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Village on the Edge

Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea

Michael French Smith
Copyright Date: 2002
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  • Book Info
    Village on the Edge
    Book Description:

    Kragur village lies on the rugged north shore of Kairiru, a steep volcanic island just off the north coast of Papua New Guinea. In 1998 the village looked much as it had some twenty-two years earlier when author Michael French Smith first visited. But he soon found that changing circumstances were shaking things up. Village on the Edge weaves together the story of Kragur villagers' struggle to find their own path toward the future with the story of Papua New Guinea's travails in the post-independence era. Smith writes of his own experiences as well, living and working in Papua New Guinea and trying to understand the complexities of an unfamiliar way of life. To tell all these stories, he delves into ghosts, magic, myths, ancestors, bookkeeping, tourism, the World Bank, the Holy Spirits, and the meaning of progress and development. Village on the Edge draws on the insights of cultural anthropology but is written for anyone interested in Papua New Guinea.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6545-0
    Subjects: Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    This book is about a village in Papua New Guinea, how its people live and how life there has changed since I first went there at the end of 1975, the year in which Papua New Guinea became an independent country. The village is called Kragur and it lies on the north coast of Kairiru Island in Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik Province. I first went there to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation in cultural anthropology, arriving in November 1975 and staying until December 1976. I have had the good fortune to be able to go back, even if...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Nostalgia, Dreams, Progress, and Development
    (pp. 1-10)

    I began writing this book in April 1998, a few weeks after returning to my home in Silver Spring, Maryland, from about eight weeks in Papua New Guinea, five of which I spent in Kragur. This was my seventh trip to Papua New Guinea and my fourth visit to Kragur. By the time I got home, the thirteen-hour time difference, abetted by loss of sleep on night flights in the comfort of economy class, had knocked all my biological rhythms out of synch and set my internal clock completely at odds with my surroundings. This always takes several days to...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Finding Kragur
    (pp. 11-21)

    My acquaintance with the East Sepik goes back to 1973. I probably saw Kairiru for the first time that year, although I do not remember the occasion. I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, in 1973 and spent the summer working with one of my professors, Theodore (Ted) Schwartz, and two other graduate students, Edwin Hutchins and Geoffrey White, in what many still called the Manus District of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. The Territory became self-governing Papua New Guinea that same year, in preparation for full independence from Australia, but...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Virgin and the Ancestors
    (pp. 22-32)

    In 1975–1976, Catholicism seemed to permeate life in Kragur and Kragur Catholicism focused on the Virgin Mary. Two missionary priests had established chapters of the Legion of Mary throughout the East Sepik in the 1950s and 1960s and then had left. Although no other priests continued their work, the village organizations lived on, including the Kragur chapter. Kragur’s four or five Legion members adamantly promoted the idea that frequent, well-attended religious observance, especially praying the rosary, was central to being good Catholics. Every evening one of their number led villagers in reciting the rosary in Tok Pisin in front...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Food, Money, and the Strangeness of Capitalism
    (pp. 33-46)

    Kragur villagers’ attitude toward money made as strong a first impression on me as their enthusiasm for Catholicism. From the day I settled in the Shewaratinhaus boimany villagers brought me cooked and fresh taro and sweet potatoes, greens of various kinds, papayas, citrus fruit, bananas, and fresh and smoked fish. Women from neighboring houses stopped by on their way to the stream with their own dirty dishes and laundry and offered to wash my things as well, an offer I gladly accepted. Those who brought me food sometimes asked if I had a little rice or canned mackerel...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Money and the Moral Puzzle of Prosperity
    (pp. 47-57)

    In 1975–1976, Kragur villagers’ deep roots in a world in which few things were bought and sold did not mean that money and business had no place in their emerging ideas about the good life. Their significance, however, was far from settled. By the 1970s, European colonization, Catholic missionaries, and the growing influence of capitalist economic institutions had raised unusually pointed questions about the nature of the good life. Villagers were especially troubled by their poverty in comparison with whites or Europeans. Given a homegrown tendency to assume that material wealth was evidence of virtue, their comparative poverty raised...

  10. CHAPTER 6 To Papua New Guinea for the World Bank
    (pp. 58-67)

    When I finished my dissertation and received my degree in 1978, academic jobs for people with Ph.D.s in cultural anthropology were drying up and disappearing like dust-bowl farms. I did find a university teaching post, but it was part-time and temporary. I hung on in a series of such jobs until 1983, when I reached the absolute nadir of my career and enrolled in a master of business administration program at a large Midwestern university. I tried hard to get into the spirit of the thing, but it was not my cup of tea. Long before I could complete the...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Weekend on Kairiru
    (pp. 68-80)

    To prepare for my work for the bank in Wewak, I contacted several NGOs there by letter and telephone from Port Moresby and Madang. I also wrote from Moresby to a few Kragur people in Wewak and some friends in the village to tell them I was coming. Pawil met me at the airport in Wewak. A native of Kragur, by the 1970s he had long since left the village to pursue his education and become a Marist Brother. We had not seen each other since 1981 and knew each other better from the few letters we had exchanged than...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Free Ticket to Paradise
    (pp. 81-101)

    Within a few days of returning home, when I was just starting to rebound completely from my malaria-tinged jet lag, the World Bank called and asked if I could go back to Papua New Guinea in a couple of weeks to help plan some research on NGO activities and an investigation of how social networks helped alleviate poverty. The trip was short—seven days in Port Moresby and five days in transit—and uneventful. I did not try to tack on a visit to Kragur because I expected to return to Papua New Guinea within the year to help set...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Key to the Village, Structure, and Strife
    (pp. 102-119)

    Since I have known Kragur, most of the houses, long and rectangular, have been ranged parallel to the sea. While some form rows, the terrain always cuts the rows short. One of my accomplishments in 1975–1976 was learning my way around the jumbled terraces and fragmentary rows. When I came back for the first time in 1981, there had been some changes. New houses blocked what once had been familiar paths, and I had to hunt for the houses of some old friends. By 1998, even more had changed. As I made my way around, I often had to...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Parish Bureaucracy and the Holy Spirit
    (pp. 120-135)

    It is not surprising that in 1998 some Kragur people turned to magic when they became concerned about the strength and the quality of the ties that held them together. As we have seen, in the indigenous Kragur view of the world, the realm of the supernatural is intimately involved with the daily life of living human beings and its moral order. Magic for increasing the productivity of gardening or fishing is fully effective only if the village is free of conflict, and ghosts afflict those who fail to keep their relationships with other villagers amicable.

    Prior to around 1930,...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Money
    (pp. 136-149)

    In 1975–1976, villagers’ intense interest in money sometimes could seem to be at odds with their devotion to the Virgin. “Some people don’t think about God’s work,” Brawaung once complained. “They just think about business.” But some of the Virgin’s most avid devotees were also keenly interested in money. They were less interested in business, however, than in what they regarded as money’s deeper mysteries. I am quite sure that some villagers worshipped the Virgin at least in part because they thought it might be a more effective way to penetrate the secret of European wealth than the more...

  16. CHAPTER 12 New Knowledge, New Problems
    (pp. 150-159)

    As we have seen, although the place of money in Kragur in 1998 was still controversial and villagers were still cash poor, money was definitely more firmly established in everyday life than it had been in the 1970s. Education, too, had long been important in Kragur, but by 1998 the general level of formal education had far outstripped that of the 1970s. The difficulties of integrating the growing numbers of formally schooled villagers into community life rivaled those of coming to terms with money.

    Traditional authority in Kragur rests on descent and command of esoteric knowledge of magic and the...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Worlds Apart
    (pp. 160-167)

    Satap, young and well-educated himself, saw the widening gap between older villagers and the more schooled young as a “real obstacle to development.” The tensions over attitudes and authority could indeed make it harder for villagers to unite behind a single goal; but those divided by age and schooling are also likely to disagree on what that goal should be. Many of the best-educated sons and daughters of Kragur, of course, have taken up town life. The gap between villagers and these urban Kragurs is probably even wider than any division to be found within the village, and relationships across...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Something to Hold on To
    (pp. 168-176)

    I went back to Kragur in 1998 to see how it had changed and, I hoped, to catch up on the constant discussion about how itshouldchange that was so much a part of village life in the 1970s. In those days, villagers argued and speculated about how to improve the material circumstances of their lives and what it meant to be good people and to live together in harmony. At issue for many was not just making Kragur a better place, but keeping the village from decay and dissolution. The most disheartened villagers warned me that if I...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 177-182)

    In Kragur in 1998, I reviewed my notes every day, looking for places in a conversation where I had failed to ask an important question, issues in need of more investigation, or new topics to pursue. For every question I could answer, several new ones arose, and some of what I learned cast into doubt things I thought I already knew. As the day of my departure from Kragur approached, in late March, it was obvious that I was barely going to scratch the surface of my growing list of new and neglected topics before I left. But I had...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 183-192)
  21. Glossary of Tok Pisin and Kairiru Terms
    (pp. 193-196)
  22. References Cited
    (pp. 197-208)
  23. Index
    (pp. 209-214)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-215)