Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu


Praying for the revival of kastom: Women and Christianity in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre


Lissant Bolton
Centre for Cross-Cultural Research
Australian National University

Source: Women, Christians, Citizens: Being Female in Melanesia Today, Oceanic-Whitehall Guesthouse, Sorrento, Victoria
11-13 November 1998

In 1991 and 1992 Jean Tarisesei and I worked together on the island of Ambae in north Vanuatu. We worked on a project to document and revive women's knowledge about the production of the textiles -- plaited pandanus mats -- which are centrally important to most aspects of Ambaean life. This was the first program of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre's Women's Culture Project. The Vanuatu Cultural Centre has, since 1976, devoted most of its funding and staff time to the promotion and revival of indigenous knowledge and practice, of kastom. Until 1991, however, Cultural Centre programs had focussed almost exclusively on men's kastom. The Ambae project was the first serious attempt by the Cultural Centre to promote women's kastom. Jean [1] and I spent most of one year working on Ambae holding meetings with women around the island, and talking to women about the different kinds of mats made on the island, and their many different uses.

One of the ways in which Jean and I implemented our project was by holding meetings. We travelled to the different districts of the island, and held meetings in many villages, at which we talked about our project, and about the fact that women have kastom too, that it is not only something that men have. These meetings were mostly attended by women, although there was usually a chief or other male leader who came along as well to welome us. At the first such meeting I ever attended, which took place in Nambangahake Village in West Ambae, the President of the Women's Club in the area made a formal welcome 'in God's name' before we settled down to the business of talking about the project. The meeting closed with a prayer in the local language and a blessing in English. This, I soon realised, was not an unusual approach to a meeting about kastom. Nearly every meeting about the Women's Culture Project on Ambae opened and closed with a prayer. Sometimes those prayers were in language, but mostly they were in Bislama, Vanuatu's lingua franca. These weren't set prayers, but were people's own thoughts and words. Usually, the person praying thanked God for us, for our visit, and asked him to bless our work. Sometimes the person praying spoke to God about kastom. For example, in a Church of Christ area, at Lolomatui village in east Ambae, Barnabus Bani [2] closed a meeting about the project with a prayer in which he said 'kastom comes from you, Jesus'.

Despite the fact that I am myself a committed Christian, it was quite a few months before I became comfortable with these prayers. My role on Ambae was as a Government volunteer, and Jean's role was as a member of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre staff. I was not used to hearing people pray in secular public contexts such as I understood our meetings to be. As an anthropologist, I am used to hearing Christianity condemned for damaging kastom, and I know the truth of that accusation in many cases. My assumption was that people would see Christianity and kastom as in some way opposed to each other. I only grasped the centrality of prayer to meetings about kastom at the very end of our year on Ambae. In June 1992 we held a week long workshop at the Provincial Government headquarters, which was attended by forty women from around Ambae. At this workshop women exchanged knowledge with each other on a number of topics relating to Ambae mats. The first day began with a formal opening ceremony at which there were prayers. In the afternoon we began the workshop. When I wound up the afternoon's proceedings a woman from the village in which I was living quietly reminded me to close the day with a prayer. Thereafter we opened and closed each day with prayer.

As Jean Tarisesei has demonstrated in her paper, the different Christian denominations presently represented in Vanuatu have a variety of different approaches to kastom, and these approaches have changed over time. The denominations which were most in evidence in the colonial era were the Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics, with the Churches of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists entering the arena in the later decades of the colonial period. Despite differences between the denominations, in the colonial period a distinction was commonly made between the darkness of heathenism and the light of the Gospel, a distinction made by missionaries, but often accepted by islanders [cf Lindstrom 1982:322-3]. It was as the ni-Vanuatu [3] began to re-establish their own intellectual autonomy through various political and social movements, that they began to re-evaluate kastom. This was particularly the case during the Independence Movement of the 1970's. Some of the key leaders of the Independence Movement were members of the Presbyterian and Anglican Churches, and they put pressure on those churches to change their policy on kastom which they considered to be too strict [Kirk Huffman [4] Interview 30 Oct 1998].

The Vanuatu Cultural Centre began its programs to document and revive local knowledge and practice during the height of the Independence Movement, so that the development of the Cultural Centre co-incided with the changing attitude to kastom among many ni-Vanuatu. The first curator of the Cultural Centre was an Englishman called Kirk Huffman. Huffman had trained in anthropology, and had undertaken some years of fieldwork on the island of Malakula before he took up his position at the Cultural Centre.

The core program of the Cultural Centre, which Huffman strongly supported and developed, is called the fieldworker program. In this program men, and more recently, women, are trained to work in their own villages and areas documenting and reviving local knowledge and practice. The fieldworkers are volunteers. They meet once every year at a two week workshop held at the Cultural Centre itself in Port Vila. 

The nature of the fieldworker program evolved over a number of years from 1976. During the early years of the program, Huffman instituted a tacit policy, which was strongly supported by his assistant curator, Jack Keitadi, that the churches were not to be allowed into the Cultural Centre. When Huffman and Keitadi brought men into Vila from the islands for meetings of one kind or another, they sometimes received messages from church leaders requesting that they be allowed to come to the start of the meeting and pray for it. These requests were always refused. Huffman comments that at that time the churches were influential everywhere. He saw it as important that this influence did not reach into the Cultural Centre [Huffman Interview 30 Oct 1998].

As the fieldworker program developed, Huffman saw an increasing need to address the question of writing and recording language. In 1980, the year of Independence, he invited the Australian linguist Darrell Tryon to run a workshop on this topic for the fieldworkers. This became an annual event. The fieldworker workshops are now the core of the fieldworker program. At the first workshop one of the delegates asked that prayers should be included in the proceedings [Tryon pers com 9 October 1998]. Huffman reports that he and Keitadi did not attempt to block this introduction [Huffman Interview 30 Oct 1998]. Tryon can no longer recall which fieldworker it was who suggested that the workshops should involve opening prayers, but from that day to this, each day of the men fieldworker's workshop opens with prayer.

If the fieldworker workshops open with prayer that is the extent of the reach of the church into them. Tryon has two rules for the workshops, which he enunciates every year -- no church, no politics. Fieldworkers may belong to any church and to any political party, but they cannot talk about their opionions and beliefs in the workshops, these two topics are banned from discussion. If a fieldworker is elected to Parliament he is automatically retired from the fieldworker group. However, if a fieldworker achieves some position in a church he is allowed to continue. In fact, the involvement of a fieldworker in his local church is often seen as a strategic positioning which will enable him to reinforce the importance of kastom among the congregation. The men fieldworker group now has nearly twenty years of experience of working to research and promote kastom. That experience includes that of several fieldworkers who come from areas where the local church is, for one reason or another, opposed to kastom. Longal Nobel Maasingyau, from the Nahaii speaking area of south west Malakula, fights an ongoing battle with a variety of new churches which see kastom as paving the road to damnation [Huffman pers comm Oct 1998]. When Maasingyau opened a local cultural centre at Leuanari Bay on October 24 this year, he permitted two more sympathetic church groups to participate at the opening ceremonies. Aiar Rantes of Wintua, Southwest Bay, Malakula works as a Presbyterian pastor in his village, but has also developed much time and energy to reopening his own clan's dancing ground and men's cult house.

The Ambae project was the first step towards the creation of a women fieldworker group; the first women fieldworkers workshop was held in 1994. Workshops have been held annually ever since, and Jean and I continue to be involved in them: Jean organises the workshop and manages the fieldworker group through the year, I have the privilege of leading the workshops. Each of the ten days of the women fieldworker workshops opens and closes with prayer. The secretary of the women fieldworker group organises a roster, pinned to the back of the door of the meeting room, and the women take it in turns to pray. Sometimes they pray in language, and sometimes, rarely, they pray the formulaic prayers of a particular denomination. More commonly each woman prays out of her own thoughts for the progress of the workshop, perhaps giving thanks for what the group is learning, perhaps asking for a blessing on the speakers, perhaps praying for the progress of the work itself -- the work of lifting up and bringing back kastom.

Women do not usually hold positions of leadership in the church in Vanuatu. [5] However, church groups are one of the main arenas in which women now organise themselves at the village level. Women's groups may also be organised in connection with the Vanuatu National Council of Women, or the provincial government system. Most of the women fieldworkers are involved in women's groups of one kind or another in their own villages. It is sometimes the case that a strong support for kastom will mean that a fieldworker is opposed in her community. Litia Tom, the fieldworker on Tomman Island, has been excluded from her Presbyterian women's group because of her support for kastom. Such dissensions often have a complex history, however, so that the opposition between church and kastom may reflect other kinds of disputes. In other cases women have stepped down from positions in church groups in order to pursue their work as fieldworkers -- Elsie Lilon of Ambrym Island has stepped down from her membership of the executive of the Ambrym Presbyterian Women's Mission Union so that she is able to work as a fieldworker. If such cases exist, it is also often the case that there is good co-operation between the work of the Cultural Centre and the church. Jean Tarisesei reports that when she visits islands in order to talk about the work of the Cultural Centre she is often invited to hold meetings in church buildings.

I do not have any statistics on the church denominations represented in the women fieldworkers group, and would consider it contrary to Cultural Centre policy to attempt any kind of survey on the topic. As a matter of general observation, however, I would suspect that the greatest number of women fieldworkers are Presbyterian or Anglican. Members of the newer churches are, in fact, unlikely to be committed to the documentation and revival of kastom.

The present Director of the Cultural Centre, Ralph Regenvanu, takes a position very similar to that held previously by Kirk Huffman. He says that the single biggest issue facing the Cultural Centre is the version of Vanuatu history established by the missionaries, that is of the pre-colonial era as a time of darkness. Like Huffman, he sees the churches as having extensive influence in Vanuatu which is not balanced by the influence of kastom. Regenvanu cites Vanuatu's constitution, which declares that the nation is based jointly on traditional Melanesian values and on Christianity, arguing that this balance is not evident in the way in which the country is now managed. At the government level, kastom tends to be overlooked. Thus for example while churches are given free airtime on the national radio station, Radio Vanuatu, the Cultural Centre has fought, since the inception of the Vanuatu Televison and Broadcasting Corporation in 1994, for free airtime to be also allocated to the Cultural Centre. At the same time, Regenvanu acknowledges that some things in indigenous practice were alleviated by Christian influence, and sees the need for diplomacy in relationships between the Cultural Centre and the churches [Interview 27 October 1998].

Regenvanu's view that the Church dealt with some difficult things in kastom is one shared by other members of the Cultural Centre staff. Numaline Mahana, from Tanna, works both with Jean Tarisesei on the Women's Culture Project, and with Jacob Kapere of the Vanuatu National Film and Sound Unit. When I asked about the relationships between church and kastom, Numaline answered by saying that the ni-Vanuatu accepted the missionary injunction to let go of some practices, and that these were practices which it was a good thing to let go. She cited as instances of this the taking of human life, the Tannese practice of institutionalised prostitution, and cannibalism. She remarked that the good contribution which the church made, in her area at least, was in the translation of the Bible and hymns into language, as this preserved the old form of the language. However Numa, along with all the other Cultural Centre staff whom I interviewed, saw the newer denominations as having a different policy towards kastom -- saying that they are trying to push kastom aside [Interview 28 October 1998].

There are a number of crucial distinctions to be made between the older denominations and these new churches. Unlike the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics, the new churches -- Every Home Vanuatu, Neil Thomas Ministries, Revival -- are often charismatic or Pentecostal in character, and mostly hold services which are concerned with the generation of emotion. One of their crucial characteristics is their engagement with sorcery and magic. To generalise, the older denominations tended to treat sorcery and magic as superstition, and not to regard these practices as the source of genuine power. By contrast the newer denominations tend to see their role as being to combat and defeat the powers of darkness. In urban areas, this opposition often becomes a complex entanglement, with people taking resource both to the powers of sorcery, and to the powers of these churches to defeat it. In both cases, there is a blurring of the traditional checks and balances which controlled the use of sorcery. Several Cultural Centre staff commented to me on the dangers of reviving or using sorcery because of the lack of controls on the way in which it is exercised in town.

Cultural Centre staff are thus involved in a constant, largely implicit, consideration of the engagement between church and kastom, both at a personal level, and in their work. [6] This engagement works in both directions. The way in which kastom is used to deal with the church is especially clearly evident in the idea of respect. Respect is a centrally important concept throughout the archipelago. At the 1998 women fieldworkers workshop we recorded at least one terms for respect in 22 languages spoken in an area that reached from Loh in the Torres Islands, to Whitesands in central Tanna. While the term is used to cover practices concerning gardens, the sea and the bush, it is also used to refer to prescriptions for proper behaviour between people. It involves practices which show respect to leaders and other senior people, as well as practices which direct relationships with visitors and other newcomers (including babies).

Ralph Regenvanu's comment, made in English, that it is important to be diplomatic in relation to the churches can be read as a gloss of this same notion of showing respect. The idea of respect can also be traced in Numaline Mahana's comment cited earlier, that people listened to the missionaries, and accepted what they had to say. The idea of listening and accepting implicitly involves the idea of listening and not accepting. Listening in this sense accords respect. When speaking about the Christian God in Bislama, people usually refer to him as 'Bigman blong yumi'. I do not think it too great a stretch of the imagination to consider that prayer should be regarded, at one level at least, as a way of showing respect to, acknowledging, this God.

Of course, at one level prayer is part of a format for meetings which is widespread in Vanuatu, part of the orderly organisation of the way things "should" be. As such it need not have deep significance attached to it. For believers, prayer is an intensely practical form of action, a way of bringing the meeting under the authority of God. For non-believers it can only be a form of words. Prayers for the revival of kastom thus operate at a number of levels -- as an instance of the way meetings should be run, as a way of showing respect to believers or to God himself, as a direct and practical intercession to the Almighty God. The prayers in the fieldworker workshops act to contain the impact of the churches on the work of the Cultural Centre. The prayers show respect, but the influence of the churches is limited to prayer. At the same time the acknowledgement of God through prayers in the fieldworker workshops draws Christian belief into the work of the Cultural Centre in the revival of kastom, affirming the idea that Christianity and kastom are compatible, declaring in fact that the Christian God supports the revival of kastom. This acknowledgment makes it easy for the fieldworkers, men and women alike, to see kastom and Christianity as balanced (as they are in the Vanuatu Constitution), each contributing to contemporary ni-Vanuatu life. As a strategy, praying for the revival of kastom is a highly effective way of addressing the relationship between Christianity and indigenous knowledge and practice.

This paper is based on fieldwork in Vanuatu between 1991 and 1998. The principal research for the paper, conducted at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in October 1998, was supported by the Australian Research Council, through the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. I thank all four organisations for their assistance. I also thank Ralph Regenvanu, Jean Tarisesei, Jacob Sam Kapere, Numaline Mahana and Marta Yamsiu, all Vanuatu Cultural Centre staff, and Kirk Huffman and Darrell Tryon, both Cultural Centre advisors, for interviews and discussions.

[1] In fact when I first went to Ambae I was accompanied by a woman called Leah Ture Leo, who had been appointed by the Cultural Centre as a the trainee co-ordinator for the Women's Culture Project. Leah resigned after some months work on the project, and Jean Tarisesei formally took up the position in February 1992. However, Jean had been interested in the project from our first arrival in East Ambae and had been involved in supporting it during the end of 1991, so that her participation covers nearly the whole period of the project.

[2] The fact that it was Barnabus Bani who prayed this prayer is interesting at a number of levels, as he was deeply involved in the Nagriamel movement during the 1970s and was the announcer on the Nagriamel radio station during its brief period of broadcasting. The Nagriamel Movement was a part political, part social movement based on the island of Santo, which promoted a kind of syncretised kastom, and was politically opposed to the policies of the New Hebrides National Party, which sought an accommodation between church and kastom.

[3] 'Ni-Vanuatu' is the term used to refer to the people of Vanuatu since Independence. In this paper I use this term when referring to the archipelago's inhabitants both before and after Independence, for the sake of simplicity.

[4] Kirk Huffman, curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre from 1977 to 1989, was associated with many of the leaders of the Independence movement in the late 1970s.

[5] There are exceptions to this. There are two women pastors in the Presbyterian church, for example, one of whom is Dorothy Regenvanu, whose son Ralph is the present Director of the Cultural Centre.

[6] Jacob Kapere, of the National Film and Sound Unit, also commented on the extent to which these newer demoninations are businesses, to do with the generation of money. Correcting himself, he added that in fact all churches are businesses at some level, and contrasted this with the kind of generosity in sharing that he had encountered in visiting traditionalist areas of Vanuatu [Interview 30 October 1998]. The emphasis on money by these churches is damaging to kastom, introducing additional demands on financial resources.

References cited:

Lindstrom, L. 1982 Leftamap kastom: The political history of tradition on Tanna (Vanuatu). Mankind 13(4):316-29.


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