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One Thousand One Papua New Guinean Nights

What is a masalai ?

In Tok Pisin (the pidgin English of Papua New Guinea), a masalai one of the following:

Masalais “were normally regarded as erratic, dangerous, and amoral creatures, worthy of fear but not respect. This complex of attitudes may help to explain how people who set great store by the observation of animal behaviour, from a combination of utilitarian and spiritual motives, can sometime exhibit what seems, to Western sensibilities at least, a wanton disregard for the well-being of these same animals, both as species and as individuals. It may also help to explain how villagers who fully understand the relationship between forest fallows and soil fertility are nevertheless prepared to sell their timber rights and permit the desecration of their ‘sacred sites’ for a relative pittance. Instead of inheriting a state of mystical harmony with their natural environment, landowners may well be accustomed to regard it, at least in certain contexts, as a source or form of evil power, especially if there is now a way to turn it into money and thus ‘sacrifice’ it to the spirit of ‘development.’” (Sekhran & Miller, 1995: 192)

The non-anthropomorphic masalais are typically spirits associated with rivers, rocks, trees, caves, and other parts of the physical environment. These masalais are typically found far from settlements, in forests or in rugged terrain. Village-dwelling Papua New Guineans frequently have ambivalent feelings about uninhabited areas. These are places of danger, where one can fall ill or become ambushed by enemies. These are also places full of bounty, sources of wild game, fruits, nuts, vines for ropes, medicines, and housing materials. Due to the introduction of foreign, unsustainable log extraction, deforestation in PNG has in recent years increased to an degree unprecedented (Barry, 1995) since at least the time of the sweet potato expansion into the Highlands about 400 years ago (Gagné, 1982: 248). As an example, the Wola (a.k.a. Mendi) People of the Southern Highlands Province, who are surrounded by vast stretches of rainforest, have an ambiguous or paradoxical relationship with their environment (Sillitoe, 1993: 221, 230). Their forest is populated by an array of demons, and they generally interpret forest clearing positively since it deprives the demons of homelands. Yet, the Wola would think of the complete destruction of their forests as “horrendous” (Sillitoe, 1993: 230), at least in part because it would represent the elimination of a whole set of resources on which they depend and of which they are intimately aware (e.g., see Diamond, 1993).

Local languages are also tied intimately with forest spirits, and the reduced usage of one small Papua New Guinean language (Taiap) has been associated with the corresponding disappearance of masalais: “And when Taiap has lost the ability to symbolize the land, it will have lost the final affirmative value that it retains in the community. Seeing the land in a new light has already had one sociolinguistic consequenc -- it has resulted in the villagers’ being abandoned by most of the Taiap-speaking masalai and other spirits of the forest who used to make their homes on Gapun land. Older men sometimes wonder quizzically where these spirits have gone: They no longer encounter them or their tracks when they travel through the rainforest to hunt or work sago. The spirits must be ‘hiding,’ the men conclude, clearing off the land in deference to the white man, who has come to Papua New Guinea to ‘change’ it.” (Kulick, 1992: 265).


This text is adapted from the introduction to One Thousand One Papua New Guinean Nights (2001).

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© 2002 by Thomas H. Slone.

Last modified August 11, 2002.