An appreciation of the Wantok system is an important step in better understanding Papua New Guinea and its people.
Simply stated Wantokism is the social glue that binds the nation together, but it has also become probably the largest single impediment to the country’s development.
Think of Papua New Guinea as a patchwork quilt sewn together from almost 1000 traditional societies & ethnic indigenous groups.
Woven in to that quilt are some 850 different languages (one third of the world’s total languages still in use) and one common tongue – Tok Pisin, the lingua franca spoken by the majority in PNG.
So just like Mandarin in China and Bahasa is in Indonesia, Tok Pisin is is the common denominator across all those languages and traditional societies plus the many different ethnic indigenous groups.
In Tok Pisin, wantok means “one talk” – meaning the language of the tribe or clan that a person belongs to and wantokism is the traditional welfare system that evolved around that tribe.
In a tribal-based society everything revolves around the relative welfare of the tribe and clan members as a whole and so face-to-face relationships, inter-marriage, kinship and reciprocal exchange are paramount in creating strong ties to keep the tribe together.
Wantokism evolved in PNG as the supporting mechanism for those members less able to looks after themselves and can be thought of as a kind of traditional social safety net that made sure nobody went hungry and everybody had somewhere to live.
It evolved because it was needed and was a good thing, but post-independence PNG is a different place and wantokism has become the lead in the country’s saddlebags having a significant impact in every area of life in PNG, but particularly so in business and the business of government.
Wantoks who gain a position of responsibility – whether that be in their own small business such as a trade store or small workshop, in an existing business, in the Civil Service or as a politician – are expected to look after their wantoks…
In the business community, wantok business people men or women are automatically expected to make significant contributions when traditional obligations, such as compensation or bride price payments, are needed.
Saying no is simply not an option if the business person wants to maintain their position of respect in the community, which often leads to money being siphoned out of the business to meet the never-ending obligations and in many cases has lead to bankruptcy.
Wantoks who become senior politicians are expected to contribute even larger sums and there have been numerous cases where the root cause of false accounting on public works programs has been traced to the need to finance these contributions!
Little wonder then that the Chinese have been so successful in small retail in PNG as they staff the till with family members and guard it’s contents carefully
Here is the link to an excellent paper by Bui Mana which eloquently describes the overall situation with wantoks and wantokism in Papua New Guinea.