Our company has recently conducted a review of one Christian charity's 'Restorative Justice' programme across Papua New Guinea. Very successful really, its actually an awareness program for remote communities---telling them their rights, their options, the possible solutions to their social and legal grievances. Everyone benefits by it. Happily, our evaluation is all positive, and beyond inserting a definition of Restorative Justice as it is supposed to be known in PNG, we sort of elide the fact that they're using the wrong name for this excellent programme.
You see, we don’t seek retributive justice here in PNG, the eye for an eye Biblical variety or the punitive civil court version either. We seek what we call Restorative Justice. That’s a term that is both legal and anthropological, and refers to a settlement for an issue or grievance that doesn’t punish the presumed culprit, and often doesn’t seek an exact culprit at all, but one that satisfies the greatest number of people and ‘restores’ peace. In theory. Living this s a nightmare of compromise for someone like myself, the westerner as grandmother/boss/NGO director.
Retributive impulses are so ingrained in me I have come to employ particular ‘glasman’ and ‘glasmeri’ (seers, who can divine a truth) with special powers of accusation. Not the old man who tells me an unknown child stole my change purse at the beach and tipped out my credit cards and license into the water. That calms my nerves for a moment but offers me absolutely no satisfaction. That is---it deflects from my immediate family and close friends, many of whom are renowned thieves and spring to mind instantly after any such incident, in preference for a more generalized resolution of doing absolutely nothing.
These are the glasmen and women who need to be paid up front ad who are so terrified of being blamed for pointing out a culprit that they always find the least actionable solution. Let peace prevail: I suspect they have so little pity for my white Missus problem that they cant take on my frustration. These are the Arbiters of Restorative Justice who never really provide satisfaction. They deflect blame, and in so doing, never resolve anything, but leave the door open for further divinations, more tweaking of the compromise ending. In the words of Mary Lou Retton, they just can't stick the dismount.
Im reminds me of the thousands of wives who appeal to the Village Court Officers and Village Court Magistrates across the highlands in PNG for some vindication after they’ve been raped or bashed by their husband or another male relative. As this Magistrate often happens to be another relative, none of them related to a woman married in to this suffocating patriarchal powerlessness, the settlement often comes in the form of compensation: one man hands another sorry money, a pig, some shells, maybe garden food, and they all get over it. The scene in Fitzcarraldo comes to mind when Herzog approaches a local actor who has been submerged in mud beneath a retreating paddleboat they’ve been hoisting up a mountain, and he says to the remarkably bouyant chap sitting up in mud now: “Well get up, brush yourself off and have a little lunch.” That’s about as much satisfaction women can expect from restorative justice in the highlands here in PNG. It’s the classic Get Over It Chump situation. Buck up girl. There's no retributive justice here.
So when my little black coin purse/wallet gets stolen at the beach, or maybe at home later, or maybe in the night while Im sleeping, I can expect two things: that I will never have personal satisfaction or vindication in this, and I will never see the money again. A semblance of optimism is kindled by the chance that someone has taken the money and thrown everything else into a bush somewhere, just near enough to be recovered. It is PNG after all, and no one knows how to use my VISAs (nothing seems to be amiss in the account online), so I'm in no rush to cancel everything.
This is where the glasman/meri comes in.
I had a friend in Port Moresby once who lost an expensive necklace gifted to her by her European father. A glasman was called and he ruminated and came back with the exact rubbish tip where it might be found on the other side of town. And there it was. This happens all the time.
Someone recommends a certain glasman to me this time because he was the one who knew where our stolen generator had gone last year, which reassures me, until I realize we never did get that generator back in any event. Never mind, he is from a more supernaturally charged part of the country than the first glasman, who wanted K50 for nothing (prompting a friend to charge after him for a refund). This time he takes the nylon beach bag from whence it disappeared for the night, like a talisman. And he needs bus fare, that’s all.
The next morning he’s here to say it was my daughter in law---a notorious thief. Of course, I say, that makes sense---unless you want to explain how she got to the beach or inside our house when she was miles away at the time. He walks out the back of the house and explains in more hushed tones that it is my grandson who took it, and hid it to give her later. This is interesting only insofar as it reveals how broadly the script of my family problems has spread---as this is definitely something that has happened before to feed my tambu’s card gambling habit. These stories have impressive circulation; our glasman is someone's Uncle from the islands who lives far from town. But I nod, relieved, and offer more bus fare.
A minute later my housegirl S comes back from walking him to the bus stop. She had the story within the story: how my grandson stole it for the granddaughter, a preteen with a long rap sheet for theft, now living with her mother in the settlement. This scenario, though, is marginally more believable.
Indeed, S is quite persuasive in arguing that this has to be the explanation. P would have given it to his sister at school, and that explains why its nowhere in the house. Its even possible that the bighearted little brother pities his exiled sister who lives in a rough hut behind the market, off the sale of betelnuts his mother manages to retain after playing cards. This works well for S too, whose son was originally fingered by the first glasman, prompting her to run to school and retrieve him only to have the glasman say, not him after all, it must’ve been another kid. So much better the needle points to one of my own kids.
Now, a caveat about S is that she has earned her position as trusted offside after years of strife and subtle sleuthing around the nefarious daughter in law, and will come to me with any issue, however small it might seem, lest I cross her for not divulging later on (which is what everyone else in my family does: they keep their truths close to their chest, never utter insinuations and only wait to say 'I knew as much but didn't want to tell you!') In some vestigial sense of western mores, I value her for the very rare quality in PNG of being able to take the blame.
The other family member who has learned about taking blame is P. I did it! he will admit, awaiting the scales of grandma's justice that always forgive a confession and remind everyone in earshot that knowing the truth is the only thing that ever really matters to me. We tell him the story we’ve concocted: I left to walk the dog after we returned from the beach, my office door was closed but not locked, the bag was within view, and he seized the opportunity to get money for his sister now living in the market, away from grandma's 3 square meals a day. P stood inches from m face as he dissolved into tears. No, he never saw the bag, he said, he didn’t take it. But he said this weakly, as his body shuddered and his head fell and we could almost feel the guilt emanating from him. The level of protest was so dismal, so unconvinced and unconvincing, it made all the more certain, and when he walked off and locked the bedroom door to wail for a long half hour, deep soulful sobs of pain like nothing else.
For fifteen minutes I sit stunned that this treasured boy could have done this. That he has so much guile. He’s my buddy, and Id never heard such painful sounds before in my life. Absolute heaving grief. I had to tell myself he was crying because Id told him we probably couldn’t take our holiday this year, with credit cards gone, and so he wouldn’t be able to ride his bike on a dirt road in Vermont, as hed been planning for months now. Thinking this steeled me somewhat, but not for long. I relented and told him through the locked door that all is well, we will move forward, I love him and forgive him. Then I walked outside and spoke to him through louvered windows, reassuring him as his cried became gulps and sniffles, that I will always love him whatever happens and we can restore our holiday somehow, I promise.
Eventually he emerged, and we hugged. This is the little boy I stole back from my daughter in law when he was 18 mos old and she was in the thrall of a gambling addiction that starved him to a bag of bones---who could only recover with small spoons of peanut butter. This is the boy who jumps up to make me tea when I ask, and the only one of my tribe who knows the importance of saying I'm sorry; it was me.
Only much later did I casually ask where he thinks his sister might have hidden the wallet or thrown it away. What? He asks---absolutely guileless. But I was telling the truth, he looks at me with shock and says, I never did see the wallet. I don’t know where it is!
So let me walk you through this with me. This man who barely knows us, but somehow has the backstory about who robs whom in my household, has a vision that my beloved grandson is the current thief, and that he gave this stolen item (admirably?) to his older sister (like feeding a junkie)---in a narrative that satisfies for being familiar, and yet unexpected. Because in our household everything nefarious tends to lead back to one in-law of mine, for whom we have had to take restraining order out. That is the story arc for everything in my family drama, it always finds a way back to her. Indeed, it works for P. As quickly as he sees a PMV cut off a truck on the road and mutters 'Highlander!', he will raise his eyebrows knowingly when he hears his mother's name called. What now? we seem to always ask, unconsciously perpetuating the sexist stereotypes that make domestic violence go round in PNG.
So insidious is this assumption that we can never really know, but we can always suspect---that there will never be true justice, just messages from a supernatural order that points its finger, that kids often inherit the mantle of 'bad' or 'good' as if by blood---as if they are fated to do right or wrong. Possessed, unable to control their own impulses (an argument that often serves young men well), they lose commitment to their own volition. Can't help themselves, they just did it. It's this sensibility that pervades a lot of the gang fraternitas here, and predisposes them all to mystically transformative religious experiences---being born again, finding the lord, etc---whereby they mimic the initiation processes of moving from boy to man, sinner to saint, outcast to radically conventional. None of this involves personal volition in the western sense, but has to do with having forces work upon you.
So it makes sense to P that the glasman has either seen something in him he himself did not know, or observed behavior somehow wiped from P's own memory. He believe the accusation. He has no other experience of justice at this level but this opportunistic form of Restorative Justice, wherein one kid throws up their hand for the lot. Don't make my younger brother serve time, one hardened criminal told the court in Mt Hagen years ago: I'll go back to jail in his place (for kidnap and rape).
P pretty much buys the idea of himself as a thief, and this is shocking enough for him to cry with apparent remorse ---with a sorrow commensurate to being a black hearted raskol himself. Or so it seems to S and me, as we shrink outside the door to P's heaving cries. It pains us too, but having seen no self-defense, no sense of affront or umbrage taken, I am at least convinced that these are tears of shame and they need to be shed after all. He may even be just sorry to be caught (the evil grandma inside me says---after all, he's been told we'll have to forfeit our holiday in the US for this).
But when I press him later, when he comes to my office carrying the kitten and looking for a rubber band, I ask him again. And he can only admit what he knows—and that’s nothing. By the afternoon he has an ice cream cone and is restored to confidence in my undying love.
Where there is no free will, there is never retributive justice. And nothing restores the way I felt before I lost my credit cards and drivers license, believe. This much I know: leave me to my naïve beliefs about little boys.