How old are you? Trying to determine ages when time is not kept track of!

Traditional tribal culture has virtually no concept of keeping track of time over the long term or the short term by a number system. For instance, in the tribal language you have today, yesterday and the day before yesterday. Or tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. They do refer to the current month by the moon, but they don’t count too far down the line. There isn’t the concept of a 7-day week or a year with 365 days. A “year” is simply gauge by the annual growing seasons of two types of food, pandanis fruit and pitpit (not sure what that is in English).  Time in the future is referred to simple as another night or time later. In the past it’s simply referred to as a long time before or when the men that lived a long time ago were here.

It was strange coming from a culture of time that is bent of every second of the day, to a culture that doesn’t event know how old they are as individuals. I asked an adult male about 30 years of age once how old he was, he responded, “I think I’m 8 years old.” There are several ways to find out the approximate age of people based on what physical characteristics they had in 1975, the year Papua New Guinea received independence. Somehow and some way people knew where they were at that time. Therefore, I would ask the following questions to try and gauge peoples’ ages: At the time of independence were you nursing (a baby)? We you able to go up and down the ladder of the house yet (toddler)? Did you have hair in your armpits (young teen)? Did you have facial hair (young adult)? Were you married yet(adult)? Time just isn’t important in tribal culture, there is always tomorrow, the next day and the day after that.

Naming a child in our culture is generally the responsibility of parents. Often times a new born is named after a relative, favorite sports figure or even something totally obscure. In tribal culture there is a naming practice that is given in honor to the man who paid the most money for the child’s mother – yes, the dowry payment that a man pays to the woman’s family. When a man wants to marry a woman, he must negotiate a bride price with the woman’s family. This negotiation process is long and drawn out; seldom does it go smoothly. The price negotiated may include traditional shell money, pigs or modern government currency. At times a portion of the bride price may include a debt to be paid later. When a debt is incurred, the man will typically live in the woman’s village until it is paid off. The groom will seek help to pay the bride price by asking his family and relatives to pitch in and help.

I was given the honor of naming my cousin’s first-born son. It was important to learn the culture around such an honor and here is what I found out: First of all, I would never be able to speak the name I chose before the child his entire life. If the boy was not present, I could use his name, but never was I to speak his name if he was in hearing distance. I was to address the boy as Papou (pah-pouw) his entire life. I don’t have an exact translation for that term; it simply shows that I am the one that named him. Secondly, I was not to touch the boy in any way until he was old enough to climb up and down the later of his house; the equivalent of him being weaned off his mother as a toddler. When the boy reached this age, there would be a simple ceremony where the boy and I would exchange a gift of equal value, shake hands and then from that point on we could touch each other (i.e. carry him, shake hands, sit on my lap or that type of a thing). Thirdly, my Papou and I would always have a close relationship because I gave him his name. So, whenever I would see him, I would be sure call to him and address him as Papou.

So what did I name my first Papou? Well, I wanted to give the boy a traditional name that could also be used as a modern name for when he went to school out to town. I had learned so many names by this time, but what I came up with was the name of a river nearby called Keliepekotu. This is the name I game him and for short he is called Keli! Except by me of course… I still call him Papou to this day.

Several years ago, I was a guest speaker at a PriceWaterHouseCooper conference in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. I was asked to do a lecture about culture bridging for the accountants attending the conference. PWHC’s accountants were all educated and competent in their professions, but by virtue of the fact they were from western and Melanesian cultures did cause a bit of friction in the work place. Because the group I was addressing was made up of accountants, I wanted to draw attention to how they counted on their fingers. Now that was basic, wasn’t it? It was almost silly to ask the Western accounts to hold up a hand and count to five using their fingers. In our Western we count on our fingers starting with a closed fist and when we get to five, our fingers are extended with an open hand. Go ahead, try it to prove me right. But in Melanesian or Papua New Guinea culture they count opposite from us in Western culture. They start with an open hand and then have a fist when they get to five! So, in the presentation I had the Western hold their open hands up and then proceeded to have the Melanesian or PNG accountants raise a hand and count to five. The roar of laughter was no small thing as all the accountants realized that they got to five in completely opposite ways. The point of this simple exercise was to show that we can be culturally frustrated with a coworker because they are different – not because they did something wrong. Both cultures got to five, but they did it in different ways. One way wasn’t wrong, and one way wasn’t right. That simple little exercise opened the door to helping well educated accountants to stop and think about little stresses that were caused by not taking time to understand a coworker’s cultural upbringing in something as simple as counting on your fingers.

We all grew up hearing our parents say at the dinner table, “Chew with your mouth closed!” or “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” In our culture it is rude or sloppy to chew with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full. Of course, now that we are grandparents, we can’t get over how cute it is to see the grand kids chew that way! Well, one day in the tribe I was out on the porch of our house sharing some crackers with a few of the guys as we sat and visited about the latest happenings in the village. As we were eating, one fellow made the comment, “Lo’u, (Red – my village name. It can also mean meat or muscle; pretty sure they meant the latter for me. 😊) you chew with your mouth closed.” “Well ya” was my reply as I half rolled my eyes because of the obvious. “That’s the polite way to eat.” Of course, under my breath I was saying that’s according to my culture. The fellow looked at the others with half a grin on his face and then proudly replied with some cracker crumbs falling out of his mouth, “Well, we chew like pigs!!” And in unison like well-practiced choir, the guys all laughed together in perfect harmony!! It suddenly dawned on me that my language and culture acquisition from that time forward was going to include exercises and practice with a mouth full of food in order to chew and talk according to their cultural practice and “eat like a pig”! Once again, I was challenged with the fact that the simplest things in my culture were the exact opposite in tribal culture. And in realizing those things I also had to accept the fact that those differences were not wrong, just different and therefore okay.