The following was written by Emily Davila, Assistant Director, Lutheran Office for World Community
Before you enter a village in Papua New Guinea, you have to be invited in. After taking a power boat 3 hours up the coast from Madang, I arrived at the tiny village of Saibor, home to around 200 people. The villagers greeted us singing what sounded like Christian rock on guitars, placed two leis around my neck and escorted me to the entrance of the village where they had created a giant doorway out of palm fronds. They asked me why I had come to the village – the correct response is “to pray with you” – so I said that, and then we prayed together. Then I broke through the palm fronds to the other side. It was kind of like a football team breaking through the paper before the big home game. On the other side men were wearing red paint, grass skirts, and doing a ceremonial dance. They threw some flower buds at me, painted my face, and I was in.
Of course I was asked to make several speeches and offer official greetings from the United States. Not used to pontificating in public, which they are all pros at, I had a hard time finding the words to say… “Greetings from New York City, we have big bridges and tall buildings, but no one welcomes you like you have welcomed me…”
After the speeches, the village presented me with billums – purses they had woven out of twine or yarn that are to be worn with the strap crossing your forehead. Every man, woman and child in PNG carries one of these. The bag is a big part of the culture, and my hunch is they mainly exist so everyone can carry their beetle nut, a narcotic that turns your teeth red, looks like a big green acorn and grows on trees. To get the effect, they chew the nut mixed with mustard stick and powdered lime (as in the chemical). The combination creates a stream of bright red saliva that spews out of the mouth– so watch out for the pools of red spit on the roads. Anyhow, after visiting 3 villages I was presented with nearly a dozen billums, ranging from bright pink woven straw, to knitted mauve with the red and black PNG flag, to a plastic black and white one with sea shells attached with strings. You can tell where someone lives in PNG by the type of billum they carry. A billum can be used to do many things — like strung up to hold a sleeping baby, or wrapped around the front of the body as a shirt.
But having returned to NYC, the city of no welcome, I am thinking about the gesture of peace the Papua New Guineans make by building that palm fence. A country with a long history of colonization, tribal wars and even cannibalism, it’s no wonder they ask the visitor, “why are you here?” Visiting the remote coastal towns, I was impressed by how pristine they were, still practicing their same customs, communal and egalitarian, untouched by globalization. They farm and raise pigs and still trade for a lot of their goods because money is hard to come by. It seems idyllic — until you need to give birth or get malaria. Hospitals and health clinics are long journeys from many coastal and highland villages, and women sometimes end up giving birth on the back of bison as they travel to get help.
Papua New Guinea culture is changing, some of the old traditions are slowly disappearing, but I think alot will stay the same for a long time out of sheer isolation. With no roads, tough terrain and high petrol costs for boats, “development” is just too expensive. For Papua New Guinea, this is both a blessing and a curse.