Bena Bena

Social organization: Kinship & alliances

Bena Bena social structure is primarily expressed in kinship-terms that relate persons to tribes, clans, lineages and families. A tribe consists of clan-alliances that can be of a long-term or of temporary nature (Knapp 2011). Bena clans are exogamous and follow a patrilineal form of social organisation. After the marriage a woman joins her husband and lives in his community. As people often marry into communities with a different linguistic background, it is usually the woman who has to learn her husband’s language.

Kinship relationships in Bena Bena are defined through specific forms of sharing and cooperating; in other words, they are characterized by interpersonal exchanges, practiced in informal everyday-contexts (for example, supporting each other in working the land, in building houses, sharing food) and in more formal, ritualized contexts, for example, in life-cycle rituals, such as initiation, funeral customs and “certain features of kinship, age-grading and communal activities (Langness 1964: 169).”

Proceeding from the social network that a Bena Bena person has by kinship, he or she will acquire further relationships at different stages in life, for example through participation in the same cults (men’s cult) or rituals (initiation) or through common upbringing (age mates). All events in a Bena Bena person’s life that define a change (transformation) of his or her role in the community – for example life cycle rituals – stem from social activities that have the purpose of building the social network of the participants through exchanges that work on the specific Bena Bena principle of reciprocity. A fruitful ground for alliances outside the kinship-network are shared common interests or experiences.

Bena Bena groups are defined by specific forms of interpersonal cooperation and sharing– in other words, by exchange.

Central to Bena Bena categories of exchange is, as Knapp (2011) has shown, an indigenous concept of ‘nurturing essence’ – nogoya’a – that is detached from a person (giver) and attached to another one (recipient) in exchange. The notion of nogoya’a is the key aspect to the understanding of Bena exchange. It shapes the underlying cultural categories of person/identity as well as social relationships (group-membership, kinship).

Material culture

Material culture in Bena Bena is closely linked to daily life. The production of material objects (garden work, house building, fashioning of tools, utensils, gifts, etc.) relies on the cooperation of different people who support each other and contribute their strength to a specific common or personal goal. The production of material objects is itself a social act A good example is the making of bilum (string bags) – an everyday-activity in the village, where women sit together, work on their bilums, exchange ideas and share news and gossip.

Most working processes in Bena Bena are gender-specific. Women are mainly responsible for the domestic sphere, for example, working the gardens, raising the pigs and taking care of household and children, while men represent the public domain – they plant and work the cash crops, build houses, and deal with public affairs.

There are three central aspects of material culture all belonging to the immediate personal sphere: house, garden and pigs.


The building of a house is an important event that usually requires the cooperation of several people. Holes are dug, wood, leaves and bamboo are cut, posts placed, walls woven, and roof thatched. Specific vocabulary is used for each of these activities. There is a gender-specific labor-division in the working processes. Men, for example, weave the walls, construct scaffolding and build the house, while women get the Kunai grass for the roof.

Usually, members of the same family share a household. A Bena Bena household consists of different generations. A man’s parents, his wife and their children build the core-residential family. However, due to the flexibility in the Bena Bena kinship system, outsiders can be adopted into a family quite easily.


The most important possession a family has is land. Most people in Bena Bena villages still live as subsistence farmers and depend on their garden products for survival. Daily food is as far as possible cultivated in a family’s garden. Land is in possession of the man’s clan, but mainly cultivated by the women. Working the gardens, planting, weeding, harvesting the crops is probably the most important daily activity in Bena Bena villages. Every morning, shortly after sunrise, the women walk to their gardens and work there until midday. Then they return to their households, loaded with sweet potatoes, bananas and greens to prepare food.


Pigs in Bena Bena, as in most Melanesian societies, are of crucial importance in everyday life, and for ritualized exchanges such as life-cycle rituals or compensation payments. Practically all feasts and public events include pig-killings, preparations and distribution of living pigs or steamed pork meat. The number of pigs a man owns defines his position in the exchange system/network and thus his social status. Pigs represent the capacity to have social relationships and, when exchanged, they nurture the relationships. A gift elicits a future reciprocation, and with the pig being the Bena Bena gift ‘par excellence’, the number of pigs exchanged, the order in which they are distributed, the speeches that are held when they are exchanged, all is memorized in detail and shapes relationships. Pigs emphasize the nurturing aspects of relationships. They mark passages in biographies (initiation, marriage, death), can seal alliances, soothe heated minds and ease conflicts (compensation payments). Sharing pork ties people together, giving pigs creates obligations.

In everyday life, taking care of the pigs has a high priority. It is a woman’s task. Pigs are treated very well until they are killed for some social occasion. Often they have their own names and are caressed by their owners. There is a complex vocabulary for pigs, their domestication and exchange value.