The Buai Communion
December 2012: The one thing I learned while watching the leisurely, almost passive street life in Buka Town in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville was to appreciate the important role of buai (areca nut) in the social life and community dynamics of the town (and this is probably true to most rural areas in Papua New Guinea). Small groups of men (or women) chew buai as they huddle under the shade of tropical trees along streets discussing important business or just having a leisurely chat, their voices and laughter interrupted only by intermittent chomping and an occasional discharge of reddish spit to the ground. Whatever they have achieved or resolved from the small gathering is recorded only by the blood-like stains that stay painted on the meeting ground long after they have dispersed.
As a simple gesture of celebration, one of the first things that old acquaintances do when they suddenly meet on the street is to offer each other a buai. The pair exuberantly pulls each other to the side then, almost in synchrony, bite off the husk of a buai, chew the young nut, then take turns biting off and chewing a portion of a stalk-shaped fruit (or is it a flower?) as they catch up on each other’s families and whereabouts. Moments later, they part ways having re-galvanized their friendship through a “buai moment”.
The one different thing I observed in Buka is the use of the strange stalk instead of the more popular betel leaves (this is why areca nut is sometimes called betel nut). In some countries I’ve visited, the wrapping of the areca nut and some powdery white lime with betel leaves is almost like a sacred ritual that precedes the chewing. But taking turns biting off and chewing a portion of the strange stalk in combination with the nut looked more meaningful to me, as if it more strongly symbolized the bond and spirit of sharing and communion among individuals.