A visit to Vanuatu
Vanuatu 29 Nov – 6 Dec 2009
A visit to Vanuatu was hosted by a Ni Vanuatu women known to us though her studies at a university in new Zealand. We found that women are bearing large burdens of extended family responsibilities – and that in urban areas there are added pressures of financial responsibility upon women who have jobs.
Highlights of the visit included a village ‘Mountains to reef” watersheds management programme , and an urban theatre group which generates ecological literacy through plays and films and hosting large events from their own organic gardens and produce. We asked them to participate in Lets Take care of the Planet. New research fish being led by a Ni Vanuatu woman on the restoration of traditional authority for peace-building. We anticipate involving this courageous woman in the Pacific Assembly in 2010.
Some reflections on our visit to Vanuatu
Vanuatu is only a 3 hour flight from New Zealand yet many worlds apart in terms of development criteria. Maria Humphries and Betsan were generously hosted by Andrina Thomas and during our one week stay in Port Villa we were able to meet with many groups and leaders to build further networks for our Across Oceania programme and to identify potential partners for further collaboration.
Several themes emerged from our visits and meetings.
Indigenous tribal systems are strong although in urban areas they become somewhat fractured and distorted by the mixture of work and unemployment. The story of people moving to towns in search of new opportunities has been well documented and was readily observed. We heard from women about the burden of their responsibilities to support family members who do not have sources of livelihood. We met women in leadership roles in organizations as well as those working in markets, the Mamas, and heard the stories of women bearing the weight of family responsibilities.
This made us reflect on the care that is needed in advocating for the concept of responsibility and the need to be attuned to the context of different situations. Women with leading jobs as well as the Mamas in Port Villa had disproportionate obligations attributed to them under the ‘extended family’ system – which, in an urban areas has to be met as financial support as well as housing and other forms of support.
Some women choose to enter the formal systems of governance in politics as well as the burgeoning NGO sector and are a growing presence in the private sector. Our host frequently referred to divisiveness amongst women and wondered about the scope to support collaboration as well as creativity.
We were inspired in our conversations with Rosalyn Tor , a courageous woman who just begun research through Australian National University, on the restoration of traditional systems of governance – through the chiefly system. Roslyn observed that in situations of conflict is can be seen again and again, that it is only the chiefs operating though traditional systems, that are able to bring resolution and peace. The authority of chiefs is considered to have been undermined by church leaders and this programme is working towards rebuilding traditional forms of authority in the interests of peace. We invited Rosalyn to come to the Pacific Assembly in 2010.
Vanuatu is made up of over 20 islands and 118 distinct language groups. From colonial time there are French and English influences. We were introduced to the matrilinear and patrilinear systems with the insight that both provide for respected status and roles of women, as distinct from patriarchy which assigns an inferior status to women. The Church and Christianity has brought a mixed influence – at worst, a usurping of chiefly influence and exacerbating detrimental and complicated allocations of responsibilities to women thus diminishing the balancing of gender equity that are generally embedded in both matrilineal and patrilinial societies.
We were confronted by the extent of illiteracy, and spasmodic health services and lack of systems for water storage and supply, and challenged by the urgent issues of poverty and violence, the complex influences of tourism, the pressures to engage with the global market, and the legacy of colonial influences in a society that is heavily influenced by foreign ‘aid’ and increasingly dependent on cash – both these external influences are ‘mixed blessings’.
The striking beauty of Vanuatu is in the land, the waters and the openhearted warmth of people for whom generosity is a primary value and hospitality a priority ethic. We were taken to a village that is creating an integrated land and coastal management system that entails reforestation, the imposition of a tabu, or ban on fishing in accordance with traditional management, and local enterprises that are aligned with sustainable resource management. Quite a gathering came to welcome us, with the chief of the village and environmentally trained leaders explaining their approach, with emphasis on the very important community committee. Before departing we were treated to kava in honour of our visit – a new experience for some of us!
This example of a rural village creatively planning and organizing for a future of new opportunities in a context of prioritizing environmental had a parallel in an urban organization Wan Smolbag Theatre. This is quite a famous group in the Pacific – well known for their plays and films on environmental issues. It was far more comprehensive that we expected, with organic gardens and produce, cooking and hospitality facilities, literacy and sewing classes, and composting toilets! Much work goes in to producing resources on all sorts of relevant and pressing topics – HIVAids, family planning, health, the importance of trees, care of soil and water, climate change…..Wan Smolbag employs up to a hundred young people and caters to children for whom school is not a possibility – for financial reasons.
We discussed the possibility of Wan Smolbag Theatre taking part in Lets Take Care of the Planet – either in a New Zealand conference, or in the Confint in Brazil. The question was openly considered of whether it would be right to put resources into this experience for a small group when there are pressing needs for so many. We will continue the discussion.
Being in Vanuatu refreshed the sense of being neighbours yet of such disparate conditions between countries like New Zealand and Australia, and the Pacific Island countries. This is part of the intention of Across Oceania – to build a greater sense of our co-habitation in the Pacific and to remind us of the imperatives of regional solidarity.