Ongka’s Big Moka: The Kawelka of Papua New Guinea

(60 min.) 1974


Produced and Directed: Charlie Nairn

Anthropologist: Andrew Strathern.


Disappearing World Series


Ongka, an endearing and charismatic tribal leader of the Kawelka tribe of highland New Guinea, has spent five years using all his skills as an orator and negotiator to amass the 600 pigs and assorted other valuables — including a motorbike— which he will give away in a festive ceremony, a moka. In highland society, status is earned by giving things away rather than acquiring them, and a moka is the single-most important ceremony. Ongka’s motives in planning his big moka are to gain influence over rivals and to win a sort of immortality for himself and his tribe in a changing world. “I decided, well, if the old ways must go, let’s at least do something as our last big show.” But things don’t go as planned, and Ongka’s painstaking preparations are threatened by accusations of sorcery and even the threat of war.


Main players:

Ongka: local big man
Peroa: Another big man from a neighboring tribe who will be guests at Ongka's big moka (is a member of the PNG parliament)
Rumbicole: Ongka's favorite wife
Riemer: Ongka's rival, an aspiring big man in the Kawelka tribe



1. What skills/attributes must you have to be a successful big man?

2. Why does Ongka desire so strongly to hold this big moka?

3. How do Kawelkans feel about their pigs?

4. What is given at a moka besides pigs?

5. What determines when a moka will occur?

6. How is a "big man" able to get together the massive amount of wealth necessary for a successful moka?

7. Who is Ongka's most important backer?

8. What is the relationship between inter-tribal warfare and mokas?

9. Why can't Ongka's supporters just deliver their pigs when they are ready, instead of holding the series of small mokas?

10. How does Ongka rally his reluctant supporters?

11. What forces/difficulties threaten to derail Ongka's plans?

12. Why is the enemy tribe so paranoid and aggressive at the death of their bigman?

13. How does Ongka attempt to defuse this explosive situation?

14. Peroa would just as soon not be responsible for a return moka for Ongka's people. What does Ongka think about this?

15. Why was the big moka delayed?

16. How would an anthropologist explain this seemingly irrational disposal of so much hard-won wealth?