My grandmother, Helen Bobwaleu, was a young girl when World War 2 reached the shores of Manus and she has vivid memories of going bush to hide from Japanese forces. I recall her telling us of how the village elders would arrange marriages for girls who were of age with men to avoid being taken by the warring forces. Her actual age is unknown but she could be over 80 years old and until recently I did not fully understand her.
Every time we would go to the village, we made sure we brought her new things like clothes, towels, bed-sheets etc. and we would tell her to use. However, on another visit I would find that she had gifted these items to her (our) extended family, and she would be using her old stuff.
I would often tell her that these items are for her to use and not as gifts, but as usual, she always did what she did and it wasn’t until recently I began to understand what she truly values in life – her relationships with the people around her.
Grandmother grew up in an era when relationships were the currency of the day and material wealth was only a tool for forging strong ties. If you traded a bag of sago with an islander for fish, you not only exchanged food, but also established a partnership that would go on for generations.
In some instances, these partnerships would be further strengthened through marriage establishing kinship. In my village, some of these trade links exist even today especially with the people of M’buke island.
Until I started understanding grandmother’s values, I could not understand how she would give away things that we had bought for her so easily. Her values contradict the Western ideology of wealth which is materialistic and weighs more on relationships.
If wealth is measured in relationships that we build then grandmother would be one of the wealthiest people on Earth.