Story and photos by Michael & Judith Dupuis
Learning the customs and culture of a new place can be quite rewarding but somewhat overwhelming at times. The day after our arrival in Mt. Hagen, we started our lessons in Tok Pisin and soon after, we went to a village in the Southern Highlands to attend a worship service with an MAF ministry team. Up to now, our encounters with PNG culture have been a bit like drinking from a fire hose.
When a large crowd began to gather just outside our house in Mt. Hagen, we found ourselves at the fountain again. Our previous experience in East Africa has helped us to adjust here in PNG, but processing all of the new culture has been challenging. Fortunately, the Highland people are very patient, friendly and understanding.
It was in Africa that we first encountered a custom strange to most westerners. It is the buying a wife, which is also known as paying the Bride Price. The concept of a “dowry” is not unknown in the western world, but it is rarely practiced among those of European decent. Marriage customs vary widely around the world and in some places it is the woman’s parents, who must pay a dowry to the husband’s family. But in East Africa as well as here in Papua New Guinea, the bride’s family receive the payment.
In Papua New Guinea, just like in East Africa, a son will take on the responsibility of caring for his elderly parents. Saying that a person is buying a wife is not quite accurate. It is not a woman who is being purchased, but rather it is a type of compensation to secure the long-term security of her parents and extended family. Because the wife will usually live with her new husband, the bride’s family will no longer have her help in her family’s daily life. The money presented by the bride groom and his family is understood as a compensation for the family’s personal loss of their daughter. The money goes to the bride’s family and will filter through the community in various ways. The decision as to the acceptable price is more of a community decision, following traditional norms and criteria too complicated for an outsider to fathom. Similarly, it is usually the community that decides who will get married in the first place, and it is not always based on a mutual attraction. Arranged marriages are more common in village settings.
In the West, individual rights and privileges are honoured above all. In PNG, it is the community that is paramount, and so it is rare that an individual will go against the wishes of the community and still be allowed to remain within that community. As western culture permeates this culture through economic growth and development, movies and television, it is taking a toll on communities. More and more individuals are driven to the big cities where they often live a more singular lifestyle. But many are having a difficult time being apart from the supporting network of their home community, which is why Port Moresby, the capitol city of PNG, is one of the most crime-ridden places on earth. Drugs, alcohol and pokies (gambling) provide an alternative community membership. Despite the obvious downside, criminal gangs and communal despondency is still more attractive to many than living apart.
We are Canadians working with MAF in Mt. Hagen, in the central highlands. Mt Hagen is not a big city. It would rank only as a town in Canada. In landmass, it is about the same as a town with around 6000-8000 inhabitants. It would not be big enough for a Walmart but big enough to have most of the shops and stores to support the local and regional population. Nevertheless, a city the size of Mt. Hagen still draws workers from some of the surrounding provinces. The community where we are living has a good number of people from neighboring Enga Province.
When we awoke to the sound of buses and other vehicles outside our compound gate, it was a sign that a large group was about to mass in the small undeveloped strip of land out front. After several hours, many locals as well as travelers from Enga Province had arrived for a Bride Price negotiation.
As we walked out among the crowd, several people came up to us and explained what was happening, and we were invited to watch and even participate if we wished. The scene was a bit chaotic to our eyes, with a number of pigs staked out in the middle of the field surrounded by about 150 onlookers. With the help of an Engan man who could speak a little English as well as Tok Pisin, we learned who some of the speakers were. A number of people were giving what seemed like very eloquent speeches in the local tribal language. Many people were nodding their heads in agreement, while others, like ourselves, did not understand the tribal language, presumably because they too had joined in to watch and were not part of the Engan community.
In the center, right next to the livestock, were three colourfully adorned women. The one in the middle was the bride, with two supporting “sisters”. Each time a person gave a speech, all three would run over and hug the person then return to their previous spot in the middle of the ceremonies. We learned that the men and women giving the speeches were agreeing to support the married couple and to contribute some money towards the Bride Price.
By the end of the first day, there was disappointment in the air. Only 4000 Kina (approx. CDN$2000) cash had been raised. Added to the cash amount were 17 pigs and one goat. All together, the livestock was worth about 40,000 Kina or CDN$20,000.
Judith had been taking many photos during the day, and everyone was happy to see their pictures, even if only for the moment captured in time. When the negotiations slowed, Judith was inspired to make a contribution to the Bride Price. After asking about the appropriate amount that would be customary for a stranger to contribute, she made a small donation. Although the amount was not large, it was appreciated by all, and we were both made to feel a part of the community.
Soon after this, the speeches started again. One interpreter told me that the bride’s father had complained in a speech that if even strangers could contribute, then the amount that the family was seeking was fair. Now we were concerned that we might have had an intrusive influence on the proceedings, but we were assured that our participation was welcomed by all and that the father’s tactics were well understood and every bit a normal part of the negotiations. Some times later the talks stalled, and it was clear that the bride’s family was not satisfied with the offering. The father of the bride stated that another meeting would be necessary and that everyone should return later in the week after searching for more money.
After a few days, the crowd returned, along with truck loads of pigs and the goat. Within a few hours, the negotiations were concluded, with the final results being 8,160 Kina (CDN4100$) plus 19 pigs plus and one goat. Everyone was happy as Judith took some family photos of the two families. They all went home pleased with the results, and the two of us learned a great deal about the people from Enga Province and their customs regarding a Bride Price.