Getting Engaged the Tolai and Morobe way – Papua New Guinea

Marriage proposals are performed very differently in this part of the world, slightly varying across different regions, provinces and districts of the country. That is how culturally diverse this beautiful island nation is. Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the Pacific region with the National belief, Unity in Diversity.

Due to this tremendous diversity, Ezra from East New Britain Province (Tolai) and Mary from Morobe Province faced a culture clash that hindered their courting and future plans possibly for marriage. How the young couple handled the situation with grace and respect towards cultural values is worth a tip of one’s hat.

Being a real man from the East New Britain province (New Guinea Island region) of Papua New Guinea (Tolai) could only mean one thing when it comes to marriage and engagement. You need to follow the baim sem cultural protocol. Failure in doing so, the courtship with your beautiful girlfriend means very little and the future of your relationship, say marriage and kids, is still pretty far in the future. Apart from that, you will bring shame upon your family members and others related to you, such as your clansmen.

The baim sem culture is a Tolai marriage protocol honored for generations and is a formal engagement to a woman. More simply put, it means if the boy is to be allowed to be seen with the woman in public, and to enter her house to dine and commune with her family he has to first bring tokens of request and gifts to the girl’s family. Vice versa for the girl. This sets them in a more comfortable position when courting, and marriage can be comfortably expected in the distant future.

The baim sem ceremony plays a very big part in any Tolai marriage and is indeed very important but at its simplest comprises of:

  1. Obviously the man and woman’s family, clan and tribe. The audience.
  2. Shell money (known in Tolai as Taboo)
  3. Beautiful coconut frond baskets for the members of the family
  4. A specially woven coconut frond basket for the girl
  5. Betelnut, Fruits and Crops
  6. Refreshments – most likely will be mouthwatering aigir (a traditional method of cooking food with heated stones).

This is what is referred to as the baim sem engagement protocol for the Tolai people.

Ezra’s parents offering Mary’s parents Shell Money (Taboo) and coconut frond Baskets
Ezra’s father offering Mary’s father shell money (Taboo)

On the mainland of Papua New Guinea, a few kilometres off the island coast of East New Britian, is the most diverse province of Papua New Guinea, Morobe. Down there they do things very differently regarding engagements and marriages.

No form of bride price is required, no baim sem protocol. However, a great deal of character and personality is what influences the decision of the future of one’s romantic relationship.

In contrast to the Tolai culture both the man and woman must visit each other’s house first. This neither means they are accepted into the family nor are they engaged – yet. Their character is a subject to be studied closely as they carry themselves around each other’s family, clansmen and tribe.

The woman must show that she can be a helping hand to the man’s mother and a sisterly figure to the man’s siblings. In accordance, the man must show that he can be a real man around the house, to work and protect, and to be a helping hand to the father of the girl and a brother to the family – boy blo group. Above all, they must both show unwavering loyalty, down to earth humility and tremendous respect to each other’s family, clan and tribe.

If their character is not pleasing, the family has the right to rule out the relationship (this was very effective in the past. Nowadays they plead with the but I love him/her card.)
Having explained both cultures it is evident that Mary and Ezra were faced with a culture clash in their courtship because according to Ezra’s culture he is prohibited to set foot in Mary’s family home before first settling his cultural obligation and formalities – Baim Sem.

Mary, on the other, hand is required by her Morobe culture to bring her friend home to be studied and to go to her friend’s house to prove her worthiness to his parents, which she cannot do because of the boundaries set by the unwritten Baim Sem act, a thousand years ago.

So did they do this? How did they get Engaged?

Having realized the confusing state of their relationship parents from both sides agreed to compromise some part of their culture to satisfy the opposing culture.

The couple was allowed to go to each other’s house but the family, clan and tribe remained distant from each other until the baim sem was done and dusted. They were not allowed to share a room or to be too intimate with each other. A ‘grace period’ was given for a short time, until Ezra was ready to do the Baim sem and also until he proved worthiness to Mary’s father.

Mary’s Father shaking Ezra’s hand after receiving a coconut frond basket

Upon the lapse of the ‘grace period’ Ezra and his family presented baskets and shell money to Mary’s family as a gesture of asking for Mary’s commitment to the relationship, explaining his culture as he did. Mary’s Father, Mother, sister and uncle were each given a basket to set peace in their hearts to release their daughter to Ezra, and also to accept Ezra into the family with warmth and joy.

Having lived with Mary’s family for a few weeks to satisfy the Morobe culture, Ezra proved worthy for Mary, their daughter and sister. To formally accept Ezra into the family, he was presented a Tulip bilum (traditional hand bag) to give him a warm hearted welcome, and Mary was accepted into Ezra’s family after the baim sem. This was demonstrated when Mary received a loving hug from Ezra’s mother to her son’s special friend after she presented her with her specially woven coconut frond basket.

Ezra’s mother accepting Mary Lovingly as family members look on with happiness
Ezra is accepted by Mary’s parents after they placed a Tulip bilum around his neck as a welcoming gesture

After setting every cultural debt aside. Family members from both sides dined in unity to celebrate the culturally formal couple, bound for a 21st Century white wedding.

Oh there is nothing more beautiful than combining your culture with the modern advancements of lifestyle.


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