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Enga social life and identity in a Papua New Guinea mining town.


Studies of leisure activities in mainstream academic circles (M. Adams, 1958, H.L. Wilensky, 1964 and others) have been centred largely on westerners in various fields of work. This is not surprising, because it is westerners who for some centuries are thought to have come to embrace a more ordered pattern of life in division of work and leisure activities. However, the advance of capitalism into non-western societies, especially small-scale agricultural societies has led people to seek paid employment which has necessitated leisure activities as another structured part of life (P. Lawrence, 1964). This is in contrast to the apparently more relaxed lifestyle these people have had over the years that provided little significant difference between domestic chores and leisure.

The main purpose of my study (B.Y. Imbun, 1989), was to use leisure time as a social yardstick to observe whether life in a mining town was threatening or even destroying the established social structures and commitments of kinship, friendship and ethnicity, and replacing them with more impersonal, superficial and anonymous social arrangements based on the criteria of educational qualifications, job specialization, wage levels and patterns of accommodation. Similar studies centring around tribal groups in mining communities have occurred in the Copperbelt chain of mining towns in Zambia and other African countries (M.I.A. Bulmer, 1975, A. Cohen, 1974, A.L. Epstein, 1958, 1967, J.C. Mitchell, 1970, P. Mercier, 1965 and several others). In the PNG context, there have been studies of urban ethnicity in general (M. Salisbury and R. Salisbury, 1970, A. Rew, 1974, J. Koroma, 1975, M. Strathern, 1975, H. Levine and M. Levine, 1979, and several others). However, leisure activity as a social parameter of interaction has been given less attention.

In my study I took Panguna as a Papua New Guinea (PNG) mining town and Enga workers as a tribal group. The selection of a mining town in this study had a lot to do with convenience in dealing with a small community engaged in only one economic activity. This was also the reason for carrying out the research on workers of single tribal origin. Another reason was that leisure activities often formed one of several characteristics which identify the social structure of a mining community. This is because the development of leisure facilities is an imperative and significant service provided for workers by any mining company. The Enga workers in Panguna in that regard were easy to monitor and study in their engagement in many recreational activities utilizing the available facilities in Panguna and Loloho furnished by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).

Also, being an Engan myself gave me some advantage in carrying out a study on people to see to what extent they have come to use either ethnicity or social class as a medium for adaptation and integration into the urban mining township. The Enga workers in Panguna were working for BCL, the giant copper mine on the Bougainville island which has now become 'temporarily' abandoned because of prolonged landowner disputes. The Enga workers were all migrants who had sought employment with the mine from the early seventies to the mid-eighties. They were part of a total of four thousand workers present in the mine before its closure.

The Enga people are the largest linguistic and cultural group occupying a northern central location of the Papua New Guinea highlands. The Enga people maintain an arrangement of life in which the concept of work and reward is very different from that of Western society. In this arrangement leisure in Enga, as in other agricultural subsistence societies, occupies a very large part of the usual working day. Gardens are prepared and planted at set times. But beyond that, everything is considered leisure activity as dances, funerals, ceremonies and so on order Enga people's lives. Critically, in the Enga context there is no substitute for the concept of 'leisure' as it is so in the Western context. They do accord names to activities such as different games, dances, and hunting which would all appropriately be termed leisure activities in the modern society. However, these leisure activities should not be literally considered as idleness and aimlessness that accompany subsistence life but are intricate social responsibilities that must be fulfilled to sustain Enga society. On the other hand they are leisure activities the Enga people had to incorporate in their relaxed lifestyle, which can not be maintained by following a rigid routine.

The hypothesis was mainly to be tested by observing how the Enga workers spent their leisure time. Did the Enga workers mainly spend their leisure time with 'wantoks' (those who perform the same sort of job) rather than 'wantoks' (those who came from the same ethnic group or province)?


In the study the term 'leisure activities' was defined in a broader sense by referring to those activities that were performed by Enga workers from BCL outside their work. Such activities were either carried out straight after work or on days-off by shift workers. The study focussed on some broad self-initiated activities, and also leisure activities which had resulted from utilisation of recreational facilities provided by BCL. Overall, the study concentrated largely on what the Enga workers did after their engagement in paid work.

A list of 160 workers, all males, was prepared using worker profiles supplied by the Personnel Division of BCL. This was the entire list of BCL employed Enga workers but their numerical strength was insignificant compared to the entire workforce of 4000, including the expatriates. It provided only some brief personal notes on workers citing commencement details, job category, pay number and place of residence. The first 100 workers were selected from the alphabetical listing. I then interviewed each one and sought educational level (qualification), church affiliation and place of residence. These were the variables that were thought to have some impact on the validity of the asserted hypothesis. The subjects were requested to describe their leisure activities. Half the subjects (50) resided in Panguna (the mining town itself) and the other half lived in Arawa and Loholo (both places had mostly company residential units).

I also had the time to observe directly public or collective leisure activities such as sports, games, drinking beer, gambling, and religious activities, mentioned by the subjects in the interviews. I took field notes on the pattern of interactions, paying special attention to the question of whether the participants were associating with other Enga workers or not.

Also, from the list and from interviewing them, I divided the Enga people into four strata or groups based on their time of arrival in Bougainville. I did this to make the discussion more simple and to see if certain leisure activities were associated with certain sections of Enga workers more than others. Each of the four demarcated categories represented a section of the community distinguished from others by unique features, such as time of arrival, educational qualification, and job category. The distinction in each category was based on age and educational attainments and training. The chances for an overlap between categories where one worker belonged to more than one category at the same time were slim or none. It was obvious that those Engans who went earlier to Panguna were either illiterate or semi-literate. This also went for those who immediately followed them but the very literate ones came later and were accorded with significance by the rest of the community because of their schooling and the positions they came to occupy in the company.

The groups were:

1. The 'Pioneers', or first migrants - they numbered around nineteen and were largely 'old-timers' who went and sought jobs as manual employees (i.e. drivers, technical assistants, storemen) from early in the construction phase of the mine in the early 1970s and had remained since then after mining actually commenced in 1975. Most were now middle-aged workers who had families and children going to schools.

2. The 'Followers', newcomers or latecomers - thirty three of them who mostly sought sponsorship on travel and accommodation from the Pioneers to come to Bougainville, especially Panguna and it was the pioneers who helped them find jobs. Their ages ranged from late twenties to early thirties.

3. The 'Elite', were graduates and school leavers. They had received formal education and were graduates of universities, colleges, and national and provincial high schools. This 'elite' group constituted numerically a small section. School leavers were the bulk of the group; only three were university graduates. A few were grade 12 and several were grade 10 school leavers (with some specialized training) who had some professional jobs ranging from financial analysts to equipment fitters. And they were mostly in their early twenties and thirties.

4. The 'Squatters' who were not employed by BCL, and so were not included in my sample but they were a significant portion of the whole Enga population in and around especially Panguna and Arawa. They were of all ages and only some had marketable skills.

Findings and Analysis

In order to test the propositions stated above, I did two separate things. First I focussed on the leisure activities both of collectives and individuals. Second, through open-ended questioning, an effort was made to understand the patterns of behaviour which they expect from themselves and from other regional or ethnic groups and any possibility of interaction with the other groups in leisure time. The positive or negative perceptions or attitudes were to indicate in the study the most significant reasons why the Enga workers shared or did not share any leisure activities with other groups.

The concept of class solidarity and ethnic solidarity were used as opposite social clusters to see how Enga workers in the study spent their leisure activities.(2)

Although there was a well run union presence in the mine, the last and only strike it had was in 1975. During the late seventies and mid-eighties (including period of my research) labour relations in the mine were normal.

Utilisation of Leisure Activities

The Enga workers engaged extensively in many recreational activities utilising the available facilities in Panguna and Loloho provided by the company for the workers. This is the same as others would do all over the world in passing time and getting relief from monotonous and often tedious jobs. Enga workers in their free time took part in several leisure activities which all fall under the heading of 'social activities'. But they also have their 'private activities' where workers do things involving themselves with immediate family members and necessarily do not involve other households. But for the most part the Enga workers concentrate on leisure activities in association with others. Usually such social pursuits are provided outside the home in public places.

Private Activities. Private activities are not represented in the tables but were pursued by some Enga workers in their free time. They were gardening, reading novels, and doing other odd things in and around flats and houses. The tables and discussion contain the various social activities in the following order: accidental meetings (encounters), routine visiting, parties and picnics, church attendance, movie going, sports and games, the beer hall and finally the 'underground' activity of gambling. The relationship between pursuit of different leisure activities in conjunction with other variables is also stated. This is Enga workers' comparison of social contacts among themselves based on socio-economic category. In this category also the ratio of social contacts involving Engan workers by other main ethnic groups is stated. Likewise the (also shown in the tables) ratio of social contact involving Engan manual workers by other main ethnic groups based on same job category, and ratio of social contact involving Engan white-collar workers by two main ethnic groups based on same job category.

Social Activities

(a) Accidental Encounters

In the process of doing something else in the leisure times some Enga workers often had accidental encounters with people with whom they then spent reasonable time. Often the Pioneers, at different times, met market vendors, many of whom were Bougainvillean villagers. They interacted and chewed betelnut and exchanged stories on diverse topics of mutual interest. Most times encounters occurred amongst Enga workers themselves on a daily basis. This involved encounters between both pioneers and elites with no particular existence of a pattern (see Table 1).

(b) Routine Visiting

In leisure times there was routine visiting of friends and relatives by all Enga workers, mostly on weekends. Social visits were exchanged between families or individuals when those that resided in Panguna went to Arawa and vice versa. The visits naturally centred around Enga workers themselves and there was no set pattern on visits adhering to job lines but most visits centred around close relatives and affines coming from the same locality of the Enga. There were a few visits by Enga workers to Bougainvilleans and Southern Highlanders especially Taris, but the subject of the visits was to discuss business dealings and to settle marital issues (see Table 2). There were very rare visits paid to other people from other provinces by Enga workers for miscellaneous reasons.


(c) Parties and Picnics

All Enga workers in their leisure times occasionally had parties and picnics. Usually parties and picnics were family social affairs and they were pre-arranged. Though they had separate locations both kinds of events had much food and beer. Parties played a significant part in the lives of Enga workers in Bougainville. There were always special occasions that workers found to celebrate, such as a child's birthday, welcoming of a baby, arrival and departure of relatives, achievement of promotions and many others. On several occasions Enga families went to beaches in Loloho, Kieta and Toniva for picnics. Again parties and picnics were exclusively centred around Enga workers themselves involving relatives and friends and only sometimes certain families met with families of Southern Highlanders. There were a few instances where individuals had contacts with other workers from other highlands provinces when going for parties and picnics (see Table 2).

(d) Church Attendance

If there was one leisure activity that brought together Enga workers with other workers from some regions more than others it was attending church service (see Table 1). Often church services were held for only an hour or few hours depending on the several churches. For some it was here Enga workers managed to chat with others who worshipped in the same church. The Enga blue collar workers and white collar workers managed to meet their colleagues of other provinces after church services and they often had conversations on diverse topics (See Table 3 and 4). Generally, such acquaintance was not extended to other social activities, even though various religious activities such as fellowships, prayer meetings and others occurred after the church service in one of the workers' houses or community halls. To the Enga workers church attendance was one of the most popular leisure pursuits. The workers mainly belonged to one or other of the four most established churches in Panguna and Arawa, the Catholic, Apostolic, SDA, and Lutheran churches.


(e) Going to the Cinema

The cinema in Panguna was extensively used by the movie-goers. Many Enga workers attended the film show with their families. Like the church service, this was another leisure activity that brought Enga workers into contact with other workers (see Table 2). The main movie-goers were expatriate workers, women employees (national) and other workers with their wives and children, while some workers (mostly single) frequented the beer hall instead. Most Enga people, especially illiterate Pioneers, Followers and Squatters, were attracted and tempted not by titles and descriptions of films but by the glossy film advertisement posters portraying and displaying masculine furious looking figures like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Sylvester Stallone. They made every effort to come and watch them. They also favoured war films and those that involved individual heroic brilliance (acted by big names cited), with violence, killing and looting greatly appreciated by the men film goers.

(f) Sports and Games

Some Enga workers participated in sports in their leisure times and several younger Followers and Elite workers engaged in playing rugby league games. The older members of the community who did not play rugby league played pool games provided for by the mining company in the recreational centres in Panguna and Loloho. Other games like soccer, softball, and Australian Rules, all of which had a good following in Arawa town, were hardly played by Enga workers.

The Enga population had become increasingly interested in rugby league games and this had been displayed by fielding their predominantly Enga team in the highlands community-run North Solomons League (NSL). The four other highlands provinces also had their own teams, each affiliated to the NSL, and the competition commenced early March and ended in September each year. This ran separately from the Bougainville rugby league which has a coastal workers following. In NSL all games were held on Sundays in Arawa and the Air Niugini team was an exclusive Engan team which had players who were mostly BCL manual workers. But only Elites who had white-collar jobs played in the team (see Table 3 and 4). The field was crowded and overflowing on Sundays when the teams were playing against each other and often ethnic rivalries followed but appointed officials made sure it never got out of hand.

The pool games were played both in recreational centres and outside whenever some of the Enga workers had time to go out. It was in the snooker and pool games that several Enga workers had the time to have friendly or serious games with fellow highlanders and others from the coast. Selection of partners was often done on a first-come-first-served basis where each one took a turn in challenging the winner. The recreational centres also contained tennis tables and even poker machines but the pool games attracted more interest from workers. The Squatters were in great numbers either watching the games or playing with the rest of Enga workers or others. Pool was extensively played by most Enga workers, and most of their partners were from other provinces. There were also public pool playing centres in Arawa and Kieta which Enga workers frequented in their leisure time.


(g) The Panguna Beer Hall

The beer hall in Panguna was the focal point of extensive social encounters that formed Enga urban social life and was perhaps also an inevitable characteristic of the whole mining town. The Panguna beer hall could be easily observed by a visitor and the first impressions were mingling of laughter, clamour and jostling that filled the hall. A fair representation of each of the categories of the Enga population drank, that meant there were never any major obstructions on the grounds of profession, age and church affiliations that restricted them from drinking. In other words beer was consumed no matter what the cost, even if it meant going broke for the next two weeks. "Brother, we came for beer here, lets all drink up!' was typical of comments by most of the Enga worker beer drinkers(3). Having access to beer was seen by Enga people in Panguna as a medium that reinforced affine and kinship relationship, settled dispute and differences, created new friends and served many other functions apart from mere consumption.

Enga workers drank and interacted mostly with their own people when it came to discussing serious things. But casual interactions also occurred amongst themselves with other highlanders and coastal workers. Less often some Enga workers had professional discussions with their own work colleagues (see table 4).

(h) Gambling

Gambling was a leisure time activity for some Pioneers and Followers who exercised their luck at earning extra money. The main gamblers were a few middle-aged Enga workers, and very few young people took the initiative and time to play cards for money. Most sub-professional (Elite) workers did not gamble, and it was predominantly taken up by the Pioneers and Followers who worked as operators and drivers (see table 3).

The Enga workers mainly played with the Enga Squatter population in Panguna and the bets were much higher in the matches, amounting to several hundred kina at a time. There were some Western Highlanders and Southern Highlanders among the gamblers. A few were workers but the rest were vagrants and they gambled among the Enga people in the same area.


Varieties of Attitudes

The Enga workers maintained some reserved attitudes when it came to interacting with others. There were several factors that determined what 'positive' attitudes they had towards some and 'negative' attitudes towards others. The positive attitudes Enga workers had were determined by several factors. They ranged from coming from the same origin of province and sharing the same ancestry to having mutual business interest in Bougainville. Similarly, the 'negative' attitudes Enga workers had were shaped by identifying other workers largely having not come from the same origin of province. In addition to that the magnitude of the negative attitudes slightly varied from some groups of workers to the others as Enga workers had a fixed set of 'views' on some others. It is worth stating the two types of attitudes here to observe why Enga workers form positive attitudes on others and negative on some.

Positive attitudes

The overwhelming majority of BCL Enga workers generally identified with other Engans rather than with people from other provinces. They perceived that being 'friendlier' among themselves at first was of greater importance than making some 'distant' friends and spending leisure with them. This framework of social relations the Enga workers developed among themselves was quite discernible in the bewildering complexity and heterogeneity of the urban mining town. So the Enga workers perceived that they should at first mingle with their own group in parties, sports and other gatherings, before becoming involved with other groups.

However, they did have tribal conflicts amongst themselves in Bougainville. Those usually involved different tribesmen grouping together and taking on other different tribesmen in drinking circles and after rugby games. There were very few incidents of brawls that were sparked by news from home (Enga). But the fights did not get out of hand. They were resolved so quickly for generally the Enga community in Bougainville were seriously aware that they were far from home. If it was in Enga the inter-relationship amongst themselves would have been quite different. Several of the workers from other parts of Enga were in theory very potential enemies in tribal warfares but the fact that they were in Bougainville, an 'unknown' place, away from Enga made the difference.


The Enga workers had special preferences and affection for Taris, with whom it was maintained they shared a common ancestry and they actually lived adjacent to each other on the mainland. Although the Enga workers could be 'friendlier' to the Tads who were from Southern Highlands, they also maintained close solidarity and friendship with the rest of the highlanders in general, coming from the same region and sharing some forms of culture and values. Generally the good perception of Bougainvilleans came from some Enga workers and entrepreneurs having joint business interests with them and from the general peaceful atmosphere the Enga workers came to appreciate. The extent and significance of any of these alliances had come to determine the likelihood of an Enga worker spending leisure time with an individual from the groups mentioned.

But it was the negative attitudes that said a lot about why Enga workers kept to themselves most of the time.

Negative attitudes

Almost all of the Enga workers had either a completely negative or mixed attitude towards some other non Enga workers within the mining community. On the basis of an analysis of their responses, three broad types of negative images emerged which would explain why there was little social interaction with these workers.

1. 'They are from the 'outside', was one of the most frequently mentioned negative attitudes among Enga workers who looked upon the 'others' as strangers or mere colleagues of convenience. They often thought that workers of other provinces were at first 'outsider' and any interaction with them was only on a casual basis. This also went for other highlanders (excluding Taris), and others, unless full acquaintance was established. Even if Enga workers knew other workers it could be at least a couple of years of acquaintance before there was any thought of spending leisure time together. Thus it was a tendency not only for the illiterate workers but also for the educated Enga workers to have some reservations about non Enga workers before actual familiarity was established.

2. 'They are from the coast', was another negative image held by those who thought that people whose place was adjacent to the sea were quite separate from them. There was generally an attitude that demarcated the Enga workers together with other highlanders from their coastal colleagues in Panguna. The highlanders often considered that in many social pursuits they were superior to the coastal workers and they were hence proud of themselves. It was at social interactions such as drinking circles in the Panguna beer hall and at outside sports fields that arrogant remarks about themselves in comparison with the other workers were heard. In particular the Enga workers generally viewed the coastal people as isolated and self-centred, and thus they had less to do with them. But there were some exceptions where Enga workers had interactions and business dealing with some coastal workers such as Bougainvilleans. On the other hand such negative attitudes were sometimes reciprocated with some notorious stereotypes of Engans being troublesome, restless and impatient by the coastal people.

3. The final and very serious negative image displayed by most of the Enga workers was towards the Tolai workers from East New Britain Province. 'They are Tolais', was a negative connotation commonly held by not only the Enga workers but by the resident Enga population at large in Bougainville. Both parties were strong ethnic rivals having clashed several times in and around Panguna and elsewhere on Bougainville island. The dislike for each other had its origins far back in the construction phase of the mine when the two groups had a big brawl in the Panguna beer hall which was so serious that from then onwards it divided the two ethnic groups.

Negative attitudes reflected the migrant culture of Enga workers in general: these attitudes were not unique to Enga workers. Other workers also adopted a fixed set of attitudes towards interaction with other ethnic groups in Panguna. But these attitudes were more noticeable in Engans because of the very selective approach they made in terms of spending their leisure time and the reserved attitudes they had towards other ethnic groups and regions. Because it was the first time away from their home for most Enga workers they had come to see ethnicity as a central proposition or medium for coming to terms with staying and working in Panguna.

Most importantly it should also be noted that even for the educated 'elites' and some 'followers' the social network was centred not on colleagues from other provinces but kinship circles in which one had come to call his other Enga worker 'tribesman'. Therefore, it would seem that the fixed attitudes the Enga workers embraced and the near 'Enganisation' of their leisure activities framed social relations based on ethnicity, as opposed to class relations in a new social environment, in this case the Panguna mining town.


The analysis presented here does not support the major propositions stated above that the Enga workers' solidarity would be disintegrated and replaced by class solidarity, around which their loyalty and consciousness would be built. Indeed, the majority never had a significant positive association with other ethnic groups of similar social category or social class in interaction and pursuance of leisure activities. Even the 'elites' failed to diversify their relationships. Their education and skills did not dispose them to interact with similar groups of other ethnic backgrounds.

As the analysis shows the manifestation of ethnic solidarity amongst Enga workers themselves and with others of the same province irrespective of economic status and religion also displaces any scenario of establishing an exclusively independent social category based on income, job specialisation, accommodation and so forth. Friendship and encounters that might have resulted from workplace and church service interaction between colleagues of ethnic groups was of less importance to the Enga workers. Such a dominant 'Enganisation' of all social networks had been facilitated and consolidated by some very firm prejudiced stereotypes of other groups of people. The Enga people therefore had utilised ethnicity exclusively as a basic medium for adaptation in a supposedly 'alien' working community. The question now is, for how long will the Enga working community and other provincial groups continue to uphold and adhere to their ethnic and tribal alliances?

If ethnic and tribal solidarity became superseded by class consciousness and loyalty, would the latter eventually perform the role of protecting, recruiting, reciprocating, and providing cohesion not only in Panguna but in other PNG towns? Perhaps these interesting questions need to be asked in the process of socio-economic development and change in PNG. But for the moment it is evident that the Enga community in and around Panguna still exist in a state of 'urban tribalism'.


1. Imbun, B. Y., 'In Panguna we are brothers: the social life and consciousness of an urban Engan community', honours sub-thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Papua New Guinea, October, 1989.

The research on which this version is written was undertaken in January, 1989. The information observed and collected was not in any way influenced by what was to 'shatter' the entire mine, the 'Bougainville crisis' since it only gained momentum in May, the same year.

The research benefited enormously from the author being of the same province as the group studied.

2. In this paper the author does not want to enter into the elaboration of the theoretical underpinnings of class and ethnicity discussions. The sub-thesis (see footnote 1) has an adequate discussion on that.

3. The author overheard an Engan worker who got drunk in the Panguna Beer Hall offering a beer to a reluctant bystander who happened to be an Engan watching a game of snooker.


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Date:Sep 1, 1995
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