A Time and a Place

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

On Monday, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy officially launched ‘The political parties and groupings of Vanuatu’. The 60-page booklet is a treasure trove of information about Vanuatu’s political past and present. It lists the major political parties along with a brief history, key membership and policies. Already, there are over 500 Bislama copies in circulation. This number is expected to double before the election.

Chiefs, government representatives and members of civil society all voiced their support for the report. Without simple, reliable information like this, voters rely on intuition and (often hollow) promises to choose a candidate. Prior to this, the task of sifting the wheat from the rhetorical chaff was near impossible.

Rebecca Olul, manager of Save the Children’s Youth Outreach project, shared some lively and nuanced insights with the audience at Monday’s presentation. Her short speech cast a jaundiced eye on the vague blandishments that sometimes pass for policy. Without resorting to rank cynicism, she encouraged readers of the report to carefully weigh their candidates’ words and actions.

The 25 year old knows the challenges facing young people today, the competing tensions between Vila and village, kastom and 21st Century culture. She combines 6 years of living and learning overseas with the intimate understanding of life in the islands that only those born into it can possess.

Vanuatu society is among the rapidly diminishing number that still guarantee their members a place and a purpose in life. Traditional life is clearly delineated – not to say boring – in almost every way. Family ties, rank and gender define every aspect of one’s existence. If you are an adult male in a family in good standing, life is very good indeed. But the situation degrades from there.

Young people in Vanuatu are mostly expected to listen, not talk. Young women especially. They learn early on to avoid drawing attention to themselves. For most of them, they only ever receive the wrong kind. Village affairs, they’re taught, are best left to those in charge. If they do have some useful skill, they’ll be told how and when to use it. Advice and opinion find their only outlet in kitchen gossip.

Options for young men are not much broader. Though some, especially those with rank, are sometimes used as pawns or knights in village affairs, most of the time they’re little more than muscle, performing public chores and supporting the family.

This state of affairs exists for a reason. Kastom is a fluid formula for peaceful coexistence that’s been innovated, tried, tested continuously over the course of 3000 years. But it exists for the benefit of the community, not the individual. Tension arise, therefore, when it butts up against Enlightenment concepts of individual rights, equality and natural justice.

So what happens when a young, educated woman stands up in the nakamal and starts asking questions? Right now, the idea is inconceivable to most, both young and old. Many youth today create a space for themselves by leaving the village and kastom behind. They are disengaged, disinterested, adrift in the gulf between Western culture and their own. In some cases, they’re more inspired by the liberation philosophy of Rastafarianism or the materialistic yearnings of rap and hip-hop than they are by their own leaders.

Olul’s work tries to reconcile these competing cultural influences, to replace some of the adversarial thinking so common in Western culture with the spirit of accommodation and compromise integral to kastom. She cites Chief Selwyn Aru of the Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs. He accepts that the disparities between kastom and basic human rights need to be reconciled, But he is quick to note that work must proceed carefully:

The best way to get breadfruit, he observes, is neither to cut down the tree nor to throw stones in the hope that some of the fallen fruit will be ripe. A bamboo pole should be used to cull only those fruit which are ripe and ready. That way, more of the fruit can be shared by more people.

Asked how change can be usefully achieved, Olul demurs somewhat. There is no party, no movement that can empower youth without directly challenging authority and provoking conflict. Comprehensive change must be achieved in increments. Individuals need to educate and inform themselves, and look for levers to change perspectives bit by bit in their individual milieu.

She looks to a new generation of independent political actors to advocate intelligently, without cynicism or self-interest.

PiPP’s Political Parties book gives people the information they need to assess their candidate. It won’t immediately stop family- and village-based block voting in exchange for gifts. But it will at least make it clear just how ripe this fruit is that the community is dining on.

Young ni-Vanuatu are told to wait their turn, to know their place. The incremental change espoused by Olul and others just might be enough to build a sense of enfranchisement within the community. Our youth need to see a place for themselves in achieving change, and to know that the time to start is now.