The other day when we were watching Kuna replace the rope on his bow, we rookies were asking plenty of questions–that’s one of the things we’ve been trained to do. At one point Kuna showed us some other bows of his and I asked how many he had. He responded “Four, do you want one?” This presented a more complicated dilemma than it might at first seem. Obviously, I want one because it is awesome and I like awesome things. The question is: “What will it cost me?”

Here in Papua New Guinea one of the important aspects of the culture we are learning about is the role of “friendship.” I put the word in quotes because a PNGian would translate the word “wantok” into english as “friend,” but it would not accurately reflect the true meaning of the word. In a nutshell, friendship (to some extent) is based upon mutual obligation to one another. Giving and receiving a gift is one way to initiate a friendship and, though they may assure us that the gift is free, it means that we are expected to continue the pattern of gift giving. This plays out in sharing food, possessions, housing and more.

Recently Elizabeth spent some time with a woman who gave her a bilum (a bag that they make and use for everything) and some produce from her garden. She was explicitly, repeatedly clear that, in their relationship, she would give Elizabeth food and Elizabeth would giver her clothes. This was more straightforward than it is most of the time. That woman’s husband gave me an arrow (so of course, I now need a bow,) but said it was a free gift and I didn’t owe him anything. In a sense it may be true that the arrow itself is a free gift. However, it means that we are friends now and friends give gifts.

It is easy to pass judgement on this foreign idea of friendship. Some of the ways this works itself out would be labeled “free-loading” or “exploitation” in America. But some of our ideas of friendship would be considered rude and disloyal here. Who’s right? Obviously neither is “right.” Our culture works for us because we are all brought up in it and agree on it–the same is true here. It’s the mixing together that makes things sticky.

Having only a second or two to consider all that, I told Kuna that I would be happy to have a bow (I don’t know what the consequence of turning down a gift would be.) So he told me he would make a new arrow and bring both to me soon. Maybe one day I’ll find out if I did the right thing. What would you have done?

9 Comments
  1. Yes, I agree that it would be interested in finding out if you could turn down a gift. Seems like you could get way more “friends” that you could keep up with.

    Then again, can you “re-gift”? You could set up an entire network of distribution.

    That probably sounds a lot more fun to me than it does to you.

  2. Josh

    We see this all the time in public schools…the meshing of values and beliefs. One of my challenges is getting teachers to work within the “grey” — because of how global our world has become, we can no longer work within the traditional value system we once could.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Pop Pop

    What do I think?

    I think these people are in this way better able to understand what is meant by a “commitment to Christ”

    They have already experienced what it takes to release their hold on there worldly possessions. Understanding that all they are and all they have is because of God and belongs to God is a much smaller step than it is for us. Us that are so concerned (in this economy) with not losing what we have.

    Having said that, I need to get back to my renovation work on our “place in the hills”. How much is really enough? Way less than we have been blessed with.

    By the way Elizabeth, it’s cool enough today to have a fire tonight, we hope. (probably with the doors and window open.)

  4. Kelly K

    I have been thinking about this.
    I appreciate the way Elizabeth’s new wantok was clear in her expectations. I would do way better with that.
    Is there any sort of feeling of “lets all take advantage of the N. Americans” by the PNGians?

  5. Heather Nelson

    Think you did the right thing…you have to jump in at some point and begin navigating friendship the PNG way. Besides, your wife has already taken the plunge!

  6. Sharon Jacobs

    you are brave! who knows where this might end up?

    Seriously, I think many of our friendships are based upon expectations, as well. We just don’t articulate it. But even so, it is there; an unspoken expectation of a give-and-take in a relationship.

  7. Hannah

    This was a great post to read to my Small Group Reading class. The three of them agreed that they would not accept the ‘gift’ because they did not want to have to give a gift….on the 8th grade mind.

  8. Denise

    Now you can kill spiders and give them to him to eat. Gifting done.

What do you think?