Strange Bedfellows

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

Modern Vanuatu society expresses its values three ways: through kastom, the law and the church. If we reflect honestly on each of them, we have to admit that not one is ideally implemented. Nonetheless, each is inextricably woven into our identity, and thus bound to the other two.

It’s sometimes tempting to think about the tension between each of these influences in exclusive terms, to assume that certain things belong in one domain and therefore not in another. When the chief, the policeman and the pastor don their respective robes of office, we think we see a clear distinction.

But as with all things, the differences are far clearer in the abstract than in real life.

The truth of the matter is that on any particular issue, any two of them could claim jurisdiction and be right. Likewise, any two of them might be able to align themselves to a given stance, but as often as not, the third would remain opposed.

Indulge me for a moment, and consider the paradoxical image of a three-headed coin. Each time you flip it, not one but two of three possible faces are exposed, sharing a single side. The third face, however, is always turned away. To further abuse the metaphor, the two faces often find themselves staring uncomfortably at one another.

Look at how awkwardly kastom and the law are wedged together in the Constitution. The national council of chiefs is given standing, but to no clear purpose. The Supreme Court is gently urged to consult with the chiefs, especially on matters of kastom, but there is no requirement to do so.

Likewise, the Constitution clearly states that the country is founded on Christian principles, but offers no further clarification. Freedom of conscience and religious belief are listed as inalienable rights, further broadening the meaning of the national motto, ‘Long God yumi stanap.’

While the idea of rule of law can be found in the earliest human records, virtually all of the principles espoused in the Constitution date from the Enlightenment, that period in the 18th Century when European thinkers began applying systematic, analytical forms to their ideas about government. While freedom of conscience and belief were fundamental to these ideals, their inherent rationalism made them uncomfortable bedfellows with the church and many other long-standing cultural traditions.

The group of young, committed and idealistic men who led Vanuatu to independence found themselves in the unenviable position of having to reconcile these intransigent and occasionally contradictory systems in language provided by their erstwhile colonial masters. One of those involved in the four-month drafting process has described the result as a distinctly imperfect framework, redeemed mostly by the simplicity forced upon it by circumstance.

Attempts to reconcile these only-sometimes complementary institutions require a level of commitment and patience that sometimes seems beyond our capacity to achieve. Kastom land tribunals are a commendable effort to amalgamate the constitutionally-guaranteed right of traditional land ownership with foreign ideas about property. The results, however, have been decidedly mixed. One is hard put to decide whether success is too much to expect, or whether we simply haven’t given it enough time.

The issue of equality is a particularly interesting one. It is a fundamental right, guaranteed in the Constitution, and forms the basis for most of the democratic mechanisms outlined in the ‘mama loa’. Depending on the weight one gives to the writings of St. Paul and/or to kastom practices, though, absolute equality begins to lose its traction. The right, nay, the responsibility, of the man to make all important decisions in the household is more or less assumed in many local traditions.

In fairness, most chiefs will explain that, even though they say little In the nakamal, women know well enough how to make their opinions heard, usually through a few well-placed words in the privacy of the family home. That works well, as long as the husband is receptive. I doubt it would provide much comfort, though, to the many women I have encountered who are beaten regularly – and sometimes brutally – by their partners.

One last example: At the end of last week’s Melanesian Spearhead Group Summit, Port Vila residents witnessed a compelling spectacle. Led by the Prime Minister and the Head of State, the people of Vanuatu performed an elaborate kastom ceremony to apologise to the family of a young Solomon Islands student who was beaten to death outside a bar in 2007. I’m personally acquainted with one of the men charged in this crime, and was able to witness first-hand the depth of sorrow and contrition that he felt.

But what weight can a kastom sorry ceremony be given under law? If this had happened anywhere except in Port Vila, the ceremony might well have marked the end of the affair. And yet it does nothing to reduce his legal culpability.

Notions of equality, forgiveness, guilt and rehabilitation all balance themselves uncomfortably on the deck of our creaky ship of state. Indeed, their unique dynamic is one of the things that make Vanuatu so interesting. No doubt they will remain contentious for years to come.