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?