In my tribe, we go to a different type of school

Blog by Mundiya Kapanga, who attended the launch of the 2016 GEM Report in London.

Mundiya Kepanga

I know that Westerners are busy and that you are always looking at your watch so I will be quick. I will only take five or six minutes of your time.

I’m called Mundiya Kepanga. I’m the chief of the Huli tribe in Papua New Guinea. I am sure lots of important people write for the blog you are reading, but I’m not a Maire, I’m not a Minister, I’m not a Prime Minister and I don’t have a Nobel Prize. I’m just a chief who doesn’t know how to read or write. I must also admit that I’ve never been to school. Now, for this text I need someone to type what I’m saying. With my friends we preferred to play in the forest and get into mischief. One day, my father asked me to dig a really deep hole. When I came back he said “if you don’t go to school, this is what you will do. You’ll spend your time digging toilettes for people to poo into!” Now, I know I should have listened to my father. Because life is very hard when you don’t know how to read and write. I don’t have a bank account. I can’t read menus in restaurants, or the panels in airports and I can’t work out how to take public transport. When I think about the advice I didn’t listen to from my father, I feel like cutting my fingers off with an axe.


Traditionally, in my tribe, to become a man, teenagers live in the forest for several months under the guidance of many of the elders. It is westerners who have invented schools with tables, chairs and boards and diplomas. We can learn how to write and read and count and all sorts of things in school. But in my tribe, we had a traditional type of school called Iba Gidja. For weeks, we grew our hair and, at the same time, learned the rules and how to respect others. We learned to live together in harmony and take care of our planet. During this period of initiation, we cut our hair to have a haircut like I still have today on my head. We found feathers to wear for big ceremonies. This haircut signifies that we are respectable people and that we understand our culture.

The 2016 GEM Report shows that Education systems must take care to protect minority cultures and their associated languages, which contain vital information about the functioning of ecosystems. But the Report shows 40% of the global population are taught in a language they don’t understand.

Culture is the foundation of everything. Without culture, without traditions and identity, men don’t have any point of reference or direction to follow that will mean they can respect the footsteps of our elders. Our cultures have taught us to take care of our communities and our environment. Education without culture teaches us selfishness and greed which destabilizes traditional structures and leads to the destruction of our planet.

The latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies indigenous and traditional knowledge as a major resource for adapting to climate change.

Mundiya meeting the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova at the global launch event for the 2016 GEM Report in London, 6 September

After I left my parents, my uncle took me under his wing. He taught me to grow sweet potatoes, to build a house, to look after pigs and to speak in public. One day he said to me ‘when you’re a man, you will have troubles to express yourself in public. You will shake and sweat will appear on your forehead. So you must train yourself when youre young. Your words should be sweet as honey”. It’s thanks to him that I learnt lots of things, and particularly to express myself as I am doing now. I think that our parents, friends and extended family are our first teachers. And that they are crucial to learn numerous fundamental lessons about life.

Before dying he said “now you’re a man. You’ve never been to school but you have all your diplomas. You know how to grow a garden, build a house and speak in public. You understand our traditions and everything that’s important for our community. You have a beard and it’s the moment to get married. Now the only thing left to learn is to teach what you have learnt to your children.”

Research has documented how formal schooling systems have resulted in the loss of significant background knowledge about nature, culture and values that indigenous children previously acquired in their communities. Examples from countries including Australia, Canada and the United States show an unquantifiable loss of indigenous knowledge from the beginning of the 20th century, when indigenous
children were sent to residential schools or put up for forced adoption in an attempt to assimilate them into the dominant society. Separating them from their families and consequently from their cultural roots caused ‘irreparable harm to the survival of indigenous cultures and societies’

Since then I have had five children and I have taught them a bit of what I know. I can’t read or write but I think that if we want for our children to live in a sustainable world, their education must be based upon three big pillars: the respect of cultures and traditional knowledge systems, the main principles that are important for our family, and the lessons that can be learnt from modern education systems. I think that these are the three legs of the chair on which our children should sit to build a better world for tomorrow.



  1. All this is very nice, but the amount of forest left may not be enough for this guy’s children. They should at least go to school for 3-4 years and acquire reading automaticity at least in their language. Later they may be able to decipher printed items needed. If they wait until they are too old, they cannot automatize. If they leave their habitats, they automatically become very poor people. We should not let them unschooled.

    There are tribes that have managed to remain in relative wilderness, in Brazil, Andaman and Nicobar islands of India, PGN, etc. That’s great. But when someone gets sick or injured, they get taken to the civilization. It’s probably worthwhile to keep a few such tribes in existence, if the caretaker governments function as their social security.

  2. Thank you for making Mundiya Kapanga’s wisdom heard around the world. It is important to note he does not dismiss the knowledge that children will need from modern education systems, but stresses that the other “two legs of the chair” are equally important. Respect for indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge systems are, in fact, essential to the survival of the planet.

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I’m called Mundiya Kepanga. I’m the chief of the Huli tribe in Papua New Guinea. …If we want for our children to live in a sustainable world, their education must be based upon three big pillars: the respect of cultures and traditional knowledge systems, the main principles that are important for our family, and the lessons that can be learnt from modern education systems. Mundiya attended the launch of the 2016 Global Education Monitoring (REM) Report in London and met Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.

  4. I suspect the writer has incorporated your issues on his three leg scaffold. Within curriculum theory a community centered approach can be the organizing focus for knowledge acquisition . The organization of problems for study are based in community concerns e.g maintaining the first two pillars and extracting from the third. So language 1 and language 2 are incorporated in the design program . By language I refer of course to dual cultures extracting from them worthwhile knowledge from both. Thus female circumcision or mutilation or exclusion from education from the old culture would be replaced by modern reference to women’s rights from the newer culture.

  5. Mundiya Kapanga’s statement on the significance of culture truly awakens all indigenous people to see the extent to which they have sincerely protected the earth not taking more than is needed for survival and leaving the rest to replenish itself for the future.This is unlike most who grapple to acquire much more than they need leading to exploitation of resources too soon not providing space and time for nature to recharge. There is, however, the value of modern sciences and development paradigms which have to abide by the laws of nature which MK and similar tribes/leaders universally have respected. to bring about sustainability into our fore. We all have to face the truth of the need to learn from both MK and the modern day scientists. GEM report plays a great role in bringing the past into the present and creating awareness of the dangers of the future if we are not taking correct steps for the benefit of the future generations.

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