Depending on what source you look at, Papua New Guinea has between 750 and 900 individual languages on this one half of the island. It is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.
When we were learning about PNG, we read that it was because the terrain was so brutal, it caused boundaries between the people, so different languages developed. That made sense. The mountains are huge and incredibly steep, the jungles are low and thick.
After we arrived though, we found that the opposite is actually true. Enga Province, where we are, has many very steep, very high mountains, and except on the outskirts of the province, the whole area speaks one language – Enga. The whole area is mountainous, tribes exist at different altitudes in different valleys or hollows, but there is primarily one language for most of Enga (as you get closer to the borders, there are a few other languages, but not as many as other parts of the country).
However, when we went to Madang, on the coast, there were over 50 languages there. I’m not talking within the whole province, just around the small city of Madang. I asked a Bible translator how this happened, when everyone can easily travel and trade with each other in an area like that. Basically, spiritual beliefs have accomplished what mountains, rivers, and seas could not. If a fight broke out within a tribe, then the two tribes might separate. There is a strong belief that the spirits of that clan would harm them should they come back into each other’s territory, and that keeps them away from each other. Many years later, when all of that is forgotten, they might re-initiate a trade relationship, but by that time the two tribes are now speaking completely different languages.
The way they bridge this gap is a Pidgin language called Tok Pisin (if someone was talking about the Enga language, they would say Tok Enga, or Tok Inglis for English). I’ll write more about Tok Pisin later. But because there are so many individual languages, one of the marks, in many areas, that a person is someone you are to look out for and they are to look out for you is that you share a language. This means you are wantoks (One talk). Now in Enga that’s not the same marker because the language is pretty much the same, but there are many tribes – still, the term wantok is used for that type of relationship.
Your wantok is often your family, your friends, and the people in your tribe. There is a common cause there. Those in your tribe help you. They honestly don’t have a choice. You also have an obligation to help them. If your kid needs school fees, you go to your wantoks; if someone is getting married, all the wantoks come together to pay the bride price. Those who are more prosperous are obligated to give more, but they are also listened to more as well and gain status within the tribe (they are a Big Man). There isn’t really a chief, per se, but the Big Man speaks last in the village court, and has the most influence. And it is all fair, because you give when others need help. In fact, you don’t have much of a choice. It is looked down on to hold back. The idea of ownership is different. You are not more prosperous because of how much you own, but how much you give. Budgets are not really understood. Money or food doesn’t go into certain categories, and it certainly doesn’t get saved for a rainy day. It goes where it is needed, and then when you need it, someone gives theirs to you. It would be very wrong not to.
This evolves into what they call “the wantok system.” It is probably one of the biggest strengths of the PNG culture – very few people go hungry in Papua New Guinea, because wantoks look out for each other. Poverty is not the same here as it is in many places. But as things become more modern, it is also the biggest weakness. If someone gets an education and has a job, they are obligated to give the money they bring home to whomever needs it. This can really discourage the desire to work. It is shameful to quit a job because the job really helps the village. It is not shameful to get fired, though, and so people who are frustrated with handing the money over that they worked so hard for will go to great lengths, sometimes harmful lengths, to get fired. Or suppose a person has a great job in Port Moresby. If wantoks come to Port Moresby, they know they have a place to stay…with their wantok. And a person really can’t tell them no without being shamed, so a house full of relatives or tribal relations for any great length of time might be the burden for success. Others will go get drunk, gamble, or go on spending sprees in order to spend their paychecks before others need it.
Other ways that it can harm is that as far as morality — you look out for your wantok, but everyone else is fair game. So the rate of theft in stores can be high because of another ideal called “traim tasol” Basically “just try” or “what can you lose if you don’t try?” If you don’t get caught, it isn’t exactly wrong. So since a department store or grocery store is not owned by a wantok, it is perfectly okay to steal from it. In cities where small subgroups of tribes gather, wars are more likely because of close quarters. Asking a white person for money by telling a story because they might just be naive enough to fall for it, isn’t wrong. It’s “traim tasol.” (the answer, in some situations, help is a good thing. It establishes relationships with others. There is no such thing as a free gift. If you help someone, they are very likely to help you sometime in the future. However, if the person has wantoks, a good question is “why aren’t your wantoks looking out for you?” (it took us a little while to learn this).
Now, the further a person gets from home, the more people are their wantoks. In Birip, members of the Layala tribe are wantoks, but in Port Moresby, all Engans would be a wantoks to each other. In Australia or other countries, all Papua New Guineans would be wantoks, and they look out for each other. The further a person is from home, the bigger the wantok circle is.