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From Shell Money to Sharing: Important “Kastoms” To Know Before Visiting Papua New Guinea

Kastoms are deeply rooted in everyday life in Papua New Guinea
Kastoms are deeply rooted in everyday life in Papua New Guinea | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
In Papua New Guinea tribes and villages were cut off from the modern world for hundreds of years, allowing a rich cultural heritage to develop undisturbed. Many of the country’s unique customs are still practised today as a part of daily life, while others are only celebrated at annual festivals.

Customs, or kastoms in the national language, Tok Pisin, are deeply rooted in everyday life in the South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG). From the Highlands to coastal communities on PNG’s many islands, there are a wealth of different traditions. Many are unique to individual communities, such as the scarification of young boys in the Sepik region, while others are shared nationwide, such as the belief in certain taboos.

The wantok system

Practiced across PNG, wantok is an informal social security system – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The Tok Pisin word “wantok” literally translates as “one talk” in English, but its broader meaning refers to people who speak the same language – an easily identifying factor in a country with more than 800 languages. It means people are likely to give preference to their family or those who share the same tongue. The unspoken agreement dictates that wantok groups help each other in times of need by, for example, providing food or shelter, or getting involved in a conflict. In modern PNG it now refers to giving preference to people they know in employment.

Rhonda Wohemani, a lecturer from the Divine Word University in Madang who hails from the Sepik region explains: “A person who is in a higher authority position or job is likely to employ a person from the same tribe, community, or province, or friends who graduated from the same college or institution. This is more commonly seen in our business and education system.”

Certain things are taboo to women

If a visitor is told something is tambu, they should tread very carefully to avoid offending important traditions or customs. The word means “taboo” in Tok Pisin, and while what is referred to as tambu can change from region to region, the sentiment is hugely important across the country.

In the Sepik region for example, men’s “haus tambarans”, or spirit houses, are tambu for women to enter, although exceptions are sometimes made for female tourists. And at the annual National Mask Festival and Warwagira in Rabaul, East New Britain, women are not allowed to look at the symbolic figures representing the dead. Known as “dukduks” or “tabuans”, these figures are thought to be reincarnations of spirits and first have to be brought to life in a secret ceremony. Women also have to stand behind men on the beach as these figures are brought ashore in canoes to mark the start of the festival.

From crocodile skin to clan representation, tattoos, scarification and markings are kastoms upheld all over the country | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip

Tribal markings

This custom is practised all over PNG, and many tribal tattoos or face markings are clearly visible. In New Britain province, the largest of PNG’s 600 islands, women have facial tattoos, often taking unique designs and patterns that represent their husband’s tribe.

Among the tribes of the Sepik River, young men are cut with razors to leave markings all over their backs. This scarification is to resemble the hide of a crocodile, an animal revered in the region. “This initiation ritual is for boys aged 15 to 18 to become a man,” Rhonda explains. “Their backs will be tattooed with traditional needles by elders in the community.”

A belief in sorcery and witchcraft

Sanguama is the Papuan word for sorcery, and belief in this black magic remains prevalent in modern PNG, especially in the remote Highland region. Much of it is innocent enough, such as the belief in natural and ancestral spirits – the meddling kind who inflict illness, or the animal spirits that are respected as village totems. But sanguama also has a dark side. Sadly, the majority of people accused of sanguama are women who have been branded as witches. The country has seen a spike in lynching in recent years, and the UN estimates that at least 200 “witches” are murdered each year. It took a brutal killing of a woman in 2013 and an international outcry for PNG’s parliament to reintroduce the death penalty and revoke the 1971 Sorcery Act that was commonly seen as a legal defence for the perpetrators.

Pigs reign supreme

Pigs are highly valued in PNG society. From the Highlands to the coastal regions these mammals are viewed as a symbol of wealth, status and can be used as capital. In rural areas families pay for their children’s school fees with pigs, and they are often the centrepiece at celebrations and events. “Pigs are slaughtered during funerals, festivals, like the yam festival on the Trobriand islands, and are used as a ‘dowry’ or bride price, along with sea shells and cassowary,” says Rhonda. “Pigs are about the only domestic mammals in PNG and they are highly valued. This has been a tradition for a very long time.”

Nassariidae shells can be used to buy goods and services alongside the national currency, the kina | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip

Shell money

Although PNG’s national currency is the kina, shell money is also an officially recognised currency. Known as tabu, shell money is typically made by the Tolai people in East New Britain province, although there are other provinces that also have their own version of shell money. It’s made by stringing Nassariidae shells together after a lengthy process of drying them out in the sun to rid them of snails and treating them with pesticides.

In everyday life, tabu is exchanged for groceries and essentials at the markets. And as it is legal tender it can be exchanged for kina, which are used for payments such as school fees or hospital bills.

Tabu is also a sacred currency and its exchange is an essential ritual in resolving disputes and celebrating marriages. “In some parts of PNG, a man has to provide gifts to his future bride’s family,” explains Rhonda. “The woman’s family in return also provides gifts to the groom’s family.”

Beware of trespassing

As much as 95% of the land across PNG’s 462,840 sq km (178,704 sq mi) is either privately owned or belongs to a clan. This ownership is not officially documented, but land ownership rights have been passed down through families or tribes for generations. Any space that does not fall under these customary landowners is typically owned by the government. This means that if visitors are looking to venture into PNG’s jungle, or explore the beaches along the country’s stunning coastline, they’ll likely be walking on to someone’s property. To avoid trespassing, take along a local guide and don’t be surprised when asked to pay a fee to walk across land or to step on to a beach.

Sharing is caring

The custom of sharing is the backbone of PNG culture, be it among individuals, families or whole communities. The tradition was born out of necessity in remote communities cut off from other tribes and villages where food and shelter was shared between everyone. “Sharing is common among PNG culture as we live among extended families and in closed communities,” Rhonda explains. “It’s passed down from our ancestors. In a community, if a chief provides for one household for instance, he has to share food to all families in the community. We do not want to see others go hungry.”

Sharing is not only common in rural villages but is also practised in towns and cities. “We have a system of giving gifts freely to any visitor to our community. This part of our culture is also a show of appreciation for friendships or people who have helped us,” Rhonda says.

One tribe in Hela province sends their boys to wig school to be initiated into an important tribal kastom | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip

Growing wigs

One of PNG’s largest Highland tribes puts their young men through a hair-raising initiation ceremony. For the Huli Wigmen of Hela province, it’s customary to grow their hair to create incredible ornate headdresses. The wigs, made out of woven human hair, are then adorned with colourful feathers, many of which are often taken from birds of paradise, the national symbol of PNG. Wig-making is a serious business and every young man is expected to go to wig school at the age of 14. The spectacular headdresses take at least 18 months to grow, using a combination of spells and hair treatments, and a young man has to stay at school away from his family until his wig is complete. Headdresses are handed down from generation to generation, and the men decorate their faces in red and yellow ochre to complete their colourful tribal dress.