‘Wantok’ is pidgin meaning ‘one-talk’ – people who speak the same
language. One’s Wantoks carry out payback to help a victim (and themselves) |
get compensation from another ethnic group for whatever wrong happened
to their Wantok. The Wantoks may heat-up, abuse, or kill any person who
has offended their group member. One’s Wantoks may kill anyone who
belongs to another ethnic group. The threat of payback by one’s
Wantoks includes intimidation against policemen.This is
one reason why the police are extremely reluctant to
follow up on any crimes in PNG including murder.
~ Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, Wantok, Payback and Compensation
A Letter from Papua New Guinea, 1998

Papua New Guinea is about the same size as Spain, or California.
Just over seven million people live there, and what makes this country incredibly
interesting, apart from its natural beauty, is the fact that a stunning
820 languages are spoken there. That is correct, 820!
Papua New Guinea is the country with the highest level of language diversity


Each of the 820 different languages in PNG is a Wantok in its own right. The physical topography and the rainforest have kept people isolated from each other.

I was offered a position in Papua New Guinea with The World Bank and decided to pay a visit before accepting. Having had a difficult adjustment in Somalia some years earlier, I wanted to feel the place and its energy for myself. It took almost no time before I knew that I would not accept the position. One of the most stark and startling experiences I had was how unsafe I felt in the capital, Port Moresby, where I would have lived and worked. I have traveled the world and very seldom have I felt unsafe. But there I definitely felt unsafe. Just as examples, I stayed in one of thee best hotels in town. Nonetheless, my hotel room had been broken into at some point. The safety lock had been pulled from the wall and still hung on the back of the door. The balcony door had also been breached, jimmied open – on the 11th floor. Seriously! Also, it seemed that if I wanted to make money there, it would be wise to invest in storm fencing. As I rode though the city in a taxi, I noticed that every house was fenced in. Prisons.

Being a member of the white English-speaking Wantok I felt especially unsafe given the playback system and how Papuans spoke of their dislike (to put it mildly) of the Australian colonizers – only 10 years removed since independence.

So…since I didn’t need to look for a house or spend time exploring The World Bank community, I suddenly had a couple of weeks of free time. My Papuan host was most gracious and helpful in arranging a trip into the Highlands. Paradoxically, in the rural areas I felt safe. I was safe – even and maybe especially in the Highland Wontok where just one or two generations ago the men had been headhunters. The two young men in the photo above were taking me to their Wontok in the Highlands.

We can apply at least three principles of the PNG Wantok system to our culture in the USA today.

One principle is that payback is targeted but not necessarily personal. That means that someone can attempt to avenge a perceived crime by targeting anyone of the offending Wantok. I’m thinking about the man who targeted the FBI office in Cincinnati. No one in that office had been at Mar-a-Lago. All of the agents who worked on the search were from the Washington, DC, office. Para-military groups are Wontoks. Trumpers are a Wontok. These groups are looking for payback, still believing that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and from them. The FBI and the Justice Department are also Wantoks. Death threats against them have been unprecedented since the search occurred.

Another principle is that Wantoks protect and defend their own. All members of a Wantok have a responsibility to all other members of the Wantok, be it with words or money or loyalty or guns or whatever. We heard Lindsey Graham, for example, as he played out this principle big time immediately following the search and until he was told to stop criticizing the Justice Department. “Some senior Republicans have been warned by allies of Mr. Trump not to continue to be aggressive in criticizing the Justice Department and the FBI.” ~ NYT, August 11, 2022

A third principle is that Wantoks seek to unite themselves at the expense of the other. ‘Other’ means anyone outside their Wantok. The focus is more on the differences between Wantoks rather than on what they have in common with each other. Wantoks are extreme in both the upside and the downside of virtues like loyalty, defending and protecting one’s own, and superiority.

It’s hard to tell where today’s excessive violence originates.
The cause of this widespread violence may be the result of a number of factors including
cultural, tribal warfare, colonial conquest and abuses, socio-economic repression and
exploitation, impact of war, moral uprooting, church influence, spiritual confusion,
sexual violence, intolerance to alcohol, drug abuse, or something else altogether.
~ Adapted from Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, Wantok, Payback and Compensation:
A Letter from Papua New Guinea, 1998


The Highlands of Papua New Guinea


Photos by Barbara
Papua New Guinea, 1986