Vojtech Novotny is a Czech tropical biologist who established a research station in a remote part of Papua New Guinea, where he involves local tribes-people in his work. In Notebooks from New Guinea, his latest book, we find inspiring descriptions of the rainforest and its peoples alongside bemused and affectionate accounts of his fellow-scientists, and of Western tourists. In the original post below, he describes a medical emergency in the village where he was researching. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, which will continue all week, here.
Exotic peoples strike us as exotic chiefly because of their differences in taste, as exemplified to perfection in the morning process by which one finally decides whether to wear one’s Adidas baseball cap to work, or one’s coronet of cassowary feathers. We are fascinated by differences of opinion as to the ideal morphology of headgear and other such frivolities and they have become the driving force of the tourist industry.
However, our fascination with cultural diversity in no way prevents us from expecting that on such graver questions as life, health, sickness or death we will be more at one with our exotic friends than when it comes to choosing a hat. We take it for granted that, deep inside, each and every one of us is furnished with that universal mental organ known as ‘common sense’.
A fellow tribesman falling seriously ill and needing to be helped is such a basic crisis scenario that even in our multicultural world there should be little room for misunderstanding. Speedy medical assistance is also organised in much the same way all over the world – you dial a particular number and in next to no time an ambulance or helicopter shows up to whisk the patient to hospital.
We have instituted the same principle at the New Guinea village where, alongside the natives, we are researching the ecology of the tropical rainforest. Admittedly, the patient has first to be conveyed fifteen kilometres through the jungle to the nearest passable road, but once there, we can summon an off-roader by satellite phone and have the patient taken to Madang, which is all of 100 km away, but it does have a hospital. To our surprise, even this apparently simple system may be vitiated if the ambulance and the patient happen not to come from the same tribe or continent.
Our village headman, Jason, asked for the urgent transfer to Madang hospital of his first wife, Mary, after she fainted from the pain of a neglected breast cancer. Our car promptly deposited her there, but Mary, fearful in a strange environment, took herself off to a rural mission hospital instead, where they weren’t equipped for complicated cases. After several days when no one took a look at her and she herself started feeling better, she returned to the village.
We learned of the failure of the hospital mission only after Mary fainted again, her cancer having advanced further and the pain being now even greater. Jason suggested waiting until she felt better and capable of making it to the road herself. We were far from certain that this situation would materialise, so we proposed she should be stretchered to the road then taken on to hospital by car. Jason hesitated, and finally came up with the excuse that the village didn’t have enough willing porters. So we suggested that porters be paid our standard rate of 25p per kilo of load.
Only then did Jason admit, with some reluctance, that tribal custom made the carrying of a woman by men taboo. Allegedly, his own father had once broken the taboo and had died shortly thereafter. This is a generalisation of a rule that states that anything that a woman steps over is unclean for men. Thus the men of the village, including Mary’s own husband, would not carry Mary to the road even if her life were placed at risk by their refusal.
The territory of the village is also home to incomers of the Simbai tribe. They recognise no such transport taboo and so were prepared to carry Mary to the road, yet not even that proved doable. Not only must men not carry a woman, but a woman must not be carried by men, without the risk of some catastrophe of cosmic proportions.
The taboo does not apply to women porters, so if Mary were to be borne along by local women, the order of the universe would not be jeopardised. There was no technical problem to the exercise either, since the women, hung about with several children of various sizes, regularly haul heavy loads of firewood, sweet potatoes or other agricultural products. Our suggestion that they might, by way of an exception, swap their habitual loads for a woman on a stretcher was treated as utterly absurd and the women refused to contemplate it for a single second as even a hypothetical possibility. Nothing of the sort had ever happened in the village, so in principle the whole thing must be impossible. We were not in the least surprised by this attitude, since we already had first-hand experience of the extreme conservatism of the women of the village and their total resistance to any kind of innovation. This included several years of vainly attempting to teach them to cook such exotic things as rice for our staff.
There could finally be no doubting that the only way to get Mary out of the village was on her own two feet. This was eventually achieved and we could deliver her to the hospital. The very next day she was visited there by the village magician, who tried to persuade her to leave the hospital, since hospital treatment and other such extravagances would only bring all manner of disasters down on her village. The magician had been sent in by Jason’s youngest, that is, his third, wife. We the bystanders, whether Papua New Guinean, European or American, were united in believing this move to be a wily attempt by the third wife to be rid of the first. Mary obviously thought as much herself, since she sent the magician packing and underwent an operation the very next day.