When you first enter a lowlands village in Papua New Guinea, you’ll follow a small path in the red soil through low grass or rainforest groaning with life. Kids climbing trees for fruit will see you long before you even realise there’s a village ahead. Then, if you’re observant, you’ll see the first of a few or many morota roofs. Morota is a leaf which they sew together to make the roofs for houses made of wooden frames walled with split bamboo.
You enter a clearing with grass, mown using a bush knife or a lawnmower but mown nonetheless. Around this, houses that push the design limits of materials that grow freely round about face each other. Houses will be up on stilts, often with kitchens underneath. They may be one, two or even three storeys.
If it’s morning or noon, you’re likely to find no one but a solitary dog barking with bravado that is only fur-deep. Everyone will be at school or working their gardens off in the rainforest. But if it’s late afternoon or evening, almost everyone will be home. Children will be running here and there kicking a football or throwing a rugby ball around. Pigs may wander freely or be tied up squealing under the houses. You’ll notice some women are talking while they cook. Others will be talking as they smoke leaves they grow and dry on their roofs. A few women making string bags will be talking. A group of men will be talking as they chew buai and spit red off into the bush.
Whatever they do, they’ll be talking.
In PNG, a village is all about sustaining relationships. Everything revolves around managing who you relate to and how. It’s a mutually reciprocal cycle of interdependence that goes on generation after generation. It’s a plate of food here, a handful of buai there, some money for medicine here and a ride into town there. By giving, you immediately create a relationship; that gift must be returned, and this can only be done if the relationship is sustained.
Firewood will come from trees in the rainforest. All land belongs to someone. Within their area of bush, every family unit will have a garden. This is a piece of land they’ve carved out of raw bush, burned and planted with a huge range of fruit and vegetables that, through continual tending, keeps them more than stocked with food. Drought rarely happens and, if food is short, the relationships ensure a welfare system kicks in. Everyone knows exactly where their land starts and ends even if their land is scattered in several places up to a day’s walk from their house. To the uninitiated, it looks like endless rainforest punctuated with small areas of roughly cultivated land. To them, it’s as ordered as the cornfields of Iowa.
Water comes from where it comes from. But separate streams will be used for washing and for drinking water. Some may, if they can afford the guttering and tank, catch rainwater. Men and women will almost certainly wash in different parts of perhaps the same stream. More than likely it will be in different streams altogether. If it’s the same though, the men will be upstream from the women. Children wash with their mothers until puberty.
Each family will have a liklik haus. Literally a little house, this is a roofed, bamboo structure built over a pit covered with wooden planks. It’s usually down the steepest hill behind the house that they can find. It may or may not have a door. It certainly won’t have toilet paper. But if they know you’re coming, they may put out one or two small squares of a magazine or newspaper if they’re able to afford it.
One clan or tens of clans may inhabit one village. Children may be those of the people whose house they live in or they may be shared depending on who can have or can’t have them. A single woman will be given a child in her middle age so that she has someone to look after her as she ages. Everyone is connected. The village is interwoven so finely, in such detail, we can’t see the individual threads for some time. Everything fits, everything has a place, everything leans on everything else.
Yes, we are in Papua New Guinea and it’s fascinating and full of great things to blog about. Trouble is, we’re pushed for time and bandwidth here.
There are some pics going up sloooooowly at
and we’ve posted a few cultural updates on our Mission blog at
we hope to have more here soon