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The Gebusi: Lives transformed in a rainforest world

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According to Knauft (2012), the Gebusi community has been around for a number of decades. This community used to live in isolation in the western province of Papua Guinea. The most interesting thing about this community is the lifestyle they used to live even before colonialism took place. Since they were uncivilized, most of their activities were purely traditionally. For instance, apart from the kingship type of leadership, this community was marred with numerous traditional beliefs and traditions. The community had very strict penalties for persons caught violating any of the rules enacted by their traditional leaders. It was only after the arrival of colonialists and missionaries that saw an improvement on the community’s lifestyles. For instance, apart from embracing religion, the community was able to abolish some of the cultures that were inhumane (Knauft, 2012). Apart from providing an analysis of the Gebusi’s early lifestyle, the study will also address the changes witnessed within the community between 1980 and 1998.

Gebusi Lifestyle

             Although the Gebusi’s way of life has changed, they did not do it in their own terms. This is because they were forced to embrace new lifestyles by the whites who came into the country as either missionaries or colonialists. Currently, the Gebusi community has become quite modern compared to the way it used be during the 1980s when Bruce was conducing his research on this community. According to Knauft (2012), during the 1980s, this community used to practice traditions, some of which were quite inhuman. For instance, once a member of the community became sick, the community used to claim that the person had been cast a spell by a sorcerer. This perception caused many people to be accused of witchcraft. According to the Gebusi’s traditions, any person that was accused of practicing sorcery was denounced from the community. According to Knauft (2002), people accused of sorcery were normally killed, cooked and eaten since they were equated to wild animals. In one incident, a man killed his half-sister on the spot after the corpse of his daughter opened its eyes and stared at her during a corpse divination event. According to the community, this implied that the corpse was trying to communicate with the living whereby it pointed at the person responsible for its death (Knauft, 2002). It is evident that many innocent people were killed on allegations of sorcery. According to Knauft (2012), the Gebusi community was located in a region that was infested with mosquitoes. Due to this, it is evident that these mosquitoes caused most of the sicknesses. However, since the Gebusi were still illiterate, they were never aware of malaria, which is the most common disease caused by mosquitoes.

Some of these inhuman acts were abolished during the 1990s after the whites arrived in the nation. The cases of killing people for allegations of witchcraft declined after medical practitioners arrived and taught them about malaria, the disease caused by mosquitoes. Similarly, through missionaries, the community was able to change the manner in which they used to worship. During the 1980s, the community used to worship their ancestors and spirits (Knauft, 2012). This ended after the missionaries introduced them to Christianity. Similarly, during the 1980s, the community used to practice ritual homosexuality whereby boys were made to suck the penis of elder men and swallow the semen (Knauft, 2002). According to Knauft, it was believed that these rituals enabled boys to transform into mature adults. Due to this information, it becomes evident that although there was a gradual change of lifestyle among the Gebusi community, it was not done in their own terms. This is because they received assistance from third parties who comprised of medical practitioners as well as missionaries and colonialists.

Religion Conversions

             According to Knauft (2012), in the 1980s, the Gebusi community was fully engrossed in traditional believes. In terms of religion, this community used to pay homage to their ancestors and other spirits. This community believed in the presence of spirits who were always watching over them. It is due to this that they usually gave thanks to these ancestors at least once in every eleven days (Every Culture, 2014). According to the Gebusi community, these spirits assisted them in their daily lives. For instance, apart from aiding the Gebusi identify the causes of ailments, these spirits were also believed to identify sorcerers in addition helping the community in attaining successful hunting expeditions (Every Culture, 2014). The community used to come together for the purpose of Kogwayay. This is the time when the community came together with the objective of laughing and telling jokes to one another (Knauft, 2012).

The worshiping of spirits began fading in the 1990s when missionaries arrived in this community. Through missionaries, the community was gradually introduced into Christianity. According to Knuft (2002), the community was gradually taught about the Bible and a God who was not only omnipotent but also omnipresent and omniscient. Although the community was reluctant to embrace this sort of change, the missionaries finally managed to convert the community from the worshiping of spirits to believing in God. In order to achieve this, the missionaries used the tactic of education. This is whereby they introduced formal education where they invited the community to learn and become literate (Knuft, 2012). Apart from education, the missionaries used this opportunities to teach the community how to read and interpret the Bible. Gradually, the door of worshiping spirits was shut. After being converted into Christianity, the missionaries embarked on the next step, which was the abolition of inhumane rituals. For instance, by teaching the community about the ten commandments of God, the missionaries were able to minimize the rate at which innocent people were being killed on allegations of sorcery. Apart from ending the ritual killing of people, the missionaries also managed to stop the ritual homosexuality performed on boys (Every Culture, 2014).

Economy, Gender and Gender Roles

             During the pre-colonial period, the main economic activity among the Gebusi community was barter trade (Gebusi Economy, 2014). This was the process where one traded goods or services for other goods. Barter trade was the most common economic activity since money had not yet been introduced in this community. The most common products that were traded included salt, meat, hides and skin. These were the most traded products since they were easily affordable. Similarly, other goods included bows and arrows as well as baskets, drums and tobacco pipes. It was until 1998 that the Gebusi community learnt of other economic activities such as agriculture. The community never practiced agriculture since they normally depended on food that grows naturally in the forest. As for meat, they usually went on hunting expeditions in order to get wild animals.

In the 1980s, roles were assigned in relation to one’s gender. For instance, it was the responsibility of men to go hunting in addition to making bows and arrows. As for women, it was their duty to remain behind and look after the homes when the men are away. While at home, women were supposed to do house chores such as cleaning of the homestead (Knuft, 2012). Boys were supposed to follow their fathers in order to acquire skills in preparation for adulthood. Similarly, girls were to stay with their mothers who taught them house chores and how to conduct themselves, this was in preparation for their future roles as wives. In the 1990s, there was little change on the way roles were assigned, this is because both men and women maintained their roles.

Changes between 1998 and 2008

             According to Knauft (2012), ever since the whites moved in, the Gebusi community has undergone numerous changes. For instance, in the past, the community was illiterate to the extent that it could only count up to two, this implies that any other number exceeding two was usually referred to as ‘many’. However, this has improved since the community acquired formal education and is now able to count more than two. Additionally, the community has also embraced agriculture. Apart from farming, the Gebusi community also rears some animals such as cattle, sheep as well as poultry. By embracing agriculture, the community has increased its economic activities. Apart from the production of food crops, the community also practices cash crop farming. Another change that has occurred over the period is the introduction of currency. In the past, the community normally used barter trade system since there was no other medium of exchange. However, this is no longer the case since through the whites, currency was introduced (Knauft, 2012).


             The Gebusi community has been around for decades and they used to reside in Papua Guinea. During the pre-colonial period, this community used to live in isolation and did most of its activities as a family. The community had a number of believes. For instance, they never believed in sickness. Hence, whenever one of the community members fell ill, the community usually blamed sorcery. Sorcery was an offence among the

Gebusi. Anyone found engaging in witchcraft was denounced as a member of the community before being executed. According to studies, most of the people were sick since the community resided in a location infested with mosquitoes. However, since the community was illiterate to comprehend that this was malaria, they continued killing innocent people on allegations of sorcery. Before the missionaries arrived, this community used to worship spirits and ancestors. According to the Gebusi, these spirits protected them from worldly dangers. The missionaries arrived and changed these perceptions by teaching them about the Bible and the existence of a God who was omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. In the Gebusi community, roles were assigned according to one’s gender. For instance, whereas it was the responsibility of men and boys to hunt for food and make bows and arrows, women and girls were tasked with the responsibility of staying at home and ensuring and doing house chores. Through these roles, both boys and girls were prepared for their future roles as adults.


“Gebusi Economy” (2014). Every Culture. Retrieved on 20 November 2014 from http://www.everyculture.com/Oceania/Gebusi-Economy.html

Every Culture. (2014). Gebusi – Religion and Expressive Culture. Retrieved on 20 November 2014 from http://www.everyculture.com/Oceania/Gebusi-Religion-and-Expressive-Culture.html

Knauft, B. M. (2002). Exchanging the past: A rainforest world of before and after. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Knauft, B. M. (2012). The Gebusi: Lives transformed in a rainforest world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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