Human, All Too Human

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

A man paddles his canoe into Lolowei's harbour, sheltered by standing rocks on one side and this massive cliff on the other. A shocking story is emerging from the Northern Vanuatu island of Maewo. Last week, two brothers, fugitives from Kaiovo village, appeared at Lolowei Hospital on neighbouring Ambae island. One was treated for injuries. Witnesses said he claimed he had been stoned following a village meeting. The other walked onward to Tumsisiro, an Anglican mission, and requested sanctuary.

Before long, a caller from Maewo ascertained the brothers’ presence in Ambae, and a motor boat was dispatched. Reports estimate that up to a dozen men armed with axes and bush knives arrived at Lolowei. They proceeded to the outpatient clinic and promptly murdered the first brother. Stunned onlookers watched as they struck him dead, then dragged his corpse down to the shore, mocking and abusing it as they went. The second brother met the same fate soon afterward.

Within hours of the events, the story began to spread that accusations of sorcery and murder were the cause of this tragic episode. As with most such events, speculation is rampant and details are difficult to corroborate. One distraught Ambaean related a tale that seems to align well with others:

She told of a meeting held in Kaiovo to deal once and for all with the death of two local school employees, widely suspected to have been poisoned. At its climax, a local church elder announced that God had given him the names of the perpetrators. He had no sooner identified the two brothers and an elderly male accomplice than the local chief instructed the villagers to kill them.

Before the brothers could react, she said, one of the villagers picked up a large volcanic cooking stone and launched it at one of them. He missed, and the two began to scramble to their feet. Another stone quickly followed, striking one of the brothers and injuring him. They nonetheless managed to escape, leaving the older man to be beaten severely by the villagers.

Reports indicate that they obtained a canoe and paddled across several kilometers of open ocean to Lolowei’s tiny cove. It was there that their pursuers caught them up and murdered them.

Poison, witchcraft, religious visions and mob justice. One could easily dismiss these events as the actions of a backward, primitive people, benighted in superstition.

We should be careful not to mock too loudly, lest we mock ourselves.

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Gift Economy – Ctd.

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

Last week’s column on the relationship between chiefs, politicians and public servants provoked a good deal of discussion at the nakamal over the course of the week. Nobody contested the idea that we need to stop treating core government services as gifts to be doled out to political supporters. But there was some divergence of opinion regarding what changes, if any, were required.

Perhaps most interesting of all, nobody questioned the involvement of cabinet ministers in ensuring service delivery. The question was not whether the Minister should get involved in service delivery, but how he should do so.

Students of government from overseas might find themselves squirming at the very thought of such a question. The strong separation of politics and administration is one of the basic principles of the Westminster tradition. Many – if not most – of the major scandals in Vanuatu politics since Independence have been the result of the politicisation of roles and responsibilities in public service delivery.

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Gift Economy

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

The chief sat down, massaged his swollen hand in its cast and regaled me with the story of how he got the road cleaned up.

Numerous neighbourhoods in Port Vila are notorious for the condition of their roads. Some become impassably muddy, some become lakes when it rains, some are worn down to rocky tracks suitable only for goats. In a few cases, the road should never have been constructed where it was. In others, years of neglect have worn away what little engineering might have gone into them in the first place.

This chief was not the first – and will certainly not be the last – individual to wage a personal campaign to see conditions improved in his neighbourhood. His approach was typical, too. He worked his way through a network of brokers, often smoothing the conversation with kava, cigarettes and other blandishments, until he finally got the ear of the Minister. A brief, impassioned appeal to the big man, accompanied by a review of voter numbers and allegiance, was greeted in the end by the assurance that something would be done.

Sure enough, within a few days, the Minister is striding through the department offices, commandeering trucks, equipment and men to the site in question and ordering them to clean things up right quick.

The chief was rightly proud of what he’d achieved on behalf of his community. I must say I admire him, too, for his patience and commitment. Others would have given up or walked away long before.

The cast on his arm, you see, was the product of a confrontation between the chief and a drunken lout who, following a public chastisement, attacked him with a club, breaking his arm in two places. That might have been enough to make a smaller person turn his back on his community.

I fear I am a smaller person than he.

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Action and Reaction

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

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When Isaac Newton first formulated his third law of motion, he codified a long-observed phenomenon. Wits have suggested a fourth law: ‘No good deed goes unpunished.

At the Lowy Institute’s recent conference, The Pacific Islands and the World, attendees witnessed two contrasting views of Vanuatu. The gathering, timed to coincide with the Pacific Forum, was attended by dignitaries from major global institutions as well as government leaders from throughout the region. It was billed as an opportunity to discuss the impact of the global economic crisis on vulnerable Pacific Island nations.

By all accounts, though, Vanuatu has been less affected than the global economic giants. Mid-year numbers do indicate a slight slow-down, but in real terms, our economy’s still growing fairly well. In a recently published briefing paper by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, Nikunj Soni and the Australian National University’s professor Stephen Howes point to tourism and construction as the leading drivers of this growth.

But they are quick to note that the environment is as critical to this success as the actual business opportunities. One noteworthy chart clearly shows the rise in economic activity starting in 2003, about the same time as major budgetary and macro-economic reforms began to take hold in Vanuatu.

The briefing paper goes on to highlight the fact that none of this growth would have been possible without social stability. That may seem like so much common sense to some. Civil disturbance and political turmoil are seldom on a tourist’s must-see list. Likewise with home buyers.

But what brings this stability about?

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Common Ground

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

Even in the decades before Jimmy Steven’s Nagriamel movement, land has been at the core of ni-Vanuatu politics and society. Many battles have been fought – and far too many lost – over land rights.

Justin Haccius, a legal researcher for the World Bank’s Jastis Blong Evriwan project, has been looking at this issue for some time now. The conflict between kastom and law, he says, is one of the central issues affecting Vanuatu society today. The problem, as he sees it, is simple: “The system of the majority is not the system of the State.”

In a briefing note titled “Coercion to Conversion: Push and Pull Pressures on Custom Land in Vanuatu” Haccius highlights some of the pressures brought to bear on kastom land owners in their efforts to derive value from their land without becoming completely disenfranchised in the process.

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Who We Are

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

After more than a month’s delay, prison escapee John Bule’s body was finally put to rest this week. While his family may have some degree of solace now that they can properly mourn his passing, and in spite of Government entreaties to allow the justice system to work, many feel that much remains to be said about how we treat our prisoners.

In a searing letter to the Editor earlier this week, one man described how his children and their nanny had been terrorised by knife-wielding thieves. The nanny was only saved from rape or worse by the man’s timely arrival.

If we had Capital Punishment,” he writes, “I would gladly pull the trigger on this criminal.

I know exactly how he feels. Nearly a decade after the fact, I have only to think about one man and I begin to shake with rage.

Years ago, I lived in a frontier town smaller than Port Vila. I found evidence that one of its residents had been molesting children for over a decade, and that one of them, a 12 year old girl, had since committed suicide.

I sat at home for hours, trying to decide whether to call the police, or simply to pull my rifle from its locker and shoot him myself. In the end, I picked up the telephone, not the gun.

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Words for Words

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

A week ago today, four men entered the offices of the Vanuatu Daily Post and attacked publisher Marc Neil-Jones, punching him hard enough to fracture his nose and then kicking him while he was down.

Asked about the assault, Neil-Jones half-smiled and described it in philosophical terms, suggesting that this kind of treatment comes with the territory. “This isn’t the first time this has happened to me,” he said, then added wryly, “of course, I’m older now than I was.”

Neil-Jones was beaten because his staff did their job, reporting on events and recording their views, for the public good and for posterity.

This column isn’t about the events that led to the attack. It’s not about prisons, politics or even publishers. This column is about getting results. It’s about resolving issues instead of exacerbating them.

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A Matter of Justice

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

On December 5, a remarkable document surfaced. Prison Report 2008, authored in secret by Vanuatu inmates on a contraband laptop, is a long, ambling document that alternates between history, documentary and cri de coeur as it recounts the hardships faced by those incarcerated in Vanuatu’s prisons.

At times uncritical, naive and even occasionally self-serving, the report nonetheless contains well documented reports of violence and mistreatment in our prisons.

The report paints a picture of regular physical abuse and neglect in an environment that resists our best efforts to improve it. The prisoners claim that it is precisely these conditions that not only lead them to escape but allow them to succeed.

The prisoners are frankly foolish in their expectations. They make claims for compensation to the tune of 100 million vatu and finish with a warning that if these claims are not addressed within 14 days the prisoners will walk out.

Director of Correctional Services Joshua Bong initially insisted his department had not seen the report, but has since assured the prisoners that a commission of inquiry will be established to investigate the claims. On Thursday, he indicated his intention to stop any effort to leave the prison – with or without outside help –by blockading the road in front of the Stade.

Notwithstanding all precautions taken, the prisoners made good on their threats. On Friday morning at roughly 9:30 a.m., they set the prison alight. In the ensuing chaos, they exited the building, tossed a bible astride the concertina wire atop the fence, and used that foothold to effect their escape.

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Lost in Translation

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

Poetry is what gets lost in the translation – Robert Frost

This quotation is one of those handy catch-all phrases that scholars love to use to explain – and often excuse – people’s inability to capture the essence of a statement when it’s translated between languages and cultures. Examples of miscommunication between peoples are everywhere.

One of the most startling examples of the limits to cross-cultural communication occurred during US-Russian nuclear talks. Disarmament expert Geoffrey Forden writes:

‘It turns out that when the US START II treaty negotiators tried to explain to their Russian counterparts the need for a “strategic reserve” of nuclear warheads, they called it a hedge. The Russian interpreters alternately translated that as either “cheat” or “shrub”.’

You can imagine the confusion and consternation this would have caused. More than poetry was at stake in this particular translation.

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Just Desserts

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

One of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy is our right – and our responsibility – to question every aspect of our national institutions. If the political dialogue over the last few years is any indication, Vanuatu’s democracy is alive and kicking.

Kalkot Mataskelekele’s adult life has been devoted to promoting and defining an independent, democratic Vanuatu. The nation has benefited from his consistency, wisdom and guidance. He has long been a public proponent of a US-style system with a clear division of power between legislative and executive branches of government. He has been joined by others in suggesting that factionalism could be addressed by putting limits on the number of political parties.

Mataskelekele is one of many leaders who have remarked on numerous occasions that we should not take the structures of government for granted. He rightly points out that Vanuatu’s Westminster system was created mostly as a sop to its departing colonial masters seeking reassurance that the nascent democracy would remain recognisable to them.

In the rush to create a new constitution, important aspects of Vanuatu culture were overlooked. The consensus-driven style of leadership-from-within that typifies chiefly rule is difficult to reconcile with majority rule and a codified, winner-take-all legal system.

Most difficult of all are the contending principles of public service and entitlement.

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