Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…

These are the opening lines of a song made immortal by American Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Her personal story was heroic; battling poverty, marginalisation, racism and abuse, she managed to become one of the most influential singers of the 20th Century.

Strange Fruit’, Holiday’s signature tune, became a hallmark of a quickening social sensitivity to the plight of black people in America. Provocative, courageous and compelling, its twelve short lines could reduce even the most jaded listener to tears.

The song’s central image is the victim of a lynching, the ‘strange fruit’ hanging from a tree. Holiday, who had been raped at 11 and prostituted by 14, and who faced a lifetime of drug addiction and domestic abuse, made it a vessel into which she poured all of her pain and suffering.

Vanuatu has its own strange fruit: Planted between the roots of a nakatambol tree lie the bones of a Tannese woman murdered, burned and discarded after 14 years of neglect by her own people. An overgrown lot in Freswota is a-flower with yellow crime-scene tape marking the place where another young Tannese woman was raped and beaten to death with a timber. Her 3 year old daughter lay strangled nearby.

Just as the mightiest tree often comes from the smallest seed, Vanuatu continues to reap this bitter harvest because, in every aspect of their lives, women are subject to coercion.

Although often applied without malice, coercion is nonetheless a seed whose fruit contains sweet venom: How much easier everything is when you can end every argument with a quick clip across the mouth. Why take the time to reason or explain?

How much easier it is to spend one’s youth cruising the darkened neighbourhood lanes in search of someone to lure into the bushes. Why invest weeks and months of effort, earning the understanding and affection of someone with whom you could become so much more than you ever could be alone? What does it matter if she’s willing or not?

How much easier it is to sit down with the father and uncles of a young woman, inexperienced and ignorant of the world into which she is being sold, and to arrange her future for her. Better to pack her off while she’s still young, because domesticating her requires less effort than nurturing a human being who participates as an equal in the life of the household and the community. She’s being looked after, so even if she could, why should she complain?

Unimportance breeds disrespect. Disrespect breeds neglect. Neglect breeds resentment. Resentment breeds angry words. Angry words lead to blows. Blows breed estrangement. Estrangement leads to flight. Which leads into danger, depredation and sometimes, tragically, to death.

In virtually every case of death or abuse among women, one can place them somewhere on this path.

I could show you examples that would break your heart, but in every one of the dozens of abuse cases I’ve encountered, speaking in detail about the circumstances would only bring anger and retribution upon the woman. Perversely, public knowledge of her victimhood brings shame upon the perpetrator, and she is punished for that, too.

As a wise Roman observed 2000 years ago: It is indeed human nature to hate the one whom you have injured.

And this, really, is the most insidious venom of all. Blaming young women for tempting their rapists, or wives for driving their husbands to neglect or abuse them, is the greatest act of disrespect of them all. The idea relies on the assumption that the actions of men are forgiveable, but even inaction by women cannot be pardoned.

The idea itself is rooted in coercion.

But this is not an abstract disquisition on morality. The purpose of this column is simple: I want us to stop beating, abusing and neglecting our women and to start loving, respecting and learning from them instead. And lest you expat men think yourselves exempt from this; you’re not. I’ve seen ni-Vanuatu women treated despicably by black and white alike.

If I seem angry, that’s because I am. I have encountered instances of children solicited for sex, fathers turning their wives out and taking up with their under-age daughters, dozens of cases of rape and abuse, and some acts of violence that would make your blood curdle.

None of these appeared in the news or even in the crime statistics. Few of them were ever dealt with under law or kastom. It’s as if they don’t exist.

In almost every case where people did try to intercede, threats of violence by the man (often with the backing of his family) forced them to back away.

Coercion is a strangling vine. If we allow it to bend us even slightly, it alone will shape our growth.

We allow coercion to work because we are -all of us- weak. Our women simply aren’t as important to us as our own individual safety. How can I, a man, stand up to your abuser if he burns my house in return? If I physically confront him, what are the chances that his brothers and cousins will come for me? What are the odds that my family will face them down? Why even risk it?

I spoke with several Port Vila women about this vicious cycle. One of them replied, “Well, maybe if men didn’t treat us like animals in the first place, they might value us more.”

“The problem we face,” she said to me, “is that we don’t know each other at all. Once a girl and a boy have seen each other’s body, that’s it. It’s over.” So after a few weeks or months, when the young couple realise that they don’t see eye to eye on everything, or that their attraction wasn’t abiding love, there’s no escape. Things are sure to go badly and, here in Vanuatu, it’s always the woman who suffers most.

In the past, kastom might at least have provided some modicum of security. The tight confines of village life held at least some promise of safety, if not happiness or fulfillment.

No more.

Kastom teaches that respect is the seed from which all virtue grows. Jesus taught us to love one another -even the weakest among us- equally and without reserve. The Constitution states unequivocally that we are -all of us- equal. But none of that will matter until we purge ourselves of the poison fruit of coercion.

It’s aggravating, sometimes maddening, to have to draw out a disagreement until we achieve understanding. We struggle constantly with our animal nature to resist the mixed temptations of violence and lust.

Human, all too human, sometimes we fail. But if we don’t try at all, what kind of people are we, really? If we don’t tend our own garden and fight daily against this poison seed, what bitter harvest will our children reap?

It all starts right here: Treat your women like people.