Good Neighbours

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – Robert Frost

The vast breadth of ocean that has historically insulated Pacific Island nations from the rest of the world has at last been reduced. Day by day, our islands lose some of the luster and allure that English writer Somerset Maugham made famous in The Moon and Sixpence.

That’s not to say Vanuatu’s lost its allure altogether, just the kind that Gaugin painted, and TV’s Fantasy Island caricatured. That allure, of course, never existed anywhere except in the imagination.

Like its Pacific neighbours, Vanuatu is culturally rich and uniquely appealing. Its peoples have developed over three thousand years with little outside interaction. The simplicity and idyllic naïveté depicted in popular Western culture is mostly in the eye of the observer. Life in Vanuatu is simple, but only in the sense that modern life in North America and Western Europe is ‘easy’: It’s true, provided you’ve spent all your life getting used to it.

But now, our cultures are melding and changing, and we don’t have a lifetime to get used to it.

Everywhere in the world, it’s been assumed that taking up the tools and trappings of technological society necessarily leads to a degree of homogeneity. Whether characterised as bland uniformity or as a diverse but unified world culture, the vision is essentially the same. Like magpies, we appropriate the shiniest bits of other cultures, building ourselves a dazzling – sometimes inventive and useful – nest in which to live.

If we want to look at it in kinder terms, we could say that technological advances save lives. They reduce the cost of delivering needed services. They make impossible things achievable and difficult things easy.

Those two perceptions aren’t mutually exclusive. Especially since the mid 19th Century, Western cultures have often been guilty of appropriating ideas and philosophies from Asia, the Americas and yes, even the Pacific, only to use them as cultural window dressing. At the very same time, these same cultures have integrated ‘foreign’ ideas, approaches and technologies with their own, fueling the greatest leap in human technical advancement in history.

When we take advantage of the advances of Western society, we often take the good with the bad. Societies that accept such radical and constant change usually find this rootless, appropriative approach works itself into the collective psyche as well.

This can leave those who embrace advanced technologies feeling distinctly uncomfortable. One of the most appealing aspects of living and working in Vanuatu that most everyone still possesses an innate understanding of the world, their place in it, and ultimately of their purpose in life. There is a distinct tension between the immutability, the conservatism of kastom and the ultimately subversive fluidity of modern technological advance.

One of the most common mistakes expat workers make in Vanuatu is to assume that things here are much the same as they are in their own country – or more precisely, that people want things here to become the same as in their country. Indeed, it’s a mistake that some ni-Vanuatu make as well.

Development is a two-way street. Vanuatu will no doubt benefit greatly, but the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from Vanuatu, too.

When two such radically different cultures intersect, there will of necessity be losses. Some of them are more palatable than others. No one alive today would argue, for example, that women from the Big Nambas tribe should continue to be rated less valuable than pigs.

Some losses, though, will certainly represent a great and irreparable loss to human knowledge. Already there are children who cannot speak to their grandparents in anything but Bislama.

Village elders, field workers from the Vanuatu Kaltoral Senta and countless others are making every effort to ensure that important music, dance, stories and ritual remain alive and relevant. Increasingly, people are trying to record and preserve all of this in digital media. In doing so, they walk a fine line between modern ideas that pigeon-hole these recordings as mere performances and kastom, which draws strong tabus around such rituals and practices.

But that’s not the greatest challenge we face. The very character of the nation is at stake. That smiling, patient forbearance accompanied by deft social manoeuvrability that often elides unpleasantries of any kind – saving that is a greater challenge than any. This nature is born of the Vanuatu environment, its countless joys and burdens. As the environment changes, so too do we.

The world could learn a thing or two from the nature of public discourse here. Consensus building is better understood in Vanuatu than in any other part of the world I’ve visited. But it’s not enough simply to be proud of it. If the nasara is going to survive it will be because we kept it alive.

It’s easy to forget that Vanuatu, for all its vulnerability, is in a stronger position than most of its Pacific neighbours. We’re further down the road of integrating modern communications into our daily lives; we’ve got a much more highly developed professional community of practice than regional powerhouses like Fiji and PNG. We’re more inclined to weigh the benefits of development issues and more adept at finding the areas where they’re wanting.

Vanuatu still remembers a good many things that the rest of the world forgot.

We’re uniquely positioned to strengthen both ourselves and our neighbours. From the highest levels of leadership down to the grassroots level, we have a community that could teach a thing or two to others who trail behind us in developmental terms. Doing this will help us develop a better understanding of our own situation, and give us better tools to deal with it.

Honestly, our options are rather limited in this matter. Either we remain more or less passive in the face of increasing outside pressure, or we find ways to positively affirm our own approaches to communication and cultural expression. The first option leaves us at a distinct disadvantage; by attempting to preserve only a little, we stand to lose more.

The second option requires a greater effort, but offers commensurate rewards. It not only increases the value of our managers and technicians to others, it raises the standard here in Vanuatu as well.

It may seem a little counter-intuitive to suggest exporting our technical abilities throughout the region at a time when they’re still under-developed and in short supply here. The fact is that no matter our limitations, we’re in a better position relative to most other Pacific nations. And remember, almost everyone who goes abroad comes home sooner or later, usually richer and wiser for the experience. And that enriches us all.

By helping to build the structures that define our respective identities, we strengthen the region as a whole, and ourselves most of all.