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

The Corruption of Bride Price

Bride price is a notable Melanesian tradition that has been passed from one generation to another. Traditionally, bride price was a form/gesture of appreciation towards the parents and relatives of the family for raising a woman with traditional moral values.
There was a criteria for the bride price ceremony. A young woman newly married into another family must prove to her husband’s family that their son has chosen wisely. A woman who is able to look after her in-laws as well as her husband. A resourceful wife is raised well by her mother, grandmother and aunts to take care of her husband’s relatives. She displays all the traits of a worthy wife. During the first few months/years with her husband, she is under scrutiny and watchful eyes of her in-laws. This is to see what kind of woman she is.

The groom’s family then decide if an appreciation ceremony should be made to the wife’s family or not.
If a woman is found worthy in the eyes of her in-laws, her in-laws get together and discuss the appreciation ceremony. After careful planning, they send word out to the woman’s family of their intention to hold a ceremony which includes the entire village/tribes. Families of both the man and wife come with gifts of food, ornaments and traditional form of money to exchange amongst two families or tribes, now united as one by the married couple.

The husband’s family and relatives bring good stuffs and gifts according to how helpful the wife of their son has been to them.
When the husband’s family come with foodstuff and gift, they call out the virtues of the wife when handing the gifts over to the wife’s family.
Say my newly wedded wife helps my aunt in her garden. My aunt when bringing her harvest from her garden will call my wife’s name and praise her good deeds, resourcefulness and kind and caring heart when handing the gifts over to my wife’s family.
“My son has chosen a wife who is considerate, helpful and kind” she will sing praises to my wife and elevate her among the stars.

The appreciation is shown first by the man’s family. The wife’s family then return the favor by handing foodstuff and gifts over to the man’s family for the good things they said about their daughter/sister. This was a time for the man’s mother to thank the woman’s mother and female relatives for raising a good woman. The man’s mother vows to protect and care for her daughter in-law as her own flesh and blood.

The matriarch of the woman’s family in front of both families or tribes lays some words of advice down to the family and relatives of the man. That they must love and take their daughter into their home as one of their own, to love and cherish her, help her when she is in need or take care of all her needs when she is with a child.
There is a long exchange of words between both parties, on the welfare of the woman and her future life with her husband.

The bride price ceremony was centered around the woman, the man did not shine, it was not his stage.

In the past 30 years, we have witnessed the deterioration, moral breakdown and the corruption of one of our valuable traditions. Bride price has lost its value. Materialism has taken over and corrupted what was once an important tradition that has bonded families and valued Melanesian women.
The modern bride price system corrupted by foreign influence and culture put man as the center of attention.
Bride price is no longer about showing appreciation to the bride’s family, rather it has become a stage for men to show off their status and standing in their communities. With heads held up high and puffed out chests, men present hundred thousands of Kina in payment to the bride’s family.
Bride price ceremonies in this age are littered with white goods, lump of money and endless supply of alcohol.

A man’s worth is now measured in how much money he pays to his wife’s family, how many pigs he slaughters and how many white goods he brings. This has led to a competition among men in our Melanesian society, to see who holds the record in bride price payment.

With the large amount of money being paid to the family of the wife, the husbands become arrogant and treat women as their property, because they paid them off. When the bride price ceremony is over, everybody goes home talking about what the man has done, his achievements in the bride price payment. The story of the man’s deeds travels far and wide. His popularity grows with the stories of his display of wealth and status in the society.

Yet, little is said of the woman. What is the value of the woman?
K1000,000.000? No, that money, white goods, pigs, etc. is not the value of the woman. Mothers did not sing praises to the woman, to her deeds. No, they sang praises to the man who outclassed other man in paying that much of money to the wife’s family.

With the amount spent on bride price by the man comes with it a sense of ownership. The man claims he bought his wife off, not just the wife but her family as well. And as long as they are alive, they will look upon and worship at his feet. This has led to many marriage problems we witness in our society today.

The bride price payment has been identified as one of the major factors contributing to Gender Based Violence in our now somewhat modernized and Christianized Papua New Guinea. Men thinking that paying lump sum of money meant their wives are their personal property tend to abuse them, because they know that the family of the women will not do anything.

The family of the women are no different to the husband and his family in their mental capacity. They too have come to accept that when the husband pays for their daughter or sister, he owns her and that anything that happens between the husband and wife is a private marriage problem. Thus, they do not interfere in the couple’s personal problems, as much as possible, they try to avoid them or pretend not to take notice of the abuse their daughter/sister goes through.

There have been instances where when the wife runs away from her husband, the husband and her family mobilize and go to the wife’s parents house to demand a refund of the amount of money paid to them as bride price.
This method has been an effective control and manipulation mechanism employed by the husband to keep the wife’s family out of his problems with his wife.
The wife’s family knowing that they are unable to repay the K1000,000.000 and two hundred pigs beg their daughter to return to her husband to avoid any conflict between the two families or tribes.

The wife now knowing the hopeless situation she has been placed in keeps it together, for the sake of her family. She is threatened with the control mechanism by her husband, that if she disobeys him or runs away from him. Her family will be the ones to pay.

The once valuable tradition is marred with materialism and ownership.


Written out of anger of what we have become!

I personally think that we should do away with the term “Bride Price”.