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Villagers and the City. Melanesian Experiences of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Villagers and the City. Melanesian Experiences

of Port Moresby, Papua New


By Michael Goddard (ed.)

Wantage: Scan Kingston Publishing,


Pp: viii + 177

Price: US$99,99

Port Moresby is a beautiful city, picturesquely situated on hilly ground near the seashore. It has an enjoyable climate (even if it sometimes becomes a bit too dry) and could be a desirable place to live, were it not for its notoriety; it is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, ridden by gangsters and seemingly the scene for robbery and murder on a regular basis. Another popular ascription applied to this city is that it does not really belong to the rest of Papua New Guinea and has no culture. A great deal of prejudice accompanies most descriptions of this Melanesian city and recent investigations into its mechanisms and diverse levels are rare. After his groundbreaking collection of essays The Unseen City--Anthropological Perspectives on Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (2005), Michael Goddard again places his focus on the capital of Papua New Guinea. This edited volume contains seven different facets of urban life in an increasingly modernised Pacific country.

In the introduction Goddard leads the reader into the field of study, namely Port Moresby (called simply Moresby throughout the book), 'a colonial town which has become a Melanesian city' (p. 1). According to Goddard, the focus of this volume 'is about how Melanesians experience the city they call Mosbi' (p. 2) and it argues against the assumption that Moresby is different from the 'real' PNG (pp. 3, 7). In this book, the general misconception of a rural/urban dichotomy that separates Port Moresby from the rest of the country is countered with the idea of a 'rural-urban continuum' (p. 11) that connects the city with the villages. Port Moresby is characterised with the words of Hitchcock and Oram as a '"replica" town for indigenous immigrants who try to recreate there the social relationships which they knew at home' (p. 14). The main goal of the book is, 'to give the reader an understanding of the sociality of Moresby' (p. 15).

In the first chapter, Goddard investigates the history of land tenure in the Moresby area from different perspectives: the colonial acquisition of land as well as the former indigenous migration into the area. Exemplified by the case of the small off-shore island of Daugo, Goddard shows that, by a variety of tactics, local agents used the (post-)colonial jurisdiction to enforce their claims for land. The chapter also discusses the problematic disparity between colonial understanding of land ownership and customary practices: European ideas of property rights allow passive ownership whereas in Papua New Guinea, land use is of utmost importance (pp. 32-33).

Van Heekeren focuses in the second chapter on the road linking Vula'a villages with the capital, the so-called Magi Highway. This road is not only a means of travel and business but also important for social purposes (p. 56). We learn about the clash of Melanesian gift exchange and the cash economy--two systems that include different sets of moral values (p.60) with the former being still retained in village contexts, hindering local businessmen from establishing profitable ventures. An ethnographic example shows how Vula'a villagers try to cope with the new "morality of economics' (p. 69) and the road that brings capitalism to their thresholds.

In Chapter 3, Umezaki presents statistical data on different occupations of Hull migrants in Moresby--both in the so-called formal and informal sector. The times allocated to all kinds of activities such as work and leisure are measured for both sexes. Also income, food and nutrient intake is compared, allowing a detailed overview of livelihood in Moresby.

Chapter 4 has a strong economic focus and gives insight into the survival strategies of different households in different parts of Moresby. Barber shows clearly that the so-called 'informal sector' is by no means a bad choice and can be financially more lucrative than wage labour (p. 93). Again, we learn that there is a diversity of the possible means of livelihood in the Melanesian city (p.98).

In his second chapter in this volume, Goddard uses the numerous village court cases he has collected to highlight the source of most matters brought to these institutions: the breakdowns of marriages (p. 111). He shows that the main marker of marriage is the payment of a bride price, making marriages primarily economic unions (p. 110, 130). Due to the great distance from their respective home places, urban migrants face huge problems in collecting the necessary money (p. 121). In many cases the diverse, resulting dissatisfactions lead to court hearings and Goddard shows that no other characteristic about what constitutes a formal marriage (p. 132) is sustained by the judges. This might be rooted in the fact that most communities that Goddard worked with in Moresby stemmed from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the payment of bride prices is of similar importance. Amongst coastal people, this is not necessarily the case.

The last chapter deals with another facet again of urban life in Moresby: the popular music sector. After a short overview of the history of popular music in Papua New Guinea, the reader is allowed to look 'backstage' (p. 143). Being a musician himself, Crowdy offers a well-informed description of the many problems that local musicians have to overcome in order to meet with their audience in localities that the author calls 'bland spaces' (p. 144). Furthermore, this chapter sheds light on the main actors in these bland spaces: members of the expat community who live a life detached from the issues that are important to the Papua New Guinean population of the city.

An index of subjects and names adds to the usefulness of this volume for a wide array of topics in modern Melanesia (and beyond). This edited volume is a very important addition to the ethnography of Papua New Guinea as well as to the field of urban studies, since the forms of living in Port Moresby follow their very own, unique rhythms. Despite the strong focus on economy of most of the chapters and the resulting repetition of some aspects throughout the book, anyone who wants to travel to or work in Port Moresby should read this volume.

Alexis Th. von Poser

Ethnological Museum, Berlin
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Author:von Poser, Alexis Th.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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