Wantok System: A traditional Social Security System in Papua New Guinea


'Wantok' in Melanesian Pidgin is made up of two words. 'Wan' means 'one' and 'tok' is 'talk' which literally in English is 'one talk' to denote people who come from an area where a common language is spoken and understood amongst them call themselves 'wantok.' If someone calls you 'wantok', s/he is referring to you as a person whom s/he knows you as related to him or her by common language spoken and shared between you and him or her. Wantok from the confined locality of a common language area can be expanded and expressed to include geographical location, tribal group, or provincial or even national area. It can even refer to an ethic group, for instance, Indians can refer to themselves as wantoks. A group of people from a province live in another province in Papua New Guinea can refer to themselves and relate to each other as 'wantoks' as they live outside of their province. In their own province they would not be necessarily 'wantoks.

'Wantok' system is then a social system where people who related to each other by a common language, ethnicity, district or provincial boundaries (defined here as 'wantoks') participate in socio-political, economic, traditional and cultural activities in Papua New Guinea society. It is a system where people depend, care, and help each other in almost all of the societal affairs of the society.

Functions of Wantok System

Wantok system acts like a Western society's social security. In Papua New Guinea, relative of the deceased people take care of the orphans. If there are no relatives, and if both parents die, the clan members adopt the children who are left behind. If a man dies leaving behind his widow and children, a man from the village or same language area takes her as second wife consequently provides security for the children's heritance of their father's land and property. If she had married outside of the clan, the children would be taken out and away from their father's land and they would lose the right to inheritance of their father's land and will become landless.

In economic activity, people invest in their wantoks, which they will demand or will be repaid when they are in need. When a man marries a woman and decides to pay bride price to his wife's parents, the wantoks from the tribe contribute the price. The groom and his parents do not need to have all the bride price demanded, he just announces that he is ready to pay the price at an appointed time and his wantoks will help him out. When his wantoks who helped want to pay their sons' wives' bride price or their own, he repays them with what they invested in him.

The poor, sick, old and disable etc are helped in the same manner. The members of the society who refer to themselves as wantoks help each other. If one is sick, he does not go to the hospital, but to his or her wantok first, the wantok will take him or her to the hospital and cares for the person. The old people do not go a nursing centre or an old folks' home, they are observed into the wantoks system. The system caters for the needs of these groups of people.

The system works very well in traditional setting in Papua New Guinea society. It can be termed or seen as unstructured communism with a biblical rule of love for your neighbour in the loose sense of the term. People do not need to work hard, when they are hungry someone will feed him, and s/he will reciprocate when his or her wantok is in need.

Underlying Values of the Wantok System

The wantok system has underlying values for its practices. Two of such values are protection and allegiance of wantok outweighs other evils. For instance, if man who is your wantok is murdered, you have to take revenge on the murder's wantoks. A wantok is an asset of your social well being. If you were hungry s/he would feed you so when s/he is murdered an asset is taken away from you and so the same must be done to the other side. To a Westerner, this is barbaric, but to a Papua New Guinea it is the most sensible and logical thing to do that time.

If you are a chief executive officer (CEO) of a huge corporation, you are likely to recruit a wantok rather than another person who is maybe more qualified than your wantok. When the CEO needs money, s/he would turn to the wantok than other employees who are not his or her wantok. This practice is referred to as nepotism. It is practised in Papua New Guinea with the underlying value, to protect and pledge allegiance to wantok as a sustainable approach than to maintain corporate ethics.

Disadvantages and abuse

The abuse of once a good system in a traditional and village scene when practised in government institutions and socio economical system brought in by Western colonization is frequent and has adverse effects and disadvantages. The adverse effects are result of the clash of two social systems; Western and Papua New Guinean. It is also contributed by the people who were deeply rooted in the traditional system who cannot change when working and living in the imported Western system.

At the current Papua New Guinean political scene the politicians appoint their 'wantoks' to top key positions of the bureaucracy so that they either obey them or schemed to corrupt the governmental system to serve their own interests. The corruption of these parliamentarians and bureaucrats trickles down to all sectors of public services machinery. For instance, teachers in school can pass students from their village, language or ethnic group (wantok) even if they fail because he was put there by his wantoks in the department. Sports administrators select players who are their wantoks even if they are not good players. Wantoks house and protect criminals and even make false statements in court. They are many many more people who do not work, but live on their wantoks. They are what in western culture could be called parasites or hanger ons or liabilities. It brings a lot of burden on those who house and protect them. In this way, many people abused the wantok system that makes it a bad social system.

However, when the wantok system is used properly, in the village and traditional society, it maintains community's well being. It works well in the village and traditional setting. Some good things the wantok system offer if adapted in government administrative functions, it will help the people to be helpful and caring people. It is the system that the country needs it until such time that she must be financially independent to care for those who are poor, orphaned, widowed, hungry, and rejected. Right now, the country does not have financial capability to accommodate such expense. Despite the disadvantages and abuses, Wantok system is a good social system in Papua New Guinea.