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Family Structure

Historically, the majority of tribes in Papua New Guinea segregated men and women. Most commonly, a village consisted of a large structure called a “long house” where the men lived. Each woman then occupied a small house around the perimeter with her children. When a male child reached a certain stature he was taken to the long house to begin initiation into manhood. Until recently, Papua New Guineans did not keep track of their ages, so depending on the traditions of the tribe and the growth of the boy, this could be anywhere from 10 to 18 years of age. It was during this time that he began his training in the worship of the tribal or clan spirits.


There are numerous variations to what has been stated. In some tribes, in addition to the men’s long house, there was also a large house in which the women and children slept. However, in other tribes there is no history of segregation and each man occupied a single family dwelling with his wife or wives and their children.[1] Yet another variation is that some cultures had a special house where girls were taken once they began menstruating in preparation for marriage.


In the highlands, the men traditionally slept in a common house with each woman having her own smaller house. Over time this has changed to where now each man occupies a single family dwelling with his wife.[2] If a man has more than one wife, then each woman will have her own house to live in with her children and the man will alternate houses. Also, the traditional initiation process has been altered or all but abandoned. When young men are old enough they will live in a “club house” with other young men while the young women will continue to live with their mothers until wed.


In the past, the family structure of the people of Papua New Guinea was that of a community rather than the nuclear family. This sentiment is still prevalent. Many languages have no word for “uncle” or “cousin,” they are all regarded as “fathers” and “brothers.” Decisions that westerners would make as a nuclear family – or even as individuals – are often made at the community level instead. When working in a people group in Papua New Guinea one must keep in mind that he is really working in a large family and it will operate as such.


Social Structure

Relationships are absolutely paramount in the Melanesian culture. These relationships relate directly to virtually every part of life, including economics and religion (these will be discussed later). In the highlands, the main social unit is the clan. A clan is made up of people who perceive themselves as descending from a common ancestor. The clan is divided into sub-clans made up of people who are descendants of a known ancestor. The sub-clan is then divided into sub-lineages or “families.” [3] Because relationships are so strong, especially within the clan, the need of one clan member is often felt by all.


Another major force in the social structure of Papua New Guinea is what is known as the “Wantok System.” Originally, this was a relationship between individuals in the same language group coming from the same area, hence the name “Wantok.”[4] (In the trade language of Melanesian Pidgin, wantok is derived from the English phrase, “one-talk.”) However, this is a dynamic system and it has changed somewhat. A person’s wantoks now consist of a group of people with whom he or she shares a common bond. This bond most often includes a language and clan association but may extend to those who are friends from other areas. If a man takes a job in town, then those he works with may become close enough friends to be considered wantoks. A missionary who moves into a tribe and makes his home there may eventually be accepted as a wantok.


To be a wantok a person must adhere to the rules of the system. First and foremost is the law of mutual reciprocity. When a person has a need, he will go to his or her wantoks to find support. The need may be the school fee for a child, payment of a bride price, or payback for a perceived wrong. When asked, a wantok will almost never refuse – at least not directly. He is expected to comply unless there is a good reason why he is unable to. Hence, most requests are met with a great deal of discussion. If a person gives too many excuses then he will no longer be considered much of a wantok. However, when a person does help, he can expect that the next time he has a need, his wantoks will help him.


Another rule is that there is no time limit on this reciprocity. Many times a man will work at a job in town for years and have very little to show for it. The reason is that he has given most of what he earned to his relatives and wantoks. However, this results in a kind of social security. When the worker is old and returns to his village, he can expect that the recipients of his gifts will look after him until he dies. This goodwill will likely extend to his children because in many cases, even death does not cancel the debt.


In the highlands, a person’s clan members are assumed to be wantoks. This is especially true in the area of bride prices and payback. An arranged marriage is an exchange between two clans. The one clan will give the bride while the other will give money and goods in return.[5] When payback is necessary, it will quite often involve one clan fighting against another.


This highlights another important social phenomenon of the highlands: payback. If a member of one clan is injured by a member of another clan (accidentally or intentionally), then the clan of the injured party views it as their responsibility to repay the other clan for the injury. Any member of the opposing clan will do and the injury will normally be worse than the original. This injury must then be repaid and soon the clans are at war, each trying to avenge the wrong the other has inflicted. This can quickly escalate into killing and clans meeting in public battles. The only way for this to end is for both sides to determine the amount of money and goods each feels would compensate their loss. Each clan must then separately come up with the compensation payment, even if the amounts are equal. At a prearranged time these payments will be exchanged and peace will be restored.


The result of this is constant fear and strong clan loyalty. News travels quickly, yet unpredictably. If a person in a man’s clan injures someone in another clan, he becomes an immediate target. However, he may not know it if the news hasn’t reached him yet. Therefore, peace is uneasy at best and a person must be constantly watchful lest he fall prey to an unknown, recently-declared, rival clan. This is one of several reasons that people travel and work in groups, usually with those of their own clan.  In towns, cars are often full or overcrowded. On the trail, people walk in groups. In the garden, people work together. This affords protection from rival clans and malevolent spirits. When working in Papua New Guinea, the missionary must remember that he is not working with individuals but members of a community.

Economic Structure

As mentioned, relationships are built upon a principle of reciprocity and this directly affects the economics of the country. If a clan member travels to a city and finds a job, the wages he earns will most often go back to his fellow clan members. The worker does not, however, feel this is a loss. He fully expects that when he is in need, the gifts will be reciprocated. Those who have received the benefits of the worker’s income understand this as well.

This has a major affect on the workforce in that there is a high turnover rate, especially among non-skilled laborers. A person will get a job in town and work for anywhere from a few months to a few years. All this time he is giving to his family and clan members. When he tires of the job he will return to his village and live, in part, off the goodwill he has built up. This results in a huge cost to companies which must train new workers. It is not uncommon to find a forklift driver or other skilled laborer living in a small village in the jungle.

At the village level, most people in the country are subsistence gardeners. Since the country is 80-90% rural the result is a median income of less than $1,000 per person.[6] In the highlands, where the soil is much richer, cash crops are grown. Many people have a good income as the result of growing coffee or copra but this is by far the minority.

Papua New Guinea imports many products from Australia and other countries. There is minimal amount of manufacturing done in the country but many of the materials are imported. The products on the grocery store shelves in PNG are mostly Australian or British, although sodas are bottled in the country. Many building materials are manufactured in the country but virtually all technology is foreign-made.

The country’s wealth lays in its rich natural resources. Some agricultural products are exported such as coffee, palm oil, copra, vanilla, lobster and raw rubber.[7] PNG is the world’s second largest exporter of tropical logs behind Malaysia.[8] However, the majority of the Gross Domestic Product comes from the export of gold, copper and oil. Although the country’s population ranks 108th in the world,[9] Papua New Guinea produces 50,000 barrels of oil a day (bbl/day) ranking it 53rd in the world in 2003.[10] The country also boasts one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines which by the end of 2001 had produced almost 2.5 million metric tonnes of copper metal (from over 7.5 million tonnes of copper concentrate) and over 6 million ounces of gold.[11] Fifteen percent of this mine belongs to the government although it is mined by an independent company (Ok Tedi Mining Limited, formerly owned by BHP). Although the country still relies heavily on foreign aid and loans from the World Bank, Papua New Guinea’s natural resources keep the country afloat.


Educational Structure

Traditional Melanesian education is a life-long process. Robin Bazzynu describes the educational process of the Tobou (also Tobo) people as coming in three phases.[12] The first phase is the informal learning that takes place as a child watches his mother working in the garden, cooking food, or fetching water. These are the skills basic to survival and this type of training lasts for about the first ten years of life. The second phase for a boy begins when he moves into the men’s house to be schooled in the practical skills needed to be a valuable member of society. Certain young men are also trained in the use of magic and sorcery. The final phase is the initiation ceremony and the celebration which marks a boy’s transition into manhood.

Many tribes no longer practice initiation rites and have adopted western education. For most children, formal schooling starts around 6-8 years of age.[13] At the village level, the first three years are taught in the vernacular with a large portion of the instruction time given to teaching the official language of English. (Tok Pisin and Motu are both lingua franca but are not generally used in formal education.[14]) Public education continues through grade 10 with grades 11 and 12 now being added throughout the country.

Education is not free. Each child must pay an ever-increasing amount of school fees.  The first three years are fairly affordable but for grades 4-6 a more highly trained teacher is needed. Grade 7 is the last grade available at the village level and is considered a “top-up” school. Any student wishing to continue his education must take a test to be admitted into the high school grades of 8th and beyond. Because of the expense involved, relatively few are able to complete high school.

Literacy rates for the country are reportedly as high as 50 % or even 64.6 % by the CIA, but this is likely highly inflated.[15] Most commonly, the national literacy rate is set between 32 and 43 percent.[16], [17] At the village level, the literacy rate can be considerably lower. Many villages have a literacy rate well below 10%.

This can have a profound impact on people in remote villages in the area of religion. In the tribe we worked in some men learned of God from a neighboring tribe. Those men came back and convinced the people that they needed to venerate this new God. From what these men had seen in the other tribe, to do properly they needed a “church” and a “pastor” who could read the Bible. Since copies of the Bible in the trade language are widely available and heavy subsidies make them quite affordable, a few people who can read may actually own a copy. In some of the villages very few people were literate, and even fewer had a copy of the Bible, so those who could read and had a copy of the Bible become immediate candidates for pastor!

[1] J. Williams, "Melpa," in Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, ed. Gall, Timothy L (Detroit: Gale, 1998), 507.

[2] Some information on the highlanders has been provided by Don and Heather McLean with SIL International who work with the Nii language.

[3] Dan Seeland, "Obligation in the Melanesian Clan Context and its Effect upon the Understanding of the Gospel of Grace," Melanesian Journal of Theology 20, no. 2 (October 2004): 92.

[4] Rev. Ako Arua and Daniel John Eka, "Wantok System," Melanesian Journal of Theology 18, no. 1 (April 2002): 6.

[5] Marilyn Rowsome, "A Traditional Wedding: Dua - "The Bride"," Melanesian Journal of Theology 17, no. 2 (October 2001): 29-30.

[6] Patrick Johnstone, Jason Mandryk, and Robyn Johnstone, Operation World: 21st Century Edition (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), 509.

[7] Post Courier Online, "About PNG," http://www.postcourier.com.pg/20060629/thhome.htm. (accessed June 29, 2006).

[8] Alex Rheeney, "PNG Timber Not Wanted," Post Courier, June 29 2006, sec. A, p. 1.

[9] Central Intelligence Agency, "Rank Order - Population," The World Factbook, June 29, 2006, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html. (accessed July 5, 2006).

[10] Countries Of The World, 2003, "Oil - Production (bbl/day) 2003," http://www.photius.com/rankings/oil_production_0.html. (accessed July 5, 2006).

[11] Ok Tedi Mining, "About The Mine," http://www.oktedi.com/resources/pages/index.php (accessed July 5, 2006).

[12] Robin Bazzynu, "A Biblical Analysis of Education in Papua New Guinea," Melanesian Journal of Theology 17, no. 1 (April 2001): 48-55.

[13] In remote villages, birth dates are only now being recorded (usually in a personal health record called a clinic book). If no date of birth is known, the child is asked to reach his right arm over the top of his head and touch his left ear. If he can do this then he is old enough to be admitted into the school.

[14] Johnstone, 509.

[15] Edward R. Dayton and Samuel Wilson, eds., The Future of World Evangelism: Unreached Peoples '84 (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1984), 672.

[16] Gordon.

[17] Johnstone, 509.

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