Trobriand Islands Guide, PNG

Trobriand Island teens perform a ceremonial dance is known as the Bwetayobu, Papua New Guinea

Trobriand Islands teens perform a ceremonial dance is known as the Bwetayobu.

The Trobriand, officially known as the Kiriwina Islands, are a province of PNG off the east coast. Kiriwina is the main island, mainly flat, hot, humid and quite small at only 40 kms (25 miles) long. Unlike the mainland, the Trobriands are a matriarchal society with women controlling both property and all resources.

Trobriand Romance

A Trobriand Islands teenage girl, Papua New Guinea

A single Trobriand teen.

At an early age Trobriand Islands children begin to play erotic games with each other and imitate adult seduction techniques. At puberty they experiment more seriously with sex play, changing partners frequently.
Adolescents are encouraged to be sexually active with other clan members and sex is often initiated and controlled by the females.
Affairs often start with a gift of betel nut and assignations taking place at night in purpose built huts, though the girls leave at dawn. Girls drink a secret herbal potion (probably based on the yam) the day after to prevent pregnancy. Everyone gossips and rumours fly, but nobody tells.

Healthy, calm and rarely visited, Trobriand Islands people are the most physically attractive ethnic group in PNG.

Money grows on trees

Engraving banana leaves to make money, Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

Engraving banana leaves makes them into a valuable commodity. i. e. money.

Currency takes many forms in Papua New Guinea. Paper money is the Kina, named after the first form of money in PNG – pearl shells cut into crescents and worn around the neck. While travellers nowadays can pay their way with paper or plastic, local people still prefer to make substantial payments, such as a dowry or for building a house, in solid traditional style. Depending on the area they might use pigs, shell bracelets or necklaces, carved wooden bowls, stone axes, Bird of Paradise plumes, grass skirts or the Yam root vegetable.

Dog’s canine teeth used to be such a popular medium of exchange that pre-war German colonists had porcelain imitations made and shipped out. They still retain the same value as the real thing.

Out and around the Trobriand Islands women make their own money. Fresh banana leaves are scraped against a board that is engraved with the family seal. Strips of the impressed leaf are bundled into hundreds and are worth about one Kina/one dollar. Long hours needed, but it’s a sure way to make a buck.

A Trobriand Islands Yam bank, Papua New Guinea

A yam bank with alert security guard and attack dog at the ready.

The yam, however, is the most valuable currency in the Trobriands other than pigs. The yam represents not only wealth but also sexuality. Yam fields are always owned by women, though the planting and maintenance work is generally done by a male gardener. There are various ceremonies and rituals associated with the harvesting of the yams, as well as the giving and receiving of them.

Traditionally it is taboo to eat anything except betel nut (a chewable stimulant) in front of other people, so Trobriand islanders take their food elsewhere or, if necessary, just turn their backs to eat.

Marriage in the Trobriands

There is no traditional marriage ceremony in the Trobriand Islands. A girl who has been sleeping regularly with a man simply stays on at her lover’s house instead of leaving it before sunrise, as singles habitually do. Over the next few weeks the man may offer the girl’s parents a gift (such as yams, a pig or valuable shells) and if they are happy with the situation, the girl’s mother will bring them cooked yams that the couple eat together. They then stay together for some weeks. This constitutes marriage, though after a few months the couple will revert to eating separately.
Divorce is equally simple.

A strangely dressed new mother in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

A new Trobriand mother with protective, anti-evil-spirit clothing. Women are thought to become pregnant when ancestral spirits enters their bodies and cause conception.

Jebo clan mothers with tatooed faces, Papua New Guinea

Mothers of Trobriand Islands’s Jebo clan are decorated with facial tattoos.