Culture clash

M. Anne Brown

Friction between traditional kastom practices and state governance is not uncommon, especially in the areas of land holding, leadership and gender relations. But Vanuatu’s community life has a critical role to play in preserving social harmony.

Although Vanuatu’s population is yet to reach a quarter of a million, it is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. It has avoided the serious violent conflict or serial coups suffered by some of its neighbours, but still faces many of the problems and vulnerabilities of post-colonial states, and the potential for conflict is real. Yet Vanuatu also has profound sources of resilience, rooted, to a significant extent, in the vitality of its community life.

Vanuatu’s modified Westminster system of government, and the institutions and practices that flow from it, in many ways sits on top of longstanding clan and community based ways of life, widely known as kastom (or custom). State governance is often weakly grounded in the values and practices of Vanuatuan society; government provides few services beyond the towns.

By contrast, customary ways of life, embedded in networks of extended family and land, remain a fundamental reality across the country, providing security and welfare for the majority of the population, as well as underpinning culture, meaning and a place in the world.

Kastom and state governance can complement each other, but customary values and expectations can also conflict with the requirements of state governance, leading to confusion and the weakening of both. In Vanuatu, there is now a growing acknowledgement of kastom‘s significance to social order and well-being. While in some respects traditional practices are intrinsically conservative, they also have strong dynamic and adaptive elements.

Towns are melting pots of different kastoms and increasingly of none, and questions of how to deal with the inevitable conflicts are ongoing. Chiefs have established mechanisms whereby different clans are supported and overseen by chiefs from their locality living in the town, so that social frictions can be better managed. Preventing tensions over land between the local customary groups and incoming island migrants (so evident in the Solomon Islands) is an explicit goal of this work.

In the capital, Port Vila, on the grounds that the kastom authorities’ role is to work for community well-being, a young community leader has organised simple employment schemes for unemployed youths. There are also ongoing efforts to provide young people with places where they can learn and identify with island traditions.

As in many societies, violence against women is a significant problem, and men often cite kastom as an excuse. While contemporary village authorities are almost all male (in contrast to historical experience in parts of the country), the Vanuatu Women’s Centre, with support from the National Council of Chiefs, has initiated a series of public debates on the standing of women in society.

At the government level, there have been efforts to support better interaction between kastom and state governance. The government’s law and justice sector framework conceptualises Vanuatu as a two-keeled boat, sailing on both government and kastom. There are also efforts to work through intense friction around land between the kastom economy (in which land is largely held communally) and the market economy (where land is a fundamental commodity). While these efforts can be highly controversial and are likely to need adaptation, they represent serious attempts to shape governance, and the state, in ways that are grounded in Vanuatuan values and culture.

Important bridging bodies between kastom and the state include the National Council of Chiefs and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, and many community organisations play important local roles as well.

Kastom is much debated. It is not always clear what it actually entails, because of fragmentation and loss of tradition, but also because kastom has become a language for contesting changing values and directions. Questions of land holding, of who should lead, by what right should they lead and to whom and how should they be answerable, as well as gender relations, are part of these debates.

People in the islands rarely see themselves as involved in ‘governance’, the ‘state’ or ‘accountability’, yet these are often the substance of the debates. Ancestral practices were localised, but kastom has become a way of talking about national identity and self-determination while still referring back to local traditions.

Such questions about kastom have considerable practical urgency as Vanuatuans seek to ride international and globalising forces – even if they cannot control them.

About the author:

M. Anne Brown teaches at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, Australia, and works with Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs in the Kastom Governance Partnership.


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