by Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

In his extensive study of Huli interaction with Western medicine, Frankel stresses the observation that “Huli may be genuinely unusual in the extent of their acceptance of natural causes for illness.” 1 Huli “willingness to experiment with Western medicine” via their “empirical approach to much illness” resulted in the rapid embrace of this form of social change. 2 Both Barbara Hutton and Wilma Norman told me similar stories of initial reactions to their medical interventions, particularly among Huli women. When Wilmer first arrived at Komo in 1962 she encountered the Huli practice of women giving birth on their own. Wilmer explained:

The first breakthrough I had in midwifery, there was a woman came in she was pregnant with her fifth child and she didn’t have any living; they’d all died. Now we had, this was early in the piece I was pregnant myself, and so we built a little donga [hut] in the bamboo. And I said now, because they didn’t have woman go with them when they were having babies they were by themselves. Anyway, I said because I’m pregnant I can’t just sit with you for days so you get some of your mates to sit with you and then when you go into labour call me. Anyway, we did that and I delivered the baby and it had a cord around its neck and so I had to revive it and she said, ‘oh, they’re the ones we threw away.’ So you know after that there were a lot more woman wanting to come in to have their children. And I think the fact that I had children here too and they could see that mine were healthy, that helped a lot. Because I started a baby clinic and at the end in the late ‘70s I had a thousand children under five in the baby health clinic. So we did all the immunisations, and lectures on what you should feed your kid and how about bathing it.

A standout feature of early accounts of medical influence is that of immediate change that was embraced and pursued by Huli themselves. As was documented by Stephen Frankel, Huli change was based on the empirical assessment of medical efficacy. That is not to suggest that Huli health aetiology was based on materialist understandings of disease – there was no Huli germ theory of disease, and dama spirits as well as immoral behaviour were viewed as powerful agents in the cause of various ailments and deaths. Cause, however, was open to interpretation and alternative explanations were encountered with a high degree of openness to new ideas. Individuals quickly made their own judgements as to the evident efficacy of these new ideas. Early patrol officers reported an eagerness among the local population to have aid posts established, especially after news of the first aid post at Tari had spread to other areas. In January 1954, W.G. Murdoch led a patrol to an area called Tangiri, which was being visited by a patrol for the first time. The patrol included a medical officer who was undertaking a medical assessment of the Huli population. Murdoch writes:

There was some distrust at KONDOMBABU, HAMAKA and TUMBIERI. At the first and last named Patrols had made arrests for fighting and the people who had avoided arrest were not sure of the Patrol’s attitude… A decided contrast was at TANGIRA. These people were experiencing their first contact with a Patrol… It was here that the greatest number came forward for the Medical examination many remaining in spite of heavy rain which began to fall. 3

By the mid 1960s, the population in the vicinity of Komo station was expressing their desire to have a school established. Komo, which remained ten years behind Tari in terms of government influence, was, and remains, in a state of neglect in comparison with the Tari basin. The strong desire for education was intricately linked with the provision of health services. A patrol conducted during February and March 1965 reported the “genuine desire to have a school” and recommended that one be established. The patrol officer links this desire with “KOMO people visiting TARI and hearing of the TARI people who have been to school and are now employed as Aid Post Orderlies, Native Medical Orderlies, Policeman and also in the Pacific Islands Regiment.” 4 Education is the key to the possession of the knowledge that underpins western medicine. Western education was perceived not as an imposition but as a right. This perception is as strong today as it was during the colonial period.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 109-111.)

Continue reading the thesis at “Hela University.”

  1. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 177. []
  2. Ibid., 186 []
  3. W. G. Murdoch, “Tari Patrol Report No. 5 1953/54,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1954), 3. []
  4. N.C. McQuilty, “Komo Patrol Report No. 3 1964/65,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea 1965), 5. []

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