[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
In Parliament, Speaker George Wells is ousted by his own party and VRP leader Maxime Carlot Korman takes his place.
On one short stretch of road in the Freswota neighbourhood alone, one passes no less than 4 small churches.
Not far away, in the bandstand in Freswota Park, a homeless woman, 8 months pregnant, sleeps with her 1-year-old child.
Each of these fragments, taken on its own, paints a curious picture. Piece them together, though, and we begin to understand the corner of the world we live in.
Since Independence, the number of political parties has steadily increased. Likewise the number of independent candidates. Factionalism within the parties continues unchecked. This phenomenon has been documented, studied and commented at length.
Our churches are following a similar trajectory. A pet hypothesis of mine is that the increase in the number and variety of churches (mostly inspired by American Pentecostalism) over the last few decades runs almost perfectly parallel to the number and variety of political groupings.
I suspect that the cause of each trend is the same: Vanuatu society is inherently anti-institutional. Once compelling outside forces are removed from the equation, it tends to look inward, to family first, and then to community.
Some commentators see this as a bad thing. I don’t. Not necessarily.
Even with the decline of influence of some major churches and political parties, it is still perfectly valid to describe Vanuatu as a democratic nation based largely on Christian principles. Doctrinal differences do exist, but they are mostly cosmetic. In most cases, one can plot the diaspora from national institutions against people’s inclination to look closer to home for comfort, protection and guidance.
From one perspective, this is a pragmatic response to the reality of Vanuatu society. It’s not surprising that its institutions follow the same trajectory as its population.
We may be tempted to blame this fragmentation for the number of petty rivalries and inefficiencies that continually beset us, but I suspect it’s the other way around. It seems more reasonable to argue that tightly meshed social networks function best at the village level. It’s harder to find (or be kept in) one’s place in a society that extends beyond frequent, even daily contact.
Such a system is not without deficiencies, of course. While the government has maintained overall policy stability for nearly a decade now, many of its undertakings have been delayed or disregarded because of political turbulence. Building consensus for all but the most compelling issues is inordinately difficult.
Likewise with our churches. Without for a moment taking away from the devotion, principle and faith of our smaller churches, their capacity and reach are significantly limited compared, for example, to the national campaigns regularly undertaken by the larger ones. School building is but one example.
Nonetheless, family and village life retains a remarkably strong and mostly salutary influence over our daily lives. It is largely responsible for feeding body, soul and mind, and while the fare may be simple, hardly anyone starves.
In a society without institutions, family is all we have. If we have no family, then we have nothing at all. And that, according to reports I’ve recently received, is precisely the situation that one young woman is facing today.
The details are sketchy at best, and possibly incorrect in some regards, but the story is heart-breaking: A young woman defies her family and marries without approval. When the marriage turns rocky, she and her son are turned out of their home. In punishment for her willfulness, her family won’t take her back. Bereft and pregnant with her second child, she takes to sleeping in parks, cadging food where she can, eating only after her son has fed.
If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s the display of common Christian kindness shown by so many in the tale as it was told to me. Good Samaritans have given her money, food and even short-term shelter. One woman, barren herself, even offered to adopt her unborn child.
In a welfare state, homelessness is an oft-ignored plight. State-sponsored welfare mechanisms, despite their enlightened intentions and tangible, often life-saving benefits, allow mainstream society to remain largely oblivious to the individual suffering caused by such societal breakdowns.
We in Vanuatu cannot afford such luxuries. For us, the cost of ignorance, indifference and short-sightedness is simply too great. Whatever our differences, we cannot afford to let gaps appear in what has proven an effective social safety net for nearly all its members.
Rather than rail against the small scale of most aspects of Vanuatu life, we should accept and embrace it. But if we’re going to do that effectively, we must adhere tightly to those things we value most: family, kastom and Christian kindness. If we do not cleave to them closely both in thought and action, others will pay for our inattention, possibly with their lives.
Without social fabric to hold things together, Vanuatu will consist of nothing but a bundle of fragments. Political parties may rise and fall. Churches may sprout like flowers after rain. But family must endure. Let us never forget that.
Update: I’m releasing this a little early, because I’ve just got word that some friends of mine are taking the young woman to hospital. They called me to ask for some blankets, because she has none of her own. She’s about to deliver her second child. More on this as news arrives.
Update 2: False alarm. The nurses at the hospital felt that it was false labour brought on by stress. The young woman has been taken in these last few days by a local family. Her one-year-old son is being cared for by one couple, and another have volunteered to adopt the second when it’s born. They’ve also spoken with her former employer, who’s agreed to take her back once she’s well enough.