Samap village in  Papua New Guinea’s  East Sepik province is like many other places in in the country – isolated  and without  road access.  It lies  in a  tiny secluded bay facing the Bismarck sea.  The village houses stand on ancient rickety  posts  bearing  withering sago thatch roofs.
A group of women and children stand  on the shore  as a fleet of  nine   fiberglass dinghies  each powered by relatively new 40 horse power Yamaha engines come into the bay.   Apart from a few men on each of the boats,   all  are void of any large cargo.
The community’s isolation  masks a transformation that has been  happening over the last   three years.  A transformation driven by a small  group of businessmen on a path to becoming self-made millionaires.
Typical village house in Samap

 The men are returning from Madang. It’s  a trip that has just  earned the community  more than  12 thousand dollars from the sale of buai or betelnut – the fruit of the aceca  palm traditionally chewed during  social gatherings.

Each month, they earn an average of   40 thousand dollars  which translates to a gross annual income of more than 400  thousand dollars which is shared amongst  the members of the community depending on how  much work they contributed.
“There are local buyers  who buy buai  from people in the village,” says Robert Mandu, the ward councilor who made  about 6 thousand  dollars today.   “We pack them in bags and sell it to Seti a businessmen  who comes from the Highlands.”
Those actively  involved in the  buai trade say it’s not just about business and making money.  They’re building on extended family relationships and supporting their clansmen and women in improving their standard of living. Robert from the Sepik and Seti  from the Highlands aren’t  related by blood but they  drew  on the  strengths inherent in both their cultures  and reached out to others.   
L-R Brothers Henry and Robert Mandu  
Every decision is  made collectively with  their elders.  Robert consults with other members of  his family.  Seti is always accompanied by an older uncle who helps him buy the buai.  The trading happens  at the  small village of  Kosakosa on the Madang – East Sepik border where Robert’s  sister lives with her husband.
Over three years, Seti and  Robert’s families developed  this  once tiny local trade confined  to  village consumers into an  industry  which will be worth over a million dollars  over the next 5 years.  The trade spans  six provinces and links  coastal buai growers in Samap  to the vast market of  more than a  million consumers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
The venture began with  Henry – Robert’s older brother – who started off by selling Buai using  small 25 horsepower Yamaha engine.  Henry is a man of few words and doesn’t readily take credit for the  success of  Samap’s growing band of  young entrepreneurs. But everyone knows his actions speak  volumes.  For many in Samap, Henry is a visionary.  These days,  there is very little haggling over prices.  The buyers and sellers  agree on a price that is beneficial to both families.   Seti then makes direct  deposits of up to 15 thousand  dollars  for every order  into the bank accounts managed by Robert.  Each seller knows how much he or she will get per bag and how much is being  deposited.  The boat  owners are  also paid for the hire of their boats upfront.  Nobody is cheated. 
Four of the nine boats brought from buai sales

         Theirs is  a relationship based  on trust and constant communication.  No lawyers. No overseas consultants. No written agreements.  It’s an arrangement that  is working with little trouble.

            “We’ve bought 10 boats  from our buai sales,”  says Robert.   “We are working to get a few more.
“We are in control of our own economic development. We are deciding what we want to do and how much money we want to make”
The Buai trade isn’t their only income source.  Every week,  a boat  goes to  the East Sepik Provincial capital of Wewak  loaded with bags of dried cocoa beans.  This is  another community effort that brings in a collective income of  up to 1500 dollars a week.
“We used to sell unprocessed cocoa beans to  buyers from other villages,” Robert says.   “Many of us aren’t well educated and we knew very little about cocoa prices and we used to get cheated a lot.”
Led by Henry, the people of Samap,  sought the  expertise of a relative who built them a cocoa fermentery.  This reduced the weight they had to carry into town and increased the value of their product.
What the people of Samap are doing is in vast contrast to those in the nearby villages  of Kaup and Tiring  where Malaysian  loggers are clear-felling   large areas of rainforest. They’ve been promised oil palm development as well as benefits  under a special agriculture business lease (SABL) which is currently the focus of an investigation.  So far, there’s  no hint of progress and they’re still waiting for that “development.   
Henry packing cocoa dried beans
            “We kicked  those loggers off our land. They drove their bulldozers into a wildlife management area that our fathers established,” Robert says.  “But the people of Kaup and Tiring have  taken what we rejected.  We told them but they haven’t  listened.”
After more than  three decades  since the Australian colonial administration left, Samap is still without a road link to the provincial capital of Wewak.   The road ends at the nearest mission station of Turubu which is a day’s walk from Samap.  Malaysian loggers are  pressuring leaders  of  Samap to sign logging agreements that come with the promise of  a road link.
            “Those Malaysians  haven’t learned and still think we’re dumb!” says an amused  Samap elder. “How can you build a road with 500 thousand kina? We know they  only want the trees.
“Besides, what would we need a road for?  We already have what we need.”
            As the Local Level Government Councilor,  Robert is the man responsible for the implementation of government policy.  But he gets no support from the provincial or national governments and he doesn’t get paid.  Yet it doesn’t bother him.
            “We don’t need government handouts. We don’t need employment provided by a logging company. We’re making more money on our own.”
            The important thing for them is that  they are in control and they can choose what they want.  Next month, Robert and his brothers will buy a sawmill.  This will help his community build new houses for themselves from timber harvested from their  land. 
            “The next time you come, these houses will be gone. We will have  posts made of sawn timber and houses that have corrugated iron roofs. People deserve to live in good houses.” 


PNG food
Sometime ago,  I  remarked  food tastes a lot better if you share it with others.
When I was  little, I always wondered  why my grandmother would send small parcels of meat or fish  to new  neighbours  who had just moved in two blocks away.  Why would she go out of her way in a province so far from her own village  to  give away  food that we could have easily kept  for next week’s supper?  She shared what she had without any expectation of  getting something in return.    Several months later,  a child (or several children)  would  turn up  at our door step with a small package  with the message: mum sent this for you.   Ok. Who’s your mum?  And where do you live?  In many instances,  we did  not  know  who his parents were because grandma gave away lot  of food parcels.   Life is richer when you share.
Papua New Guineans have great difficulty eating alone.  Food,  no matter how small the portion,  still has to be shared.   From an early age, we are taught to share everything we eat even if there is a lot.  Eating alone is boring.     It’s not about  how delicious  or  tasteless the food is.  The act of sharing  nourishes relationships  and builds new ones.
There’s an old saying  that I must be able to see smoke  (from cooking fires) from my neighbors’ house.
It means  I can’t eat and be content knowing that my neighbor is hungry.
Those relationships that my parents and my grandparents  built when I was a child still exist today.  I find help  and a place to sleep in the most unlikely places  and  from the unlikeliest of people.
They  built those relationships  with  a future generation in mind – my generation and my children’s generation and those who will come after me.


Mine is a warrior culture. One that prided itself on conquest, expansion of territory and on the ability of its young warriors. My ancestors killed and ate their enemies. We were a group of people who refused to become cargo bearers for the colonialists and instead chose to lead expeditions inland carrying the weapons they brought with them.
But the great battles fought over long distances to lay claim to enemy lands wasn’t the central part of my people’s existence.
Diplomacy was of utmost importance and the skills to prevent violence through diplomatic means was and still is highly valued. Such skill didn’t come into play only to prevent war. It was part of everyday life. Brothers resolved issues by talking for hours or even days so that their present disagreements didn’t affect their relationship and their children’s relationships in future. Past relationships between members of distant clans were also equally important.
Each word used in the dialogue was chosen with care. The potential effect of every gesture was considered before it was made. Elders listened and were slow to speak because to offend someone physically or verbally was costly. It was the equivalent of an expensive lawsuit in today’s justice system. Resolving the issue involved an apology and compensation which included payment in the form of pigs and other gifts. So sincerity and honesty were of paramount importance during negotiations.
While the men provided protection as warriors of the clan or tribe, their economic power both in peacetime and in times of war rested on the women. A man’s wealth and status in his society and his ability to negotiate the terms of a diplomatic solution on behalf of his family or clan hinged on his woman’s skill to raise pigs. The foundation of a man’s success depended on the woman.
Women were highly valued members of our society. They were our mothers who gave us life. They were key in the man’s economic and political status and they raised the warriors who laid claim to new land and resources.
Traditionally, women were marked to become wives. But that didn’t stop girls from choosing their future husbands if they so wished. In many instances, a girl would take her possessions and go to the family of the man she wished to marry and be accepted as part of the household. If she was rejected by the young man, another process of diplomacy was initiated by his father and mother. The young man’s family would take gifts – pigs included – to the girl’s family as a sign of respect. That gesture simply said:
“We appreciate your daughter’s decision to choose our son but our son will not take your daughter as his wife. We value your daughter and respect the decision she made and we apologize to your family for the inconvenience this may have caused. We give you these gifts as a token of our appreciation and we hope our relationship and that of our children and our children’s children will not be affected by this event.”
In family life, disagreements between husband and wife rarely erupted into physical violence. This was because apologizing to a woman and her family was an extremely expensive exercise. The number of pigs demanded for the harm caused to their daughter or for the open display of anger was determined by the woman’s uncles and brothers.
The raising of children also had to be done creatively. Children were not only the responsibility of the parents but also of the uncles and aunts. Spanking and even raising your voice at your child in the presence of other family members or guests was offensive. It also called for an expensive apology.
Today many of those practices have lost their meaning. It’s the 21st century and many feel that we have no need for stone age customs and traditions that use pigs as legal tender. There is “no need” for the extended family and children are our responsibility and we can do what we want.
Today, we march against gender based violence and inequality. The man is called the the “breadwinner” and the “head of the family.” We attend conferences on child abuse run by overseas consultants. We use child protection methods that come from other countries and we’ve forgotten that violence against women and children was shunned in our societies.