Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu

Jean Tarisesei
Co-ordinator, Women's Culture Project
Vanuatu Cultural Centre

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

I come from the island of Ambae in north Vanuatu. In this paper I am going to talk about kastom on my island, Ambae. Since 1992 I have lived in Port Vila and worked at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, where I am the Women's Culture Project Coordinator. My work is to revive, preserve and promote women's kastom. I travel to many islands, including Ambae, in my work.

Ambae is in the north of Vanuatu. It is about forty kilometres long. It is a volcanic island. People who live there grow their own food in gardens, and keep pigs, chickens and cattle. They have coconut plantations where they make copra to earn a little money. They live in villages in a number of districts. There are two main languages, one in west Ambae and the other in the rest of the island. Today people travel on and around Ambae on trucks, small boats and planes. In the north the island is very difficult to travel around because the volcano makes the land very steep. Many people from Ambae live in other parts of Vanuatu, especially Port Vila and Santo. There are many primary schools on Ambae and there are three secondary schools.

Kastom today on Ambae
Kastom is a term we use in Vanuatu, in our language Bislama, to mean the way of life in which we grew up and still practice. This is the way of life which comes from our own place. So the kastom of Ambae is the things that we do that come from Ambae. This is a hard thing to explain in any language, but especially in English. People today are trying to find ways to fit kastom together with the new things that have come into our lives. So the kastom that we now practice on Ambae is not the same as it was before. Now people are changing it and adding new things. One of the most important influences on kastom has been the churches.

When people on Ambae today talk about kastom they use the word to mean ceremonies, stories, songs, dances, traditional knowledge, sacred places, certain ways of cooking, family organisation (or kinship), traditional leaders or chiefs, Ambae mats, pigs and other such things. The main ceremonies practiced are welcoming ceremonies for newborn babies, adoptions, rank ceremonies based on pig-killing, marriages, rank ceremonies based on mats, funeral ceremonies.

Many of these ceremonies take place over a number of days, which we count in groups of five. This happens especially with funeral ceremonies, when we count the 100 days after the person's death, and mark each fifth day by cooking special food. Special food is cooked on certain numbered days: the fiftieth day, for example, is the day to cook things we have caught in the sea such as fish and crabs. Food is a very important part of kastom.

Language is one foundation of kastom. On Ambae there are two languages, one spoken in the west of the island in Walaha and Nduindui, and the other spoken in all the rest of the island, but this language has about twelve main dialects, in the east, south and north. It is much easier to talk about kastom in language than in Bislama or English, because in the language there are words that describe all the things we do. There are reasons why we do all these things, all these kastom ceremonies, but it is hard to explain in English.

We use mats in all these kastom ceremonies. Mats are the main work of women on Ambae. Before western influences came to Ambae, the main thing that women did was to make mats and to take care of pigs and babies. The main work for men was to work in the gardens, growing food. Once children grew big enough to walk about, that is about five years and upwards, small boys became the responsibility of their fathers, while girls were cared for by their mothers, who started to teach them how to make mats and the other things that girls needed to learn. Today women do most of the work within the family and community.

Marriages were arranged when girls were quite small, sometimes even before they were born, and when they reached an age of about twelve years upwards, they often went to live with their husband's mother in order that they could get used to their new family. But they didn't get married or live with their husbands until they reached puberty. Ambaeans divide ourselves into two groups, Tagaro and Merumbuto; in English these are called moieties, and people must always marry someone from the other group. Parents tried to make sure that their daughters married into a family that was close to them both in terms of place and kinship. It was hard for a married girl to move to a place a long way away from her own parent's place. She should marry into her mother's family, so as to keep the family and the land together. Today most young people chose their own partners, and sometimes girls marry to places that are very far away, and not to their mother's family. This often causes problems with marriages, because they haven't followed the proper way of marrying; there are often disputes about land, gossip and so on. If you don't follow the correct kastom road, there will be all kinds of talk, gossip and trouble.

The Anglican Church was the first church to come to Ambae, it came in about the 1870s. The Anglicans didn't make too many changes; the main thing they did was stop some things which weren't good. They stopped murder, and cannibalism, and they stopped some things that were hurtful such as the tattooing of young girls. They also tried to change some things in the men's rank system which is called huqe. Today, kastom is still strongly alive in the Anglican communities.

The Catholic Church was the second church to arrive in Ambae. They came in after the Anglicans. They settled in only two areas: Lolopuepue on the boundary of the Lombaha and Lolovinue districts, in the north, and Nangire in the northwest, adjacent to the Vuingalato district. The Catholics didn't spread out beyond these areas. The impact of the Catholic Church is mainly on language; they concentrate on the use of the French language. In other ways they didn't oppose kastom strongly.

Churches of Christ were the third church to arrive. This happened about 1900. Although they came third to Ambae they became the second largest denomination on the island, spreading into many areas. Today the Churches of Christ are in the Longana, Lolovoli, Lombaha and Nduindui Districts. They stopped almost every traditional practice, such as kastom dances and pig-killings (huqe). They did allow kastom marriage ceremonies to continue, focussing on the main aspects of the ceremony, such as the bride's pig-killing, and the exchanges between the two families. Thus they allowed women's participation in the rank system, the huqe to continue, even though at the same time they stopped the men's participation in the graded society. This was because the pig-killing was an integral part of the marriage exchanges. During the Independence movement, the Nagriamel movement had a significant impact on the Church of Christ on Ambae, and as a result, they became much more supportive of kastom. Nowadays people in the Churches of Christ on Ambae are trying to bring back men's pig-killings -- the huqe.

The fourth church to arrive on Ambae was the Seventh Day Adventists. They moved first into the Longana district, then into Lolovotali district in the south of the island, and then in a small way into the Walaha district in west Ambae. Their effect on kastom was worse than the Churches of Christ. They stopped everything, except the weaving of mats. It is good that they didn't stop weaving, because this means that people in the SDA areas are still able to participate in the ceremonies organised by Ambaeans from other church groups, such as the marriages of their family members in other denominations, because they are able to participate in exchanges by giving mats.

The fifth church to come to Ambae was the Apostolic Church. This has happened very recently, in the 1950s or 1960s. They are based mainly in the west Ambae district of Walaha. I am not sure how it came about, but members of the Apostolic Church do not even know how to weave Ambaean mats; although they can make floor and sleeping mats in a different style. Women learn how to weave in the women's groups organised by the Church, and they make baskets and mats in new styles to sell. This includes table mats and purses, and baskets in the style not just of other islands in Vanuatu, but also in styles from Fiji and other parts of the Pacific.

After Independence many small churches arrived in Ambae, such as Neil Thomas Ministries, Every home Vanuatu, Revival, and Renewal. This has happened especially since 1990. There were also a number of splits in the existing denominations, especially among the Churches of Christ and Apostolic. Anglicans tend to switch their parish affiliations but not to leave the denomination.

As a result on Ambae today there are many small churches, but the main church influences come from the Anglicans, the Churches of Christ and the Seventh Day Adventists. The Anglican Church achieved its own independence from expatriate control in the 1980s with the departure of Bishop Rawcliffe, and now all church officials are ni-Vanuatu. The Church of Christ and the Apostolic church are also mainly managed by ni-Vanuatu. However all these churches are influenced by visitors from outside the country. The Catholic church also has local staff, both priests and nuns, but there are also a few European nuns and priests who still work throughout the country.

Island organisation today
Vanuatu has six provinces. Ambae is in Penama Province. The provincial headquarters are on Ambae, at Saratamata in East Ambae. The Penama Provincial Council has members from throughout the province, from the islands of Ambae, Maewo and Pentecost. The Council has fifteen elected members and seven nominated members, who meet three or four times through the year, depending both on needs and on funds. The nominated members include one women's representative, two youth representatives in the province and two representatives of the chiefs, and two representatives of the church. The Council staff are based at Saratamata all year, including a Secretary, Assistant Secretary and Treasurer. There is also a Women's Office at Saratamata, and a Youth Office. There is also a Police Station at Saratamata, and an office of the Education Department and the Agriculture Department. Saratamata is not a village: it is a station, and the people who live there are the people who work in these offices. At Lolowai Bay, a station near Saratamata, there is a hospital and the Post Office, Fisheries Department, and a number of stores, a cooperative and a commercial centre, that is to say a warehouse. Lolowai has a small harbour: it is the main shipping centre for east, north and south Ambae. The Anglican Church has an office at Lolowai, and between Lolowai and Saratamata there is the Anglican Torgil Training Centre which is a training centre for the Anglican and Brotherhood at Tunsisiro. Even though this makes Lolowai sound like a big place it is quite small.

As well as the Provincial Council, Ambae has an Island Council of Chiefs. The members of this council are elected by the chiefs in all the villages around the island. They should meet before each Provincial Council meeting in order to give their advice to the Provincial Council. They are also able to meet any time there is a need for them to do so.

Women too have their own island council called Vavine bulu, which means women together. Women in all the villages elect representatives who attend the council. The Council meets three or four times every year, according to need. Vavine bulu has an executive which meets more regularly. Representatives from Vavine bulu attend the biannual conference of the Vanuatu Council of Women which is a non-government organisation. The VNCW runs various awareness programs to promote women in the villages, and to help them with health, business, sewing, water supply and so on. The VNCW is mostly concerned with women's development. Women on Ambae are interested in their kastom. Vavine bulu also promotes mat-making -- and this is important because as long as you have mats, you can take part in other ceremonies.

At the village level, women's groups can be organised by the church groups or by the women's network, but usually there is only one women's group in the village, and so no matter whether the group is organised by the church or by the women's network there is always one group, and that group sends representatives to Vavine bulu. On Ambae government works closely with church organisations, and people don't notice the difference between church and government too much. They are more interested in what these groups can achieve.

Kastom today
The character of kastom is always the same, but the ways in which we practice it change. For example, in kastom marriages in the past, we paid for women with just a few mats and pigs. But nowadays we pay with pigs and up to twenty of the most valuable mats. We also have church marriages as part of the marriage so that now we make two feasts, one for kastom and one for the church. This makes it hard for some people, because marriage has become very expensive. Now it isn't every woman who can make a mat, and that also makes marriage expensive because people sometimes have to buy them.

Children's education in kastom ways used to take place at home. From an early age children were taught how to do things like weaving and dancing. But now children go to school, and they don't have the opportunity to learn all these skills. Today some schools are trying to introduce kastom into the classroom. In the village of Loqirutaro, in East Ambae, the teachers have invited some older people to come into the classroom and teach the children. The children are learning how to weave mats and they are learning kastom stories, songs and dances.

Today on Ambae kastom is being revived in such ways. The effect of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre programs on Ambae has been to make people interested in kastom again. The Women's Culture Project program, which Lissant Bolton and I implemented on Ambae in 1991/92 opened up people's interest in kastom. Women are making some mats which they had stopped making and they now recognise the need to use more mats in ceremonies instead of money. In the future I think there will more new ways to teach kastom to our young people. However, it is hard to know what the effect of the new churches will be. A lot of the new denominations are very strongly opposed to kastom, so that if they come to Ambae they will defeat these attempts to continue kastom on the island. If there isn't any opposition from the church kastom will continue to be revived, even though it will continue to change.

People are making these changes in order to try to fit kastom into life today. Kastom has to fit in with church, government education and development. The work of the Cultural Centre is to try to make sure that kastom remains a strong force in the lives of people in Vanuatu. We believe that kastom is a strong foundation of our identity. If we don't have kastom we are nobody, we don't know where we come from.

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