How can one talk about “the people” or “the culture” of Papua New Guinea?
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Comprising the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, it is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups and 852 known languages. And, who knows how many pockets of uncontacted peoples – with as yet unknown culture and languages – are still hidden in the interior jungles?
The coastal provinces of Oro and Milne Bay are home to people of Motu and Polynesian descent. In Milne Bay alone, the roughly 276,000 inhabitants speak about 48 different languages: mostly from the Eastern Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. In other words, most of these various groups are distinct, but have similarities to one other.
What little I knew about the coastal people of Papua New Guinea and their customs before I arrived in the country, I learned from Drusilla Mojeska’s wonderful 2012 novel: The Mountain.
Giving the reader a feel for the country’s tumultuous background, much of this book takes place across the five years leading up to Papua New Guinea‘s declaration of self-governance in 1973 after years of Australian administration and British rule. Although the characters are fictional, the story and the settings are firmly grounded in history and the author’s experience of having lived in the country during that time.
It seemed to me, when I visited last year in August, that little had changed. The figurative road to democracy was still bumpy and fraught: results from the recently-held election were being fiercely (and sometimes, bloodily) contested. And the real roads outside the few urban centres continued to be predominantly unnavigable. The majority (over 85%) of people in the nation live a rural agrarian lifestyle outside the city.
A festival of music, dance and food is one way that groups can share their distinctive cultures with each other. On my second day in Port Moresby on a Jim Cline tour with photographer Karl Grobl and a small group of photo-enthusiasts, I was treated to the Alotau Cultural Day.
This was the first of several sing-sings – or annual get-togethers of a few tribes or villages – that I attended while I was in PNG, and in some ways it was the most genuine. For while this gathering of performers from the Milne Bay area was not as polished or flashy as others I later attended in the Sepic River and Mount Hagen regions, it was aimed at the “city-folk” in Port Moresby in general, rather than us tourists in particular. As such, it felt like a authentic attempt to share and communicate one’s culture, rather than just a pitch for the tourist dollar.
Because of the relatively informal nature of the day, I had the opportunity to speak with many of the dancers and other participants at the festival. Some of the people I talked to were university students, happy to chat about how important it was to them to keep the traditional practices alive, and to talk about how involvement in music and dance added meaning to their lives, and helped keep young people focused and out of trouble.
Join me on a dusty sporting ground in the heat of a tropical summer day and meet just a small sampling of Papua New Guinea’s many different peoples.
All the people I spoke to were eager to invite me share their beautiful corner of the country. A couple of young men even told me where to find the birds of paradise: just follow the path around the bay, then turn left. The birds are right there!
Towards the end of my trip, I did enjoy a blissful couple of days in their native Milne Bay Province (see: Innocent Eyes and Head Hunters), and – even though I never found the birds – I can concur: it is a most beautiful place.
I hope these young people continue to maintain the best things from their rich traditions.
Until next time!Pictures: 12August2017