What is the value of money?: Some scenes from Auhelawa’s fiscal landscape
[RS: These snapshots of informal economic activity all come from my fieldwork in Auhelawa (Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea) in 2004, 2006 and 2010. I found this document, dated August 6, 2013, among a few other odd items in an old folder of notes related to a forthcoming paper. It appears to be a prewriting exercise I gave myself before sitting down to write a conference paper. Funny that exactly none of this even appeared in the final paper. I present it as fodder for further discussion—and also because I wish to claim copyright over the phrase “scenes from a fiscal landscape.”]
A man retires from several decades working as a teacher and receives a lump sum retirement payment. He uses several thousand dollars to buy a fibreglass boat and motor for his sister’s adult children, with the tacit understanding that they will operate it as a for-profit transport service for fare-paying locals.
Eli’awa village, circa 1960s. The cooperative tradestore has been running for a number of years and has over a hundred members from villages up and down the coast. They contribute small amounts of crushed coconut skin to the co-op and the cash value, determined by the fixed price of the commodity, is credited to their store account. They use the credit to buy goods from the store. Eventually the store runs out of money. Later it is revealed that the clerk hired to run it had been gambling the money away in late night card games. After this, there is little interest in large scale cooperative businesses.
Two brothers build a small shed in their village and stock it with commodity foods, rice, flour, sugar and canned goods. When people can’t pay, they record the debt in an account book and ask them to pay off their debt later. After taking stock, they sum up the debts and realize that they are owed over a thousand kina in small amounts. While a few owe more than a hundred, most owe less than twenty kina.
Parents of primary schoolchildren each donate several kilograms of narcotic betel nuts to a school fundraiser. The owner of a cargo boat offer its service to transport the nuts to the Trobriand Islands, where residents cannot grow betel nuts for themselves. After paying expenses, they have raised several hundred kina for new school supplies. Another trip is planned for private sales.
A local business owner grows his retail business over several years selling mainly to local customers. He creates a company and gives all of his matrilineal descent group and a few select cross-cousins shares, and the privilege of buying on credit. His neighbors and some of his matrilineal relatives gossip about him behind his back, accusing him of selfishness, and claiming he owes them for past favors. He always donates over a hundred kina a year to the two main church congregations.
A woman who has traveled widely in the region and settled at home hosts a friend from another island. He brings tobacco from home. He has grown and dried the leaves, folded and braided into thick cords, and then coiled several times over into a disk of about two feet in diameter. He sells one disk to his host, who will unwind it, chop the coil into segments, and process a few inches at a time into cigarettes of chopped tobacco wrapped in newspaper, which she sells for 20 toea per stick, reaping a huge premium. The visitor continues to several other rural communities selling tobacco to others in his network before returning home.
A group of people prepare to process into to a village for a feast. They prepare their gifts which will repay the gifts they have received at past feasts. Women pack large yams into baskets and men tie a huge pig onto a bamboo bier. The pig’s conveyance is decorated with palm streamers, tobacco sticks, betel nut and kina notes. The decorations are not gratuitous. The pig is decorated to resemble exactly a pig which was received by the donors when one of their matrilineal relatives died, right down to the money that was tied to it.
For over a century, people of Auhelawa have been using money in exchanges. They have earned it in wages, received in compensation for relatives killed working abroad, received it as the price for coconuts, donated to missionaries, paid taxes with it, bought rice with it, worn it as a necklace, and more. Many of the ways money moves today seem fall somewhere between two different kinds of instituted modes of action. People sell garden food and betel nut in order to pay school fees and meet basic needs. They also draw upon kin relationships, which entail some degree of mutuality, to facilitate these transactions. The value that is transacted thus has a dual aspect, both alienable and inalienable. While people seem to comfortably occupy this informal economy, they represent cash earning as morally suspect. When one person accumulates a sum, it looks to another like one is witholding something that should be shared. When people talk about cash earning, they are more likely to emphasize buka [buying on credit] than the kind of informal assistance and facilitation that makes many enterprises possible.