Part of our job living in Papua New Guinea right now is not only learning the trade language, but also learning about PNG culture. We have asked questions like, “What do the people eat?” “Where do they live?” “How do they interact with one another?” We observe the material culture and note their social behaviors, hoping to go from the concrete into the more abstract as time goes on. Much more could be said on this, but needless to say it is all part of culture study.
One of the first things one will observe upon entering Papua New Guinea is all the red-toothed smiles you will receive from many of the citizens. This redness, often referred to as the “lipstick of PNG” is the result of chewing buai (pronounced “boo-eye”), also known elsewhere as “betel nut”. Chewing buai is very much a normal part of every day life in PNG.
What is it?
Buai is a mild stimulant much like coffee, and chewing it for its desired effects includes three important ingredients: the buai itself, a piece of daka & some kambang.
- Buai is the local name for the seed of a nut which grows off of a certain type of palm tree. The buai can either be gathered from a person’s own trees, from a friend or relative, or for purchase at a local market.
- Daka is the local name of a pepper that grows off of a specific vine. Like the buai it can either be gathered from a person’s own vines, from a friend or relative or purchased from a local market. Some people jokingly refer to daka as “PNG dipping sticks” because of its long and slender appearance.
- Kambang is a lime powder that comes from cooking kina shells. A person could either make his own by getting some shells from a reef or they can buy some at a local market. They will usually have a steady stash of kambang at their hut or in their bilum (bag) or basket, which they carry around everywhere.
The act of chewing buai simply consists of chewing these three substances together, while continually spitting out the juices. When mixed a chemical reaction takes place in the mouth.
As stated above, as a stimulant it can be compared to coffee and it is used similar to the way some of us would choose to drink coffee. When someone awakes in the morning, he or she will chew some buai. Around mid-morning if he is feeling tired, he will chew some buai. Anytime he feels sleepy during mid-day or mid-afternoon… chew buai. Also, similar to our coffee habits, if a guest comes over to his hut, they might chew buai together.
Not only does it act as a stimulant, but some will say that it also helps socially, much like a glass of wine can loosen some social tension at times and get people talking.
According to studies, there are some risks involved in its regular, long term use; the main being cancer of the mouth.
Who Chews & Where?
Most people all over Papua New Guinea chew buai. In regards to social behavior, it could be compared to smoking cigarettes. Like chewing buai, people who smoke will do so at anytime, so long as it is in the permitted areas (for buai almost everywhere is permitted), and people who smoke find good company with other smokers while sharing a break together. The main difference would be that unlike smoking, practically everyone chews buai.
The exceptions would mainly be young children and certain religious groups.
Anytime people are in public places outdoors, buai chewing is usually permitted. Because chewing buai involves spitting, there are a few areas that are typically “buai free” zones. Around the shopping area in the provincial capital is one of those restricted to certain areas. Indoors it is basically always prohibited. However, prohibited or not, you will usually see tell-tale red stains on paths and walls of buildings.
On a church planting level, the question that is often asked here in PNG: should believers chew buai? Like alcohol consumption in the United States, the topic of believer’s chewing buai has been the cause of much debate within Christian circles. Some churches and Christian organizations have a strong stand against it, while others allow for it.
Where should we stand? This and many other questions play into our time of language & culture study. Please continue to pray for us to have wisdom as we learn and grow to understand the culture we live in.