A wantok is obligated to give food and shelter when you show up at their door. If your wantok is driving the city bus, everyone else might have to pay, but you won't. If a wantok has a need, you fill it. You might not be related, but you're family.
Here in the States, we just celebrated Independence Day. Of all the words in the English language, I think that one describes us best: Independent. Our national mantra is, "No thanks, I can do it myself." We live sometimes hundreds of miles away from family, don't know our neighbor's names, and build high walls around our properties to ensure our privacy. We go from living in isolated homes, to driving in insulated cars. And then when we get out of the cars, we flip open the cell phones so we won't have to look at or talk to anyone. Independent.
I recently got a friend request from a Luaniua islander on Facebook. As I sat drinking my morning cup of coffee, his status update popped up on my newsfeed: 'Goodnight all'. Smiling at the irony of being online simultaneously with someone half way around the world, I posted, 'Polaoi. It's morning here in America.' Polaoi means 'goodnight' in Luaniua language.
This comment by me provoked an ensuing conversation as people wrote in, curious as to why an American was commenting on his status. In reply, he simply explained, 'She's a wantok.'
That word arrested me. The unquestioning, immediate, enveloping acceptance brought tears to my eyes. I had forgotten what it was to belong not only to a nuclear family, but to an entire community. To live in a place with no walls, where every cook fire is open to you at meal time, to always be surrounded by protecting and watchful eyes.
And I miss it.