Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts on Community

Ten ladies and eight children sharing one bathroom.

Three meals a day in a dining hall with 31 other students and staff, all of whom take turns doing meal prep and clean-up.

Very little privacy and nowhere to go to “get away.”

All sounds carrying right through the walls.

These are some of the drawbacks of communal living. I think, though, that our course is set up this way by design, and not just because of the limitations of the facility. They’re trying to kill us … er, I mean, make us stronger. And give us an appreciation for values that may be somewhat different from those we are used to. On October 9 we will be allocated out to our villages for five weeks, and one thing you must understand about Papua New Guinea is that life is lived in community.

Ennio Mantovani writes in his article, “Traditional and Present Day Melanesian Values and Ethics,” “The shape and size of the community varies from society to society in Melanesia, but the group of people which is necessary for biological survival, for emotional support and for meaning is always of the greatest importance for Melanesians. In fact, the community seems to take precedence over individual personal likes and dislikes.”

In our Western cultures, many of us, dare I say most of us, get up and spend our day either doing what-not inside our houses, or working or running errands away from home. When we return, we push a button and then drive our windows-rolled-up cars (because we value air conditioning) into the garage, the door of which closes conveniently behind us. Then we escape back into the security and privacy of our homes. We may have waved briefly to the neighbors, but we don’t know their names.

Not so here. The house is for sleeping. Life is lived outside.

Because people matter.

Working in the garden - which takes 45 minutes to walk to - with your sister-in-law and all the children while the baby hangs from a tree in a string bag. Sitting around chewing buai (betelnut) and making biliums. Storying - what we might call "shooting the breeze" - for hours on end. Cooking kaukau over an open fire and then eating in an open-sided veranda in front of God and everyone.

To stay inside your house, as would be so easy for us to do, would be considered rude – a definite sign that you are not interested in relationships.

Relationship is perhaps the primary cultural value in Melanesian society.

Storying is a must, whether you have something to say or not. Just tell the other person about what you did in the garden this morning, or what happened at the local rugby game on Saturday. Or you can “Once Upon a Time” it and share what happened when your grandfather first saw a white man seventy-five years ago. Or how you managed to kill two wild pigs in one day last year. Or how your brother fell nearly 10 meters out of a buai tree when you were seven and only broke one little finger.

Just talk.

PNG culture values reciprocity, as well. You help me, I help you. Or, I help you, you help me. It matters not how it started, but tabs are mentally kept and one is always either owed something or indebted to another. Or both. But, unlike in my culture where it is a matter of fairness, these accounts are maintained as a way of reinforcing that certain relationships are valuable to you. You matter and our friendship matters, so I will help you. I will give you some bananas. Or I will teach you how to make a bilum. Or I will help you sew morota for your roof.

Then you show me that you value me in return by giving me a ride to town, or watching my children while I go to the market, or giving me some buai. Even better if you chew it with me.

And so on.

Interestingly, even saying “thank you” and causing an offense require some kind of physical exchange.

As Ennio Mantovani states, “Gratitude follows the same rules. Any gift establishes a relationship. One cannot answer the first part of an exchange with words. One must do something. …[and] If one offends a friend, i.e., breaks the relationship, it is not enough to say “sorry,” one must do sorry and give a gift. Eventually a gift will be returned and that is the final sign that peace has been made.”

As much as this communal living can be grating at times, it is very much preparing us for life in the village. Yes, we will have our own house (which, of course, we must exit during the day so as to live life on the outside), and our own liklik haus (Would that be a little too much community? Not for them.), which will differ from here at POC. But, we expect to be almost constantly in the presence of other people.

It’s what we choose to do with that contact that counts.

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