Banning Betel Nut Chewing in Papua New Guinea

My family moved to Papua New Guinea during my teenage years. We only lived there briefly, for about three months, because it quickly became apparent that events such as rape or getting killed were mundane. Yes, living there was quite an experience, with plenty of stories that maybe I should write about here.

Today I read this article called Off Their Nut in PNG by The Global Mail. The journalist, Jo Chandler, vividly describes daily scenes of life with betel nut chewers. Please do check it out for some great insight.

Betel nut is the seed of the areca palm. Chewing it gives a stimulant effect with a warming sensation, like a bit of a buzz… Not that I’ve tried it myself, it’s just what heard. As side effects, the betel nut gives throat and mouth cancer, amongst other health problems. It gives you a pretty disgusting looking mouth too. Betel nut would be made into buai, which combines it with lime powder and some mustard fruit. People from all social classes would chew it until it bubbles up in size with saliva, and then spit it out.

The main topic of the article is that the Governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, has banned the sale and consumption of buai in public. Hey, it makes the streets terribly dirty and it’s also unhealthy.

The people who agree are pretty happy with it. At the same time, opposers say that the betel nut and the condiments that go along with it make buai are an important part of the economy, so banning it would be ruining the livelihood of many. They also make a big point that a large part of the argument is the cleanliness of the streets. I think an even larger argument should be the health of the population.

This reminds me of the banning tobacco advertisements and smoking in public in many countries around the world. Then tobacco companies lobby hard so that smoking won’t disappear altogether…

Anyway, the article brought back memories of walking through the streets and watching out in case you stepped on puddles of bright red betel nut enriched saliva, or even worse, you are hit by the spit. Such was the extent of so many people chewing it and therefore getting awful mouth cancers, that dental clinics had signs put up on their front doors stating that betel nut chewers are not welcome because there was just too many severe cases for them to handle.

Here is a photo – within my photo – taken by my mum. She also loves making photos. This photo is included in a photo album she made me for my 19th birthday. That is so nice of my mum.

This photo was taken on a day we visited a Papua New Guinean family that lived in a bit of a tribal way. The only things they normally eat was watermelon and boiled (tasteless) banana. They had a few chickens so once or twice a year they could eat chicken. My mum had prepared us some sandwiches, but as soon as she took them out of the bag, they disappeared so we ate the boiled banana.

After that we visited a much larger tribe. We experienced the typical scene of all the children in the tribe – goodness, there must have been at least 50 of them – following us around everywhere because they had never seen people that looked different to them before.

Thank you for reading!

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  1. Lea Ault 2013-10-27 at 00:42

    Would love to hear more stories about Papua New Guinea!

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:09

      I’ll try Lea! I think most of my memories from there weren’t rosey, but maybe I should write some between recipe and recipe.

      1. Lea Ault 2013-10-28 at 01:16

        Less-rosy often means more interesting. Recipes are good too!

  2. Sunny 2013-10-27 at 01:11

    Some people chew betel nuts in Taiwan as well! I think less and less people do this nowadays though. Betel nut trees are actually not very good ones to plant because they have shallow roots, and with the geography in Taiwan it could be a pretty dangerous thing. But please tell us more stories about Papua New Guinea!

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:11

      Hi Sunny, I didn’t know that about the roots, very interesting, thanks for telling me! Maybe we could also hear stories about Taiwan 😉

  3. Joyce 2013-10-27 at 03:32

    Most interesting. I went to the article and the picture of the child with a mouthful of the stuff was quite disturbing, although even more so is the thought of that all over the streets. Thanks for sharing – this was fascinating.

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:12

      I know what you mean, when I was writing the post, everytime I went back to the article, the photo was very disturbinng, maybe because it was so well done. Then an again, I say plenty of disturbing things there… xx

  4. dalo2013 2013-10-27 at 03:35

    When I was in Taiwan, one of the first business trips I took with a company in the States, I tried and chewed a betel nut…the owner of the US company looked at me as if I was crazy 🙂 Let’s just say it was my first and only (I prefer coffee for my buzz!). Great post. PNG is a place I have long to visit…

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:14

      You did that??! Now thats something! So you could say that I haven’t missed out on anything for not trying…

      1. dalo2013 2013-10-28 at 01:35

        Ha, ha…a nice cup of coffee is much better ~ just about anything is better, didn’t miss out on anything 🙂

  5. apartmentwife 2013-10-27 at 06:32

    i like this cultural piece — i’d never heard of the betel nut, and now i’m doing a bit of my own research on google 🙂 would love to hear more about your life there.

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:18

      The truth is that I’ve lived in tons of places, so maybe I should write about them more. xx

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:19

      Thank you Celeste! 🙂

  6. Rosa M Lillo 2013-10-27 at 09:14

    Wow, that was quite a blow for my poor knowledge of some other culture issues around the world. So interesting, Sofia!
    Thanx for sharing. Bss

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:19

      De nada! 🙂

  7. Shanna Koenigsdorf Ward 2013-10-27 at 16:53

    Thank you for educating me a bit on the betel nut. Your story is fascinating. So interesting and (culturally) anthropological. It is sad that people all of the world have addictions to different, addictive substances that give them horrible mouth cancers (the betel nut and forms of tobacco). My hubbie spends a lot of his time at work because there are so many awful mouth and throat cancers here in New Mexico. So maybe the US is not as different from Papua New Guinea as one may think…

    I appreciate you sharing this part of your life – and the important tale of the betel nut.

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 17:23

      Hi Shanna, yeah you’re right, its what I meant when I mentioned it reminds me of tobacco… we live in a very different society to them but all societies still have a lot to improve on and in many cases, the same problem comes in a different shape. xxx

      1. Shanna Koenigsdorf Ward 2013-10-27 at 17:57

        I agree, Sofia! I am looking forward to reading more from you. It’s great that you coincide memories with current, important social issues that transcend class and even countries. Have a great Sunday… 🙂 xx

  8. Ricardo Villar RY 2013-10-27 at 19:43

    La primera vez que vi gente mascando betel y escupiendo lapos rojos fue en La India, sobre todo en estados del sur. Ya había leído acerca de esto, por lo que no me sorprendió. Luego lo vi en otros sitios del Sudeste Asiático y en Melanesia, pero muy poco en Indonesia. Luego, leyendo libros de historia y arqueología, vi que ya en el neolítico, hace unos 7000 años, tenían instrumentos para procesar el betel desde la India hasta Nueva guinea y otras islas de Melanesia. Cuando llegaron los austronesios, de Formosa a Filipinas y a Indonesia, y desde estos dos países a la Polinesia, hace por lo menos 5000 años, no tenían la cultura del betel. Por esto apenas se ve en Indonesia, casi nada en filipinas y nada en la Polinesia.

    1. Sofia 2013-10-27 at 20:13

      Gracias por participar y compartir un trozo de historia (podrias escribir un blog 😉 ), y también por eso en Indonesia son tan distintos que en PNG aunque estan a lado.

  9. Guillermina Bósquez Stover 2013-10-27 at 21:27

    Although it SOUNDS like a wonderful, terrific idea in theory to ban the use of this betel nut, bear in mind what happened in the U.S. of A. during Prohibition. The government ATTEMPTED to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages, so the production went UNDERGROUND…and people/U.S. citizens STILL drank. To this day, here in the U.S. of A., there are vestiges of Prohibition, especially in the southern states–the “blue laws,” which prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages in certain pockets/municipalities during Sunday. A “dry state” or region within a state means no liquor sold; a “wet state/region,” just the opposite. It does NOT work, trying to legalize morality…

    1. Sofia 2013-10-28 at 00:06

      You’re right Guillermina. When we lived in Brunei, alcohol was illegal, yet everyone had it. A few years ago I was on a trip to Iran, alcohol was illegal, and everybody said that the alcohol black market was run by the same government officials that ban it…

  10. eleieleika 2013-10-27 at 23:27

    The photo you put there brought back the memories on that day over 20 years ago. I remember very clear the way you and your brother looked at me, when “lunch” they offered us were only a big watermelon and a claypot contained boiled green bananas. We sat on the ground, no spoon nor fork. then I went to get the cool box from the car to get some sandwiches.
    Oh Sofia, there are so much experiences to remember, thanks for the article about that “nut”. Remember, they offered us to chew it to honour us. But we kept it as excused to do it at home. Lovely blog. un beso 🙂

    1. Sofia 2013-10-28 at 00:08

      Ohhh, besos Mama! xoxo

  11. pianolearner 2013-10-27 at 23:48

    Great post! Like many others I’d be happy to hear more stories from the other places you lived in. And I love that your mum has left a comment.

    1. Sofia 2013-10-28 at 00:07

      Thanks! Yes, my mum is very sweet and lovely 🙂 🙂

  12. dedy oktavianus pardede 2013-10-29 at 03:32

    I’ve heard about it and my friend made a clinical trial with that,
    Some descent people used to doing it too in Indonesia, especially when they try to stop smoking….


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