Academic journal article Oceania

Piot, Personhood, Place and Mobility in Lihir, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

Piot, Personhood, Place and Mobility in Lihir, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

'Piot, piot, piot. Everyday piot. I'm so sick and tired of piot.' [Isidore 12 June 1998, in English]

Piot was one of the great puzzlements of my fieldwork in the Lihir Islands, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. It was a concept I heard used continuously throughout my time in Lihir once it had been brought to my attention about six weeks after my arrival. While relations are clearly crucial for the compositions of persons in Lihir, recent theories of relational or socio-centric personhood in Melanesia are not able to fully illuminate piot. Instead piot is one instance which reveals both the relational and individualistic aspects of personhood in Lihir, particularly expressed through themes of fixedness in place and mobility.


In general, piot is a condition with a number of bodily symptoms that arises when people either leave a house to sleep elsewhere or people come from elsewhere and sleep in a hamlet. While the person who moves feels nothing, those who were occupying the house or hamlet prior to the arrival or departure have a range of symptoms including headache, bodily pain, tiredness, and if already ill they feel worse for one day (generally) after the arrival or departure. Piot makes people sleep until late in the day. I once had my sore throat ascribed to piot by a neighbour as a number of people had returned to the hamlet after a few days absence.

If a person moves between houses owned by a single household, other members of the household will feel piot, but other people in the hamlet will not. Piot is only inflicted on those in the immediate household. However, if someone moves to sleep in the men's house, or leaves it to sleep elsewhere, the entire hamlet will feel piot and sometimes those in neighbouring hamlets will as well. If people arrive from a long distance, or depart to go far away (another island or distant village), piot will be felt by all in the hamlet and sometimes by people in neighbouring ones. Thus the distance of movement often reflects the importance of the occasion of movement, which in turn is reflected in the extent of impact of piot. In the same way, arrivals or departures of a number of people attracted more comments about piot than the movement of a single person.

Piot is experienced by all those in the affected area (household or hamlet) regardless of whether they normally occupy the area, or whether they arrived only a day before the arrival or departure that caused the instance of piot. Likewise, piot is caused by anybody's arrival or departure: be they visitors or owners of the hamlet. Gender seemed to have no impact on either the infliction or experience of piot.

Piot varies in severity: some people are known to cause more intense piot. The subclan Alonsiat on Mahur was renowned for its ability to inflict severe piot, and people in my hamlet would complain when a number of people of that subclan had arrived or left the previous day. The piot I caused was said to be not too bad, but when a friend from Australia visited me, I was told that his piot was severe.

There are a number of ways that piot can be avoided. Bespelled ashes can be sprinkled around the house, which sends piot away. One informant, Ngalparok, said that piot leaves to return to the person who caused it, but gets lost on the road. Another method is to place a bucket of water by the door of the house to capture piot. Ngalparok said piot would put its foot in the water and, feeling the cold, would not want to stay and affect people in the house. One woman, Pketieng, moved houses for one night to avoid piot when her daughter returned from another island and her cross cousin went to sleep in the gardens. She had already been feeling unwell, and didn't want the additional burden of piot the following day. The methods above prevent piot: there appears to be no cure for piot once it has affected people: they must just wait until it has passed. …

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