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ETHNONYMS: Angal, Anganen, Nembi, Wola


Identification. "Mendi" refers to the people of the Mendi valley. In precolonial times, Mendi had no collective name for themselves; nowadays, they still speak a variety of languages and dialects, and Mendi Valley clans have active sociopolitical relationships of long standing with peoples living elsewhere (e.g., in Ialibu, Tambul, Kandep, the Lai Valley, and Kagua).

Location. The Mendi Valley is located at 6° to 6° 10 S and 143°35 to 143°45 E, in the Mendi Subprovince of the Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. Flanked to the east by Mount Giluwe and to the west by limestone ridges separating it from the Lai Valley, the Mendi is about 40 kilometers long and V-shaped. Most Mendi live north of Mendi town (the provincial government center, altitude about 1,620 meters above sea level). The topography of the valley is fairly rugged: gardens are planted up to about 2,400 meters above sea level. There is a large boggy area in the far northeast around Lake Egari. The valley receives about 280 centimeters of rain per year with only a slight wet/dry seasonal contrast. Approximate average daily temperature range from 7° to 24° C, with high-altitude areas regularly experiencing mild to severe crop-damaging frosts.

Demography. The first government census was conducted in 1956, but no figures are available before patrol reports dated 1959-1960 and 1961. Based on these reports, anthropologists estimate the Mendi population of the late 1950s to be about 24,000. At the time of the 1976 government census, some 28,500 people lived in the Mendi Valley. Population density is moderate by highlands standards, and Mendi are not land-short.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mendi call their language "Angal Heneng" (meaning "true words/talk," or normal speech). Dialects or closely related variants are spoken in the Lai Valley and by Wola people living in the Was (Wage) to the west, as well as by people living in the Nembi to the southwest and south, where Angal Heneng and Kewa intersect in the speech of the Anganen, called "Magi"about 55,000 speakers in all. These languages have been classified as the Mendi-Pole Subfamily which, together with Wiru, Kewa, Huli, Enga, and some others, belong to the West-Central Family (totaling 330,000 speakers). However, in the northeastern Mendi Valley, people speak primarily Imbonggu (or Aua)a language that is mostly heard in Ialibu Subprovince to Mendi's east (and which, as a dialect of Hagen, belongs to the Central Family of languages spoken in the Western Highlands and Chimbu Provinces). These Imbonggu speakers are technically "Mendi": they belong to Mendi Valley tribes and intermarry with other Mendi. Generally, in the Mendi area as elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, there is no necessary relationship between language and cultural identity. That is, those who consider themselves to have a common culture may speak quite different languages; conversely, people speaking the same language may have distinct cultures.

History and Cultural Relations

Under Australian rule, Mendi became administrative headquarters for the Southern Highlands (then "District") in 1950-1951. Like most of the rest of the province, Mendi remains one of the least economically developed parts of Papua New Guinea, having been a significant site neither of expatriate nor of locally run market-oriented enterprises until recently. The colonial history of the province, from the 1950s through independence in 1975, was dominated instead by government administrators and missionaries. However, soon after independence the province initiated a large World Bank-funded integrated rural development project. That project, together with the recent discovery of mineral resources, will undoubtedly have important repercussions. Of course, Mendi "history" predates the colonial period. While some Mendi groups view themselves as autochthonous, others claim to have immigrated into the valley from the north and northeast five or more generations ago. Mendi oral traditions record shifting group alliances and expanding populations.


Despite a partial congruence of names, government "census units" (with populations mostly between 200 and 800) do not correspond with indigenous localities (with perhaps 20-100 residents). Each locality (su, meaning "ground") is associated with an individual clan (or subclan) section, and is Socially centered around a clearing (koma ) where meetings and collective events are held. Strictly speaking, there are no villages. Residences are dispersed within clan territories, their fences separating community footpaths and clearings from garden areas. Farmsteads usually include an oval men's house, a long women's house (in which the family's pigs are also stalled at night), and other buildings (e.g., a menstrual seclusion hut). New-style houses have sleeping compartments for both men and women.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. About 50 percent of garden produce is fed to herds of domesticated pigs, which are treated as "wealth" and are central to everyday and ceremonial gift exchanges. Sweet potatoes, which are both the human staple and pig fodder, are planted in mulched 3-meter diameter mounds, located in fenced garden plots, and harvested daily, year-round. Gardens are commonly kept in production continuously for thirty years or more; individual mounds may be fallowed for a few months between harvesting and replanting. Greens and sugarcane are planted in and around the sweet potato gardens, as are a wide variety of European vegetables (which may be consumed locally or, more often, offered for market sale). Especially since the mid-1970s, Mendi have experimented with coffee production, small-scale cattle projects, and other marketing endeavors. Mendi also run small retail stores and transportation companies, as well as seeking employment in town and farther afield.

Industrial Arts. People produce many of their own tools, and also rework items of Western manufacture into their tool kit. The two most important rural tools are wooden digging sticks or spades (used for clearing and planting gardens) and steel axes (for clearing forest and preparing house-building and fencing materials). Women turn fiber into twine for making apparel and net bags. People also make other containers, culinary implements, and hunting equipment.

Trade. While their social field has expanded enormously in the last generation, even in precolonial times Mendi traded regularly with peoples living outside the valley. Women and men walked four or five days northwards to Kandep to obtain salt (used for trade and consumption) from their distant matrilateral kin. Kandep high country was also a source of pigbreeding stock. For these things, Mendi exchanged southern products like pearl shells and tigaso tree oil (used for gifts and adornment), which they obtained from trade partners in Erave, Kagua, and Lake Kutubu. Mendi used to be key conduits for the movement of peart shells from the south coast northwards into the highlands.

Division of Labor. Gender and age are the key dimensions. Men do ax work (like forest clearing and fence making); women do most of the everyday gardening (planting, weeding, harvesting) and pig care. Individuals control the disposition of the food they plant, so women are responsible for most everyday cooking and hospitality. While there are no strong taboos on crossing these conventional lines, men appear to do women's work more frequently than vice versa. Clan events are strongly gendered: men alone are responsible for collective feast making (butchering pigs, cooking port and vegetables, and providing sugarcane and exotic refreshments like beer and store-bought meat) as well as parade performances, wealth exchanges, and oratory.

Land Tenure. Men usually reside and garden in their father's locality; however, they may maintain active use rights to gardens in their mother's place as well whether or not they relocate there. Most women continue to garden in their natalclan territory after they marry. Insofar as "place" partially defines clanship, clans retain inalienable control over both garden and forest lands; nonclanmembers may gain temporary use rights but may not make long-term claims on the land (for example, by planting trees). Fallow land (or the unused land of declining groups) may be claimed by any member of the local clan.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are no descent groups and genealogies are shallow. Common social identity is constituted in terms as much of locality and food sharing as of ancestry. As elsewhere in the highlands, Mendi favor affiliation with their father's clan, but strong substantive connections are recognized on the mother's side as well. Both relations are actively acknowledged and negotiated in gift exchanges. The term "clan" is used here in the interest of consistency with the published ethnography of Mendi and its neighbors. In this somewhat unconventional usage, a "clan" is not a "descent group" (i.e., a kin group whose membership is based on a descent rule) ; however, it corresponds with such descent-based groups functionally (see below, "Social Organization"). Mendi employ idioms of brotherhood and patrilineal ancestry rhetorically in calls for group unity, but they do not use them to talk about membership criteria. Even the rationale for affiliation with one's father's group is not explained as a genealogical principle. In Mendi clans nowadays, the rights and status of nonagnatic "sister's sons" are indistinguishable from those of agnatic members.

Kinship Terminology. Mendi kinship terminology is a version of the Omaha type, insofar as father's brother's son and father's brother's daughter are equated with brother and sister and distinguished from father's sister's son or daughter, mother's brother's son or daughter, and mother's sister's son or daughter (who are all referred to by a single term).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Young people have considerable control over whom they will marry. They generally practice clan exogamy and tend to intermarry with members of neighboring, allied clans. Marriage conventions also discourage lineage "brothers" from marrying lineage "sisters," which diversifies lineage members' exchange partnerships. Weddings involve an extended exchange of wealth between the bride's and groom's kin networks, with more moving from the groom's to the bride's. These prestations are important pretexts for initiating exchange (twem ) partnerships, a key Mendi social relationship. Postmarital residence is usually virilocal, and polygamy is not uncommon. Divorce can be initiated by the husband or wife, but it may require the return of wedding wealth. Divorced women often take their young children with them, and they are welcomed back into their natal clans.

Domestic Unit. Household size and composition vary. Most include a husband and at least one wife, their children, and often also an elderly widowed parent or an unmarried or divorced sibling of the husband or wife. Persons occasionally live alone.

Inheritance. Fathers are expected to redistribute gardens to their children, and both parents pass on specialized (ritual or gendered) knowledge to them. Parents help sons with bride-wealth.

Socialization. While women and older girls do most of the child care, Mendi men also look after small children. Men not infrequently encourage their 3-and 4-year-old sons to accompany them in the hope that the latter will develop a sense of loyalty. Children may nurse at will, and they often do so past the age of 3. While both mothers and fathers are affectionate and indulgent with their children, they readily use force to discipline them. For their part, children frequently "talk back" to and strike their parents (a trait adults sometimes even encourage). If they feel unfairly treated at home, they may move in temporarily with other relatives (who readily accept them). Young people are encouraged to participate in gift exchange. Mendi are unusual among highlanders for not practicing initiation. Many children attend local community schools; some go on past the sixth year to residential mission or government high schools in Mendi town or elsewhere in the Southern Highlands; and a few have postsecondary educations.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Individuals usually identify themselves with the named clan and subclan (sem onda and sem kank, meaning "large family" and "small family," respectively) of their father; while this social identity is defined by birth, it can be renegotiated by continued residence in a place and "brotherly" cooperation in clan events. Clanship is a relationship of shared responsibility: for example, for collective defense, for making contributions to clan-sponsored prestations, and for giving unsolicited aid in small-scale wealth distributions at times of marriage and death. In counterpoint to their clan obligations, over the course of their lives individuals also create networks of exchange (twem) partnerships with affines, maternal kin, and other nonclanmembers, on whom they depend whenever they need valuables (e.g., pigs, pearl shells, money). A person's external exchange partnerships constitute the source of his or her personal "autonomy" and power within the clan. The structures of interclan alliances and individual exchange partnerships only partially correspond with one another. While clanship is predominantly a relation among men, twem partnerships can also be constructed between women and men and among women. Local groups are generally known by both a place and a clan name (e.g., Senkere Molsem). Such local clan sections have close sociopolitical relations both with other sections of the same clan living in different localities (e.g., Molmanda Molsem)whether or not they are contiguousand with neighboring sections of different clans belonging to the same tribal alliance. Among members of one tribal alliance of clans, contiguity creates stronger relations of cooperation than does common clanship.

Political Organization. There are no formal councils or inherited positions. Leadership is achieved by consistently exemplary contributions to clan wealth distributions and by an outspoken, active interest in shaping clan policy through private persuasion and public oratory. Political participation in interclan wealth distributionswhether by big-men (ol koma ) or ordinary mendepends at least as much upon having created a personal exchange partnership network as it does on having a large, productive household and direct access to female labor. Women are excluded from clan policy making. Whereas nonagnatic status may have disadvantaged men (e.g., preventing them from becoming big-men) in the past, it no longer does. While there is no political organization encompassing the Mendi Valley as a whole, territorially contiguous clans often ally themselves as pairs into named tribes of up to about 1,500 members. Neighboring tribescomprising perhaps 3,000 peoplewho support one another in warfare and exchange, may refer to one another as "brothers" and link names (e.g., Surup and Suolol becoming Surup-Suol).

Social Control. There are moral restrictions on bloodletting within the clan and, to a lesser extent, between clans. It is thought that ancestral spirits (temo ) will mete out justice in cases of intraclan violence. A strong moral emphasis on reciprocityreinforced by fears concerning jealousy-induced sorcery and witchcraftencourages people to participate in the exchange of wealth.

Conflict. Prior to colonial rule, Mendi tribes and clans were the main war-and peace-making units. After 1950, local warfare was suppressed as a main means by which the Australian administration established its authority. However while bow-and-arrow warfare did decline, conflict continues to this day under the rubric of sorcery (tom ). That is, Mendi consider most deaths (except those among infants and the aged) to be politically motivated; they insist that collectivities accept responsibility for death by making public wealth compensation (maike ) to the group of the deceased.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mendi revere their ancestors, who are thought to have an influence on the affairs of the living. Additionally, prior to the 1970s, Mendi participated in fertility cults meant to ensure human welfare. The rationale for several of the most important cults is contained in legends that make reference to male and female agents whose actions are believed to have shaped the landscape and given humans their present-day form. Several Christian missionsnotably Catholic and United Churchwere influential in Mendi as of the 1970s and 1980s; however, their influence was at least as much socioeconomic and political as it was spiritual.

Religious Practitioners. In former times, men with special knowledge (sometimes acquired from their fathers) acted as fertility-cult leaders. Nowadays some men have reputations as sorcery exorcists (nemonk ol ), and a few women and men own spells and procedures for curing ills or for attracting wealth and/or spouses. Exorcists and curers receive small payments.

Ceremonies. Public ceremonialism now centers around occasions for wealth exchange: marriage, death, and the strengthening of political alliances.

Arts. Body decoration and feather-headdress-bedecked wigsboth worn mostly by men during public clan eventsare the most notable visual arts nowadays. Clan parade formations and chants are striking performances. Public oratory depends on metaphor and theatrical gesture; it is subjected to formal (not just substantive) evaluation. While their tunes are repetitive, the courting and mourning songs men and women sing involve poetic improvisation. Women crochet decorative net bags using local and imported designs; even the patterns followed in planting gardens may have an aesthetic dimension.

Medicine. Sorcery exorcism and other curing procedures employ forest resources (leaves, bark) as well as a range of imported substances. In precolonial times, autopsies were performed to determine cause of death, and surgery was undertaken to extract arrows. Nowadays, rural aid posts, staffed by local medical orderlies, link communities with the provincial hospital in Mendi town. However, there are a host of conditions (including pregnancy and childbirth) for which Mendi are reluctant to use these services.

Death and Afterlife. Deaths are heralded by yodeling cries relayed from locality to locality. During the mourning period a feast (komanda ) is organized, gifts are given to solicit mortuary prestations (kowar ), which are often made to the deceased's maternal relatives, and community discussion centers around determining the cause. The body is usually interred in the local group's cemetery to keep the deceased's spirit (temo) around to watch over the living. In precolonial times, the skulls of ancestors were kept in special houses where pigs were killed when family members were ill.

See also Foi, Kewa


Lederman, Rena (1986). "Changing Times in Mendi: Notes on Writing Highland New Guinea History." Ethnohistory 33: 1-30.

Lederman, Rena (1986). What Gifts Engender: Social Relations and Politics in Mendi, Highland Papua New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lederman, Rena (1987). "The Meaning of Residence in Mendi." In The Survey under Difficult Conditions, edited by T. McDevitt. HRAFlex Ethnography Series, no. OJ1-006. New Haven, Conn.

Lederman, Rena (1990). "Big-Men Large and Small? Towards a Comparative Perspective." Ethnology 33:3-15.

Mawe, Theodore (1985). Mende Culture and Tradition: a Recent Survey. P.N.G. National Museum Record no. 10. Boroko, Papua New Guinea: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

Ryan, D'Arcy (1961). "Gift Exchange in the Mendi Valley." Ph.D. dissertation, Sydney University.


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