Can the Melanesian Way guarantee a good life for Papua New Guineans?

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WHEN THE AGREEMENT WAS signed to reroute asylum seekers bound for Australia to Papua New Guinea, there was a public outcry against the move by a majority of Papua New Guineans.

In the midst of the animosity levelled against the decision the more peace-loving Papua New Guineans were using social media to remind the rest of the people about the Melanesian Way.

Papua New Guineans were urged to embrace the asylum seekers in ‘the Melanesian Way’.

What then is the Melanesian Way that is supposed to make asylum seekers welcome?

Proponents talked about love, acceptance and peace such that, if this concept was a picture, it would show a line of people standing along a beach with the Bible in one hand, a lei in the other and a smile on their face, singing welcome songs.

Is the Melanesian Way a way of love? Did our ancestors stand on the shores and sing songs of welcome when the Whiteman sailed into the harbours and coves of the island of New Guinea?

John Waiko in his narration of the first contact between the Binandere and Europeans showed that the manner in which the different tribes approached the intruders was a direct reflection of their capacity to fight their tribal battles.

Some tribes were self-sufficient in their capacity to fight and maintain tribal lands and acquire new land from the losing tribes, while other tribes were being run to extinction.

Those that could not defend their lands embraced the Europeans as allies in the hope that the white skins and the power of their guns could be used to fight the local  tribal battles.

On the other hand, those that were self-sufficient saw the Europeans as a threat and rejected them and fought them off at every chance they had and even ate the bodies of white men to assimilate their power.

The Binandere people were portrayed as a scheming lot who forged alliances based on the benefits the alliance would bring to them to assist them fight their enemies. Unfortunately the Europeans were not aware of this agenda.

Other commentators define the Melanesian Way as a value of equality. Indeed, most Papua New Guinea societies are egalitarian. Apart from a few societies that had chieftain systems, most tribes in Papua New Guinea lived in a society where everybody was equal.  (Although the introduction of sweet potato disrupted this system in some societies by breeding pigs, polygamy and the big man.)

The notable writer and blogger Martyn Namorong calls this the ‘Melanesian equilibrium’ wherein  the fruits of the land were regarded as communally owned and, as such, everyone in society expected a fair share – not necessarily an equal portion a balancing act between the interests of the individual and those of the tribe.

But that was where it ended, within the tribe. No Melanesian equilibrium was ever extended to those outside the tribe. Tribes were fiercely protective of their land and women.

John Fowke, in his essay on the Melanesian Way, says that it is the way of a fragmented multi-tribal society. It’s a way which facilitated the existence of such societies whilst they remained divided, multi-lingual, local, warlike and competitive. In PNG’s case, this was a society that existed successfully and independently for tens of thousands of years.

The ‘Way’ that kept a fragmented multi-tribal society intact, as referred to by Fowke, can be put down to one word – suspicion.  Suspicion of everything beyond the tribal boundaries, suspicion of the unknown kept tribes independent for thousands of years.

The trade links and allies that existed were acquired, maintained and managed through marriage over time. The elaborate planning and ritual that went into arranging marriages and paying bride prices demonstrates how important marriages were for strategic purposes.

Although confusing to outsiders, the sometimes messy mortuary ritual that takes place to honour the “mama lain” and the “papa lain” when someone dies serves to reaffirm those links and allies.

Other commentators say that the Melanesian Way is an attempt to bring the thousand tribes with diverse tribal rules together as one nation. The Melanesian Way served to bring the thousand tribes ….under a new version of tradition as a bundle of values specific to no particular place but putatively shared by all.

Is that what Bernard Narokobi meant when he coined the term back in the 1984?

The rule of law which judges right from wrong is a concept absent in the Melanesian context. Narokobi recognised this and pointed out there was no right way of making peace and that conflicts can be successfully settled by recognising differences in the approaches and then coming up with the best mode to resolve the issue.

Through this method of considering all options, all parties win to some extent and none lose. This ensures that relationships are maintained and none is estranged, because one may need to call a favour in the near future.

This method of reaching a consensus had practical implications when the thousand tribes came together to become one nation. This method validated all the different customs that existed and showed respect and consideration for the differences. This method of dispute resolution I believe, was the Melanesian Way Mr Narokobi referred to.

Does a Melanesian Way exist and does it work? The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘sometimes’. For instance, the Melanesian Way is the winner in land disputes cases. Through dialogue, the genealogy is constructed and the land divided accordingly. All parties are satisfied.

This however, is not so for those who go to a court of law. The law rules that one is the winner and owner of the land and the other is the loser. This breeds animosity between blood relatives.

Despite its usefulness, the Melanesian Way is open to manipulation and misuse because of the oral nature of customary law.

This misuse has been pervasive in the political arena. A commentator states this about the Melanesian Way in politics: [It] is whatever those in powers choose it to mean. Lacking any kind of scrutiny their personal lives are enriched by theft, bribery and corruption. The Rule of Law means nothing to them and corruption is so entrenched that it is the norm rather than the exception.

After observing politics in PNG, hard-talking commentator, Dr Susan Merrell says the Melanesian Way is redolent with self-serving pragmatism and a fickle approach to commitment that can be called upon, or not, according to whim.

This self-serving pattern exists because Papua New Guinea’s parliament has two guiding principles. First is the one borrowed from the west and based on Christian tenets and the other is custom.

Custom, however, is not one custom but a thousand customs, unwritten and open to interpretation and which cannot be challenged in a court of law.

In such a dual system, with no rule to guide decisions, the trend has been to choose culture over the constitution when it seems beneficial to do so. The Melanesian Way has become the excuse to break laws and circumvent obligations and hard decisions and even escape the grasp of the law.

Justice is not served when a compromise is reached outside the modern court of law to pay “bel kol moni” to the families of victims of rape and abuse. It is against human rights values when a young girl is forcefully married off by her family to an older man to settle old scores.

So the Melanesian Way has become self-serving, as pointed out by political commentators. It suppresses innovation because it rewards supporters and kin and not hard work.

Can the ‘Melanesian Way’ guarantee a good life for the people of Papua New Guinea?

The definition of a good life is subjective, but all people, regardless of whether they live in glass houses or grass huts, desire a society where there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails.

We can make a good life for our people when we stop pretending that the Melanesian Way is relevant in the 21st century because it is not. Every human being must abide by the rule of law and conduct their lives according to the moral code all humans live by.

Justice has to prevail. The troublemakers must be punished and the people must rise and fall not because of influence but because they have worked hard and earned a good life.

In conclusion, we revisit the initial question: what version of the Melanesian Way would Papua New Guinea offer to make the Asylum Seekers feel welcome? In keeping with the spirit of the “Melanesian Way”, the details of the welcome party will be decided upon when it has to be decided.  As for the future prospects, the Government as the head of the united nations of Papua New Guinea may decide through legislation, to accommodate one more new tribe, to be housed on government land, to serve the government. This action will violate the thousands of year old instruction, encoded in the DNA of every Papua New Guinean, that compels warriors into warfare over land and that invokes deep distrust for outsiders. The attraction of acquiring powerful allies may just win over the default for keeping it between “wantoks”.

*** This essay was written for the Rivers Writing Competition November 2013


  1. May 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

    This is a very well written piece and quite an insight into the difficulties presented by ‘outsiders’ . This is becoming a concern in Europe but there are complex ideologies and lost histories of terrible battles in Europe’s past interacting.

  2. John Oakley said,

    May 19, 2017 at 1:45 am

    Thanks for this great insight. We all long for the day when, as you say, “there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails”.
    Sometimes I weep when I see what is happening (and not happening) around me in Western Province. But we do what we can and encourage others who are on the same path. Thanks

    • May 22, 2017 at 1:29 am

      Thank you Dr Oakley for all the good work you and others like you do in the Western province and in all other rural areas in PNG. Because of your sacrificial work, PNG ranks somewhere on the measuring scale. If not, we would fail every criteria. I am always critical of the UN and their criteria, but because of those criteria, our rural people have a chance of being served. Melanesian way, cronyism, nepotism, wantok system – has crippled PNG, but I can feel a new breed of leadership arising. Things will change. How soon? We will begin to know, after the elections. God bless.

  3. September 21, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    […] Australia also left behind a leadership vacuum.  The kiaps were a government unto themselves in the villages . But when they left, they transferred everything to a committee  of parliamentarians in Port Moresby. Without direction, people came up with their own definition of leadership – mixing the new and the old. This may have also contributed in the self-serving, undefinable  concept of the “Melanesian Way”. […]

  4. April 6, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    […] Australia also left behind a leadership vacuum.  The kiaps were a government unto themselves in the villages . But when they left, they transferred everything to a committee  of parliamentarians in Port Moresby. Without direction, people came up with their own definition of leadership – mixing the new and the old. This may have also contributed in the self-serving, indefinable concept of the “Melanesian Way”. […]

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