PNG lewa – from a man’s point of view

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Following on from my earlier reflections on love from a ladies perspective, it’s time to take a look from a young, coastal man’s point of view. With a very strong patriarchal culture in Papua New Guinea (PNG) there are very defined roles for men and women, but peeling back some of the layers and speaking to my PNG poros (friends), I hoped to find out that there was more to this dynamic than men just making demands on their women. I’ve certainly unearthed some contradictions between the two sexes!

Young love
No matter who you speak to about this, it all comes down to confidence. Men feel they struggle to express themselves freely and aren’t really sure what to do when it comes to approaching a lady but being able to hide behind the veil of text messaging has certainly made things a little easier. Often men don’t have the courage to approach their potential beau so they will get a messenger to tell someone who is close to the girl. In the first of what seems like an ongoing series of negotiations during the life span of the relationship, the messenger may not tell the young lady straight away, keeping them guessing and leaving them in suspense for a few days. From there, the man playing hard to get isn’t uncommon, it’s clear to see where the power lies right from the beginning of these blossoming bonds.

But young love in the village is taboo. The instant perception of a young man and women being seen together is that they are having sex. If two young people are found to be in a relationship the consequences are extreme. If the girl’s family find out the boy can expect a beating from her brothers, uncles and cousins and if his family finds out they will have a stern talking to. For the girl things are much more bleak, she will be seen as bringing shame on her family. The parents may well pack up her things and bring them to the boy’s house and force an early marriage. “Love is a really public expression and it is really out in the open. It often involves lots of relatives and the decision isn’t always yours.” It’s this extreme response to relationships that mean that most early romances are carried out in dark parts of the house where no one can see or away from prying eyes in the bush…

“There is no such thing as dating. The perception is that on the first date you are married to the woman!”

“There is no such thing as dating. The perception is that on the first date you are married to the woman!” But that doesn’t mean that stolen moments and secret meetings don’t happen, they’re just not in a café over coffee or in a restaurant with shy glances and slightly awkward conversation.

From a man’s perspective they certainly don’t feel like they’re not contributing in the early stages of the relationship, which goes against what women feel. Women might bring food great distances for their man every day. In reciprocation, men might return the gesture in kind by providing extra labor to the girl’s family if in the village by making gardens or sharing food like fish, meat or vegetables. The men’s belief is that they do buy things for woman but it isn’t spoken about as people will tease them. It can also bring shame if it is found that the girl then marries someone else. Perhaps this is the reason that woman feel hard done by and that they aren’t being treated like PNG princesses?

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In the early days young people might hang out at the beach or somewhere quiet close to where the girl lives, but always somewhere as private as possible. Normally the man sneaks out of the house at night time, around 10 or 11 o’clock, when all the family are asleep, to meet the object of their desire at the girls place in the darkest spot: “As a young man you become an expert at where the best secret meeting places are and more importantly where the escape routes are! The biggest risk at night is being caught by the girl’s father.” On the first few occasions the couple meet on their own they will just tell stories but as it gets more frequent, affection will become involved and it’s not uncommon for young people to become intimate early on in the relationship.

“As a young man you become an expert at where the best secret meeting places are and where the escape routes are!”

During this time it is common to go through negotiations with your potential life partner, what the man expects their sweetheart to wear and what she can do – from chewing betel nut, to drinking or smoking, to what friends they are comfortable with them socialising with. There is a lot of expectation about how a woman should behave and particularly how they are perceived so as not to cause disrespect to their man. The relationship is very serious from a very early stage.

When a man is responsible and can support themself it is more acceptable to have a relationship but when they’re living under their parent’s roof the expectation is that they have to study or work hard to get to a place where they can support themself. Being in an official relationship is big news and after people initially finding out, news spreads fast. It can take two to three years to tell brothers and cousins and around four years for parents.

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Relationships may be kept behind closed doors but there can often be tell tale signs: “I remember when my older cousin got a girlfriend. He was working in town and dating a girl who was a friend of the family who lived in the village. Every Wednesday the young lady would travel to town and take all of his dirty clothes to wash. Sometimes my Aunt would look for his clothes but she couldn’t find them and he told her that he changed and washed them at work. This went on for three years until one of the girl’s family members got sick so our family went to visit. While we were sat with the family my Aunt saw his trousers and shirt on the washing line. Towards the end of the visit she asked if he’d come to visit and of course he hadn’t. They realised that something was up and when we came back home they teased him about the missing laundry. After some discussions my uncle went to the family to discuss the pair getting married. As there were strong family ties the girl’s family weren’t keen, as they didn’t want to disturb the family bond; a lot of negotiations followed. Eventually they came to an agreement, including a marriage exchange that is common in our family. The tradition is that the bridegroom’s family has to offer a female to the bride’s family for them to find a husband for. My cousin is now married with five children and the couple from the exchange marriage are also living happily together.”

When it comes to the male perspective on sex it really differs from the way that women perceive things. To start with, the belief is that if a man is having lots of sex they will be told that they have put on weight, quite the opposite from if you are a woman and you are told that you have lost weight! Perhaps because with this additional activity you are also being well fed by your bed mate!

In a society where young people live with parents it is quite difficult to bring girlfriends into the house, let alone have them stay overnight. Sex often only comes when the couple is responsible and they have their own house. But that doesn’t stop people wanting it. The young generation has a different attitude towards sex because of outside influences like porn, which is being consumed much more regularly as Internet connection improves. Because of this external influence their expectations are different. Men are saying ‘I love you’ very early on just to please the lady to get them to have sex with them and then they will move on.

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As there is nowhere to go young people run away into the bush or the gardens for a few days so that they can get up to mischief. Once the family knows, this is another cause for a family get together. Sex outside of marriage is seen to bring shame on the family and once it is found out they may well be turned away, have their things thrown out of the house, or be beaten by parents or brothers. In some cultures in Madang, if a girl is found to have had sexual relationships with a particular man she is said to have entered the man’s house and the girl’s family is obligated to make it public by formally ‘giving’ away the girl for marriage. This usually results in forced underage marriage.

The men that I spoke to do feel that sex has high value and is seen as something that happens in a marriage for making families and is important between a husband and a wife. They spoke of respecting their women and not seeing them as a sex item but they also shared about how when in long-term relationships, temptations were high: “I was in a long distance relationship with someone that I really loved but there was someone who was also interested in me in the place that I lived. I had sex with her but she wasn’t someone that I would have a long-term relationship with. Distance relationships are quite usual and it is common for people to be unfaithful as the cost of travel is high making it difficult to see each other.”

“Distance relationships are quite usual and it is common for people to be unfaithful.”

The expectation is that men and women shouldn’t have already had other partners but the reality is that people are unlikely to tell the truth about this. If a man is seen with lots of different girls, the instant assumption is that they are having multiple sex partners and although this is often untrue it comes with a lot of judgement and the man is deemed a womaniser. This title will stick and it may make it hard to find a wife and male friends will joke about it.

Parental acceptance
Parents have their own expectations, at the core of this is that they want their families to be well looked after. It is down to the man’s brothers, cousins, aunts or uncles to approach the parents to gain acceptance. If the man is really brave they might go straight to the parents but in some cultures they might have to fight them for their daughter, as the belief is that they are stealing their sister. In some places the Mum would make a bilum and perhaps some food to instigate these discussions. Who makes the approach is very dependent on whether the couple are from a patriarchal or matriarchal part of PNG.

In the first ‘stretim toktok’ meeting between the families, the parents will ask lots of questions about the young man’s background and get reassurances that he will look after their daughter. If it is a mixed relationship, even between Papua New Guineans, there will be even more talking about what is acceptable and if it is with someone from a different nationality, even more so. The feeling amongst the family is that it isn’t the young person’s right to just fall in love and then spend time getting to know one another; it is expected to be a real partnership at a very early stage. At the heart of it all is that they want to see that the relationship is serious and they want to know that it is about love and not just lust. From an early age they will be thinking about the long-term future and making sure that they are taking the responsibility seriously. Saying this though, some men break away from these tried and tested traditions: “I’m an educated man, so I broke with tradition. I took control and I started the process on my own, I took ownership and it all came from me when I approached my wife. When my parents heard about this they felt that they had no say but they understood that it was just my way.”

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And with marriage comes more negotiations. The biggest part of marriage is bringing both families together; yet more big discussions will ensue, led by the man’s parents, about what different aspects of each culture will be brought to the wedding and what bride price will be. During negotiation time it is common practice for the woman to live with the man’s family for a few weeks and vice versa. This process gives the families an opportunity to ensure that they are happy to welcome them as a member of their family. They will then come back together and provide each other with what they have observed and decide if they are true for each other.

There are many schools of thought on bride price, a dowry that can amount to pigs, shell money, dog teeth, food rations or in more recent years, large sums of cash. Not all families will expect bride price but this can be complicated greatly by extended family with different expectations. Payment for the bride usually comes from the uncles and on the girl’s side the uncles will be the main recipients of this payment: “As an uncle I have witnessed lots of marriages. They tend to happen in the evening and everyone will come carrying gifts. It’s an expectation that everyone contributes, whether it is by bringing saucepans, plates, mattresses, you name it. There are lots of speeches that are normally led by the eldest maternal uncle and binding promises are made between the families. If there are any quarrels in the relationship, it is the eldest uncle that is the first point of contact as they have been the main investor in the union. Only in his absence can other maternal uncles speak on behalf of the bride’s family.” However, this custom is now being broken which now leaves the bride’s family unspoken for when there is trouble in the relationship. It is also noteworthy that the current judicial systems do not necessarily provide an avenue for these mediations, which then leaves women and girls prone to becoming victims when relationships don’t work.

“If there are any quarrels in the relationship, it is the eldest uncle that is the first point of contact as they have been the main investor in the union.”

Being caught with a lady when a man is still very young can be a huge burden. Having to get married very young in a village setting isn’t a good thing; young men haven’t transitioned from carefree boyhood to manhood and with these unions come great responsibility. “When you are married, you become responsible for your family and as a young boy this is hard when what you really want is to hang out with no responsibilities.” Getting married very young takes away this freedom and often leads to young men not fulfilling their responsibilities.


Whether it is negotiating terms of the relationship with your partner or navigating your way through all the family customs necessary to make things official, there is a lot of pressure on both the man and the women when it comes to relationships in PNG. It really isn’t as simple as having a connection or a spark with someone; there are so many considerations between both the couple and all the family that spill out around them. The considerations run so much deeper than where to take someone on a date or what to treat them with, but whether they will be accepted by family members or what the consequences are if they are seen in public with someone of the opposite sex.


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