By Geoffrey Heard
The traditional marriage settlement in Papua New Guinea is usually called “bride price” in English and is crudely characterized by most outsiders as the purchase of a woman -- often the forced purchase -- as a chattel, a slave of her husband whose only value is to produce children and produce food as a garden cultivator.
There are cases of this, of course -- there are hundreds of different cultural groups in Papua New Guinea and very large variations among them in respect of marriage settlements and the position of women in society. In addition, as in any culture, there are brutes of men who abuse their wives and children, regarding them as chattels or worse.
But by and large, the simplistic outsiders’ view is wrong. While it certainly happened and some pretty vile practices have been recorded, it obviously doesn’t stand up in the many areas where women are the stewards of land and inheritance is matrilineal (land is the very foundation of life in any subsistence farming community), it doesn’t stand up in the many cultures which include courtship rituals which allow a degree of individual choice in marriage partner, and it doesn’t stand up in most cultures I know where men are dominant -- at least not today and not for a long time.
The chattel story is one of the white man’s nasty little fictions which ignores his own recent and pretty unsavory history of repression of women (the suffragettes in England are remembered, when that can’t be avoided, in connection with voting; all too often the depth and seriousness of the repression they were fighting against has disappeared into the void) while putting down others of a different skin color and different culture.
In most cases, Papua New Guinea marriage settlements are a payment from the husband’s family to the bride’s family. A friend from southern Bougainville once described the two-way settlement system in his area -- there were bride and husband prices, as it were, with the bride price being higher. In my experience, this is an exception.
Another failure of understanding by many outsiders is the complexity of the system. They tend to see “a man”, one side, paying a huge sum for “a woman”, the other side. But typically, there is no such thing as an individual making a marriage settlement, the settlement comes from the husband’s clan and goes to the wife’s clan. And then some!
Marriage settlement contribution and distribution is part of the mutual obligation system which Papua New Guinea is built on. You contribute to a marriage settlement; you will receive proportionately from the next one your clan collects. Everybody knows who owes what to whom and why -- and the debits and credits can span multiple generations and take on byzantine proportions.
Rules of contribution or distribution of the goods and monies might be quite strict according to nearness of relationship to the couple or they might be quite open with an expectation but not a rule. Needless to say, any branch of the family which fails to contribute to rule expectation can expect appropriate treatment at distribution time!
When my family, who are Tolais from the area near Rabaul, was preparing a marriage settlement, they sent the word out along the clan lines. It is almost impossible to calculate how many would have been involved in contributing, but my daughter-in-law was once talking about people three or four times removed from her and they, in turn, would have relied links that went even further if they didn’t have the “ready”.
The complexity can become byzantine. Very often, individuals both give and receive through different ancestral lines, and even more often, where a husband is paying out, the wife is receiving, and vice versa.
Among the Tolai, marriage settlements -- mostly made up front at the time of the marriage -- are regulated by local government councils who restrict both the currency and the amount. Four hundred param (fathoms) of tambu, traditional shell money, is the maximum allowed in my family’s area. The restrictions do not remove all difficulties -- the tiny cowrie shells used to make tambu have been fished out in all the near areas and have to be bought for cash from locations hundreds of kilometers away -- but the rules have helped in keeping the marriage settlement custom alive and well. That’s important, not just because of its economic impact, but because of its enormous impact on social cohesion. See http://pngtimetraveller.blogspot.com/2010/12/theyre-making-money-in-rabaul-literally.html
In Karai Komana and many nearby areas in eastern and central Papua, the marriage settlement is made years after the couple has married and produced a family. It is a celebration of their marriage and the contribution the wife has made to the husband’s family and clan. Normal practice is for a payment, the Bole, to be made to the wife’s family a year after the first child is born. It used to be some piles of peeled yams but today might be about K4000 plus some pigs and lots of yams (peeled, of c0urse! But why? Nobody knows). This is a statement that the child (and subsequent children) belong to the husband’s clan, an assurance of continuing marriage, and a promise of complete settlement later.
The settlement I saw, for Kurona’s wife, Nigona, was four children (the oldest is 16) and the best part of 20 years into the marriage.
If that first payment is not made, traditionally the marriage might be annulled at that point, the wife returning to her family -- taking her child or children with her.
An ungenerous payment will be seen as an insult, as a rejection of the wife and of cocking a snook at her clan, and might also lead to termination of the marriage. Better to make no payment at all than to offer up a spavined pig and K20!
The initial payment points to the universal recognition in subsistence communities of the value of children. They are loved for themselves, of course, but they are also a subsistence family’s health insurance and old age pension. The parents (and aunts and uncles) will support the children when they are young and the children will reciprocate when the parents and grandparents and possibly the odd uncle or aunt, are old, infirm, and unable to pull their weight in the gardens any longer. The cost of raising children is an investment.
In the industrialized west, there is no expectation that children will reciprocate so parents see the cost of children rearing as an expense, not an investment, which reduces their ability to make financial provision for their own future. They might very well make the decision not to have children -- a decision which would be the greatest folly in a subsistence community.
The escalation of the marriage settlement payments is no problem so long as the system is closed -- the medium of exchange -- fruit, veges, handcrafts, pigs, shell money, and whatever produced in the villages or traditionally traded -- goes round and round, and it doesn’t come out. People grow their own money, in effect. Knowing that a settlement is coming up, they plant extra crops for their contribution. Knowing they are going to receive a settlement, they take it a bit easy. In most parts of Papua New Guinea, the productivity of the environment is high enough for people to be able to work several days less than a full week to subsist, so cultivating an extra garden for marriage contributions is no problem at all.
But when people are living in a cash economy, the money doesn’t go round and round, it goes in and out and participants working regular jobs get regular pay -- they don’t have the income elasticity of their country cousins.
This can lead to financial disaster. Most of those working in the cash economy, even the those who might be described as middle class, are relatively poorly paid -- they are generally worse off than their country cousins put a day or two a week into cash crops. The perception, however, is the other way about so the town dwellers are expected to stump up big time when a traditional obligation is to be fulfilled. Failure to meet that expectation will result in loss of face and loss of standing within the clan. This is very, very serious with long term ramifications.
As a result, townies can be driven into the clutches of the moneylenders with personally catastrophic results. In Papua New Guinea, legal small short-term non-bank lenders charge 20-40 percent annual interest rates. At these rates (expressed in terms of months to repay rather than percentage of loan capital) borrowers can dig a deep, deep financial hole for themselves very quickly. Recently PNG’s biggest bank, BSP, Bank South Pacific, has been attempting to help borrowers find their way out by offering bank loans. However, it’s rumored bank employees are among the non-bank lenders’ biggest customers.
This kind of financial peril along with the move away from village life, and the high number of mixed marriages -- people marrying outside their traditional boundaries -- is leading to the old marriage settlement traditions breaking down. Often, no marriage settlement, bride price, is paid at all.
That’s sad -- as I found in Karai Komana and as I’ve also seen among the Tolai, the marriage settlement is a time of fun, togetherness, and vital reinforcement of family and clan links.
The day the last marriage settlement is paid in Papua New Guinea will be a sad day indeed -- it will mark the loss of a key unifying factor among the nation’s peoples. ###
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011.
The opinions and comments in this article are his own.