Nem bilong mi Adam. Yu Orait? Some things never change and my ability to quickly grasp foreign languages is one of them. I struggled to progress pass the basics of French at high school – introductions, where I live and how many brothers I have. 20 years later, this trait remains with me. Yet, here I am starting a year-long stint in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and attempting to learn Tok Pisin.
Incredibly, Papua New Guinea has over 850 languages. It’s one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The official language is Tok Pisin or Pidgin English. Some friends who speak the language had given me some basic phases, whilst in New Zealand. It added to the intrigue and excitement of heading to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to experience a little of this stunning looking island of which, I knew so little about.
Just over a week into my Bougainville life and I was thinking about what to write about. Maybe the town of Arawa (my hometown for the next year) or maybe one of the beautiful destinations we’ve visited in the short space of time we’ve been in Bougainville? Or even something about the experienced volunteers that live here that have so many incredible experiences and stories to tell? However, the language of Tok Pisin stood out as a clear favourite.
I often lack confidence to start with the basics of a new language in real life scenarios. However, over the years I have discovered that is the only way I really learn. I need to progress slowly, adding one or two new phrases a week and use it in real life settings. I, like so many others, struggle in a class room setting. I will get distraction, lack motivation and the words just won’t sink in. I’d much rather take a morning stroll to the nearby fruit and vegetable market and practice my greeting with the locals “Moning tru”.
My very simply grasp of a couple of key phrases have initiated a number of conversations recently. The conversations quickly turn to English upon finishing the greeting, however that suits me fine right now. I think the fact I have initiated the conversation in Tok Pisin goes a long way.
A couple of days ago a man slowly cycled pass with his child perched on the handlebars. He greeted me. Upon returning the greeting, he pulled over and introduced himself “Nem bilong mi Andrew” and his child. A rush of adrenaline passed through me as I recognised the introduction and eagerly blurted out “Nem bilong mi Adam” whilst shaking hands. We discussed if I could import a bike from New Zealand, so that he could continue his work as a Pastor and cycle from church to church.
Conversations of this nature have happened on numerous occasions, all of which help to build my confidence levels with the new language and use a little more Tok Pisin. On another occasion, I was at a fellow volunteers house talking to a local guy. We chatted in English for a while and then the subject of Tok Pisin came up. He was eager to teach me some more of the language, so I have now added a couple more phrases to my repertoire. I can now tell people that I want to have a wash and ask how much something at the market cost. One of those will prove to be more useful than the other I think.
It isn’t just vocal dialog that I’ve been practising and trying to improve. Bougainvillians give a huge genuine smile and wave when greeting, combining 3 forms of communication all in an effortless, smooth motion. This doesn’t sound too challenging but if you try walking around and greeting people with a “good morning” whilst giving them a big smile whilst simultaneously waving, it’s really not that easy and initially quite exhausting too!
It doesn’t come naturally to me. I would say that New Zealand, my home country for the last 10 years, is very forthcoming when it comes to a ‘hey , how’s it going?’. However, I wouldn’t go to the Sunday market and smile at almost everyone, greet strangers and wave. If I did, I’d get some very strange looks in return. However, that is something I am dedicating time to and slowly but surely, it is feeling more natural.
The greetings aren’t limited to just face to face encounters either. On our first bumpy road trip north to a beautiful village called Chabai, the friendly greetings continue. People usedthe ‘highway’ which is surrounded by dense foliage of cocoa trees, coconut trees and banana trees on either side as the main route to walk from village to village. As the 4×4 trucks make their way pass, most people, give an enthusiastic wave and a holler. Children leap out from shaded spots or from the coolness of the river to give us a wave and a big beaming smile. Fellow 4×4 drivers give a more conservative wave and nod as they pass.
I’ve only been in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville for a short time, however the contrast of communication styles is something that sets this place apart from anywhere I have visited before. I have been made to feel very welcome by everyone that I have met so far. This friendliness must be infectious too as my fellow volunteers have all taken on these traits of The Bougainville Way.
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Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, freelance travel content creator living, working and supporting tourism in Timor Leste, South East Asia.
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