There are over 800 languages in Papua New Guinea, perhaps as many as 850, depending on who is counting and how they count. And many of the languages have “dialects,” the soldiers who make up the language army. There may even be several languages (and certainly dialects) in one geographical area.

People of one language group are often comprised of clans and subclans, groups that trace their descents to common ancestors. Each clan will have one or more leaders responsible for interacting with outsiders or forming alliances with other clans and groups. Some clans are large and some are quite small.

Clans have certain geographical boundaries and there is often fighting, or at least hard feelings, if the boundaries are not respected. There are usually stories, passed down through legend and tradition that tell where and when the boundaries were established. They may be marked by rivers, creeks, ravines, swamps, ridges, or special trees.

The leader of the clan is a “big man” and may have more wives, children, and gardens than any other aspiring big man, and he becomes widely known outside of his own particular clan. His children have special privileges and may become well-educated and follow their father as leaders. The men keep the women firmly in place, raising the children and pigs and attending to the gardens.

Form time to time, but often around Christmas, there are important festivities, with dancing and feasting represented by particular clans. They may exchange gifts as well.

Each clan often has their own tradestore, a small rectangular building, with assorted, but limited, goods for customers to buy. The sellers and buyers are often from the same clan.

Marriages take place between clans—it is generally not customary to marry someone from within the same blood group, although this is known to happen. The bride goes to the village or husband’s area and, in some cases, lives in a different house than him for a period of time.

Some Parallels

We live in Waco and there are reportedly at least 400 churches here, some say 450, but it depends on who is counting. Each church has a different name, although some have similar names. The largest churches may have “daughter” churches, although, generally “mama” does not preach in them.

The larger churches can trace their historical roots to John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or even Saint Peter. The smaller ones are not so lucky and may have had a disagreement over some point of doctrine and started their own churches. Often the divergence centers around something the pastor said or did—he baptizes differently; he ran off with the organist; he wasn’t very friendly at my uncle’s funeral; he divorced his wife; he drives a Lexus and I drive a Chevy; and so on.

The pastors of a church are most often men, although the women naturally expect their rights and have been given equal leadership privileges in some churches.

The children of the pastors often go to special schools and, in a few cases, when dad gets old they will probably take over the church—if he stays in the church that long.

Each church is different in structure: some are very large, with imposing stained glass windows, steeples and modern technology. Others are small, even “storefront” and lack bands of worship teams, robes and special speakers. The “mega-churches” have denominational alliances and fight religious wars, based on doctrinal differences, perhaps on the basis of whether the water is poured, sprinkled, or rubbed on a person’s head, or whether the head and body go completely under the water.

Big churches are also economically advantaged—they have stores selling the pastor’s latest book, pictures of Jesus and the church, tapes of popular singers, DVDs that are approved for the children, books that are approved for the adults, and religious junk that is available for anyone.

The larger churches also have Charismas (and Easter) pageants that are lifelike: camels walking down the isles, strobe lights, Jesus walking on water, angels flying above the stage, and commentators with deep voices. The lesser churches resort to potluck suppers and the kids reciting verses about angels and shepherds.

Weddings are, of course, immense at the giant churches: lots of candles, songs, vows, speeches cakes and dances. The smaller churches tend not to provide weddings although being wed is still considered proper.

Some Marked Differences

Clans don’t generally intermarry, but, in Waco, a man and woman of the same denomination may marry; in fact this is often most suitable and delays immense wrangling over the church of choice in the future.

Clan women sit on one side of the church and men on the other, but not in the Waco churches, where partners often have their arms entwined during songs and the offering.

Clan Christmas festivities often include a “slippery pole,” a pole that is tall and greased, with items of value (knives, clothes, money) at the top. Various men try to climb the pole for the objects—difficult because of the grease. Waco churches don’t wait until Christmas, but have bingo and raffles anytime to entice members and give away cheap articles—for a price of course and always to benefit the building fund.

Clan weddings center on the exchange of goods between the two families such that both benefit. In the Highlands of PNG, pigs are most frequently exchanged. In contrast, instead of pork, in Waco weddings focus on the exchange of wealth and rich slices of cake and bottles of wine. The father of the bride pays for most items, sometimes leaving his family destitute, but he gets to dance with the bride and hug the groom.

There is fellowship in the clan, most often between related people, and in the church there may also be relatives in the same church or denomination.

Food is central to clans and churches. The latter often employ the traditional “pot luck,” where chili is common in Texas and sweet potato in the Highlands of PNG. Occasionally, unusual items are served, like alligator in the lowland areas of Papua New Guinea and rabbit in Texas.

Initiation by Baptism

Protestant churches baptize according to tradition and doctrine; clans initiate by tradition but there is no written clan doctrine. Whatever happens is according to the doctrine, passed down by the resident denomination.

As one would expect, baptism is a big deal in Baptist (pronounced something like “badis,” but said quidkly, in the South) Churches. There is no special attire in most American churches, but in Papua New Guinea, the person must wear white in order to be baptized.

Praise Sessions

In Waco, Texas, there is great exultation and praise when the football or basketball team wins. (Not as much is expected in baseball or the other sports although “Lady Bears” softball has been known to generate raised hands and loud hollering.

There are now many Charismatic churches in Papua New Guinea, often supplanting the more established denominational ones. A man once told me that the denominational churches were like old dried up cows that can’t give milk any longer. Of course the charismatic churches have lots of milk, but sometimes little steak.

I could go on comparing our American way, which assume is correct, with cultures like those that exist in Papua New Guinea, which are “different” and therefore often judged as “wrong.”