Betel Nut: Divided Effects For The National Habit Of Papua New Guinea

How often are you offered tea, coffee, a glass of wine or a bottle of beer when you go round to a friend’s house? Pretty much all the time right? In the UK and Europe, that is the courteous norm.

In the coastal villages, mountain clans and cities of Papua New Guinea, it is something else that binds friends and family together. That something else is called betel nut.

It was during the safety demonstration of my Air Niugini flight from Port Moresby to Hoskins that I first heard of betel nut. "Please refrain from smoking and chewing betel nut", said the air stewardess. I was sat net to my dad and we looked at each other. What on earth was betel nut?

We found out the answer a couple of days later, thanks to our tour guide at the Walindi Plantation Resort. He told us the story of betel nut.

"You see all the people in different villages with a red mouth and red teeth…that is because of betel nut", he began.

"In Europe, when you see friends or family, you are offered tea, wine, coffee…here in Papua New Guinea, you are offered betel nut"

But unlike tea, coffee, wine or beer, which is usually readily available in your friends kitchen or fridge, betel nut needs to be sourced from the tree tops. "When you go round to a friends house, they offer you betel nut. They get the kids to climb the trees, get the betel nut and bring it back for you to chew. Then you discuss whatever you want to discuss".

It's not just amongst friends and family that betel nut is shared. Even when one stranger meets another stranger from a different village, the first thing they do is offer them betel nut, to build good relations. "This is why most people around here have thousands of friends", said our guide as he pomped his horn at every other passer by on the road to say hello.

Betel nut is shipped from the coastal villages, up to highlands, lowlands and cities, making it the national habit of choice.

But whilst the lesser known betel nut acts as a builder of friendships, it can also destroy the mouths of those who chew it. 

The little betel nut itself isn’t entirely to blame. Locals mix the red betel nut with a pepper stalk, and a lime chalk, extracted from coral in the sea. It is this mixture, with the red betel nut, that creates a dangerous red substance. Many of the local villagers have a red mouth from chewing the betel nut mixture, and it looks like they have terrible bleeding gums. That, sadly, is the least of their worries.

A red mouthed local, chewing the betel nut mixture
A local man chews betel nut, staining his mouth red
The betel nut is found in the tops of Areca palm trees, and are chewed mainly due to their stimulating properties (many believe chewing the betel nut mixture is the equivalent of drinking six cups of coffee). Sadly, the red lips and teeth hide the fact that betel nut is the driving force behind rising levels of oral cancer and mouth lesions.

Red and white betel nut - Papua New Guinea
There are red and white betel nuts in Papua New Guinea

Walking around roads, tracks and villages, the floor is stained with red betel nut, as people spit it out like chewing tobacco. Whilst it looks like there is bloodshed all around Papua New Guinea, it is simply the remnants of the red betel nut mixture on the ground.

Red betel nut remnants on a road in Papua New Guinea
Photo source: Riskyplaces.wordpress.com

As West New Britain and the other coastal provinces of Papua New Guinea are relatively cut off from the rest of the world, little is known about the total effect of chewing betel nut, but in other countries such as Taiwan, Thailand and India, the Governments have started to provide subsidies in return for cutting down betel nut palms.

We are about to visit the local village near Walindi. My dad said he wants to try the betel nut. Whilst I’m up for trying most local foods, drinks and traditions, the betel nut is one I’m going to have to pass.

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