Tabu shell money of the Tolai society in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Tabu is Life! Status quo of shell money in Papua New Guinea

En route to East New Britain in remote Papua New Guinea I had been studiously envisioning on how to visualise the cultural significance of Tabu shell money, the official complementary currency in the region. To my very surprise, I’ve encountered much more than just a couple of snail houses on a string. Until today Tabu is deeply anchored in many daily activities and essential substance for any formal or informal gatherings alike. It is the source of social, political, cultural and even spiritual bonding – ergo the vein of people’s life. For one month I have been living among Tolai clans, to be eventually initiated to all local customs. As a result, my multimedia-project reveals intimate, bizarre and droll situations, which I believe the world has never seen before.

Preview of some selected images

Immerse yourself into a whole different world and watch the 7min trailer

Outline „Why shell money matters!“ (> 1100 words) 

‚Expect the unexpected’ warns Papua New Guinea its visitors. A promise that comes true in any way. Whilst the modern world is surveying fluctuation and investment opportunities of cryptocurrencies and ditching cashiers in favor of self-service checkouts, the remote province of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea is about to establish several culture bank outlets for easier trading with Tabu shell money’.

This multi-media reportage showcases the cultural importance of shell money for the indigenous Tolai which numbers roughly 120’000 people and explains how an age-old practice has successfully overcome the long-lasting occupations of Germany and Australia, the strong influence of the Catholic education system, and nonetheless, the broad economic development and globalization. Furthermore, this true story from distant lands aims to remind the leading ‚Peter Pan Generation’ on how and why we’re about to forget our ancestral values, not least because of grand advancements in technology and the shift in our communication habits.

It’s been exactly 43 years ago when PNG claimed its independency from Australia, and even today, shell money is deeply anchored in the Tolai culture – it tightens family bonds as well as business cycles. ‘Tabu’ is used on an every day’s basis to barter essential goods in the villages, moreover, it plays a significant role during all cultural activities. Without possession of shell money, there wouldn’t be any initiations, weddings, funeral ceremonies, pig feasts, nor a rigid hierarchy within the Tolai society. Since this tribal art is immensely precious by virtue of the laborious efforts of the making, ‘Tabu’ may even solve a dispute at the traditional court, or it simply shows great respect to a payee. In short, Tabu is the essence of the Tolai’s domestic relations and can’t be replaced with any paper. Decades after the introduction of PNG’s new cash system, as well as ATMs and loan firms, the Tolai are still genuinely affiliated with their marine treasures whilst they’re moving slowly from a self-sufficient lifestyle into the money-driven economy. Hence, they must learn about entrepreneurship and how to juggle with both – the Kina notes & Toea coins, as well as their official complementary currency – Tabu.

The other day, a man cashes out all his available funds from the ATM, then walks inside the branch to hand it over to the accountant, as he doesn’t feel his money being save out there in the machine. Some might be surprised, but in here money is still kinda new thing, tells me a lady working at BSP. „Although loans are not a cultural arrangement, we’re trying to help the people. My microfinance institution offers customers to pay for their microcredits by the means of Tabu (min: 200 Kina/ max. 500 Kina). Sometimes, if a client can’t pay back the loan, we even offer to pay back parts of it in Tabu“, says Sammy Narawangin (CEO of Mataure Rabaul Micro Finance Ltd).

‘The last frontier’, so the western nickname for wild Papua New Guinea! Venturing into the depths of the Bismark-Archipel you will live-experience how the global cancer is creeping into one of the most remote corners on the earth, as tinned fish & soft drinks like Go go-Cola are most likely about to replace a fisherman’s fresh catch and coconut water. And yet, diabetes can’t be cured with bush-medicine, thus a fair amount of a Tolai’s in-house stashed mollusk shells will indirectly be used for paying off hospital fees. At least for the current Tolai generations, it is seemingly impossible that their culture and the traditional way of life which their ancestors have already led is about to vanish. On the contrary, the communities keep the age-old heritage well-alive by pursuing their doctrines and educating male descendants apart from governmental schooling (which are as mostly cross-financed by shell money) in the so-called Nidok – ‘bush university’.

With several exchange hubs in Rabaul and Kokopo the owners of ‘Tabu’ have been given a convenient possibility of selling their shells in case they’d need hard cash pronto to acquire bits and pieces in town which are not payable with dried out snail houses from the Nassariidae (Nassa mud snails in the USA, or dog whelks in the UK). As like buying something from the local pawn shop, there might be shell money on stock or there won’t. However, it became much easier for the indigenous Tolai to buy shells in one of these hubs just before a ceremonial festivity is taking place, instead of asking all neighbors to help out. Meantime, the idea behind the culture exchange bank is to establish a safer storage site for the valuable currency plus to maintain quality control of all circulating shell money. Of course, the bank owner (a sub-firm of the provincial government) will withhold a fair share of roughly 10-15% of each trade.

On East New Britain’s Gazelle Peninsula alone, a circulation of shell money in the value of six to eight million Kina (approx. 2,3 million USD) is estimated, crowning the region to the world’s hotspot for old-fashioned bartering. Because of the increasing demand for Nassariidae shells, mostly caused by the growth of the Tolai population, East New Britain’s shores which were once considered a limitless source of oceanic currency have been emptied in a quite unsustainable manner. These circumstances leave the Tolai society no option, but to import new shell money from nearby PNG provinces or even the Salomon Islands (mainly Honiara), where the ‚crawiling bucks’ are picked by hand. Even the exchange hubs and cultural banks are running out of stock these days, as the months from July till September mark the peak season for cultural ceremonies when large amounts of shell money is needed to fulfill the society’s credo. However, the family of Nassariidae snails can be found worldwide. In a suitable habitat like the Pacific shorelines, this type of mollusk is present in huge numbers. Most of all, they prefer shallow water and crawl around in sandy or muddy sediments right next to the mangroves, but sometimes these marine snails can also be found in deeper waters close to the corals.

Apparently, the Tolai society won’t run out of shell money that soon. And despite the increasing amount of cash & carry outlets and telecom antennas, the clan leaders will do their very best to preserve their rich cultural values by handing down knowledge and the community’s philosophy to their descendants, as collectivism is yet much more important for them than individualism. Some traditional facets are visibly changing – as no Tolai roams through the supermarket aisles in a red ‚Laplap’ skirt these days. Although you’ll see them heading downtown to buy fried chicken drumsticks from the Chinese owned ‚Hot Rooster’ branch and stack the greasy meal into their pre-historic ‚Lovor’ basket made of coconut tree leaves. Hence, it’s common sense that only with the additional support of PNG’s government, the local merchants, the importers and all others who are participating in the ongoing process and trade of the complementary currency, East New Britain’s shell money will have a bright future, culturally as well as economically.

Some of us, especially the so-called ‚Peter Pan Generation’ which combines Millennials and the Generation Z, might have already noticed that with the uprise of dataism and the constant state of flux it evokes, we’re weakening our social ties, and instead, we intensify sort of a lose moral. These days, beyond dispute, we modern beings are getting rid of our cultural heritage and the indoctrinated collectivism nonchalantly in favor of self-determination and steady progress. According to outdated premises – “progress equals happiness”, thus the world’s marketing departments are whipping us into the bright future. In a big picture, this current movement isn’t much more than a tiny pattern in human history though.

Topic Overview (jump to marker, or scroll down)

East New Britain and the Tolai

The Tolai ethnicity migrated from New Ireland and settled what is now the province of East New Britain, an island some 200 kilometers off the east coast from Papua New Guinea’s mainland. The ancestors of the Tolai are thought to have migrated to the Gazelle Peninsula in relatively recent times, driving off the earlier settlers from the Baining ethnicity into the mountain areas. One of the main reasons for their migration certainly was the discovery of Nassariidae shells in the shallow water of East New Britain’s shores. On top of the Tolai society are the clan leaders. A Tolai clan leader has to be familiar in detail with Religion (mainly Christianity), ancestral belief system, social issues, economy & politics, and all traditional customs. To increase the social status within their community, every Tolai man ought to accomplish 4 customary stages. These skills are taught in the ‚Bush-University’ (Nidok) which usually last several weeks up to a month for each stage. The teachings include survival skills, social values, how to find the right woman, handicraft, the secrets of the Tubuan – basically anything one can’t learn in schools.

Whilst each person living in the modern world totally depends on money to survive, there is still places on earth where self-sufficiency has overcome modern standards. Food has never been Papua Neuguinea’s problem. The people are all well-fed. Taro, Kau Kau (a big version of sweet potato), pumpkin and other staple food, plus an abundance of coconuts and fruits are harvested all year round. Hunting for protein, such as Fish and bush-animals like wild boars, is still performed in order to maintain a balanced nutrition. There’s even traditional bush-medicine to cure various diseases ranging from Malaria to all sort of aches. Thus, they actually don’t need any money for survival, but for the education of their children. But even if they would not send their children to schools, and instead raise them as their ancestors did, forming them into farmers and hunters, everyone could still survive with ease.

Usage of shell money – Tabu

Only in PNG’s province, East New Britain shell money is used regularly (on a daily bases, mainly from Tolai, but also from the Baining ethnicity). Nearby province New Ireland, autonomous Bougainville or Salomon Islands use different shell types with different values, but not for everyday use, only ceremonial usage (most of all for bride price ceremonies).

Tabu usage in Tolai society – Directly

  • Daily barter system in villages (rice, ice cream, cooking oil, sausage, beetle-nuts, cigarettes, peanuts etc.)
  • Bride Price ‚Warkukul’ (paying off a women from her parents, so that she can marry)
  • Initiation of boys ‚Subuna’ (cultural involvement/ Bush University)
  • Funeral and mourning ceremony ‚Aminamai’ (shell breaking – inheritance – among clans)
  • Birthday Gift
  • Pig feasts (pigs are very precious in the villages) everyone contributes some shell money to get a share, usually 100 Kina (cash) and some Tabu in form of Param (shell money)
  • Sacred ground opening Rua Wuapuong Kalamana Ropui
  • Compensations (simply to say sorry after a dispute)
  • Village court fees – such as paying off for the local justice – disuptes that are solved in the traditional house
  • ‚Kinavai’ performance/ cultural play
  • Other gatherings and precious events (only the rich man can throw it)
  • Political gift – act of compensation „Varporong“ (featured here; the Japan and East New Britain reconciliation)

Tabu usage in Tolai society – Indirectly (after exchange to Kina)

  • School fees
  • Taxes
  • Food essentials in town
  • Hospital fees
  • Loans
  • Machines for communities (cacao dryer etc.) / cars / household goods

Creating value – From harvest to making (including values & forms of Tabu)

From Nassariidae shell to valuable ‚Tabu’ – step by step

  1. Harvest (picking, diving, ancient practices)
  2. Drying in sun until the snails dry out
  3. Transport (import/ including pest control at Rabaul’s main wharf)
  4. Getting rid of the smell by the use of degertent like OMO
  5. Crushing (taking top part off by the use of pliers) – Mostly done by the Tolai individually
  6. Putting on string, putting string together to form a circle, putting circles together (wheel)
  7. Storage at home, in traditional clan house, at the local merchant in town, or soon in cultural bank storage room
  8. Use/ trade

Harvest & Processing

Until 1987 the Tolai had ventured from Lunga Lunga village near Kokopo by the use of sailing canoes towards West New Britain, mostly to a place called Baia. With the arising North-West winds during February till March, they would start their expedition (40-50 people). And they’d sail back together around July with the South-East wind. The family of Nassariidae snails which the Tolai are looking for can be found worldwide. In a suitable habitat like the Pacific shorelines, this type of mollusk is present in huge numbers. Most of all, they prefer shallow water and crawl around in sandy or muddy sediments right next to the mangroves (delta of rivers), but sometimes these marine snails can also be found in deeper waters close to the corals. Harvest Spots: Because of the high demand from the Tolai and the Baining, most grounds in the area of Kokopo and Rabaul have been overharvested. That’s why the shell money users need to buy new shell  money from elsewhere. New places like West New Britain (Baia, Bacada, Volvolu) but also in South of West New Britain (Kandrian) are in fashion. But the big scale of new shell money is coming in from Bougainville Cacun Beach (Harvest Paradise), or the Salomon Islands. The islanders from the Salomons know about the demand of the Tolai and see it as a good job opportunity to make some cash. Some other Tolai traders still import from New Ireland but in smaller amounts. In Rabul’s main wharf you’ll experience how modernity and age-old practice are rubbing shoulders. As the ships crance their cargo containers aboard, some with shell money, others with imported products for the whole sales and cash & carry outlets.

Harvest techniques

Ancient practises (not really up to date any longer – I’ve triple-checked)

  • The trap! A young coconut, cut in half and sink it close to the muddy sediment of a mangrove area. Then the snails sneak in and eat, the following day the people pick it up and shake their prey into a basket!
  • A special kind of wood. Pealing off the skin and let the wood piece float near a good spot. Then the snails go onto to eat. People just pick the wood again the following day.

Present practices

  • Picking in the slit of a muddy shoreline (close to the mangroves).
  • Diving, rowing out close the reef breaks by the use of canoes

Sale of raw material

  • Empty 330ml bottle of local SP-Beer filled up with Tabu shell money is sold for 25 Kina.
  • But monstly, the raw material are sold in kilograms mostly 10 kg bags for 1’000 kina.

Shell crushing

As many Tolais still have a little stock of raw shells back home, they would process their treasure on an individual basis, firstly drilling the shells by the use of a clipping tool (pliers), followed by threading it onto a string of cane. Only Richard Tapil JR’s project site offers deeper insight into how New shell money is processed on a bigger scale. With new laws taking place, Richard’s delivery (some pallets of 10 and 25 kg bags) of freshly harvested Nassariidae shells from the Salomon Islands must first go through the pest control for fumigation when arriving at Rabaul’s main wharf. After the inspection, his workforce will take care of the crushing and the threading, after these steps, the new Tabu is ready to be sold at the markets.

-> The difficulty of collecting and processing the Nassariidae shells prevents the devaluation of Tabu shell money.

Everyday practice (Tabu exchange)

Initiation ‚Subuna’

During the ‚Subuna’ – a Tolai boy’s first initiation he will have the chance to accumulate his first shell money in order to understand about the custom. With the event taking place at night, the men will throw the boys onto a ‚Agogo’ (Tabu shell money wheel) which then will be taken apart. Also, the men and women will break Params (bundles of shell money hanging) apart and share it with the relatives of the boys. This ceremony also marks the Kick-off for the Bush-University“. With the initial ceremony, the young boys will be introduced to the first stage of Tolai culture and some secrets of the mysterious Tubuan (the symbol of a clan and meantime the bridge to the spiritual world). Then the initiated boys will go into the bush for some time. Every Tolai man ought to accomplish 4 customary stages. Each level costs a person some shell money (like a cover charge), the higher the stage, the more costly the cover charge. In return, the Tolai men will be taught new skills in the Nidok ‚Bush-University’ which usually last several weeks up to a month for each stage. The teachings include survival skills, social values, how to find the right woman, handicraft – basically anything one can’t learn in schools. Meanwhile, it is strictly forbidden women to learn about the secrets of the Tubuan, even they were the owners of the Tubuan back in the days. Nowadays, the women don’t know anything about the Tubuan’s myths and the legends it involves.

„The youth’s initiation into the Tolai & Tubuan society is very important for our all future and the Tolai’s doctrine. The discipline of youth is falling apart these days. Resulting in street crime and wrong behavior. And worst, they forget about their origins, our culture etc.“ Says John Lote. John actually addresses a serious topic, as in his clan, relatives get occasionally shot by the police because of their Raskal(gangster)-activities.

Bride price ‚Warkukul’

Yes, it is sad but true; the women have not much to say in PNG. Even though there will be a new law coming up soon, promising equal gender rights, but culturally, this will certainly need some decades of practice to be fully established in the mindsets of an average person. For now, the men basically „own“ their wives. Once a man buys the woman out of her family (by paying the bride price) she belongs to him. „Mi baim em finis“ – Tok pisin for „I’ve already paid“ – is used regularly from man to define the relation between men to wife. During the bride price ceremony, a groom will have to pay a fair lot of shell money to the parents of the bride. Here in East New Britain, bride prices are among the cheapest in whole PNG – Whilst in the highland provinces, so the gospel, you’d need to provide the value of a brand new Land cruiser to buy your wife (and at least some of the very valuable pig teeth).

Village Tinga Ngalip. Bride Price ceremony also called ‚Warkukul’ in Tolai language (= „You go to buy“). The ceremony for the groom Charles Zale Junior (32 years old) and the bride Radi Wopapaio (25 years old). Charles Zale chose which wife he’d like to marry some weeks ago. To show his intentions and interest, he’d walk over to Radi’s parents to pay a deposit for her in the value of 10 Param (50 Kina worth in shell money). Then Radi’s parents decide if they’d be okay with the marriage. Luckily, they agreed. During the ‚Warkukul’, Charles Zale Junior isn’t allowed to attend the ceremony, it’s customary that he’ll stay somewhere else, but not at the sight of the bride price payment. Charles Jr’s father and close relatives will take care of the shell money payment. It’s their wealth, thus many close relatives will pay all together for Charles Jr’s bride price which is usually 2’000 Kina worth in shell money (400 Param), and additionally 1’000 Kina (cash). Some years back, only shell money was distributed. All the Param plus the cash will be led out in front of Radi and her relatives, then stored in a big ‚Lovor’ (the typical basket of the Tolai made of coconut tree – the tree of life they’d say). But even before the shell money is given to Radi Wopapaio’s parents, Charles Senior and his clique will spend 1 Param each for the local government and the church as an official permission. After the official part, there will be food sharing and dancing. Of course, Radi Wopapaio will also receive some gifts, which are a bush knife, a mattress, a blanket, a suitcase, a fair amount of buckets, a garden rake, and of course some shell money (all essentials she’ll need for her household away from the family’s house).

BTW As usual, it’s a rainy day. Charles Zale Senior, tells me that this happens regularly. The local belief is, that if it is rainy, the disturbance is caused by someone’s jealousy. The jealous person would then use sorcery (magic) to interrupt the festivities.

Funeral (shell-breaking) ‚Aminamai’

‚Aminamai’ = Mourning Ceremony. The heirs of a dead person’s wealth are his community! When a big man (a ‚Amelem’ in tolai language) dies, his Tabu wheels (Agogo) will be broken up, his clan and all the present mourners are the recipients of the Tabu. Sometimes the Animamai is taking place at the same time with the burial, sometimes a week or so later, sometimes 1 year later in case the clan of a deceased needs to save up shell money first. Tabu shell money is based on a spiritual concept and involves much of a society’s respect while dealing with it. Nonetheless, shell money fulfills an essential task when someone passes away. Regarding the Tolai’s ancient belief system it plays an important role in the successful conversion of a dead person into the “abode of spirits”. Hence, the goal of a Tolai is to accumulate as much shell money as possible during a lifetime. Depending on the total amount of the distributed Tabu during a ‚Aminamai’ the reputation of the deceased person increases or decreases, only if enough shell money can be gathered, the dead person’s spirit will successfully raise into the parallel world. In case there wouldn’t be enough shell money for the distribution it would put shame on the person’s clan and even worse, the deceased person is doomed to wander in eternal misery in the “Land of Ia Kupia”.

I’m invited for the mourning ceremony of Lua Akuila, Tolai clan leader & ward member of Taraui. Roughly 4-500 people are attending. They’ll bewail the death of Lua’s brother Oliver, who passed away 2 months ago by the age of 52. His clan also contributes shell money for all the guests, so they’ve waited with the mourning ceremony until enough shell money collected. Some had it ready, others needed to exchange it first with Kina.

Among the guests are also the mysterious Tubuan (walking bushes with masks). These Tubuan are integrally intertwined with Tabu shell money and the Tolai society. Every clan is represented through its own Tubuan, mostly owned by the clan leader, the Tubuan is considered the ancestral spirit of an important person. Every clan member has to worship its clan through the clan-symbol, which is the Tubuan. If there is no shell money, the Tubuan doesn’t come out of the spiritual world to this world. Tabu attracts the Tubuan to enter this world. During the ‚Aminamai’ a lot of shell money hangs out in form of Param and even some Agogo (Tabu wheel). After several speeches, the main members of Lua Akila’s clan will break Oliver’s Agogo (Tabu wheels) apart -> Called shell-breaking (inheritance). Lua Akila will not contribute all the Wils he has, only 10 Param he will worship for each Tubuan, as he will keep his wealth for his son’s bride price ceremony. Btw The more Wils a clan leader has the higher his status within his community (and even the society).

In reality. The Tubuan will be coming from the village he’s been asked out from, walking all the way with the bushy dress. Then they’d dance or run around for a bit and hide in the bush again until their ceremonial action is expected. After the ceremony, the Tubuan will be walking back to his home -> alias the spiritual world.

Two musicians start beating their traditional Garamut-drums. Their pay will be shell money, I’m told by Lua. Slowly, all the mourners from different clans sneak into Lua’s yard. All of them will get a bit of the shell money. Moreover, the 5 attending Tubuan, which represent a clan and their ancestral spirit will get their share in form of worship. Lua’s men will smash shell money onto them. Firstly, from Lua who will open the Tabu-bashing with, then his clan members follow, then the rest will tribute a piece of a param to the Tubuan.

Community first!! Oliver’s whole wealth in shell money will be divided through the attending crowd. His wealth won’t go to the family, but his whole community. Back in the days (the time without cash) tabu was all the material fortune of a person. If someone ran out of shell money, they’d have to harvest new one or barter within the village-community (by maintaining a garden and growing something). Nowadays, you’ll buy it with cash. This has certainly changed within the past decades. Also, some decades ago, the shell-breaking ‚Aminamai’ lasted for at least a week, with big feasts for everyone. This has changed through the influence of cash, today, people support the organizers and bring their own food.

During the ceremony, one clan (including their Tubuan) suddenly vanishes in tumult because the clan leader is upset about the badly planned schedule of the ‚Aminamai’. Lua Akuila looks sorrowfully. What a shame is coming over his dead brother Oliver. After an hour or so, the clan returns to the sight. Lua tells me, that he had paid a ‚compensation fee’ of 10 Param to the clan. Shell money really solves community disputes!

After a fair amount Arip-bundles have been symbolically thrown at the attending Tubuans, the ladies of Oliver’s clan start throwing smaller cuts of shell-strings to the 4-500 guests. Then, the whole crowd (now in possession of shells) starts bartering around. Especially the children are excited and roam the yard buying ice-cream for Tabu, chips for Tabu, Donuts for Tabu etc. The honoring system during a ‚Aminamai’ goes both ways; The attendees show sorrow for the loss to the dead person’s family by contributing shell money, in return, they’ll also be given shell money as an act of gratitude for attending the ceremony.

Kinavai performance