(Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post‘s Weekender Section.)
Since the Australian Federal Police brought Project Wickenby to Vanuatu with the arrest of local resident Robert Agius and raids at PKF House and elsewhere, people here have been outraged over what they characterise as Australian arrogance. Australia, they charge, feels it’s bought the right to act as it pleases here. By making the government of Vanuatu dependant on their money and advisors, many argue, Australia has subverted Vanuatu sovereignty and now operates as it pleases here.
Mr. Agius stands accused of funneling about $100 million into Vanuatu as phony consulting fees. Prosecutors claim these fees – minus a commission for Mr. Agius – were then sent back to Australia as loans. The loans’ tax-free status allowed participants in the alleged scheme to avoid paying as much as $13 million in taxes.
News reports indicate that Mr. Agius is accused of having earned about $1.4 million from his involvement in this scheme.
The Agius affair is treated as a business story by Australian news sources. The contrast with how it’s reported in Vanuatu could not be starker. Mr. Agius’ guilt or innocence is secondary in the local narrative. This is, above all, a story about Vanuatu’s sovereignty, or lack thereof.
In Vanuatu, Kastom takes a lifetime to learn. More complex than any set of laws, it’s a tightly woven fabric of behaviour that is in a constant state of redefinition. Defined by respect and mutual support, it is measured and arbitrated by our chiefs and enforced by the community as a whole. It is at once amorphous and innately understood.
Although it manifests itself differently from one island to another, the importance of one’s name is integral to finding one’s place in local kastom. Indeed, the highest honour an expat can earn in Vanuatu is to be given a name. A naming ceremony implies the attainment of (usually honourary) chiefly rank. One’s name, in short, is the ultimate expression of one’s place, standing and role in the community. It conveys the very essence of its bearer.
Practices vary from island to island, but choosing – and using – a person’s name is rife with overtones about one’s relation to others. Expats are often confused, and sometimes amused, by most ni-Vanuatu’s unwillingness to address others by name. People are instead referred to in terms of their familial relationship to the speaker. Where relationships are unknown or ambiguous – between strangers, for example – a local default usually exists. It’s common to be addressed as ‘tawi’ in Tanna, though strictly speaking that would make you the person’s brother or sister in law. In a delightful example of linguistic drift, young women in North Malekula are almost universally addressed as ‘uncle’.
So why, when names possess such a strong tabu here in Vanuatu, do we put no stock at all in how Vanuatu’s name is used on the Internet?