“The White Woman Will Eat You!”

{The island of New Guinea, the ‘land of the unexpected,’ was the last major landmass to be explored by Europeans. Located in the South Pacific, New Guinea is a place of great contrasts and diversity. Coral islands, mangrove swamps, vast river systems, dense rainforests, and alpine tundra on the highest mountains are home to immense bio- and cultural diversity. Divided among Dutch, German and British colonizers in 1884, New Guinea is now divided roughly in half. The western half consists of two provinces of Indonesia (Papua and West Papua) while the eastern part forms the mainland of Papua New Guinea, which has been an independent country since 1975. New Guinea’s indigenous peoples have long attracted anthropologists such as Margaret Mead (1901-1978). Mead delighted in New Guinea’s rich cultural diversity, using it to demonstrate that things such as gender relations and ‘childhood’ are as much culturally as biologically determined. I chose Papua New Guinea as my field site (1982 to the present) to study the effects of development and income inequalities in a society that still requires reciprocity of its members in order for them to achieve respectable ‘adulthood’ and to hold onto valuable land rights. The experience I share here reveals how the anthropologist is as much an ‘other’ in what to her is a strange land as her chosen ‘others’ are to her.}


Rainy afternoon as seen from my porch in Yandera village, 1982.


Only little Willie would let me hold him. Round-faced with short, chubby legs and a full belly, Willie tolerated my cheek-squeezing and the occasional hoisting onto my hip to walk around Yandera village when his mother was playing cards or his young babysitters were playing tag or marbles. Only little Willie was unafraid of the white misis,* while other toddlers and young children screamed if I came near them. It was, of course, partly the fault of their mothers and older sisters, who would whisper – loud enough for me to hear –“the white woman will eat you!” or “she’s a ghost and will steal you away to America.” The children would then shake and cry as they shrank behind their mother’s backs, a few wetting themselves in terror. Willie, with his mother’s large brown eyes and confidence, was unperturbed, his mother laughing at my annoyance with the other women and their teasing, and little Willie digging in my bilum* to see if there were any crackers or other goodies to eat.


Little Willie with his mother, Margaret (on left) and Margaret’s sister and her children (on right).

Willie’s mother was not afraid of anything, or not much. When I first arrived in the remote mountain village, Margaret quickly befriended me. Many women were reticent and a few stand-offish. Big-hearted Margaret was always there, however, when I needed an explanation about some unfamiliar custom or a shoulder to cry on when I thought of the distance between Papua New Guinea and my homeland and family. She never asked for money or stared at me as if I were a revenant nun or ancestor come back to dispense charity or secrets about the white men’s road to wealth. No, Margaret was friendly and easy-going, a woman who viewed the world with clear eyes and the candor of someone content to follow the middle road. Margaret had grown up listening to stories told by her parents and grandparents about how, when the first white missionaries visited the Gende in 1932, many villagers believed them to be ghosts and evil spirits. Some ran away in fear, a few – Margaret chuckled – “pissing and shitting themselves.” A quick study, Margaret ventured into the white men’s towns unafraid when she and her husband Raphael were young and Papua New Guinea was still under Australian rule.


In that first year I lived in Yandera – in 1982 and 1983 – I learned much from Margaret. Disdaining the rocky path of local politics in favor of minding their own business and being good neighbors, she and her husband worked hard together to raise their many children and repay clan elders the large bride price they gave for sturdy Margaret and the generous rights to garden land they passed on to Raphael. They also dutifully supported Raphael’s older clan brother Ruge’s political ambitions to become one of Yandera’s most powerful Big Men, at the same time supporting other village leaders. Sitting comfortably beside Raphael during public card games or while eating meals with their children, exchanging tender and unabashed glances with him during public events, and spending more time away from the village in their gardens than most couples, Margaret and her husband made me question the anthropological truism that sexual antagonism is a universal cultural trait throughout Papua New Guinea highland societies.

Level-headed Margaret was also the first person in the Tundega clan half of the village to express her opinion – privately to me – that Ruge’s wife Elizabeth had accidentally set fire to her own house on the morning of the big singsing*. “Elizabeth and Ruge are wrong to blame the fire on Toby’s brother. He was helping his mother in her garden and was far from the village when the fire started. I saw Elizabeth go into her house with a lit cigarette and come out without it.” That Elizabeth and Ruge demanded that the mentally challenged teenager’s brother give them a huge pig in compensation for the alleged arson scandalized Margaret. “Toby’s wife worked hard to raise that pig and was going to kill it and give the cooked meat to all those who had paid her bride price. Even you, in return for the cash you contributed.” Margaret was wise enough, however, to play along with the charade. Ruge and his three wives did much for the village and were the primary sponsors of the singsing that heralded Ruge’s leadership in the upcoming pig kill. The fire had destroyed Elizabeth’s trade store and money she had stored under her bed for that bid. Still, Margaret remained unconvinced by Elizabeth’s spin on events, later joining others in condemning the cruel turn that ended in Toby’s nervous breakdown and his family forced to flee Yandera for their distant gardens.

When a dog died howling under my house one day, I was interviewing several women about child rearing. Startled by the piercing cry, we rushed outside. The emaciated dog was already stiffening in a grotesque posture. Several boys, who had come out of the nearby schoolhouse, moved the dead dog out from under my raised house. And Margaret offered to find something – banana leaves or a piece of old cloth – to cover the dog. Before Margaret could leave the scene, however, one of Ruge’s wives, Antonia, suggested that the dog had died as a result of the “poison” emanating from the batteries in my tape recorder! Her eyes wide with concern, another of Ruge’s wives, Rosa, predicted that the owner of the dog would demand compensation of me for killing his dog. Translating the distraught women’s hysterical tok ples* for me, Margaret smoothly intervened – in Gende and pidgin English – asserting that the dog had died from heart worm (a common occurrence among the village mongrels) and that I had nothing to do with the its gruesome death.


So the poised and as far as I knew un-superstitious Margaret shocked me one night when she burst into my house with blood gushing from a deep gash on her leg and crying “Ghost! Ghost! I saw a ghost!” Sitting her down on one of my two folding chairs, my hands trembling, I washed her leg with cold water from one of my metal water buckets and cleaned and dressed the wound with antiseptic and bandages. As I did, she told me how she had stayed late on a shopping trip to the mountain across from us, playing cards with some Chimbu people from the other side of the divide between Chimbu and Gende territories. When she finally came down it was already dark. Carrying a container of kerosene for me along with supplies from the well-stocked trade store at Pandambai, Margaret was startled by a white apparition that sprang out of a clump of tall bamboo. Margaret dropped her flashlight, bilum and everything else as she stumbled and slid down the mountain, too frightened to scream. An old woman had been buried near there not long before and Margaret was sure it was her ghost that she had seen.

It wasn’t until Margaret came into my house that she realized she was bleeding. She apologized several times for leaving our supplies on the mountain even though I said, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” I felt guilty for not having gone with her. I chose instead to stay back in the village writing up field notes – which could have been done anytime. But having made the arduous climb on other occasions, I decided against it this time. Pandambai was over 8000 feet in elevation, much higher than Yandera at 5000 feet. To get to Pandambai, one had to climb down our mountain first, cross the swinging wire bridge (with its missing wooden slats) over the rumbling Tai-Ayor River and then climb a very steep track to get to Pandambai, a ‘shortcut’ favored by the Gende over the longer dirt road that switched back and forth up the mountain. It was easier to pay Margaret to pick up a few things for me than to go with her, slowing her down and having to endure remarks about how “red-faced white people were when they exerted themselves” or the more forgiving “you grew up in town” or “a flat place.” I took consolation in the fact that I was never reduced to being carried across streams and up mountains as some white visitors to Papua New Guinea (including Margaret Mead) had been in the past, the excuse being that they had to preserve their leather shoes.


When I finished taping Margaret’s leg, the Coleman lantern I had set beside the chair so that I could better see what I was doing started rocking violently. Both Margaret and I jumped up, Margaret knocking me back as she vaulted for the door, shouting that the ghost had followed her into my house. Thinking it might be an earthquake, I glanced first at the bucket of water and then at the glass container filled with kerosene that was attached to my kerosene stove. Neither liquid was sloshing back and forth as they did when there were tremors, yet the lantern was still rocking. Standing by the open door, I considered running after Margaret as a chill came over me and I thought – for a few seconds – that, maybe, a ghost was indeed in my house. I could hear Margaret in the house behind mine broadcasting the news to Ruge’s family and exclaiming excitedly, “I saw a ghost and now it’s in Laura’s house!”

Grabbing my flashlight, I shut off the lantern. Standing by my open door, in case of what I was not sure, I waited a good fifteen minutes before latching it and going to bed. I zipped myself into my sleeping bag, fully dressed and with the flashlight tucked inside beside me, ready to light up any intruder, living or dead. It was a long time before I fell asleep, mostly because I wondered why no one had shouted out or come to see if I were okay.


The next day, Margaret showed up early, sheepishly snickering about running away. She handed me the recovered yellow plastic kerosene container. I asked her, “Why did you leave me alone last night? I was frightened, too. I barely slept.”

Sitting down on the floor and accepting a mug of tea, Margaret scowled disdainfully and replied, “Ghosts don’t hurt white people!”


*Translations of Tok Pisin words (pidgin English, a lingua franca spoken throughout Papua New Guinea): 1) misis – European, or white woman; 2) bilum – string netbag; 3) singsing – festival with drumming, songs and dance; 4) tok ples –local language


Author's Comment

I wrote this story for the same reason I am writing all the other stories about my first fieldwork with the Gende in 1982-83: to share our commonality as human beings in spite of our starting out as others to one another. People everywhere like to tease their children. By telling this story I am sharing that commonality at the same time I am pointing out differences, one difference being that the Gende lived under white Australian rule until only seven years before my arrival. And yet they were relaxed enough with me to tease their children and me about my whiteness. I think that demonstrates an amazing resilience and self-confidence among the Gende.


Laura Zimmer-Tamakoshi is the author of many scholarly works on her research in Papua New Guinea. Her website is a worldwide teaching tool. Laura is writing a collection of stories based on her first year with the Gende people in 1982-83 that includes “The white woman will eat you.” She returns to PNG often, most recently in 2014.


  1. Fascinating, like all good field work reports — Perfect that you are not immune to the fear being broadcast into your life, despite all your rational training — there could always be something “out there” — Makes me doubly admire those who venture into unknown cultures and unfamiliar territories, to bring back a wonderfully demystified portrait of people we can recognize.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Catherine. Demystifying the experience is one of my primary goals in writing this in this fashion, as opposed to academic style, which frequently leaves out such details as my moments of fear.

  2. Laura…..loved this story. This is what anthropology should be….sharing our knowledge and, as you do so well here, sharing our common humanity and differences. You write so well in this genre…

    1. Thank you so much, Pam. As I work on these stories, I am discovering, rediscovering rich veins of experience – my own and the Gende’s – that I had set aside, forgotten or couldn’t bear to think about. Right now I am writing about my family’s visit that first year, how the Gende welcomed them and included them in their lives, what it meant to them, what it meant to us, and that second separation when they returned home and I stayed. Thank goodness for good fieldnotes, something Jane Goodale and our mentors at Bryn Mawr stressed over and over.

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