Tea and Tinned Fish: Christianity, Consumption and the Nation in Papua New Guinea

By Dundon, Alison | Oceania, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Tea and Tinned Fish: Christianity, Consumption and the Nation in Papua New Guinea


Dundon, Alison, Oceania


INTRODUCTION: MOTHER'S MILK

In Western Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Gogodala recollections of national Independence in 1975 are dominated by a cultural 'revival'. During the early 1970s, Anthony Crawford, an expatriate Australian working with the Commonwealth Advisory Board, proclaimed in several publications that the Gogodala had experienced a 'cultural revival' after the destruction of their culture by evangelical missionaries during the colonial period (see for example Crawford 1981, 1976, 1976a, 1975). This revival, initiated by Crawford's interest in local painted and carved objects, culminated in the building of a traditional style longhouse as the Gogodala Cultural Centre. The Centre housed a great number of a revived style of carvings, in the form of elaborately pigmented and decorated canoes, paddles, crocodiles, drums and headdresses, and was opened in 1974 by then Chief Minister, Michael Somare (later PNG's first and current Prime Minister). The Gogodala 'cultural revival', valorised in nationalist discourses as one of the first examples of a new nation's 'unity through cultural diversity' policy, and vilified in other, academic contexts, as 'cultural folklorization', marked a time in which village people experienced a level of personal interaction with national leaders and institutions. (1) It was referred to by some as the 'selling days', when aspects of Gogodala iniwa ela gi or 'customary ways" were marketable (see Dundon 2004). (2)

It was also during this time that there was an increase in the availability of trade-store goods like tinned fish, rice, flour, tea and sugar in Gogodala villages. This was partially at least the result of increased access to money, earned through the production and sale of carvings to tourists, art dealers and the Cultural Centre. At that time, Gogodala recall that many resisted these new foods, increasingly presented at mortuary feasts or village celebrations, sceptical of their value and taste. In particular, older men were repelled by the sweet tea, as its milky texture seemed reminiscent of breast milk. Those in paid employment and younger members of village communities, however, urged them to drink and eat, saying 'Hey, this is what Independence means: you have to wear white man's clothes [and] eat white man's food'. Although some continue to avoid milky tea, such goods are now consumed in many contexts, ceremonial and mundane, as a valuable addition to local food. Mounds of steaming, fluffy rice topped with tinned fish, salt and greens, and pots of sweet, milky tea are common fare at feasts and social gatherings, and are considered both prestigious and healthy foods.

In this paper, I suggest that the confluence of nation and consumption exemplified in such statements, is based on an underlying and, for Gogodala communities, critical transnational relationship with white people. Gogodala attitudes to and understandings of these products, and the effects they have upon their bodies, have developed within the context of both national independence and the articulation of both an intensely local, yet globalising Christianity and a national Church. Like many communities in Papua New Guinea, their relationship with the nation-state is fraught with ambiguity. The Gogodala live in an area that is difficult to reach and have had limited interaction with state institutions or other economic interests. During the colonial period, Western Province was labelled an economic and political 'backwater', and, from the local perspective, the achievement of national independence has had limited impact on the area. The majority of Gogodala profess to be sceptical of the motives and viability of both regional and national governments and their policies, despite recent success of local candidates in the 2002 national elections. Visits by national or provincial politicians, at least until recently, have been generally greeted with tepid interest, indifference, or, sometimes, hostility. …

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