western culture. Most young Papua New Guineans today find it difficult to accept both cultures. And the odds are that they will neglect the traditional ones in favour of the western. Many of us think that those who neglect the traditional cultures have no roots or trace of their origin. “During World War II, for instance, over six million Jews were killed through gas chambers, bombs, guns, etc. But were the Jews erased from the face of the earth? The answer is No. And they will never be flushed, annihilated or washed off as long as they keep their skullcaps and long flowing gowns. It is only when you don’t see a trace of their culture anywhere anymore, which they stop to exist. So if we do not feed our children with our Melanesian cultures and traditions, teach them our languages, our dances, our folklore and songs, our fashion, indeed the totality of our Melanesian life style, our future will lose its identity and we may begin to wonder if we are Australians, Indonesians or just a nation of shadows blending into shapes and dark patches.

Many of our children today cannot speak their mother tongue, neither can they know where they come from. I quote Mathew Yakai in what he wrote while studying in Japan to Sir Paulias Matane on the subject of “Culture, Tradition is my identify” in the Times Traveler Column in The National newspaper that most of our young people are moving away from our Melanesian cultures and traditions. Mathew wrote, “Most of the young people are unable to speak their mother tongues. They do not even know their origins. When I was at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), I asked a small boy of mixed Tari and Ialibu parentage living at Morata about his original village. He said that he was from Morata! That gives me an indication of how parents bring up their children.
“On another occasion, while at UPNG, I shared a dining with a Motu girl. The lunch was rice, kaukau and fried chicken with lettuce. When I tried to give her some pieces of kaukau, she refused saying she do not eat local or traditional food!

“Here in Japan, I am trying my best to improve Japanese and English. One reason for doing this is that I believe that I will be an asset to Papua New Guinea in trade negotiations. The more I learn these things, the more I move away from my cultures, languages and family ties. Having traveled to several countries in Asia like South Korea, China and Japan itself, I found people in these countries treasure their cultures and traditional values”.

The state of recording and preservation of Papua New Guinea’s rich and diverse cultural heritage is shocking and ‘absolutely shameful’. Funds and interest have dwindled over the 30 years. Don Niles of Institute of PNG Studies said that AID donors and development partners must learn that the maintenance of traditional cultures and indigenous knowledge surely represents Papua New Guinea’s unique contributions to the world. It is just as essential as building road or health centres. And that is more important than many other activities that seems to be trapped financially.

Our culture is important to the future of our children and to our nation, because culture ensures a history, a past, present and certainly a future.

“It is therefore important, and absolutely necessary, to hand down such an important birthright and inheritance to an informed and prepared generation. The future of this nation lies in the hands of our children. They are our future! And they must carry our identity. They deserve to be cared for, directed aright, nurtured, and cultured, and prepared ready for the future of this nation.

“By the way, what is culture? And why is it important? Culture has been defined generally as the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempts to meet the challenges of living in their environment which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms and modes of organisation, thus distinguishing a people form their neighbours. Culture should not be interpreted merely as a return to the customs of the past. It embodies the attitude of a people to the future of their traditional values faced with the demands of modern technology, which is an essential factory of development and progress.

“A cultural policy is very important in order to incorporate such an essential part of our history into our general national development process, because culture, as a force, has both its own economic and political consequences in the life of any nation. The simple meaning to the importance of culture is that without culture, a national is as good as extinct, erased from the surface of the earth, blotted out and, an existence without dignity or recognition. The only way to wipe out a people from the face of the earth is to take away their culture.

Increasingly, recognition of indigenous people’s intellectual properties has a usefulness which could be developed into lucrative commodities. For example, this could be in the area of traditional medicine. Many thanks to the National Executive Council (NEC) for recently approving a national policy on traditional medicine for Papua New Guinea which the Health Department has been directed to monitor the implementation and coordination of the policy nationwide and build a national database on traditional herbs and its practitioners. In this break-through initiative, the Department of Attorney General and Justice has been directed to look into issues of owners’ rights, a compensation regime under the existing legislation and to review the Medicine and Cosmic Act, the Copyright Act and the Intellectual Property Rights Act for the incorporation of traditional medicines immediately.

“When we talk of self-reliance, self-sufficiency and national identify as the core of our national development, we refer to culture as the fountain spring of all policies whether educational, social, political, medical or economical. Our strategies of national development would therefore depend on the understanding of the culture, the adaptation of its elements for political, educational and economic development as well as its strengths for social integration and development.Advertisements