Papua New Guinea Gives New Meaning to “Back to the Future”

When I was a kid, I liked to sit in the very back seat of the family’s station wagon. It faced backwards. The driver could see where he was going, but I could see out the back window where we had been.

Mandy Pehrson in the back of a pickupWe Americans often like to sit in the driver’s seat, looking forward to the future. People in Papua New Guinea view time very differently. They like to take a seat in the back and “they look back to where they have come from. The mountains in the distance are clear and unmovable. The present flashes past them and only as it moves a little into the distance does it become clear. The future is unknown and uncontrollable…

“The Pidgin word for the the past is bipo (before) and the word for the future is bihain (behind). Since [Papua New Guineans] are looking towards the past, then all that has happened in the past is before them, and whatever might happen in the future is behind their backs: out of sight and therefore unknown.” (Neville Bartle, Death, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, pp. 33-34)

We are often asked what we’re doing next. It’s often difficult to know, because most everyone is riding in the back seat and has their back to the future. As our team manager has joked, “We make plans so we know what won’t happen.”


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Photo courtesy Ben Pehrson.

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4 Responses

  1. Joël says:

    Is what due of fact they are a oral culture, they pass on what they remember? It’s not bad about to pass on Scripture but perhaps less about hopefulness, no?

    • Steve says:

      I don’t know if this view of time is due to having an oral culture or not. I don’t know enough about the culture to answer. I’m not sure what you mean by the second question. Sorry.

      • Joël says:

        Oh! Sorry for my approximative english! From french into english, sometime, that is not always easy to explain correctly.
        To pass on their tradition they have to remember. It’s a bit as looking backward. But, me too, I don’t know enough PNG culture.

        • Steve says:

          No need to apologize. I understand the difficulties in communicating in another language.

          I think I understand the question now, but I still can’t answer it. Maybe in ten or twenty years. 🙂

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