An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


The whole wantok thing is bugging me at the moment. Luckily for me I am not affected like the locals are, but I still can't help to get annoyed about it on their behalf - well for John, my colleague anyway.

In case you have never been to PNG, this little statement above might need explaining. Literally translated from Pidgin wantok means "one talk", but in reality like most pidgin words it's definition encompasses a wide scope. Wantok is a term used to denote anyone who is from your family or anyone who is a close, or sometimes not so close, friend.

It takes on special significance here when the wantok system is talked about. This basically means that you are obligated to help out your wantoks if they are in need. The problem is that anyone who makes it, i.e. anyone who actually has a job, gets hit up all the time for things by their wantoks.

So for example, John the other day had to give one of his wantoks 50 kina for a bus fare back to Mt. Hagen because this cousin, friend, associate (I think it was the former) decided to come down from Hagen two days before when a free lift presented itself. There was no reason for his visit save for the fact that it was free. Of course he had no money to get back so he decided to go and hit up John to give him the cash. I ended up having to chip in and lend K30, because John did not have the whole 50 on him.

Perhaps poor old John is just gullible, but I do know for a fact these guys are pretty persistent and have long memories. Off topic, a while a go I had a guy come to my door on campus and pestered me for half an hour into trying to buy a carving of a dolphin. In the end I was almost tempted just to give him money so he would go away. But eventually my persistence won out and he walked away empty handed. You have to be straight from the start or they will keep coming back trying to peddle things.

Anyway, back on wantoks and poor old John. He was telling me about his Christmas and New Year and how he had a few people stay over. It turns out a few was a dozen, and they were all cramped into his little house which is smaller than mine. It is just expected of him to put up his wantoks like this. He always is having to accommodate someone who has come down from his villages up near Hagen.

John is certainly not the only example of wantok madness. In fact it could be argued that a reason PNG is being held back development wise is because of the wantok system. Why would you want to go out and be successful, only to have all your wantoks hit you up for favours when you do. There are plenty of stories about trade stores going bust because,it is expected that if you own one you should just give that bar of soap, box of washing powder away when a wantok comes asking for it.

Conversely, why should you bother trying to succeed if you have a successful wantok, just go and ask them for what you want.

It is also pretty evident that the wantok system is holding the country back when you witness, like I do all the time, the University ambulance being used as a personal bus for the driver. He has been given the responsibility to rush people into hospital if they become sick on the grounds, but all I ever see it doing is ferrying wantoks around, with most of them riding in the back where patients should be.

Politicians and public servants are the classic example of where the system really has a downside for the country as a whole. It doesn't take a genius to realise that if you are in a position as powerful as a member of parliament, then you will be expected to give kickbacks to wantoks. Besides they are the ones who voted for you. Stories abound about this in the local papers almost every day.

Even though the system has a lot of downsides, there are quite a lot of benefits for it as well. It makes the family unit a very strong one here, which can only be a good thing. I am all for a strong family, I think this is certainly lacking in a lot of western societies.

Overall though I think the negatives out way the positives, especially for the whole country. Unfortunately it is a topic that is a huge and very complex one and something that is not going to go away in a hurry. Personally, if this country does want to go forward and progress, the attitudes of what is expected from your wantoks need to change.