Honour is respectable

Grinding kava in Central Pentecost - Michael Spear Hawkins

Grinding kava in Central Pentecost – Photo: Michael Spear Hawkins

Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini famously said, ‘respect is honourable.’ The phrase is often quoted today by people from all walks of life as a means of recalling the best aspects of Vanuatu society: its use of deference and respect as an integral part of community peace-making. Modern influences have transformed kastom in many ways, but respect is still held tightly to the national breast.

We might do well, though, to turn the phrase around.

It must be said that traditional life in Vanuatu is indeed happy… for those men who survive their first five years in comparatively good health. And some women may be content living within the confines of their village roles. But like it or not, that life is no longer available to a growing number of people.

If we include people living in peri-urban areas around Port Vila and Santo, census figures show nearly a 10% change in the urban/rural population ratio between 1999 and the last complete census in 2009. Much of this change is composed of the so-called youth bulge – a growing number of young adults with limited opportunities both in the modern economy and in traditional life.

These are not the only source of discontent. Household dynamics are increasingly complex. Domestic relationships, both formal and informal, are more fluid –and generally more violent– than they were. This is largely a result of the clash between the de facto status of women as chattels, and women’s increased economic independence, and thence mobility, in the modern economy.

Men and women both are no longer subject to the social and geographical confines of village life. Mobility and distance undermine traditions that have sustained Melanesian societies since time immemorial. The coercive or corrective power of community scrutiny recedes once it becomes possible to evade the villagers’ gaze. The village’s role as collective conscience has been eroded and, to date, nothing has arisen to take its place.

At all levels of society, the dwindling power of social pressure leads to behaviour that once might have been unconscionable. Legal and regulatory checks go unheeded and national institutions teeter on the edge of dissolution.

But kastom is a resilient term. It has survived thousands of years of challenge and changing circumstance; it has managed to remain a viable idea throughout even the last two centuries of transformation. There is no reason to believe it won’t survive the changing economic and social conditions of the present day.

An appeal to tradition is an argument for conservatism, for restraint and for mitigating the effects of change. This may lead the more progressive-minded members of the development community to reject kastom in favour of utilitarian liberalism. But just as a banyan’s strength comes from a multitude of roots and branches, counterbalanced and pulling in a variety of directions, we would do well to allow the pull of kastom even as we move ahead.

In a keynote speech last week at the State of the Pacific conference in Canberra, director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement Virisila Buadromo candidly discussed how she had been characterised as self-centred and ‘bossy’. She might justifiably have rejected the labels, or even worn them as a badge of pride. Instead, she used the accusations as an opportunity for frank and honest introspection. The result, she said, was a richer, more nuanced understanding of how to function as an agent of change in a society that spends much of its time looking backward.

It is far too easy to indulge only in token inclusiveness when we address both conservative and liberal responses to the drastic changes currently besetting Melanesian societies. As the power of the chiefs erodes, it is still widely, often implicitly, assumed that the frame of kastom cannot be altered to incorporate other models of chieftainship, other means of allocating respect.

Much of the social disruption that has happened, from the household level on up, springs in one way or another from the tension between arbitrary adherence to the old and the equally arbitrary imposition of the new.

We would do well to follow Ms Buadromo’s example and to pursue a reflective, more inclusive path to understanding. Above all, we must not be complicit in allowing Melanesian societies to descend into a dialectical maelstrom pitting ‘development’ against kastom, making each the enemy of the other.

Part of doing so involves finding ways to buttress the restraining forces of social approval & opprobrium which play such an integral role in governing behaviour in the village. As external restraints erode, we need to find new ways, new motivations, to guide our actions, and to curb our worst inclinations.

An Ambae chief once said that respect and shame form the heart of kastom. Reflexive, institutionalised respect for those with social status equips them with the moral weight to protect not just themselves, but others under their care. The ability to instil shame in others is therefore an important tool in ensuring a peaceful society. But as respect diminishes with distance and a shifting balance of power, so too does its ability impose shame or remorse. As collective conscience diminishes in force, individual conscience must fill the void.

Monetisation of traditional land without meaningful and enduring moral and ethical constraints is a tragedy for all concerned. Innovation and change without regard for tradition can uproot even the strongest cultures. And equally important, the other side of the coin: mobility and plenitude of choice too must have reasonable restraints placed upon them.

None of this is new. European societies roiled –and often bled– in the transition between inherited and earned authority, between collective and individual conscience. But framing the Melanesian experience in Western terms is not useful. An ethos is organic, not imposed.

Father Lini might have said it thus: ‘Honour is respectable.’

If we honour our contracts, be they social, legal or economic, we become worthy of respect. The respectable in the community can then acquire and appropriate the power to shame, applying it in familiar, useful ways while showing by example how to internalise the exercise of honour.

Likewise, a more reflective society is more able to innovate, moving more smoothly from acquisition of new ideas to acceptance to appropriation.

How to apply these principles to development and aid? The first step is easy: adjust development planning and implementation processes to incorporate –and invest in– respect for those who, like Virisila, bestride the cusp between change and tradition. Give them the means to gain respect in society by allowing them pride of place in their own work.

Second: allow more space for conservative voices in the transition between traditional and cash economies. It may seem counterintuitive to share power with your most vocal opponents, but social & political settlement, and the mutual accommodation that results, is the least worst available means of building and leveraging respect for the process itself.

And most difficult of all: Quit pretending that the imposition of Western-inspired legislative, regulatory and contractual obligations will suffice to curb the worst excesses of societies with fundamentally different moral and ethical levers.

Posted: June 30th, 2014
Categories: journamalism, social commentary, soft-core, wonk
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Web tricks are not for kids any more

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 12.01.22 PMI started writing web apps in 1994. Using CGI.pm in Perl was pretty much state of the art – and the art wasn’t very pretty. ColdFusion appeared shortly thereafter, but only supported basic control structures – no functions or even subroutines at the start. Then came ASP and a disastrous mishmash of security holes, ActiveX objects being called from the only thing worse than PHP for tag soup with spaghetti code for filler. PHP, for our sins, went from being a ‘hey, kids, look – I made a web page!’ app to an actual application platform.

.. and the list goes on.

I’ve lived through the browser standards wars, I’ve seen such sins committed in the name of the Web that I would wake up screaming, ‘Why, Tim Berners Lee?!? WHY???!!’ I’ve lived through <BLINK>, Flash, animated GIFs, <MARQUEE>… and other monstrosities whose names Shall Not Be Spoken.

I’ve used JavaScript since it was a toy.

But this, my child, is the key: It’s not a toy any more. Finally, after two decades of stumbling around blindly, wreaking more chaos and mayhem than a shirtless, drunken Australian on a JetStar weekend in Bali, web development has finally matured. A bit. It’s learned that being cool doesn’t earn you nearly as many friends as being useful. It’s learned that a guy’s gotta eat, fer Chrissakes, and sleep from time to time. It’s learned that popsicle-stick bridges may be neat, but won’t carry the load that a boring old concrete one will.

But, as the scripture says, ‘then I put away my childish things.’ Oh, it’s true that just because we’ve grown up doesn’t mean we’ve learned every lesson ever. It’s true that we Web Developers still get seduced by Teh Shiney. But all in all, we’ve grown; we’ve lost our innocence and our hair. But we sleep at night. And we parallelise. And we scale. We’re grown-ups now. With grown-up tools.

So put down your PHP child. Accept that JavaScript is a language. REST in your Bower and accept that some change is for the better.

Posted: June 23rd, 2014
Categories: geek, hard-core, humour
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A Bushknife Wedding


Max bursts onstage, tears his mother’s headscarf from her head, covers himself with it and dives into the darkness, hiding among the audience members. Moments later, Sonia, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, appears. She demands to know where he is. She too disappears offstage, returning moments later with a bushknife in her hand and murder in her eye. The ensuing chaos brings the entire community out, and in the course of a raucous meeting, a chief decides that the only choice for these ‘Tom and Jerry’ lovers is for them to marry.

Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, a musical titled Laef I Swit (Life is Sweet) tells a tragicomic tale of passion, love and life in Vanuatu. Max and Sonia are a mismatched, all too typical modern couple. Sonia’s idealised dreams of love as a means of escape from the dangers, tedium and frustration of life as a downtrodden woman are dashed when she encounters Max, a sweet-talking, mercurial and charming –but utterly unreliable– man. Nothing can make them happy together, but the prospect of being torn apart seems too much to bear.

Thematically, Laef I Swit is a smaller play than usually emerges from playwright Jo Dorras’ pen. But this only adds to its power. The forces that act on Ni Vanuatu society are compressed into a domestic drama that is poignant, fleetingly sweet and often outright heartbreaking. Director Peter Walker’s staging is, as always, engaging and inventive. He blurs the line between audience and actors, driving the action right in among the seats. It’s a reminder that this play is not simply to be observed. It’s our story, not someone else’s, happening quite literally in our midst.

While music has always been a feature of Wan Smolbag’s stage productions, this is the first time the troupe has given us a full-on musical. All the key moments are played out in song. And what songs they are. The words by Jo Dorras are woven into long, lyrical passages that closely echo the breathless, sonorous flow of Bislama so often heard in Port Vila’s markets and meeting places. The music, composed collaboratively by several company members, covers a broad swathe of styles, ranging from ‘classical’ Broadway to raw, angry rap, to a send-up of American Evangelical gospel, parodied with off-beat brilliance by Smolbag veteran Noel Aru.

As in all its major theatrical productions, Wan Smolbag draws on its depth of talent, using a dual cast. Virana David and Florence Taga share the role of Sonia. Both have a deep well of musical ability to draw upon, and their acting will move even the hardest heart. Dorras’ script has provided them with a character whose exploration draws them to the finest performance I’ve seen yet from either. Virana David has a gift for internalising the conflict of a young woman in hopelessly in love with a hopeless choice of a man, drawing the audience into her turmoil. Florence Taga plays the conflict outward, at one point outright begging the audience for understanding. Their brilliant, contrasting performances are reason enough alone to see the play twice at least.

Both Donald Frank and Albert Tommy (who returns to the main stage after several years’ hiatus) are memorable in their portrayal of Max, a charming lout whose roguish behaviour sometimes descends into brutality. It would be the easiest thing in the world to allow this character to become merely a villain, but both actors manage to remind us of the man that Sonia fell in love with. The final scenes in the play would fail were it not for their ability to humanise a decidedly unsympathetic role.

This wouldn’t –couldn’t– be a play about Vanuatu if drama were not inextricably mingled with satire, joy and bawdy hilarity. Much of the (much-needed) comic relief is provided by Richie Benjamin, whose character, the MC, flits in and out of the action, providing a bridge between audience and actors. His campy persona is disarmingly cute and puckish. It’s as if the MC in the Broadway classic Cabaret had left Berlin to join the Marx Brothers. But Mr Benjamin shows maturity and a surprising depth of compassion at key moments, saving his character from becoming merely a clown.

In every review I write, limited space makes it impossible to mention each and every notable performance. But this year, I feel particularly apologetic. As the company grows and its members mature together, the depth of talent only increases. This is a team with no second string – every single actor could carry a production on his or her shoulders alone. Together, they are a formidable force.

But special mention must be made of the younger actors – if only because veterans such as Noel Aru, Charleon Falau, Morinda Tari, Annette Vira and Joyanne Quiqui had better know how good they are by now. Sereanna Kalkaua’s first appearance in a main stage production shows a wealth of potential. Edgell Junior and Michael Maki share the devilishly difficult role of Eddie. Torn between his unrequited love of Sonia and friendship with Max, his conscience can have no peace. Helen Kailo plays Nancy, a woman just beginning to understand herself and her own strength. Ms Kailo makes the role her own, casting off a tendency to play the quirks more than the character, painting a portrait whose mix of strength and vulnerability, transgression and tradition make a fully realised, memorable person.

It’s almost a crime that language, place and circumstance deny Wan Smolbag theatre the prominence and appreciation they deserve on the world stage. But we can take some comfort from knowledge that, in celebration of twenty-five years of performing in Vanuatu, Wan Smolbag is hosting an international theatre festival next month. If there is any justice in this world, visiting performers will not only enrich our country with their work, but they’ll return home with tales of a theatrical community good enough to rival any in the world.

Laef I Swit runs until June 25th, along with a revival of last year’s play, Klaem Long Lada Ia. Check the posters around town for dates and times, and book your tickets either at Wan Smolbag or in front of the Vanuatu Post building.

Posted: June 4th, 2014
Categories: journamalism, social commentary, soft-core
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The chambers of the heart


You are in the fourth chamber
You are in the fourth chamber and you are pushing    
half impelled          at a doorway

a moving crowd     a crush
like breath held far too long 
and far too deep

lockstep on a pilgrimage of longing 
a pace     another pace inside 
this carapace of gesture and humiliation

s'io credesse       s'io credesse
move me Lord
but let me know I am being moved 
Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: Uncategorized
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Only my first robin

but it was only my first robin

Every day I face the suspicion
that you have had secret springtimes

sunlights that you hid from me
clandestine pussy willows camouflaged
whole choirs of spring peepers
cued by no baton but yours

hidden nations of tulips
daffodils and crocuses
held in boxcars
and run through town at night

without stopping no lights
no whistles

I don’t know which of us to worry for

Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, literary
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I’m waiting for the song that writes itself,
A choir of one whose hymn sheet’s white and clear,
Whose even blankness is a kind of wealth.

A coruscating symphony of stealth,
At once a glance to Heaven and a leer —
I’m waiting for the song that writes itself.

A city full of strangers, smug in health,
Devoid of life and liberty and fear,
Whose even blankness is a kind of wealth,

Averse to dying as to life itself:
They will persist, though cities disappear.
I’m waiting for the song that writes itself.

The teacup cracking on the kitchen shelf,
Discarded with a backward-looking tear
(Whose even blankness is a kind of wealth),

The brahmin contemplating loss of self…
Both gravitate toward something too austere.
I’m waiting for the song that writes itself.

I cannot hum it, even to myself,
Nor puzzle out its immanence, this fear
Whose even blankness is a kind of wealth.

Existence has a price that’s far too dear,
But nothingness? A trifle too severe.
I’m waiting for the song that writes itself,
Whose even blankness is a kind of wealth.

Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, literary
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And Love says
to Death, “That’s the last time
I let you borrow my clothes.
Just look at these wrinkles–
and that stain! My God.
What did you DO?”

(Whacks her over the head
with a hairbrush, and they’re
scrapping all over the room.
Love comes up short one

She screams, but Death,
her eyes are burning like dull coals:
“You just don’t know, do you?
You never never try to understand.
Well it was an accident
but right now I’ve a mind
to accident you.”

(Love is hysterical.)
“You wouldn’t,” she screams.
“You never could!”
(Runs out in tears. Never comes back.)

Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, literary
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The birds arrive

The birds arrive at six, begin to feed.
Petulant and raucous, their harangue
stifles the belief they ever sang.
Squirrels make off with all the fallen seed.
The chickadees are orderly in greed;
The jays are not: on suet left to hang
they find a perfect stage for sturm und drang.
Only poets could decry this simple creed.

This is no scene of joy, but satisfaction
flies on stronger wings than love or beauty.
Think good thoughts, but in the end it’s action
(applied with elbows) that defines our duty.
Feed the masses, let the poets rue it.
Their verses nourish less than lumps of suet.

Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: literary, soft-core
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My heart announced

My heart announced today that it will leave.
It kicks in expectation like a child
in the womb, a trapped miner at piled
timbers: long past the urge to grieve,
he gathers up the threads of air that weave
life from darkness, then is reconciled
and only waits. I am no more beguiled
by death than he. Still, my heart will leave.

The unborn child cannot begin to fear
the pain his mother feels, the open wound
that he creates, and when she draws him near
no memory will scar him. All too soon,
I will live this parturition. Pleasure
has no gift to match this last long measure.

Posted: March 27th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, literary
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The potholed road to prosperity


Originally published on Pacific Politics

Vanuatu’s budget books, released earlier this month, reveal a fairly healthy economy. When you look at the broad strokes, that is. But they are far less revealing than they should be about the road ahead for the tiny island nation.

Overall, the economic news is okay. Revenues have improved significantly, largely because customs and inland revenue has tightened up its processes. Businesses are now closer to paying what they actually owe. The world economy is improving, and so is Vanuatu’s. Growth is expected to increase, from 3.3% in 2013 to 5.1% in 2014, and even higher in 2015. Inflation will remain low, likely less than 3% in the coming year. The government is taking on USD 5 million in new debt in order to contribute to a number of largely donor-funded infrastructure projects.

But dig a little deeper, and things appear less rosy. The budget does little to reflect the government’s goal of ‘a Just, an Educated, Healthy and Wealthy Vanuatu’. Overspending on scholarships in 2013 has not only left the department of education constrained at the very moment when it should be investing heavily in teachers, schools and educational resources, it’s diverted money from other areas as well.

In health, things don’t look so good either. Whatever we may think about the department’s recent decision to focus on medicine to the exclusion of other activities, it’s clear that much could be done to improve the ministry’s policy-making and implementation processes. A recent outbreak of dengue in Port Vila has caught it flat-footed. The cost in terms of medical care and, potentially, in lives, will only add to the nation’s burden.

Vanuatu managed to get through the recent global economic downturn with less damage than some of its neighbours. Some part of this is due to the government’s efforts in recent years to liberalise certain sectors, to improve conditions for businesses large and small, and to improve its own administrative processes as well. The result is that the country is a better place to do business than it was.

But we’re facing a welter of challenges still. The 2010 census contains stark evidence that the country is becoming increasingly urbanised. When peri-urban neighbourhoods like those surrounding the Port Vila and Luganville municipalities are factored in, we see that the old 80/20% rural/urban split no longer holds. Over the last few years, falling commodity prices and lack of opportunity have drawn more and more young adults into our towns. Back in 2010, the division was closer to 70/30, and based on observation alone, it’s clear that this trend is continuing at a rapid pace. Read more »

Posted: February 4th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, journamalism, wonk
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