As mentioned in the previous blog, polygamy was practiced in the tribe I lived in, but according to what I understood it was not an ideal. Men that took more than one wife we typically “stronger” than other men and therefore did it because they were able. But under the surface, the practice was viewed as selfish and greedy.

The strong man from the previous blog had taken seven wives; the four younger of whom were sisters, and daughters of a distant cousin. The younger two sisters of the four did not want to be married to the strong man. He was old and there were plenty of young men looking for wives. They had to break away somehow, but in a culture dominated by men, that wasn’t an easy task to accomplish.

During this time, I was well into language and culture acquisition. Daily I was growing in my grasp of the language and understanding of how things worked in the minds of the tribal people. I was working away one morning when I heard a commotion outside my makeshift office. I went out to investigate and the air was electric with tension and excitement. “What’s going on?” I asked the group of young men that had assembled. “Two of the strong man’s wives have run away to Lakami”, they informed me pointing across the river to a hunting area where no people lived. “And two fellows from here have gone after them!” They added with a cheering excitement.

I thought about this for a second and then asked, “Why are they going after them?” “Because they are going to claim them as wives!!” they declared stating the obvious. “Okay”, I thought to myself perplexed that this is how it was done. “How is this going to work out? Would this annul the “marriage” to the strong man? Was it who ever was stronger wins? What does the community think about all this? At this point it seemed like the young men giving me the play by play were cheering on their buddies that were in pursuit of the two sisters hoping to lay claim to them as brides! Wow! Better get a good seat for this action as it develops.”

The two young men found the sisters and each one claimed a bride for themselves. How they even knew the two girls had runaway is still a mystery to me. The jungle grapevine or gigazone is amazing, I guess. Anyway, the two couples lived out in the jungle and initially weren’t pursued by the strongman.

Several months went by and one Saturday morning the village gathered for a morning of “court”, a practice introduced by the Aussies back in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s as a time to settle differences and disputes. I always tried to participate and observe these courts as a community member. This particular morning looked like a normal village court until I observed that the two “newlywed” couples showed up! I figured it was cause for celebration until observation number two: the strongman showed up as well! Suddenly all court matters were cast aside, and discussion began about the two sisters and who had claim to them.

The air became thick and tense. The center of the village area suddenly cleared. I heard someone yell, “Don’t fight! The white man is here!” I told them to not worry about me as I didn’t ever want to be a deterrent to anything. I was just an observer and observing true to life culture was very important for understanding the people. I did have a red line I wouldn’t cross – if someone was going to die, I would intervene.

All a sudden the strong man with fighting stick in hand shot toward the young man who took the older of the two sisters. Somehow the young man also acquired a fighting stick. Everything happened so fast. The younger man allowed the older to give him two blows to the back. The thud of the heavy palm stick was deep, but the younger didn’t flinch. The older was going for a third strike but the younger was too quick and dealt a single blow just under the ribs of the older sending him to the ground in a heap.

I wasn’t sure what to do other than run to the strong man. I could see he was winded and couldn’t get his breath. I knelt beside him and cradled him in my arms positioning him so that he could breath. I was certain he would die. But then behind me I heard a voice, “Red (my tribal name), let him die.” I turned my head and looked up to see who would say such a thing. To my horror it was the strong man’s son. But he wasn’t looking at me when he said it, he was looking at the younger man. If his father died, then he would have the right and obligation of killing the young man in revenge for his father’s death. “He’s not going to die!” I stated emphatically. “I won’t let him die!” Just then the strong man coughed slightly and began taking shallow breaths.

As it turned out that day, the younger man stood up to the strong man and kept his new bride. The community got behind both the younger sisters being married to the two young men. The strong man returned to his home upriver and subsequently didn’t challenge the two couple again.

I have mentioned in previous blogs the importance of first observing behavior and then later understanding what the motivation behind a behavior might be. Sometimes the motivation for a behavior might be illusive and hard to define or understand. When that is the case, it’s important to keep one’s culture stress or anxiety in check so that bad or judgmental attitudes don’t develop causing damage to relationships.

Balance in a watercraft is very important when navigating any body of water whether by motor or by paddle. We have laws in our culture to mitigate the chance of someone drowning in the case of a capsized vessel. These laws have been put in place for our protection and safety. We sometimes kick against those laws, but deep down we know they are for our good.

What about where there are no such laws? What is in place to protect people traveling on the water? If you were to visit a tribe that lives next to a river you would observe that men stand in canoes and women sit. The men have long paddles and the women have short paddles. What motives that behavior? Safety!! Let me explain.

The typical canoe is carved from a cedar tree making it light and durable. Standard length is approximately 15 feet with a width of 18 inches. No keel is crafted on the bottom of the canoe; they are round and smooth. Balancing a canoe is learned at an early age by the boys. The boys learn to paddle by standing at the bow of the canoe while his father commandeers the rear at the stern. As the boy grows in strength, he will be given more and more opportunity to paddle from the stern. After a boy is well trained, he stands in the canoe with one foot in the middle and one foot up on the side of the canoe. Such a stance gives maximum control for steering, pushing off and avoiding logs and navigating through stronger current when necessary. Really, paddling a canoe is like riding a bike.

Girls in the tribe also learn how to handle themselves in a canoe and it is done by sitting down. Their paddles are much shorter enabling them to contribute power strokes assisting the man controlling the canoe at the back. As well, the girls will learn to place the cargo and manage any children in to craft. These responsibilities will be taught to them by their mothers.

So, what’s the motivation behind such well-defined roles in the operation of a canoe. I can’t help but think it’s safety. The men have the strength to perform their task and the women have to capacity to assist and look after the children. And it works! I can’t think of a time when a mishap took place on the river. The competence of the people to work together and stay safe in their cultural roles was amazing and effective.

In the attached photo, a woman’s paddle is featured above the man’s paddle. Notice the shape of the paddles: the woman’s paddle represents an eel tail and is design for paddling only. The man’s paddle is concave at the end represents a catfish tail. The concave pattern allows a man to push off logs with better control.

Are Hunter-gatherers lazy?

That is a great question and on occasion people have made the observation (only to regret it after talking with me) that the tribal people looked lazy. You know, just hanging around the village doing nothing. Now to be fair and not judgmental of any anyone, when a person goes to an unfamiliar culture the natural tendency is to observe behavior through their own cultural grid. Making assumptions is quite normal but can be inaccurate. I suggest the following: objectively keep a journal about all the observed behavior you come across and then as time allows seek to understand what is motivating the behavior. This will help mitigate against judgements, misunderstandings and culture stress or anxiety.

It’s important to understand that while cultures vary from place to place on this earth, each one has universal personality types within its scope. Cultures have industrious people that seem to be working all the time, they have followers, they have thinkers and they have lazy people. These types are not unique at all.

Let’s also understand our Western culture. We typically work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday in order to generate income to facilitate buying food, shelter, transportation and entertainment. We often live in cooler climates and have developed many helps for generating income like the light bulb, piston driven engine, airplanes, telecommunications and a plethora of other technologies. We are no longer hand to mouth, we are industrialized.

So back to the observation of tribal people looking lazy. Here’s how simple it is: if hunter-gathers are laying around the village it means one thing – the aren’t hungry! They have had enough to eat or have enough food on hand! I know from firsthand experience that hunter-gatherers can work me into the ground out hunting, gathering housing materials or carving a canoe. But if they aren’t hungry there is no need to work. They live to survive. They work for today. It is truly hand to mouth.

Now what about the actual lazy person in a tribal culture? We have distain for lazy people in our culture and the same is true of hunter-gatherer cultures. The lazy man in a hunter-gatherer culture is characterized by his unwillingness to build his family a house. He will stay with relatives, friends and move around from place to place. The consequence is that his wife becomes open game and will be taken advantage by other men in the village. Unfortunately, that is how they show disrespect for him.

To end on a positive note, the ideal man hunts, builds his own house, makes his own canoe and is generous with his food. His family and friends show him the utmost respect by contributing generously to his son when he needs to buy his bride.

I find it amazing how cultural ideals are pretty universal like in the case of a lazy person who are looked down upon, but the diligent, hard working person is looked at as being ideal. Our perception and assumption of what those ideals look like is what may need a little tweaking when we go into a cross cultural situation.

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.