by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard
When I left Papua New Guinea in 1977, I could distinguish at a glance 30 or 40 different groups -- maybe more -- and I could address quite a few of them with a greeting in their own language (although a greeting was as far as I could go in this land of 800+ languages).
Returning 33 years later, I find myself flummoxed. Faced with a market full of people, I can pick fairly reliably people from only one tribal group, Tolais from Rabaul, and those from three regional gtoups, people from Buka and Bougainville, Highlanders, and Central and Eastern Papuans.
Long absence, of course, is part of my problem. I’ve simply forgotten what the different groups looked like. Apart from a few basic markers (e.g. the
Buka/Bougainville people have by far the darkest skin in Papua New Guinea, they are black where others are brown) I don’t know how I recognized the different groups. I simply had a gestalt in my head that signalled: “They are both from Morobe Province, but he is from Finschhafen and she is from Markham.”
The people I am looking at have changed too, though. Historically, Papua New Guineans were separated by their 800+ languages, the culture that went with each one, and geography (islands, mountains) for thousands of years. Nobody knows how long ago the separation took place but there is plenty of evidence that it wasn’t yesterday -- there are people who live on adjoining islands or in adjoining valleys who speak languages so different that the only commonality is the fact that they are languages.
People mixed very little across language lines so while each group took great care to avoid close interbreeding, nevertheless they developed their own “look”.
There were also some regional characteristics. Highlanders tend to be strong and stocky. Power lifters. When you see where they live and what they have to do for life, that body shape fits to a “T”. Many islanders tended to be leaner and longer limbed. That seems to fit as well.
Back in the 1960s, most people (it seemed to me) still married within their own groups and nearly everyone I met was the product of a union within their own group, so the age-old differences were retained.
Ask them their origins, and they could tell you precisely in a single word -- the name of their home small district. Look at them, and in nine out of 10 cases, you could place them pretty close to
Marrying out was accelerating by the 1970s and today, particularly in a city like Port Moresby which is a magnet for people from every corner of Papua New Guinea, there are many, many people of mixed parentage and even mixed grandparentage. The old visual markers of origin are broken and scattered. The old gestalts are stored somewhere in my head, but they don’t apply nearly as often as they did before.
A friend who, incidentally, married within his own village, almost a rarity in Port Moresby these days, was chuckling as he related the story of a young lad he encountered in the Boy Scout group he mentors.
“Where do you come from?” my friend asked.
The boy’s reply ran along these lines:
“My dad’s father came from X, his mother came from Y, but really that was only half Y because her mother came fron Z. My mum’s mother came from A and her dad from B, but they both had mixed parents too. So I just say I come from Rainbow.” (Rainbow is the Port Moresby suburb where the boy’s family lives.)
But aside from all that, and the fact that the people I meet today are mostly bigger than people were back when, there is one huge difference between the Papua New Guineans of yesteryear and those of today.
Back in the day, every group seemed to have a kind of overarching hair style. There would be many variations in how each individual dressed her or his individual hair, but there would be something about it that pointed to the group. Often you couldn’t put your finger on it, but you recognized it for all that. You can see the same kind of thing between different periods in Australia.
Most Papua New Guineans have strong, tightly curled or crinkly hair which traditionally was combed in support of its natural tendency to stand out from the head. It’s length, shape and compactness (patted back after combing) along with its color were where the group “look” came through. The so-called “Afro” hairstyle was an indigenous style to Papua New Guinea long before African-Americans thought of using it as a signal to the world that they were going to be different in their own way.
And there was good reason to wear it that way. It protected the head from the sun and acted as insulation.
But today, distinctive regional hairstyles have gone out of the window in Port Moresby; even “natural” hair has gone. I’ll be interested to see what has happened in other parts of the country when I visit them.
Among women, the overwhelming style is severely straightened hair pulled hard back from the face and pinned or tied in a small, tight bun or roll at the back. There’s so much “product” on women’s hair in Port Moresby one suspects that if they all washed their hair simultaneously, the entire drainage system would be clogged for a month.
Dreadlocks are also in, often short and of even length around the head, like a Medusa’s cap. Some girls have tight plaits in lines over their heads in the African style.
Men’s hair tends to be short; often shorter than before, and since many are going to the same barbers, the regional variations have disappeared. Shaved heads are in, as are long dreadlocks tied back in a dreadlock ponytail.
For my part, I hope Papua New Guinean women’s fascination with straightened hair and the American “schoolmarm” look doesn’t last too long. It really is terribly boring and unattractive to my eye -- and it really does have a peculiar uniformity that overrides and suppresses individual and group/regional character.
Personally, I’m all for naturally curly hair.
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.
Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.