Meet Jane Fajans: Anthropologist

Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell
University. She is blogging on location from the island of Papua New
Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific, where she is
conducting fieldwork with the Baining people. Her from-the-field updates
will be key insights into this culture. Jane was
invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in Papua New Guinea.

The Baining People of Papua New Guinea

Jane_300x356.jpgI’m heading to Papua New Guinea.  I will be travelling to Rabaul East New Britain to visit the Baining who live in the Northwest part of the Gazelle Pennisula of East New Britain.

I last lived and worked among the Baining twenty years ago in 1991, but my main research with them was even longer ago, in 1976-78, when I spent two-and-a-half years studying and living in the communities of Lan and Yalom (see map two, below). 

Lan is a series of hamlets located about 1500 feet up the side of the Baining Mountain range.  Each hamlet has 3-6 houses in it and is separated by secondary growth forest from the other hamlets.  Many families have groves of coconuts and cacao trees in the forest around their hamlets.  Some also have small gardens in this adjacent area.  Most gardens are carved from the deeper forest through chopping down trees and burning the vegetation. This type of agriculture is called swidden farming.  Families and friends often cooperate in clearing a garden, and divide up the clearing into family plots.  People plant taro, pitpit (a vegetable distantly related to sugar cane), several kinds of greens, and bananas.



Here is a picture of the couple who ‘adopted’ me when I first lived in

My ‘father’ is Peni, and my ‘mother’ is Langerkan. They are
standing in front of the trees bordering their hamlet. They became my
parents because they fed me.  Among the Baining, one’s children are the
ones you feed, not necessarily the ones you give birth too.  Adopted
children are highly valued.  Although I was pretty old to be an adopted
child, I was treated like a child and taken care of like an adopted
child, since I was pretty uneducated in how to survive in this foreign
land and culture. This taught me a lot about Baining families and daily
life.  One of the things I will be hoping to find out is whether the
Baining still adopt children so frequently.


Here is a picture of the house they and the whole community built for me
when I was living there.

I will also be researching the kinds of cash crops the Baining are
growing now and how much money they make from their crops.  What do they
use this money for?  In the past, much of the money was used for school
fees and clothing (the shirts and wrap-around skirts they wear which
are called laplaps). The whole Lan community also raised money to buy a
tractor in order to carry their cacao and coconuts down to the coast to
sell them.  The one road was so eroded and washed out that only a
tractor could maneuver it, and even that heavy vehicle got stuck in the
mud quite frequently.

I also hope to visit one or more Baining schools and see what the
students are learning there.  The villages only have elementary schools
in them.  For high school the children who pass the admission test must
go to boarding school, or at least that’s how it was.

For several years after I left the Baining, I corresponded with a couple
of my best friends who were comfortable writing in Baining or in Tok
(a creole language used throughout Papua New Guinea).  I left a
pile of self-addressed aerograms for them to write.  When the letters
stopped coming, I assumed they had been used up or lost, or maybe the
postage had increased so they were no good.

I haven’t heard from any of them in a while, so I am really curious to
find out about how life among the Baining is in the twenty-first

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