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From proletarian to entrepreneur to Big Man: the story of Noya.

Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the resemblances between Melanesian big-men and capitalist entrepreneurs. Both social types are achievement oriented individualists whose position depends on their control of wealth. The similarities are such that several anthropologists have argued that Melanesian societies should experience an easy transition to capitalism, being either already basically capitalist or, in some sense, pre-adapted to it (Finney 1973:124; Salisbury 1970; Pospisil 1963).(2) However, even though big-men resemble entrepreneurs in some ways, there are also important differences. While entrepreneurs have a limited and contractual relationship with those who work for them, big-men remain connected to their supporters through general relationships which are conceptualized in terms of reciprocity. Big-men are thus enmeshed in a network of social obligations and constrained to return concrete benefits to those who have assisted them. Big-men's most important asset is the prestige they have amassed through generous gift giving. They typically have careers which decline sharply as their ability to be generous is overwhelmed by demands of followers and exchange partners. It was this very inability to institutionalize political power that was highlighted in Sahlin's seminal article defining the big-man as an anthropological type (1963). Although big-men assemble wealth and authority in their society, these have an ephemeral quality, since big-men do not accumulate much that is tangible or heritable.

Classic big-men did not occur until recently in the Kainantu region of Papua New Guinea. Precontact leaders achieved prominence largely through success in warfare. In Ontena, these warrior leaders were called 'big-men' (anom baita), but they strongly resembled the Baruya leaders that Godelier calls 'great men' (1986:162-188).(3) Kainantu warrior leaders sometimes became small scale despots, as has been well documented among Ontena's immediate neighbors and traditional enemies, the Tairora (Watson 1971), but despots did not last long as leadership changed hands frequently with the fortunes of warfare.(4)

Although Kainantu leaders were warriors rather than classic big-men, most of the fundamental values underlying the big-man system were part of the traditional culture of the region: men competed among themselves for status; leaders took an interest in the circulation and control of wealth; and social relations were based on reciprocity (cf. Read 1959). Following the colonial suppression of warfare, big-manship of the type described in anthropological literature (e.g. Sahlins 1963; Fell 1987), emerged as the dominant characteristic of local leaders.

In this paper, I consider the career of Noya, the owner of the only coffee plantation in Ontena village, to demonstrate the contrasts and confluences between the roles of big-man and that of entrepreneur. Noya cannot be considered a pure example of either type, but has drawn selectively upon the logic of each in his drive to achieve prominence. His entrepreneurial qualities were highlighted by his acquisition of his plantation and other important assets in 1975, and he has been the wealthiest man in the village ever since. At first, he tried to separate himself from village affairs, but he soon found that his limitations as an uneducated rural man kept him out of the commercial elite. As his fellow villagers pressured him to share his wealth, he began to devote more of his resources to the village and became a major sponsor of village feasts. Frustrated in his efforts to move into the social world beyond the village, he has increasingly identified with the role of big-man, devoting his energies and wealth toward local affairs, and even marrying a second wife.

I met Noya in 1974, when he drove me to Ontena village for the first time. I had just arrived in the Eastern Highlands and was staying at Ukarumpa, the Papua New Guinea headquarters of Summer Institute of Linguistics, a large Christian missionary organization. I planned to stay at the hostel in Ukarumpa for a few days until I could make arrangements to get to Ontena village. On my second day there, as I was having dinner at the hostel, a man came to let me know that someone would be driving to Ontena that evening and would be willing to take me with him. Even though it was already dark and I did not know what to expect in the village, I thought that I had to go, so when Noya's Land Rover came to pick me up I loaded my things in the back and got in.

Noya was travelling at night because his Land Rover was unregistered, and the police were extremely unlikely to be stopping vehicles to check registrations at night. It was not far to Ontena, only about eight miles as the crow flies, but we had to travel nearly twice that distance over unpaved roads to get there and we arrived at about 9:30 at night. After some discussion, it was decided that I should stay in a house occupied by a group of teenaged boys, and, not unreasonably, given that I had just arrived from Ukarumpa and came from America, I was asked to give a sermon. I excused myself from religious duties, so instead, one of the boys led a short ecstatic prayer. The next day, I reorganized my living arrangements and started to get to know the influential villagers.

Noya, then in his early thirties, was one of them, although he was scarcely preeminent. In his participation in commercial ventures such as owning and operating motor vehicles he was similar to about a dozen village men, but the fact that he operated his Land Rover without having it registered reveals a certain propensity for taking risks and evading rules. He held no position in the local government that the Administration had organized for the village,(5) and in both economic and political matters was overshadowed by his older brother, Ampona. Ampona was the leader of his clan,(6) and also led one of the factions that competed for control of the village. Noya participated in several joint ventures with Ampona and other village men, but I was quite surprised when I returned to Ontena two years later and found that Noya had become the owner of the village's coffee plantation, and indisputably the wealthiest man in the village.


Noya and the villagers of his generation grew up within a dual society, constrained by two, often contradictory, sets of social rules; a subordinated indigenous social order which nonetheless directed much of village social life, and a dominant imposed colonial social order. For Ontena and most of its neighbors, colonial takeover (beginning in the 1930s) was a gradual process, which left traditional social formations encapsulated in a larger and more complex system which spread out unevenly from its administrative centers. In the places that became towns, Papua New Guineans had to live according to an alien set of values, but the dominance of the colonial social order decreased with distance from town. Nevertheless the power of the colonial order was undeniable and the indigenous societies were forced to adjust to their loss of autonomy.

When Noya was born in about 1942, Ontena had only had to make limited accommodations to the new order. The village was on the edge of the territory that the administration claimed as 'controlled' and scarcely noticed the disruption of the administration caused by World War II. During the 1930s, Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventists had established missions in the region, Ontena territory had been penetrated by prospectors, and it had been subject to patrols and raids by the police; but the total impact of colonialism must have seemed less than the pre-contact military defeat that had forced the whole village into exile a few decades earlier. The men who had been great warriors were still the most important people in the village, and the village subsistence economy proceeded along traditional lines with two significant modifications: first, steel tools replaced stone tools, and second, the pre-contact trade networks had been shifted toward the new administrative center, so that villages nearby became relatively wealthy while distant villages felt their power and wealth diminish.

Noya's first personal involvement in the new order came when he tried to attend a Lutheran mission school in a nearby village, (there were as yet none in Ontena). During the 1950s, mission schools focused on religious instruction. They provided hardly any academic training, those in Noya's age set who did attend school barely became literate. Noya, however, was unable to obtain even this superficial education. He was forced to drop out by his father, who beat him and ordered him to 'stay home and help me with my work.' By this time formal initiations for boys had been discontinued, and thus Noya fell between the last generation to be initiated, and the first to receive formal education. His generation had to invent new roles for itself in ways that no previous generation had needed to.

By the 1960s when Noya was a young man, inter-village warfare was a thing of the past. Ontena's young men were no longer made into warriors, and consequently, had no clear role in village society. Instead, they were drawn to seek wealth and power outside the village by migrating to towns or coastal plantations. Noya did not leave the region; he was able to find work in the nearby town of Kainantu. Only a few hours walk from Ontena, Kainantu was nonetheless a completely different social environment, dominated by considerations of race and class. Noya's years working as a shop clerk in town left him with a sense of his own poverty and powerlessness. He described this phase of his life with resentment, 'I spent more than eight years at the station, but I didn't earn any money. I just worked for free.' Young Papua New Guinean men occupied a low status within the colonial settlement,(7) and there was little they could do to improve it. No amount of hard work, bravery, generosity or any other traditional virtue would enable them to approach an Australian as an equal. Noya's meager pay, fifteen to twenty dollars a month, certainly did not offer much chance to improve his status.

For Noya, as for many of his generation the escape from 'working for free' in Kainantu came through growing coffee. During his eight years as a shopkeeper, Noya had married. Subsequent to his marriage Noya activated his rights to cultivate clan land, and, while he was working in town, his wife, Oraratiro, was working back in the village.(8) The amount of money that could be earned in a single transaction by selling coffee came as a revelation to Noya, and he still remembers selling ten copra bags of parchment coffee to a coffee buyer from Goroka for $600. He put the money in the bank, and soon he had saved up enough to buy the secondhand Land Rover for $700. Now that he had his own vehicle he was able to become a coffee buyer. He still had to work for Australians, but his coffee buying contract let him earn much more than his shop clerk salary, although the work was exhausting.

When I worked for the whiteman, it was very hard, and I still think about it. When I bought coffee, I left my wife and children behind, and went out at night and in the rain. I drove all night to Obura, to Okapa, to where the bridges were broken as though I had no heart. I wasn't afraid of anything....

During the early 1970s Noya was earning money both as a coffee buyer and as a smallholder coffee grower, and he saved a lot of this money. While his brother, Ampona, was taking a public role, acting as clan leader and sponsoring feasts, Noya was quietly becoming the richest man in the village. Most of his income came from the coffee that his wife, Oraratiro, grew in the village. (Her principal garden was about two thirds of a hectare, more than double the average village smallholding.) Their household grew in size as they adopted village children. As Noya and his wife started their own biological family, they also brought children of fellow villagers into their household. The practice of adopting children of fellow villagers, is customary in the region, (cf. Mandeville 1981) but Noya was an exceptionally active participant in adoptions. Claims for adoption are made at birth or soon after for about half of all children, but most of these claims are not activated. Claims are most likely to be activated for girls, since adoptive parents receive a major portion of the girl's brideprice whereas biological parents cannot accept any. Furthermore, teenaged girls provide their adoptive parents with farm work and childcare which more than offsets any costs of caring for them. In the 1970s Noya's adopted children included several teen-aged girls. He accommodated his large family in an unusually large compound, surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Although in 1974 Noya's was the only household with a barbed wire fence in Ontena, I had no indication that other villagers resented it.(9)

Noya did well as a coffee buyer, but most of the family's income came from Oraratiro's coffee gardens in Ontena. Noya's coffee buying was also a source of marital discord, since, as he traveled through remote parts of the province, he met young women who found a man rich enough to own a Land Rover irresistible. On several occasions, he brought potential second wives home with him.(10) Oraratiro, indignant at the prospect of sharing her estate and her husband, always managed to drive them out, although one remained in Ontena long enough to have Noya's baby.


The extent of Noya's growing wealth became obvious when he acquired the Ontena plantation in 1975. At that time, the newly independent government had set up the Plantation Redistribution Scheme to reallocate colonial plantations to indigenous owners. In Ontena, a small plantation had been started in 1959 as an annex of one in a neighboring village. The Ontena portion consisted of 46.1 hectares of land, but less than half of it had ever been planted with coffee, and it included no buildings or processing facilities." Its original owner, an Australian ex-serviceman had died in 1962, and his widow had abandoned his plantations and gone back to Australia. The banks and credit agencies which had controlled it since then, had maintained it without making any improvements, and, at independence, it was held by the Papua New Guinea Development Bank. Since it was only partly developed and the government already owned it, it was relatively easy for the government to sell it to a local owner. It took much longer for the government to find private owners for the other plantations in the vicinity.

Although the Ontena plantation was only small and undeveloped, it was an enormous enterprise by village standards. At the four thousand one hundred kina that the government asked for it, it was a bargain, but still beyond the reach of all but a few villagers, and, at that exact moment, only Noya was able to raise that amount of money. Since his clan was not the traditional owner of the land, there was some opposition to the sale, but, as no one else had enough money, the government went ahead and sold it to Noya.

Noya benefitted from high coffee prices in 1975, and within a year, he had further expanded his enterprise, building storage facilities and adding a cattle project on his clan's land adjoining the plantation. He also bought a secondhand tractor for K7,100, becoming the only man in the area to own such an important piece of machinery.(12)

As a village plantation owner, Noya was aware of his uniqueness and aspired to elite status. He sounded supremely confident when I taped a brief account of his life in 1980. He explained he wanted to tell 'The Story of Masta Noya,' underscoring a status that had more in common with the colonial white plantation owners than with his fellow villagers.(13) Proud of his achievements, he was unwilling to share credit for his success.

None of my brothers showed me how to do this work... This plantation is mine...My brothers did not help me. My in-laws did not help me. I did it all myself.

He also made a point of rejecting old ways of doing things, saying that he followed 'the new law of the government,' in preference to the 'old law of my father.' He stressed the importance of his nuclear family over the interests of the clan, and said he wanted his estate to be inherited by his children rather than to revert to the clan or village. He asked me to write this down for him so there would be no doubts about his intentions.(14)

Both big-men and entrepreneurs hold to a work ethic, but they differ in how they expect to use the benefits of their labor. A big-man must invest much of his wealth in his supporters, and, importantly, cannot be seen to be hoarding wealth for his own consumption. A big-man who is seen as stingy undermines his own prestige. On the other hand, the needs of the business are of paramount importance to an entrepreneur. The demands of business can come into conflict with the expectations of a big-man's supporters, as Noya observed in 1985:

This [plantation] work is something else. What the whiteman used to have, and we took over, is a very hard thing. Very hard. An ordinary person looks at it and says "Oh it's easy," but it's not easy. If you want this kind of business, if you want to run it, forget about visiting your friends. You can't go to festivals or funerals.

Even while he described himself as Masta Noya, and tried to separate himself from his kin, he was being drawn back into village affairs. His plantation was, after all, only partially developed, and he turned to kinsmen and local supporters for the labor needed to make improvements and to operate the plantation. He was able to assemble a small group of backers who gave him free labor before the plantation was able to generate revenues.


Noya also learned that barriers still existed for him in town, and he had not been accepted into the local elite. A disagreement between Noya and his bank in 1980 demonstrated his lack of influence in town. He went to the bank intending to withdraw some of the interest from a ten thousand kina certificate of deposit. The young Papua New Guinean bank clerk told him that he had made a mistake, he had already taken out all the interest and the balance that remained was well below K10,000. The clerk was not especially rude, but nonetheless, he treated Noya like an illiterate villager and not as an important customer. Noya had to accept the bank's assertion that he had made a mistake, and there was nothing further he could do about it.

Noya's involvement with financial institutions increased as he developed his plantation, but his ability to oversee the relationship did not. In 1981, he was approached by a local bank and offered a development loan of K90,000.(15) With this loan, he expanded his plantation under the supervision of the government-owned National Plantation Management Agency (N.P.M.A.). The N.P.M.A. took over the actual running of the plantation, and it also took over most of the plantation's income. Noya was paid a salary of K50 a fortnight, while the N.P.M.A. took K860 a month in management fees. This disparity was justified from the management agency's point of view because it was developing a long term asset. I am unable to evaluate the overall quality of the management advice that Noya received from the N.P.M.A., but there were certainly some serious errors of judgement, e.g. they built his wet factory too far away from a water source, so it could not be used with the pump that was available, an error that cost thousands of kina to rectify. Noya was not alone in having problems with the N.P.M.A., and the government disbanded it at the end of 1987. After that, Noya's plantation was managed by the Kainantu Development Corporation, a private corporation which took over the local staff and offices of the N.P.M.A.

As Noya's plantation developed, it became Ontena's only significant employer. During the height of the coffee harvest in 1987, Noya employed about 200 coffee pickers of whom about 160 were Ontena people.(16) In a survey I conducted that year I found that more than half of Ontena adults worked at least occasionally on Noya's plantation, mostly as seasonal coffee pickers. By working for Noya, Ontena people could work casually without having to leave the village, and could also continue with other economic activities (subsistence farming, smallholder coffee, etc.). Virtually all of the plantation's workers were actively engaged in these activities. This kept them from becoming completely dependent on Noya, and alleviated the inequality generated by the fact that Noya was the plantation's owner and their boss.

Noya knew his lack of education made his control of the plantation uncertain and was careful to keep some of his assets outside the structure of the plantation. His tractor and his two Toyota trucks remained his private property, and he continued to produce coffee on smallholdings outside the plantation. He has become less ambitious about his role as a businessman, and more caught up in village affairs. In 1988, he no longer confidently referred to himself as 'Masta Noya,' but described himself 'grassroots,' an ordinary person outside of any local elite.(17)

Noya moderated his individualism and cooperated more with his brothers and kinsmen. He turned his cattle herd over to his elder brother, Ampona, and when he took out the development loan, he brought Ampona and another brother into the ownership of the plantation, although they still did not participate in running it. Sorcery beliefs have also contributed to the pressure on Noya to share his wealth. Many villagers told me that Noya was the target of sorcery attacks by those jealous of his success. The most serious problem attributed to sorcery directed at Noya was the serious illness of his eldest son, Philip, whose injured knee took years to heal.

Noya has always lived simply, and invested his wealth in production rather than consumption. His coffee factory was built of concrete and corrugated iron and had an electric generator and a water pump, but he lived in a thatched hut without electricity or running water. He also dressed like other villagers, often wearing shabby tom clothing, and seldom wearing shoes. His entrepreneurial activity was not motivated by a desire for modern consumer goods, but by a big-man-like desire to be highly regarded by others.

The most important change to Noya's way of living occurred in 1981, when he finally succeeded in making a stable second marriage and becoming a polygynist. His long-term support for the Lutheran church never extended to embracing its opposition to polygyny. His second wife, Iyeriko, was about twenty years younger than he was, and was the daughter of the village medical orderly. Although her family was not from Ontena, her father's position made it impossible for Oraratiro to force her to leave.(18) Oraratiro continued to live on the plantation, and Noya built a residential compound for Iyeriko on the far side of the plantation, near her father's Aid Post.

With two wives, he no longer has a simple nuclear family, and no longer talks of his plantation as a family enterprise. He even suggested that he might sell the plantation to an outsider some day. It has become difficult for him to coordinate his extensive and fragmented family. As of 1988, he had fifteen children by his two wives, and an extensive set of adopted children. As his sons reach adulthood they have ideas of their own. Nevertheless, Noya has tried to help his children in a variety of ways, including involving sons and daughters with plantation jobs, helping his two oldest sons establish smallholdings outside the plantation, and trying to improve educational opportunities for the youngest children.

Noya has become a prominent participant in village feast giving. He fulfills his duties to his adopted daughters by sponsoring feasts at their menarche, but the ones sponsored by Noya are more elaborate than most. Noya sponsored the largest mortuary feast ever held in Ontena when his mother died in 1988, shortly after I left the field. According to a letter from the village, Noya 'killed 42 pigs, one cow, and [bought] about 50 cartons of meat,' for this feast. This was a dramatic display of wealth for a region where twenty years before James Watson had noted that 'an exchange involving the slaughter of as many as five to ten pigs would be outstanding' (1983:52).

Noya also began to use his plantation to provide innovative opportunities for feast giving. The celebration held in December 1987 to mark the opening of his new factory revealed both his growing importance as a big-man, and his marginality as to the Kainantu business community. This feast was comparable to traditional pig feasts (no longer held in the region), but since it was timed to the factory opening, it was held during the rainy season rather than in the traditional feast-giving season. Noya financed the feast from sales of smallholder coffee, and spent a total of sixteen hundred kina, slaughtering two cattle, thirteen pigs and thirty chickens. Several hundred guests representing three language groups attended, and the gathering was addressed by local politicians and leaders of the Lutheran church. However, the feast failed to attract any attention whatsoever from the business community. Several officers of the N.P.M.A actually spent the morning working on the factory, but they expressed no interest in the feast and left before it started.

Noya's relationship with outsiders who work on his plantation also follows the pattern of traditional leaders. Rather than maintaining social distance from these workers, Noya has acted as a benefactor and encouraged several families to settle permanently in Ontena. Five men on Noya's regular staff of about fifteen, came from Kokombira, a South Tairora village, which they left because of a resurgence of tribal fighting and because of lack of economic opportunities. Howlett labels such groups 'functionally landless in that their land is economically disadvantaged by environmental or locational conditions which prevent them from earning a cash income' (1980:195). By bringing these people to Ontena and offering them land as well as employment Noya has created a group of loyal and dependent followers. Although these settlers intend to remain permanently in Ontena, the security of their new land holdings clearly depends on retaining Noya's goodwill. The 'organized flow' of war refugees before contact provided a precedent for recruiting and incorporating outsiders into villages, but Noya has an economic rather than a military motive for bringing in outsiders (cf. Watson 1971:240-1).

Although Noya has not become one of Ontena's political leaders, he participates in village politics through his cooperation with his brothers and brothers-in-law. Ampona continues as the village's dominant political figure, while Noya, by concentrating on his enterprises, is able to steer clear of political conflicts and act as a mediator.(19) Noya, for example, maintained neutrality in a 1980 argument between Ampona and their younger brother, Nohove, over a large coffee garden that the men had begun together. Noya's sharing his wealth enabled Ampona to let Nohove keep the garden, in a way that both saved face and appeared generous.


Noya's career illustrates his changing and creative use of the mix of indigenous and imposed social forms within which contemporary Papua New Guinea highlanders construct their lives. He gave his insights into this dual structure as he explained his life in 1988:

If I had just worked in town, I don't think that I could have done it. I worked for the whiteman with one hand, and when I looked at this hand, there was just a little money and it got lost right away. My other hand went to the village. I used this hand on the land and it seemed to me that the village side had money, quite a lot. I looked at my two hands. I could see that the one that worked for the whiteman held little; but the one that worked for myself had quite a lot of money. And so I let the other one go and I came into the village. I worked hard at the village and here I am.

Coming from an indigenous society that valued equivalence and autonomy (cf. Read 1959), Noya and his contemporaries found the inequality and subordination of a proletarian existence to be humiliating. The meager wages paid to uneducated natives offered them no hope of closing the status gap with the colonizers, and Noya developed a deep felt resentment of his position in the colonial economic system.

Marriage gave Noya the chance to expand his economic role beyond that of a simple proletarian and engage in direct production using resources under his own control. The chance occurrence of high world coffee prices in the early 1970s also gave Noya and many other Highlanders the opportunity to push this further, and to see their efforts generate socially significant wealth.

The labor input from his wife and the large family which she oversaw do not figure largely in Noya's description of events, but were nevertheless the foundation of his success. It is clear that during the time his smallholdings were being established his labor was engaged elsewhere, and it was Oraratiro who worked in the village, albeit on Noya's clan's land.

Noya's ambition can be understood as a striving for status equivalence with the most powerful people in his world, and it was this rather than any desire for a different way of life that motivated him. In all our conversations, I never heard him express any desire to acquire consumer goods, or to change his way of living. Nevertheless, when he first acquired his plantation, he felt that he had made a leap away from his subordinated village society, and explicitly rejected traditional morality and kinship obligation. His designation of himself as 'Masta Noya' makes sense when seen as a claim for respect and equality with those who had economically and politically dominated his village society.

National independence and the admission of men like Noya to the ranks of 'coffee planters,' and, especially, the proliferation of coffee plantations in development projects blurred the distinction between these two segments of society. Rather than joining a sharply defined economic and social elite as 'Masta Noya,' he found himself at a vague point on a social continuum where his status as an uneducated rural villager outweighed his plantation ownership. Realizing this, Noya reemphasized his local ties and began to use his resources like a big-man.

Although he aspired to join the elite, Noya's entrepreneurship has always depended on village social relations. He began his career by relying on his own hard work (and that of Oraratiro), and he supplemented this labor through participation in social activities which brought additional labor under his control. As he built up his smallholder coffee, he increased the number of productive members of his household by adopting teenaged girls, and he also relied on unpaid labor of a small group of friends to get his plantation into operation. The men who helped him at this stage were not simply followers or dependents, but included kinsmen of comparable status and age to himself, and their contribution to the plantation was made with an expectation of reciprocity (cf. Finney 1973:93).

Noya's position is unique in Ontena. Serendipitous factors allowed him to balance the roles of entrepreneur and big-man in a way that was not possible for anyone else. The fact that Noya's elder brother, Ampona, was already an active big-man struggling over control of the village, enabled Noya to concentrate on accumulating wealth without acquiring political responsibilities. Ampona did not contribute to Noya's enterprises, but his dominance of the clan's political life aided Noya indirectly. Both brothers also benefited from the marriages made by their three sisters to energetic men in other Ontena clans who became allies or supporters in village affairs.(20) Timing of events not under his control was also crucial to Noya's success. High coffee prices allowed him to accumulate capital. The divestiture of colonial assets that accompanied independence transferred significant wealth to men in Noya's generation, and it happened to occur when he was the only Ontena villager with the capital needed to take over the plantation. Furthermore, if the Ontena plantation had been a bit more developed in 1975, even Noya would not have been able to afford it, and it would have ended up in the hands of an outsider.(21)

Although with his two wives, a penchant for sponsoring feasts, and more land than anyone in the village, Noya has drawn from the script for a Melanesian big-man, he has not abandoned the role of entrepreneur. He cannot as long as he owns the plantation, since the bank and the management agency require it of him. During the mid 1980s when coffee prices were good, he was able to satisfy the management agency and still be generous toward supporters. Things became more difficult after the coffee price collapsed in 1989,(22) but Noya's enterprise survived the downturn and he had fully repaid his loan by the end of 1996.

Noya has to operate in a larger arena than that where his big-manship is effective. He is prominent within Ontena village, but the village has become marginalized, culturally, economically and politically. Banks and management agencies have more control than he does over his coffee production and income, and unlike leaders of the pre-contact era, he has no ability to anticipate the value of what he produces. Pre-contact leaders such as Noya's grandfather lived dangerous lives, but they met their rivals as equals. Noya, on the other hand, is subject to the whims of people and institutions who neither know nor care who he is.


1. This paper is based on research in Ontena village in the Eastern Highlands Province between 1974 and 1988. My long association with Ontena has enabled me to observe social processes unfold through time and to know people at different stages of their careers.

2. In some recent political science writing (e.g. Donaldson and Good 1988 Stewart 1992) pre-contact big-men are rather uncritically regarded as precursors to current big peasants.

3. The Baruya are only about thirty miles south of Kainantu, but they belong to a cultural and linguistic unit that is distinct from the main Highland groups. The people around Kainantu are part of the Highland cultural and linguistic unit, although they are divided between two language families within that unit. Ontena is actually in the same Parliamentary electorate as the Baruya.

4. The Tairora leader, Matoto (d. 1930) has been the classic example of Eastern Highlands despotic leadership. He was notable for his success in war against the enemies of his tribe, but even more for his disregard of the rights of members of his tribe. While I find Watson's description accurate and compelling, it has given rise to a secondary literature which greatly exaggerates the extent and duration of Matoto's power (e.g. Fell 1987:103-111; Donaldson and Good 1988:20), and thus the degree to which despotism was institutionalized. Furthermore, Matoto seems to have appeared more formidable to his Tairora followers (Watson's informants) than to his Ontena enemies. He has several descendants living in Ontena and his name is known, but he was never singled out by my informants as their most formidable enemy. Matoto's power was always counterbalanced by that of his local enemies, and he was in fact, assassinated in the prime of life, a commonplace fate for a leader in the region.

Ontena's own pre-contact leader, Kawono, was not a despot, but someone whose great accomplishment was that he had been able to remain hidden on Ontena territory after everyone else had been driven out by enemies. Others eventually returned to reconstitute the village, and they had a few years of moderate success in warfare before the establishment of colonial rule. However, I know of no killings personally attributed to Kawono and someone from a rival clan once said scornfully that he had never killed anyone.

5. In 1974, Ontena had a Local Government Councillor who served on the Council in Kainantu, three Committee men whose duties were vague, and nine officials had just been selected for the new Area Community.

6. Ampona, born about 1938, manifests many aspects of traditional political leadership. He has held the office of magistrate of the village court off and on since it was established in 1974, but much more important is his constant role as leader of Ionanti clan. He is a skilled orator and presents a dramatic public persona. He sponsors feasts for his kinsmen, but as a strong man he stands somewhat outside conventional morality. A notable example of his amoral behavior was his decision to divorce his two wives (both Ontena women with important kinsmen), and marry a much younger woman from a distant village. He also cut off his ties to his children by the two earlier marriages. Although Ampona is a strict guardian of public morality, he openly admits that his behavior toward his children is wrong and does not try to excuse it (cf. Watson 1971:247). Even though they were abandoned by their father, Ampona's children have been supported by their maternal and other kin and they have not fared too badly. Two of them were adopted by Noya.

7. Papua New Guinean women scarcely participated in the society of small colonial outposts such as Kainantu.

8. It was very unusual for a woman from Oraratiro's village of Aiyura to marry into Ontena. Aiyura is a semi-urbanized village near Kainantu where many Ontena people have migrated and settled there, although people seldom moved in the opposite direction. Aiyura lost much of its land in the initial colonial takeover, but it now has two major institutions located within its traditional territory, the Summer Institute of Linguistics headquarters at Ukarumpa, and the Highlands Agricultural Experiment Station. Its access to patronage from the mission and town, including the early availability of education, gave Aiyura residents a toehold in the emerging elite, and Ontena people used contacts in Aiyura to improve their access to the commercial economy based in town.

9. Although I asked leading questions, I could never get anyone to comment negatively on the barbed wire surrounding Noya's compound. Noya's section of the village consisted of several compounds interspersed among coffee gardens and the fence did not seem to be aimed at keeping his neighbors out. The barbed wire was both a show of wealth and a defence against sorcery, and neighbors knew they could freely enter Noya's compound through the front entrance.

10. Not all of the young women that Noya brought home were single. Oraratiro and her supporters reacted with moral outrage at Noya's seduction of married women.

11. The Administration purchased land for the Ontena plantation in 1959 for [pounds]165 (Australian), acting on behalf of an Australian ex-serviceman seeking to expand his existing plantation in Abiera. Colonial planters were not allowed to own land, but were given 99-year leases on the alienated land, which was technically owned by the administration. By 1962 when the owner of the Ontena plantation died, coffee prices were falling sharply, so his widow abandoned the enterprise and returned to Australia. The mortgage holder, the Ex-Serviceman's Credit Board then took over control of both the main plantation and its annex. In 1967, the leases were assigned to the newly formed Papua New Guinea Development Bank. The Papua New Guinea Development Bank still held both leases when Papua New Guinea was granted independence in 1975. The Oritena plantation was among the first plantations in the region to find a local owner. The more developed Abiera Plantation did not return to private ownership until 1983, and its new owner was not from Abiera, although he was from the Kainantu District.

12. This tractor was properly maintained for at least twelve years, an impressive feat under village conditions, and it is still functioning as far as I know.

13. 'Masta' is the Tok Pisin word for a white man. In my Ontena interviews the term is used exclusively for European or Asian men: Noya was the only one to apply the term to himself. Given its status implications and colonial history the word is becoming less favored and younger people often used 'waitman' instead.

14. in 1980, Oraratiro and her children usually rode beside him in his Toyota truck, while other villagers rode in the back, as did I. While it was not unheard of for a woman to ride in the front of a truck in Kainantu as in some parts of the Highlands (Strathern 1981), it was unusual and indicated that Noya assigned a high status to his wife, and was including her in his enterprise. Ironically, this was only a few months before he married his second wife.

15. The loan offered to Noya was part of a government project to expand economic development in the Highlands. Small plantations (generally twenty-hectare blocks) were funded by the Papua New Guinea Development Bank (later renamed the Agriculture Bank), with much of the financing ultimately derived from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (Stewart 1992:178). These small plantations were intended to bridge the gap between smallholders and plantations. By combining local ownership with plantation style management they were expected to lead to a greater regional prosperity by allowing village coffee growers to achieve plantation levels of productivity (ibid).

Three factors, land, credit and management, had to be coordinated in order to set up these twenty-hectare projects. After some experimentation with various means for making land available for commercial projects, the Department of Lands came up with a lease/leaseback arrangement. Under this system, land was leased rather than sold to the state for a twenty-five year term and the leased land was then rented back to the customary landowners (ibid 180). This compromise allowed the system of customary land ownership to continue, while it established a formal title to the land which the banks could use as security for credit (MacWilliam 1988:103), and loans of K80,000 were made available to the owners of twenty-hectare projects.

Several men in the Tairora villages near Ontena established such twenty-hectare projects in the 1980s, making Noya's position less extraordinary. Nonetheless, Noya retained some preeminence since his plantation was larger than twenty hectares. Also, with its mature trees, it was already producing coffee. Therefore, even with a somewhat larger loan, Noya's plantation was less highly leveraged than these projects, and Noya was better positioned to survive an economic downturn.

16. Ontena people seldom worked on the plantation before Noya acquired it. In 1974 coffee pickers were outsiders who were trucked in for the day and had no significant interaction with the village. The difference between 1974 and 1987 probably had as much to do with improved wages as with the changed relationship to the plantation's owner, since, in 1987, Ontena people also picked coffee at other nearby plantations. Although these plantations employed some labor from Ontena, villagers worked for Noya much more frequently.

17. Noya used the label, 'grassroots' for himself in two different 1988 interviews. The term carne up when he was describing his essentially passive role in obtaining his loan, and again when i asked him questions he could not answer about plantation finances.

18. The medical orderly came from a Kamano-speaking village a few miles away. After he settled in Ontena he became a significant smallholder coffee grower, although many villagers objected to his growing coffee on Ontena land. The marriage between Noya and Iyeriko secured Noya's support for her father and significantly improved the security of his tenure over his coffee gardens.

19. Since Ontena is an ethnic enclave it does not have close ties with its immediate neighbors and no Ontena leader has any following beyond the village.

20. Their third brother, Nohove, is much younger, and thus did not get anything from the sudden divestiture of colonial assets at independence. He also seems a strong and dynamic individual, although he has lived much of his life in the wake of Noya and Ampona.

21. The two plantations nearest to Ontena (Abiera and Bonta'a) were more developed and included processing facilities. No local villagers could afford to buy them in 1975 and they were eventually sold to Kainantu-based entrepreneurs.

22. Noya's plantation survived the latest downturn, but many similar ones did not. A newspaper commenting on the situation in the Highlands reported 'Plantations and blocks had become too costly to be in operation and because of that about 50 per cent closed and are now being invaded by thick bushes' (The Times of Papua New Guinea, Feb 27, 1992:23). Loans made to owners of the closed plantations obviously cannot be repaid, but I do not know whether the banks have tried to take over these blocks of land.


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Date:Dec 1, 1997
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