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

Tug boats and Pontoons: Destruction on the Sepik River.

Many people living along the Sepik river have raised concerns about the serious destructions to Sepik river. The river and the people are being affected by the movement of tug boats and pontoons on the river but yet their calls fall on deaf ears. 

The logging operations are in West Sepik. However, the companies use the Sepik river to transport their logs. Us8ng the Sepik river is the fastest and most efficient way to ferry logs. Tug boats and pontoons belonging to logging companies frequently use the river to ferry logs from the headwaters of Sepik river down to the sea.  But little do they know and understand that their actions are affecting the people and their livelihood.

The continuous movement of the boats, according to locals has caused problems on the river.The build-up in sedimentation, river bank erosion, river pollution from oil spills and disturbance of the fishing grounds were some of the serious concerns raised.

An elder from Avatip village, Middle Sepik said, ‘the logging is in West Sepik, why are the logs being brought down our river? we’re being affected by these boats. We do not want them on our river’. The same sentiment was echoed in the 24 villages in Upper and Middle Sepik river we visited. There is resentment towards the logging companies who are using the river and destroying it.

I interviewed a couple of people who shared their concerns on the use of the river by logging companies and how it was affecting them. From those interviews, I put together a video to help put their voices out there for the government to see. The video interviews were captured with my mobile phone during Project Sepik’s re-education patrol to Middle and Upper Sepik River in December 2020.

View the video below!

Resilient Communities: Kembiam, Sepik River

The Sepik river has hundreds of lakes (Raun wara) at least
300-500 meters from the main river. These lakes are connected to the river by smalls waterways (Baret), which allows people to access the lakes from the main river.And where there is no waterway, the people dig their own to allow canoes to travel inland.


The picture shows a baret dug by the people Kembiam village in Kambu LLG who dwell some 3-4 miles (1 hour walk) inland of the Sepik river. The canal or waterway was made so that the people from Korogu village, on the banks of Sepik river can travel inland with their canoes to sell and trade.
This shows how resilient the people are; in the absence of government services, they make their own way to receive services from their river family.
The passage is about 2 meters wide and 2-3 meters deep, enough for a dug out canoe with a 40 horse power motor engine to pass through.

Further upstream is the central trading location. Korogu being on the Sepik river has no land for gardening, no buai and coconuts. It can only bring fish from the river. The Yamuk people inland have good land for buai, sago, etc.
So for generations, there has been trade relations between the two tribes (Barter system), the ones on the river and the ones inland.
The aim of the trade system is to foster and maintain the relationship that has existed for generations, and also to supply each others needs/wants.
The Yamuk people are mother to the Korogu as they supply saksak, buai and garden food.
The Korogu people are son to the Yamuk as they provide fish for the people inland.

At the market, they start off the market by buying and selling using modern money, and everything there is below 50 toea
Once the buying and selling is done, they start trading.
I have learned about barter trading in school but this was the first time I witnessed it, in Sepik river.

Sukundimi Tribesman: Guardian of the Mighty Sepik River

Sukundimi Tribesman. Art by Caleb Hamm

The mighty Sepik River has existed since the dawn of time, twisting and turning, forming a wide belt of active meanders and fish populated great lakes, depositing vast amounts of fresh water into the ocean.
The banks of the river is adorned with Lianas, sago palms, and Pandanus 
Who put it there, I do not have the faintest clue, all I know is that the river was placed there for my survival.
My father navigated this great river before me, and his father before him. I was brought into this magnificent world on the banks of the river, nature welcomed me with open arms for the river was calm that night, my first
bath was in the mighty Sepik. I cried when I was dipped into the river, my father held me and called for the spirits to protect me. He called upon the Sukundimi to watch over me so that no evil may befall me.
My early childhood and teenage years were spent on the river, like every young Sepik boy, I learned from the great men of Sepik to fish and hunt on the river, to revere the river, not only because it provides for me but for it is also a living entity. The river has sustained and ensured the survival of my people for centuries. They say the river holds memories, the history of my people is not written in ink on pages, the river is my history, the river holds the centuries-old history of my people. I read the river like the scrolls. Our culture and history is intertwined with the mighty river. The river and the river God gave us our unique culture and identity. 
They gave my ancestors the inspiration to paint, to carve, and to build. 
I went into the Haus Tambaran as a boy, I came out of the Haus Tambaran a man bearing the markings of the Pukpuk. I know the history of my people, I learned the intricate and complex cultures and traditions of my people, I am a Sukundimi tribesman. I am the protector of the river and my people. 
Of Gods and men, the river is the link between the spiritual and physical world. The river is the gateway to the afterlife.
Where the Supreme Sukundimi glides through the water, fish multiply in numbers. Where the Supreme walks on the banks, the
sago palms spring forth. I am one with the river, she takes care of me and I take care of her. 
But now, I see the foreigner with his foreign ways and lifestyle on the banks of the river, he wants me to forsake the Gods of
my fathers, to forsake the practices of my people.
Now I see the foreigner coming to look for minerals buried deep in the earth, he wants to dig it up and take it away.
He wants to dig at the head of the river. I know the destruction they will bring, I see my people living their simple lives unaware of the demise that awaits them. 
What do I do?
I am the Sukundimi tribesman, I will protect the river. I will fight to ensure the survival of my river and the survival of my people, I know I do not fight alone, the Sukundimi walks before me. I have his strength. I have his razor sharp teeth, I will tear the flesh of my enemies. He is me and I am he.
I will fight with the spirit of my ancestors beside me. I have their knowledge and wisdom.
I will fight with my people behind me, they look to me for protection. I look to them for guidance.