No poverty and no begging… this was an unlikely surprise when I travelled through Papua New Guinea, a country perceived to be living under the poverty line. Their secret, I believe, is twofold; they live in a supportive clan system and the burgeoning tourism industry is working really hard to maintain a hassle-free image.
Papua New Guinea’s real draw is the diversity, colour and vibrancy of its people. In amongst the colour and excitement of the sing-sing visits you can walk through more lowkey villages and discover how the clan system works and get to know the people and their stories. Clans are divided into family groups who have their own land set within the clan area. Families pass down parcels of land to their children; they farm, hunt and collect firewood in communal clan lands and lend a hand to each other when help is needed. One fascinating insight is that at the age of 18 the boys move out of the family home and live in a bachelor house but are still cooked for by Mum who drops in regular meals.
I wandered slowly around Casmira’s village of Kilu on New Britain Island chatting about her life and culture. The village is verdant with crops, fruit trees and flowers. Most of the men are out hunting or fishing and as it’s the school holidays there are children everywhere scavenging fallen fruit or giggling at the visitors; a happy idyll.
Casmira is married with two children and was adamant that two was enough. I was pleasantly surprised that possibly because of her open-minded approach to religion, Catholicism mixed with animism, she has a pragmatic approach to family planning.
The walking pace increased and the animation became more exuberant following a demonstration of betel nut or ‘buai’, a complicated and dangerous but commonplace habit. I asked Casmira if she could tell me what the tattoo on her forehead meant and with a mixture of head hanging and laughter she explained. Tattooing and face jewellery is an overt way of announcing your clan or tribe. However Casmira, aged 17 and away at school in Port Moresby, made a terrible mistake. She was persuaded by a man from Manus Island to let him tattoo her forehead. Her mother was horrified and reportedly said, “What’s that on your face, it’s not your place?” Now everyone thinks she’s from Manus!