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The Wantok System in Papua New Guinea: Is It Good or Bad?

Papua New Guinean culture is traditionally rich and deeply rooted from its history not too long ago as an unexplored island nation and then becoming a colonized country soon after.  Fundamental to this pervasive culture is the wantok system (in Tok Pisin language), which when translated literally means “one-talk”.  Wantoks (clan or kinsmen) are an indigenous population who speak the same tokples (talk place) or language—PNG, located in the South Pacific, consists of a mainland and a collection of some 600 islands of varying sizes, approximately the same size as Thailand, with as many as 850 different dialects and local languages.  Tok Pisin is one of the most common languages, followed by Hiri Motu.  You can imagine the vast number of different wantoks in the country.

In the wantok system, local folks are naturally born with unquestionable duties and responsibilities to their wantoks.  Within the microcosm of the clan, each member can expect basic provisions and sustenance such as housing, food, folk medicine, security, and a general sense of inclusion and belonging.  The reward in return is the same benefits that everyone enjoys, particularly the privilege of being part of the clan and the protection and security offered to all its members.  Local folks see this as an egalitarian way for the community to share its resources.  It is similar to the United States’ Social Security System, where communal properties and privileges are enjoyed by all while everyone contributes to build and sustain the central source. 

However, the disadvantages of the wantok system are far greater than its advantages.  It is nepotism and corruption at its best.  Because this system is deeply rooted and part of PNG culture, it haunts the country like a plague when it is practiced and applied in everyday and social life.  Politicians who are known to be bureaucrats and unjustly qualified to run for office can, and most often will, still be elected because of this system.  Upon seating in office, all the wantoks will expect generosity in one form or another and the vote to be repaid. 

It is a great disincentive to enterprise.  Some within the clan do not even entertain the idea of working and being a productive and contributing part of society.  In this mindset, these people think that they will still be provided and taken care of.  Most recently, the educated youngsters choose to relocate away from their respective villages and families to avoid the calls for free benefits.  In the end, families tend to find their relatives and ask for them to fulfill their respective duties as wantoks.  Just saying “no” is rarely an option.

Just imagine the many implications this system can do in healthcare.  For example, an uneducated female patient who was just prescribed a 30-day dose of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV after being gang-raped may not complete the entire dose and risk themselves for transmission because she shared her “antibiotics” to another wantok who is having upper respiratory illness.  Meanwhile, this very same rape victim will not have the taste of justice and get the perpetrator answer to the crime because the rapist came from the same village, a distant wantok of the family.  Another example is of a young male patient who suffers from chronic bronchitis and reactive airway disease.  He will most likely defer going to the medical center and obtain prescription for bronchodilators and corticosteroids because his fortnightly salary will be remitted back to the wantoks in the village. 

The local health department in PNG understands the ubiquitous systems issues and problems the country faces.  They form partnerships and alliances with international aid organizations and NGOs for financial and technical support as well as implementation and sustainable initiatives to ensure continuity.  In essence, the provisions are present, systems are in place, and assistance is provided.  Despite having programs and projects in place to answer health problems, road blocks are met in the community level and are often associated with the pervasive ideology of the wantok system.

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