Lots of areas of Kovol culture can be investigated by asking questions. I ask questions with my voice recorder on and learn all kinds of cultural tidbits and vocabulary. The best way to learn though is to see cultural events happening as a fly on the wall, and I got a great opportunity to dive into the justice system this week when a village court was called.

I’ve never seen a village court in Kovol before. I wish I knew then what I know now after seeing the whole thing, asking people questions and hearing them tell the story, but that’s just how language learning is! You go in like a fish out of water and only later make sense of what you’ve seen!
A court hearing of course isn’t a happy occasion, and it’s a bit strange to say I was excited to see it because there was a problem that needed fixing. It has helped me understand the justice system a lot better though. I’ve interviewed people about it and they tell me how things should go. Seeing how things actually go though is very informative.

the komiti chairing the court

So keeping the details intentionally vague, what was the court case about? The village we live in has been having a decades-long dispute with another village over a particular piece of land. One ridge has been split with the top of the ridge belonging to one village and the bottom belonging to the other. Both villages claim it is land given to them by their grandfathers and the other village is stealing it.
One day guys from our village tracked a “wild” pig, following it over into the other village’s area, and eventually shooting it close to the house of someone from the other village. The shooting happened on undisputed ground, it was in the other village, and it turned out the pig wasn’t wild at all! Guys from our village had shot and killed someone’s pig on the other village’s land. Oops.

Upon learning of their mistake the guys gave the carcass back to the owner, apologised and also gave him one of their piglets to replace it. The owner of the pig wasn’t satisfied though and wanted financial compensation. The talk goes along the lines of “I want compensation”, “No! We didn’t eat the meat. We replaced the pig. It is finished”. Fast forward a month and one of the guys in our village notices that some of his string traps have been tampered with. He’s upset, the traps are on “his” land. When he sees a lean-to shelter built by the other village on “his” land he becomes angry and breaks it apart and throws the sticks away.

hands shaken at the end

The other village combined the charges of stealing the pig and causing “disruption” on their land and brought the case to court.

In Papua New Guinea the village courts play an important role in the country’s justice system. Each village appoints a komiti, and the komiti’s job is to “look after the place”. Part of that role is negotiating a settlement in the court.

The komiti established a “one person speaks at a time” rule and then both sides presented their cases. Periodically the komiti summarised what he was hearing. Discussion turned to the land dispute and both sides went back and forth 4 or 5 times explaining why the land was theirs. The komiti concluded that they’d have to leave that talk “in the middle” as no agreement could be found.

On to the “disruption” and the other village wanted a K600 fine to be paid. The guys in our village didn’t think they should pay as they thought that they had fixed the problem already. It goes back to the other side, they want the fine paid for the pig and then for the disruption. Again it’s rejected, because they sorted out the pig problem already. Back to the other side and they again insist on the fine. Our village eventually agree to pay the fine for all of the charges. Breaking the shelter was a clear act of wrongdoing in this ongoing land dispute, they’re not happy about the pig charge, but they’ll pay K600 for everything. Back to the other side, do they say yes to this? After a while they do.

Our village had 2 thoughts in mind. 1. they were afraid the magistrate who had written the summons notice might take further action if the problem wasn’t solved. 2. they wanted to restore harmony. They recognised the act of anger to be a breach of harmony.

The fine was agreed on, and was to be paid by the whole clan, not the individual who shot the pig or the one who broke the shelter. K155 was on hand and was paid along with shaking hands, with the rest to be paid after the next sale of tobacco brings some money in.
It’s interesting to see in action the komiti’s work which I’ve heard spoken about and to see “court by consent”. Out here in the bush fines can’t be imposed by the komiti or magistrate and people forced to pay. If people don’t want to pay they don’t. The system relies on the community desire for harmony and the desire to bring problems into the open to deal with them. The alternative is anger and violence, and that is universally recognised to be the wrong road. The good person is calm, doesn’t get angry and settles disputes with talking.

a quick jungle rain

With many audio recordings under my belt and seeing it in person I’ve been able to write most of the cultural summaries required for the judicial side of culture. What great timing! I’m set to finish off the culture study in the next month or two and to have the perfect event pop up to help me write a good summary for courts and legal norms was spot on 🙂

1 Comment

Johannes Groenveld · 09/05/2024 at 9:51 pm

What a timing of the Lord for you, this court case! We enjoyed the video Gerdine sent about her garden trip on the mission day. Very clear and good. Quite a trip in all. And then sleeping over as well. Wow, you’re doing good. Jan and Doortje

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