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Official Name: Independent State of Papua New Guinea

Capital City: Port Moresby

Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy

Head of Government: Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare

Head of State: Governor General Sir Paulius Matane representing Queen Elizabeth II

Official Languages: English; Pidgin English; Motu spoken in Papua region; 715 indigenous languages

Area: 462,840 sq. km/178,704 sq. mi

Population: 5,931,000

Religion: Roman Catholic 22%; Lutheran 16%; Presbyterian/Methodist/London Missionary Society

8%; Anglican 5%; Evangelical Alliance 4%; Seventh-Day Adventist 1%; other Protestant 10%; indigenous beliefs 34%

Currency: Kina (PGK)

Number of Time Zones: 1

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus 10 hrs; Eastern Standard Time (EST) plus 15 hrs.

Weights and Measures: Metric system

Country Domain: .pg

Country Tel Code: 675


Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to over four million people, who speak over 800 languages, and to nearly 180 different species of mammals and 660 species of birds. Migration from the South Pacific, Europe, and Asia over hundreds of years has added to the striking diversity of this country.


Papua New Guinea is a parliamentary democracy and a member of the British Commonwealth. The Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II. She is represented in PNG by a governor general appointed by the Prime Minister. Elections are held every five years. The country is divided into 20 provinces, including the district of the nation’s capital. Each province has its own government with limited authority from the national government to operate capital works, health, education, business development, and other local matters.

The Prime Minister is elected by the members of National Parliament, and his cabinet members must also be members of parliament. Legislative power rests with the 109-member National Parliament.


There are two distinct economies in PNG. One is the traditional village-based agrarian society involving almost three-fourths of the population. The remaining quarter of the population works in export-related industries, such as gold, copper, coffee, cocoa, forest products, and fish.

This country is rich in natural resources, including gold, copper, hydrocarbons, tropical timber, fisheries, and forest products. Oil fields are being developed in the Gulf and South Highlands provinces. The government has taken an active role in approving economic reforms to ease trade and investment regulations, promoting growth in all sectors.

A few problems affecting PNG’s economic development include ethnic conflict and tribal violence among the more than 1000 ethnic groups; land disputes over communal land holdings; and disputes over compensation for mineral deposits. Other issues include human rights abuse and environmental questions.

Papua New Guinea today

Expatriates will find that PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, has numerous high-rise office buildings, modern apartment buildings, and luxurious homes in both the city and its suburbs. This architectural development stands in dramatic contrast to the traditional stilt houses that grace the oceans bordering the city.


Over 50,000 years ago, Asians are thought to have moved south to populate what is now Papua New Guinea, creating a rural, village society. To a large degree, this rural, village society continues today, with the majority of Papua New Guinea’s inhabitants living in rural areas. They have a strong attachment to their land, even though land is by tradition communally owned, and most are subsistence farmers.

The rugged terrain of the country contributed to the formation of small communities which promoted independent, autonomous tribes, each with its own language and customs, with an enormous number of languages still in existence today.

The people of Papua New Guinea have strong ties to their extended families and further to their tribe or language group, wantoks. People who speak the same language have a feeling of obligation for each other which extends to helping anyone within the language group, materially and otherwise.

Although primarily Melanesian, there are a variety of physical characteristics among the Papua New Guineas, ranging from short, muscular Highlanders to lighter-skinned coastal people, and dark-skinned Bougainvilleans.

About 308,000 people live in the capital, Port Moresby. Nearly 37 percent live in the five Highlands provinces, 27 percent in the northern coastal region, 20 percent in the southern coastal region, and about 16 percent on the islands. Life expectancy is somewhat low, with approximately seven percent of the population living to age 60 or beyond.

Ethnic makeup

The vast majority, 98 percent, of the population of PNG are Melanesian, mostly Papuan. Other groups include Negrito, Micronesian, Polynesian, Chinese, and Europeans.

Four ethnic groups can be identified – the New Guineas who derive from the north of the main island, the Papuans who come from the south, the Highlanders, and the Islanders. Within each of these groups, however, there are many subgroups.

Cultural traditions

Papua New Guinea is a unique culture that has been influenced by European values and those of Australia but has retained its Melanesian foundation.

The most central elements of Melanesian tradition are the importance of the personal touch and personal relationships. Allegiance to one’s wantok, people within one’s language group, is very strong and dictates how one’s time, energy, and wealth are utilized.

In business, Papua New Guineas try to be Australian, but with a Melanesian twist. Business in the city is more western, while the further into the bush one goes, the more Melanesian one’s dealings become.

Like other cultures in the area, Papua New Guineas have an aversion to delivering bad news as well as any form of rejection. As a result, they are unlikely to say “no” directly and may even say “yes” without meaning it. While this is frustrating to those from cultures that are more straightforward, it is necessary to understand and accept this trait and work around it.

The village culture of PNG places a great emphasis on rites, such as birth, reaching manhood, marriage, and death, and consequently on celebrations and feasts. Traditionally, food has been central to all of these events.

Wood plays an important role in PNG, in the people’s method of farming as well as their art. In the past, the Papua New Guineas did not have metal tools. They used simple wooden digging sticks to till the soil. At the same time, however, they produced elaborately carved wooden items, ranging from decorative pieces for their homes to common kitchen utensils.

PNG is known for woven bilums or brightly-colored bags, beautiful earth-fired storage pots, musical instruments, and more modern items, such as mendi trays that are woven wickerwork.

The Hiri Moale festival, recreated each September for four days in Port Moresby, is an example of the festivals of the PNG culture. This festival commemorates the annual sailing adventure along the Gulf of Papua coast which was undertaken in order to barter pots for items like canoe logs, betelnuts, shell jewelry, and the like, fostering friendships between the Motu and the Gulf people.


Western missionaries were instrumental in converting the majority of the population in PNG to Christianity. While 34 percent still hold indigenous beliefs, primarily animistic, 22 percent are Roman Catholic, 16 percent are Lutheran, eight percent are Presbyterian, Methodist or part of the London Missionary Society, five percent are Anglican, four percent are Evangelical Alliance members, one percent are Seventh-Day Adventists, and the remaining ten percent are members of other Protestant sects.


The official languages of Papua New Guinea are English, Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin), and Motu. Tok Pisin, a composite language made up of fewer than 1,800 words, derives from English, German, and the local languages of the island of New Britain. It is the most widely used language in Papua New Guinea. Most Papua New Guineas speak Pisin at home whether they speak English during the day at work or not. Motu, on the other hand, is the indigenous language that is most commonly used.

In addition to these languages, there are 836 distinct languages in Papua New Guinea, most belonging to the Melanesian or Papuan language groups.

Papua New Guinea’s attitudes

Toward family

As noted, family, and by extension wantoks, defines one’s world in PNG and delineates one’s responsibilities in life. The obligations of belonging to a wantok are many and often exclude any social contacts outside of the wantok simply because of a lack of time.

People within a wantok must help to accumulate the “bride price” or dowry for a young woman to be married. They may also be asked to help with burial expenses, housing, and other expenditures. Members of a wantok may also be involved in “paybacks” for a wrong committed by an outsider against someone in their wantok.

The concept of family and wantok is so strong that when a couple within a wantok is unable to have children or does not have any yet, they may be given a child by another couple in the group.

Toward foreigners

Foreigners generally are well accepted. Papua New Guinea has had large communities of expatriates from many countries for years.

Toward women

Women in Papua New Guinea continue to be seen in the traditional roles of mother and housewife, with little say in how things operate. Men are considered the decision-makers, and polygamy is acceptable under traditional law.

Spousal abuse is a serious problem in Papua New Guinea. Women are openly beaten with no one willing to intervene between husband and wife. Although laws do exist making it illegal to abuse one’s spouse, the problem persists.

Women are expected to dress modestly and conservatively. It may seem odd to some newcomers that while topless women in traditional garb are acceptable, many Papua New Guineans can be very conservative about what is considered proper at other times. While expatriates are given leeway in their dress, conservative attire is appropriate at all times.

Women first were allowed to vote in 1964, and in 1977 the first female parliamentarian was elected.

Toward hierarchy and work

A hierarchical rather than a team organization is found in most businesses in PNG. Working in teams can be problematic, particularly where there is any antagonism between wantok groups.

Toward religion

Religion is important in people’s everyday lives, as is evident by the frequent religious revivals that take place. Periodic conflicts that can turn into serious physical disputes do occur between different religious groups.

Churches are central to the culture. They operate approximately half the hospitals and schools in the country.

Parallel to Christianity, there are traditions, which are also upheld. For example, “bride price” is still expected by the groom before the marriage is considered binding; and as noted earlier, polygamy is acceptable. Although sorcery is against the law, as stated in the constitution, “payback” killings still occur in the villages and in the city where black magic is suspected. Involvement in any tribal conflict generally never affects expatriates.



Regarded as Papua New Guinea’s industrial capital, Lae has a population of approximately 120,000. It is located on the Huon Gulf on the north coast, adjacent to the Markham River.

As with a number of PNG cities and towns, Lae’s growth from a small outpost can be initially attributed to the gold rush of the 1920s. It was the final city from which aviator Amelia Earhart departed before she disappeared in 1937. Lae also served as a base for Japanese forces in World War II. Agricultural and mineral industries gave Lae its highway system, which is the most extensive in the country.


A coastal town of 28,000 residents, Madang is situated in the midst of PNG’s renowned diving locales. In spite of its small size, Madang has a variety of facilities geared toward international travel and tourism, including department stores and resort hotels. The town and its outlying areas offer various parks, gardens, reefs, and lush tropical vegetation. Madang is popular with expatriates, and a number of international organizations are headquartered there.

Port Moresby

In addition to being the nation’s capital, Port Moresby is PNG’s largest shipping port, its second largest import center, and its financial and social center. With a population totaling 230,000, it is the most cosmopolitan as well as the most culturally diverse city in PNG, attracting expatriates and Papua New Guineans from all the provinces.

The city was founded by Captain John Moresby in 1873 and named after his father, Sir Fairfax Moresby. The name is often shortened to Moresby or POM. When it was discovered, Port Moresby was a large village called Hanaubada, or “big village” in Motu. The houses were built on stilts, as the majority of houses are today.

Port Moresby became the seat for the London Missionary Society in 1873, and in 1884 for the British administrators who governed the southeastern part of the island. At that time, the area was called British New Guinea.

Development of Port Moresby was slow until the end of World War II. During WWII, the town was used as a large military camp, housing thousands of troops during the Pacific campaigns. After the war, there was a building boom and an expansion of the public service sector.

A number of suburbs have grown up around Port Moresby — principally Boroko, Gordon, Waigani, and Gerehu — to accommodate the government, commercial, and service industries that have developed. High-rise office buildings, modern apartment houses, and luxurious homes dot the landscape of the city and its suburbs, with traditional stilt houses standing in the ocean at Koki and Honaubada.


Located just south of the equator, PNG experiences no seasons, but there are temperature variations due to altitude changes. The timing of the rainy season and the volume of rain depend on the altitude, as do the seasonal monsoons. The two rainy seasons are from January to April, bringing the northwesterly monsoons, and from September to December, resulting from the southeast trade winds. The driest season is between May and September.

PNG experiences earthquakes, with sometimes devastating results. Although earthquakes have occurred more recently, one of the more memorable earthquakes was that of July of 1998, which triggered a tsunami that devastated villages on the country’s northwest coast.

Port Moresby, situated on the south coast in the lowlands, has high temperatures year-round that range from 23°C/73°F to 32°C/90°F. Although the humidity ranges between 75 and 90 percent, Port Moresby is one of the driest parts of PNG with annual rainfall of 1,125mm/45 in.

Most of the country has between 2,000 and 3,000 mm/80 and 120 in of rainfall per year, and the mountainous areas can get as much as 5,000 mm/200 in of rainfall annually.

Information provided in association with Living Abroad

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