Throughout PNG people talk about wantoks, people who have a relationship based on affinity of origin or other shared trait. Urban places are marked by wantok groups and wantok networks. Also people invoke a ‘wantok system’ as a model for how institutions function (or don’t as the case may be). Do other places have wantoks and wantok talk too?

While the concept of wantok is unique to Melanesia, the term has, like ‘big man’ taken on a life of its own elsewhere. A 2012 opinion article in the Daily Maverick, a South African magazine, accuses the ANC of wantokism in the sense of ethnic favoritism. The author cites Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order for the term. He quotes Fukuyama’s definition of wantok as the followers of a big man, a particularistic leader who wins authority based on personal ties and favors, and then goes on to paraphrase him:

Part of the problem, according to Fukuyama, is that “Melanesian society is organised tribally… The social fragmentation that exists… is extraordinary.” He explains that “Numbering anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand kinsmen, these tribes are known as wantoks, a pidgin corruption of the English words ‘one talk’, or people who speak the same language.” However, chances are that no one else speaks it: Papua New Guinea alone accounts for “more than nine hundred mutually incomprehensible languages, nearly one-sixth of all the world’s extant tongues.”

If people find the term wantok appealing for some reason, it raises three questions.

  • Are there other places in the world in which people create informal relationships based on affinity of origin?
  • Do such practices give rise to a discourse of wantok, as in PNG?
  • And are academics and other global elites the vector, as it were, for the spread of their own wantok discourse?

And how did Fukuyama get selected to study Solomons for the World Bank, anyway?