Margaret Mead Slept Here

We are on a sailboat — well, really a canoe with a big plastic tarp for a sail and a complicated three-stick mast, manned by five Manusians who’ve sailed this rig (the Climate Challenger) 1,500 miles across the open ocean. As we near Pere Village on Manus Island, we see a flotilla in the distance.

We approach and furl the sail. We pole our way into the shallows, escorted in by a hundred men in costume rowing dugouts with outriggers, a drummer keeping them in time. On the shore we are greeted by dancers and feasts and drums made of different-sized logs.

After things have settled down, we are shown to our room in a house on stilts and head back out to wander around, our heads abuzz from the extraordinary welcome. We walk down tidy, freshly swept paths that run along three rows of houses — one of which extends across the water itself. Out on the fringing reef we see children playing several hundred feet out — they are surfing on canoes and logs and boards they have cut themselves.

At dinner that night, the real business begins. We witness the signing of Pere’s new resource management plan by the six clan leaders and the local ward leader. This plan is a self-policed agreement that zones the ocean around Pere and sets rules like catch limits, off-limits areas, and seasonal closures. (It also includes a 1 billion kina — or nearly $500 million — fine for mining pollution!). This sort of enlightened self-government in the face of climate change — a threat that may wipe out the Titan culture of the Admiralty Islands — is grounds for a very high level of optimism.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead came to live and study in Pere in the 1920s. ­Now, the words “integrated resource management planning” and “climate change adaptation” have crept their way into the pidgin. This is a place where hurricanes are caused by the flap of a butterfly wing half a world away — except it’s not butterfly wings but rather steel mills and coal-fired power plants that are submerging and destroying these rich cultures, smart people and beautiful natural resources. Still, I have a strong hunch that the Titan people are going to thrive, even as they adapt.

Welcoming flotilla at Pere Village


The salt of the rising ocean has already slowed or killed the village’s crops of sego palm and taro root critical staple foods here in Ndillo. The village’s freshwater lagoon has turned salty too, but Ndillo’s 600 residents are working to restore the mangroves and natural barriers to turn it fresh again. In the meantime they are farming milkfish, mud crabs, clams and sea cucumbers.

This small barrier island (only two square kilometers) off the coast of Manus Island, Papua New Guinea was used by the U.S. military as a base in World War II as they fought to evict the Japanese army from the island of Papua. Old corrugated metal from that era is still used to build the village’s characteristic stilt houses, which stand on shore or over the water.

Ndillo’s shoreline has eroded many meters in the last 20 years, but the community is building rock sea walls to capture sand and are planting mangroves to buffer against storms. Ndillo parents send their 9th graders to school on Manus and go to Bougainville or Port Moresby to work mining jobs and send money back, but many of them eventually return to Ndillo to retire. It is a beautiful, orderly place — what the island lacks in modern conveniences, it makes up for in culture and community, beauty and integration with the natural world.

I am now a clan member in Ndillo, inducted through a formal ceremony that included dancing and eating and drumming and laughing. Urro is the Titan (pronounced tee-tan) people’s word for welcome and hospitality. I have never felt as welcome as in this simple place: with no electricity, no televisions, no plastic, and just bare houses on stilts and basic furniture, these smart, self-sufficient people are on the front lines of a climate shift caused by consumption that didn’t involve them. They are fighting for their lives and culture.

I am always welcome back, but with Urro comes obligation. I have to figure out how I can help their efforts to adapt to climate change. So do we all.

[Top Image: Welcoming flotilla at Pere Village. Image source: TNC. Second Image: Ndillo Village. Image source: TNC ]

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