N’gego: Melanesian House of Governance

Papua New Guinea National Parliament Haus. Picture by Mellah Kilangit

The Parliament Haus of PNG is one of the most fascinating architectural structures in the world. The building incorporates different structures in PNG but the design that stands out is the architectural structure style of Maprik in East Sepik province. Sepik boasts some of the world’s finest architects of the ancient world, this can be seen in the magnificent structures they erect. One of the structures that was incorporated into the architectural design of the parliament haus is what we have come to know as the Haus Tambaran, Spirit House or Haus Man.

The parliament haus is commonly referred to as the haus Tambaran in reference to the original structural design it was borrowed from.

The building has received wider criticisms from the people of PNG. We often blame the structural design and the carved figures in the parliament house for our politicians’ shortcomings, widespread corruption and moral decay in our society.

And so, as a son of Melanesia, I am obligated to clear any misconceptions and defend my cultural heritage by writing from a Melanesian perspective.

What do the people of Sepik call their magnificent structure?

I have often argued that the names “Haus Tambaran” or “Spirit House” carry a negative connotation and does not truly reflect/portray the house. Of course, spirits and the deities dwell in there, carved into beautiful and scary figures and totems but that is just one aspect of the building and everything that goes on in there. 

It is important to define terms before we go any further. Tambaran in Tok Pisin means evil spirit or demon if you are religious. Calling the building Haus Tambaran gives you a clear picture that evil spirits inhabit the building and that those who go in there go to do magic and cast evil spells or engage in some evil rituals. 

The building has a name in the local languages, interestingly I have discovered the name have no bad connotations associated with it like Tambaran. (Refer to my other article)[i].

Foreign anthropologists have studied our cultures and written about them including the Sepik house from what I would say, an etic approach. I employed the emic approach to understand this structure and its functions during my stay in one of the villages in Middle Sepik river region where I was given the privilege to sit in the house and talk about the issues concerning the society.

In Iatmul culture of Middle Sepik river, the building is called “N’gego”. Other parts of Sepik have their own names. N’gego is a place of meeting/gathering.

The house is a governing body, a complex system of governance that was developed over thousands of years.

It is a Melanesian school of thought or rather a university, where the learned men of the society impart to the younger generation the knowledge of their ancestors and traditional values that weave the moral fabric of the society. Philosophy, politics, law, art among others are the main subjects. 

The building also serves as a temple where the spirts and deities are honored. It houses the spirits of the ancestors and the deities which are carved into wooden figures or totems, some are beautiful and some fierce and frightening to look at.

The most notable practice in the N’gego is the initiation ceremony. This involves young men transitioning into adulthood by acquiring the knowledge of the land and undergoing the painful scarification practice. The initiated have pass to sit in the N’gego and talk among men and discuss matters of importance. Those who have not been initiated are not allowed to enter the N’gego.

In my time in Sepik, I found out that the building has different functions in the society. However, in this write up, I will only be talking about the Melanesian governance function of the N’gego. 

As a governing structure, the N’gego is a single chamber legislative body consisting of male members of different clans. Each clan is represented by their chief with other initiated men of the clan. In the N’gego, each clan has a platform. In the village I was in, there were four platforms in the house for the four big clans, it could be more in much bigger villages. The big clans share their platform with their sub-clans who come under them. The Chief of the village is the overall chief in the house and is seated at the north end of the house.

The debating or speaking stool is in situated in the middle of the house. It is a carved human figure standing almost one and a half meter high. The carved figure has a stool carved just above the groin. On the stool are clusters of coconut leaves tied in a small bundle. Anyone who wants to speak in the house walks up to the stool, picks up the clusters and starts talking. After speaking, he uses the cluster to strike the tool. He leaves the clusters and returns to his platform, the next speaker is expected to do the same.

This allows order in the house and ensure’s there is respect for the speaker. Those in agreement with a speaker usually say ‘huuuuuu’ in a chorus. I have not heard someone in the house make a sound of disagreement yet so I would not know.

Only the initiated male members of the village come to meet, debate on issues and look for solutions to address issues in the society. Laws of the land are also enforced in the building to punish offenders and maintain law and order so justice and peace prevails.

The N’gego is recognised as the centre of the village and the Iatmul society. It is regarded as the pillar of the society, for without it, a society would collapse into a state of anarchy (refer to my other article).

To ensure that the men in the N’gego do not have too much power and control like an authoritarian government, the women are there to keep checks and balances.

Even though the women are not allowed into the N’gego, they are an important part of the whole system and therefore are not excluded in decision-making. 

In Iatmul culture, the women are referred to as ‘Niamun’, this translates to elder. This is because in the Iatmul culture, the women are regarded as older and wiser than the men. 

The men on the other hand as referred to as ‘Suambu’, translating to young or small. The men are regarded as young and sometimes lacking wisdom.

To maintain checks and balances, a ‘Niamun Suambu Bangra’ takes place during the big meetings/debates in the N’gego. When the house is in session, the women sit outside the N’gego and listen in on the meeting. The men are inside talking and debating, when a matter cannot be resolved quickly and requires special advice on the matter before the house, the chief of the village splits a betel nut (Bangra) bunch in half and sends it out of the N’gego to the women. 

This is for the women for chew the betel nut and speak. This practice is referred to as ‘Niamun Suambu Bangra’. translates to ‘older, younger, betel nut’. The younger gives betel nut to the elder so the elder can advise him on what to do or how to approach the issue so there is no conflict between different parties on the matter.

The women as the older and more wiser of the genders are full of insight and knowledge and so are in a better position to advise on the matters and provide counsel to the men. The women address matters pertaining land and other issues.

This is paints the picture that the N’gego has no gender associated with it. That women also have a voice in the house and are important part of decision-making and governance in Iatmul culture.

Coming back to the structural design I introduced in the opening lines, the parliament haus is rightly designed after the Sepik house of Governance. The architects I would say were not wrong in their planning though I do not know if they understood the significance and importance of the Sepik governance structure and the significant decision of incorporating the Melanesian government structures into modern government systems.

The name of the structure is not ‘Haus Tambaran’ and therefore I call to remove the word from our vocabulary and stop referring to the house as such. It is a disrespect to our Melanesian heritage and way of life.

I finally also would like to note that the Melanesian values of the house are no longer held in high regard and practiced by those who go in there to make decisions on behalf of and for the people they represent. 

With the current government, there is also no representation and voice of women to advice men on important national issues and correct them.

But then again, cultures, traditions and values in Melanesian societies are not uniformed.

[i] https://www.pngattitude.com/2021/01/the-day-the-crocodile-god-walked.html

Pukpuk Wokabaut lo Ples

Sumboruman Haus Tambaran in Korogu Village, Middle Sepik River.

“Law and Order in Melanesia”
Moral Decadence in Melanesian Societies.

When foreigners first arrived on our shores, they called us primitives because of the absence of clothes. The absence of Western clothing in our Melanesian societies gave them the idea that we were still in the stone age and were living primitive lifestyles, that meant no education, no form of governance systems, no law and order, etc. The imperialist view of the world was that the absence of their fashion, way of life, governance, and religion in the lands they landed on meant that those lands and their inhabitants were primitive and pagans, who needed to be converted to the supreme religion of the day before the colonizers imposed their will and lifestyle, systems, laws, etc. on them.
The superior complex of the colonizers made them ignorant and led them to disregard the sophisticated cultures and civilizations they came across. They were the ultimate beings, appointed by God himself and with the blessings of the church, sailed and navigated the vast open seas bringing light (Gospel) and civilization to primitive people who were lost and feasting on human flesh, who had no sense of morality or government systems and no laws to govern them.
On the 16th of December, 2020, the “Save the Sepik” campaign team of volunteers departed Wewak Town to begin our one-week patrol to the Upper Sepik river to talk to the people about the Frieda Mine issue. We arrived at Pagwi waterfront at about 3pm and from there, got on a motor canoe and headed down towards Korogu, a village built on the banks of the mighty Sepik river, Korogu is about 30 minutes’ canoe ride downstream from Pagwi. Korogu is Niyaura speaking tribe of the Middle Sepik who like the other tribes of Sepik river, still hold onto the old ways of their ancestors, honor the Haus Tambaran, the gods and practice the scarification initiation. It was five noon when we arrived at Korogu in a 20meter 40 horse powered dug out motor canoe, long enough to hold at least a minimum of 20 people. Some elders of the village upon hearing the motor engine came running towards us, when we stopped beside the big logs used as docks, they hurriedly ushered us to Collis Pinga’s house without explanation.
The atmosphere was tense, nobody was seen walking around. Out of curiosity, I asked one the elders to tell me what was going on. He looked at me and went “Lukluk go lo Haus Tambaran”, I looked, and lo, the Haus Tambaran was fenced. He said “something terrible has happened in the Haus Tambaran and in the village, this has angered the elders of the village so they fenced the Haus Tambaran and in about 30 or so minutes, they will call upon Sukundimi to walk through the village”. I gulped, I wanted to know more. What happened, what did they do wrong that made the elders want to call upon the river God to walk through the village. For a river God to walk among men in the village is bad for the village.
Now the Haus Tambaran is only fenced on two occasions, when the young men are brought into the spiritual house to undergo the initiation ceremony, and when the Haus Tambaran has been desecrated. This time, the Haus Tambaran was desecrated by two rogues.
Some elders joined us a few minutes to clear to us the visitors of what has happened in the village and what will happen in the next 20 minutes. It was said that a couple of days ago, two young men from the village heavily intoxicated with alcohol walked into the Haus Tambaran and removed the sticks for beating the Garamut. The sticks for beating the Garamut is one of the most sacred objects in the spiritual house. It is said that the Garamut drum cannot speak without its tongue. The Garamut drum in Melanesia is a talking device, used to communicate with the people in and between villages, and in the Sepik river spiritual house, it is the most important object.
One of the elders said “The tongue of the Garamut was removed, without its tongue, it cannot speak”. The Garamut was not just viewed as an object, a hollowed-out tree trunk. It was personified, it was given the attributes of a living person, that it can speak, but not without its tongue. That is how the objects of the spiritual house are revered.
The elder continued “They no longer respect and revere the Haus Tambaran”, I could hear frustration in his voice, he sounded dismayed. He carried on a long face as he chewed the betelnut that was given to him. “They have broken the laws that our ancestors have followed, the laws that have kept peace and order in our society”.

“Where are our values, young people no longer value and respect our cultures and traditions”, he carried on.
What I heard brought me 60 years back to how Late Sir Ignatius Kilage described and painted a sad state of Melanesian society in the highlands of PNG in words. I remembered by heart the words he spoke in his book, “My Mother Calls me Yaltep”. I could hear Sir Kilage’s voice in my head when I first read his words, “Moral decadence has swept over mountainous Simbu and is driving our gallant youths into mire and misery”.
Kilage said, as a result of civilization, the young gallant men have lost their way. Kilage described moral decay in Simbu in the pre-independence era but it was happening everywhere and it is still happening today, that young men no longer respect the elders and the sacred spiritual houses and objects, they no longer respect the laws of the land. Alcohol as a result of civilization has numbed down our young gallant men into mire and misery, young men no longer have a moral compass and values in life. The elders try to talk to them and teach them the old ways but as Kilage said “with shining faces and clean clothes, the result of civilization, the young, both educated and non-educated, become proud”, and thus think that they can do whatever they want without someone to be held accountable to.
But they had forgotten that even in the civilized modern Melanesia with everyone professing to be Christians and worshipping foreign Gods, the Gods of the old still walk among men. The elders said a compensation had to be paid by the rouges who desecrated the scared spiritual house, a pig had to be given to the Haus Tambaran before the fourth call of Sukundimi, the river God, only a pig could appease the angry river deity. Normally the punishment would have been far worse but the elders took a more diplomatic approach to the problem and gave the rogues ample time to get a pig and have it slaughtered in the Haus Tambaran before the crocodile walks.
While pondering on the moral decay in Melanesian societies and the loss of respect and reverence for our ways of life, the first call for the River God to rise was made. The elders said that it was the call of the crocodile. The sound was nothing I have ever heard, not even the foreigner with his complex and high-tech audio making devices could duplicate or make the sound I heard. From what kind of instrument, the sound was made from, I had no idea for the sound came Haus Tambaran. The call was out of this world, it gave me goosebumps and made my skin crawl.
I whipped out my phone and wanted to record what was happening but the elders told me to put my phone away, as a young person born in the age of technology, I developed a habit of recording and documenting everything I came across. I did not know what I was feeling, was it a feeling of excitement? To be in a village on the Sepik river and experience something I have never heard of? I do not know for due my limited vocabulary, I cannot express my feelings in words.
All I know is that I was a proud Melanesian that afternoon, to see Gods and men holding rogues accountable for breaking the ancient Melanesian laws of the land.
The laws of Melanesia are not written on papers and passed in parliament after debates like the introduced Western laws. The Melanesian laws are not written in ink on papers, they are written in the hearts and minds of the people. They are carved on totem poles and sung in poetic songs. That without documentation, these laws have survived because of the sacred Haus Tambarans, gods and the men who stand to enforce them, to bring order in societies.
The Haus Tambaran is not just a spiritual house, it is a government system. A system older than the Western systems of government. The Haus Tambaran is the place where the ancient laws of the land were enacted, it is a place where issues are debated and problems resolved. It is the place where young men are brought into to learn the ways of their fathers and are taught philosophy.
The Haus Tambaran is a temple/church (a place of worship), a governing body, and a school. The spiritual house houses the old gods, it has three arms of government (Legislative, Judiciary and Executive), and is a library, a university of Melanesian wisdom, politics, philosophy, wizardry and magic, and fine art. An established system that has served us too well for centuries.
While still pondering and acknowledging my ancient Melanesian systems of governance and law and order, I heard the squealing of a pig in the distance. I could hear the reluctance in the pig’s squeal, if pigs could talk, that pig would be saying “Why do I have to die? Why do I have to sacrifice my life for someone’s stupidity? Why should I pay the ultimate price for someone breaking the laws on the land?”
By then, three calls had been made, the fourth call would be the final. After the final call, every women and child including those young men and a few adults who have not been initiated in the Haus Tambaran will have to be in their houses. None of these people are allowed to even spy out their windows to see what was happening outside when the last call was made. By then, the river god had already left the river and is walking on the land.
Before the last call was made, we all rushed into the house, and waited for the crocodile to walk.
If the compensation or fine for breaking the law is not made before the final call, the god walks in the village, and this is when the Initiated men of the house Tambaran taking anything and everything they find valuable, the items when taken into the Haus Tambaran will never ever be brought out again. And the distance near the Haus Tambaran, I heard the last squeal of the pig. The pig has been slaughtered, the spirit god came and feasted on the flesh of the pig and left appeased. The spirit did not actually eat the pig but it was symbolic. The village was safe.
We were allowed to come out of the house again, and everything was back to normal. That afternoon, our discussion was based on the event that took place an hour ago.
In the midst of our discussion, an elder from the Haus Tambaran was sent to invite us to go into the Haus Tambaran and eat a flesh of the pig. Zephaniah kindly refused the offer and said we were good.
The “custom pig” as they say it, when offered to the god, is not to be eaten by women and children, and those who have NOT being “Bitten by the Crocodile”, meaning those who have not been initiated and do not bear the markings of the crocodile. The pig meat is never to be brought outside the Haus Tambaran, it has to be eaten and finished inside.
So, respecting the old age customs and laws of the Haus Tambaran, we declined the offer to join them in the sacred house. A few minutes later, another elder was sent to invite us again. When he spoke, he sounded frustrated that we had declined the offer.
To not disrespect them, we said we will be there in a few minutes. That was, we would wait until they had finished eating, then we would go to sit down and talk with them.
Our work as volunteers fighting to protect the Sepik river has earned us respect among the elders of the village, we even though have not undergone initiation have been invited into the sacred house and to stand among the elders and speak.
Me, young and coming from another province, out of respect for my heart for the Sepik river, I was given the okay to be in the Haus Tambaran, and to speak to the elders of the village. There are also talks of me being initiated in the Haus Tambaran so I can bear the mark of the crocodile, but I do not think it is a good idea.
After an hour, we went into the Haus Tambaran, the elders welcomed us, I shared my plastic buai with them and we chatted for a while before we departed the house and went home. That night, I lay and bed and while battling mosquitoes, I tried to analyze the ceremony/event I had witnessed.
Colonizers came and told us we had no proper systems of governance and laws in place, they imposed on us their systems of government and laws which only benefited them and the elites. They imposed their Christian religion on us and cursed and doomed our traditional religion. They told us to abandon our gods and deities and embrace a Jewish God who looks like an American in portraits. White Jesus, the powerful image of white superiority. The image of colonization and subordination of other religions and cultures.
The more I thought of this, the more angrier I got, so I closed my eyes and thanked the ancestors who watch over us, the gods who still walk among men to maintain law and order in the society.