Obituary Grace Mera Molisa
Educator, activist and poet.
Born North Ambae, Vanuatu, February 17, 1946.
Died, Port Vila, January 4, aged 55.
LIKE her young nation, Grace Mera Molisa was a complex, formidable yet
ultimately vibrantly creative product of Vanuatu's
deep tribal customs and troubled colonial past.
Highly political yet a faith-filled Anglican with a deep respect for
her indigenous heritage and fluent in five languages, Molisa throughout her
life stood as a vanguard for Melanesian culture and a voice of the ni-Vanuatu
(the nation's indigenous people), especially women.
She was not afraid of treading on toes or the opprobrium this sometimes
brought, but nor was she content to simply draw attention to problems
without summoning up and attempting to implement possible solutions.
The first woman in her country -- formerly known as New Hebrides and
jointly administered by the French and British -- to gain a university
degree, Molisa did not squander the opportunities she'd been given, nor
simply use them to build a career.
She once said: ``The only way forward for women in a largely pre-
literate society is for those who have been upwardly mobile to help
Initially trained at Auckland Teachers College, after graduating from
Queen Victoria School in 1965, Molisa's professional life began as an
educator, when she returned in 1967 to her alma mater, St Anne' s School,
Torgil, to teach on her home island of Ambae.
Before attending St Anne's at age 10, Molisa had learned to read and
write in her mother tongue at the local boys school, in what was probably
one of the earliest indications that there would be few barriers that Grace
Mera, as she was known then, wouldn't manage to leap over or crash through
in her life.
In later years she became adept at using her imposing personality and
considerable standing within Vanuatu's political
elite to compel foreign diplomats to cough up some of their precious aid
funds for her current cause.
In 1977 she completed a bachelor of arts degree at the University of the
South Pacific. This was in the lead-up to Vanuatu's
independence, and by 1979 -- now holding the post of second secretary of the
Ministry of Social Affairs -- the thirtysomething Molisa had become heavily
involved in the life of her nation.
She set up the first National Arts Festival as well as the committee that
chose the new nation's flag, anthem, national motto -- Long God Yumi Standup
-- and coat of arms.
The first woman to address the then all-powerful Vanua'aku Pati Congress,
she was one of only two women members of the National Constitution
Committee. In 1976 she aligned herself with another upcoming ni-Vanuatu,
marrying the young politician from Santo, Sela Molisa. In what
may be a world first, they were both signatories to the new Constitution of
the Republic of Vanuatu when it was promulgated in
Molisa's political influence was probably highest in the first decade
after independence; these were the heady days of prime minister Walter
Lini's rule, when anything seemed possible for the unaligned South Pacific
nation and the ruling Vanua'aku Pati.
Molisa spent these years in the prime minister's office, first as second
secretary and then, from 1987, when Lini suffered a stroke, as the prime
minister's private secretary and virtual mouthpiece.
In 1991, when he lost office and the Vanua'aku Pati suffered a bitter
split, Molisa moved on but, unlike some contemporaries, did not let the
bitterness consume her.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 1983, she had launched herself -- somewhat by
accident, she later admitted -- as a poet.
Blackstone was the title of her first collection of poems and it became
the name of the publishing company she was to form in 1991. Her poems were a
biting social commentary on life in patriarchal, post-colonial
But her literary ventures were just a small part of a busy life that
flourished in the '90s. Apart from her constant political activism, it also
included appointments to the Council of the University of the South Pacific
and membership of the anti-corruption body Transparency International. In
1997, Molisa's persistent efforts on behalf of ni- Vanuatu
women resulted in her founding the pressure group
Vanuatu Women in Politics, to support and promote women willing
to enter politics in Vanuatu.
This was partly prompted by the sad fact that no political party,
including her own VP, had endorsed any women candidates for the 1998 general
election. Molisa quit the VP and helped organise six female candidates under
the VWIP banner.
``None of the women won, but we made people talk because we bucked the
entire system,'' she said. ``And while most of the talk was negative, the
people knew they could not dismiss us. They knew what we were standing for
In 1998 Molisa also grew impatient when the government of the day
embarked on what was known as the Comprehensive Reform Program, but excluded
women from any of the new appointments. Weary of the excuse offered -- there
were no qualified women available in Vanuatu --
Molisa compiled and published Women's Appointments Files, a booklet
providing a comprehensive listing of 530 ni-Vanuatu
women willing and qualified to take on public duties. This was followed in
1999 by another book with a broader reach, Human Rights Toksave. Her final
book is currently with the proofreaders.
Shortly before her death, Molisa, who had just completed a two-year post
as president of the National Council of Women, was preparing to gear up the
VWIP group again for this year's national elections.
``There are too few women in politics, and those who get in often lack
support once they are there,'' she once said.
``We need more women because if they and their children face
difficulties, then mothers must be where the decisions are made.''
Ironically -- and largely due to her own fearless leadership -- Molisa
was also able to declare that although women were not represented in
parliament, the voice of ni-Vanuatu women was still
being heard ``loud and clear''.
``In one way, we are doing better outside parliament. We are working with
the ombudsman, Vanuatu Christian Council and
National Council of Chiefs in political awareness raising, legal literacy
and gender training,'' she said of VWIP.
``Women have stayed away from public life, perhaps because of lack of
confidence. But confidence is gained through attempting, doing, having
failures and successes and building on the successes,'' Molisa said, in what
could have been a summation of her own life.
Raised an Anglican but married to a Presbyterian, Molisa felt free to
worship in either church, dealing with religion as she did with most things
-- cutting to the core of the matter and making no secret of the strength
her faith gave her.
It was a gift that, according to her firstborn, Viran Molisa, she managed
to pass on to her three children, and upon which they have drawn in the
weeks following her unexpected death.
Open, articulate and educated, her three children are also a testimony to
Molisa's other main commitment: her life as the mother and provider to a
large, extended Pacific family, and as the wife of a national politician;
her husband has held many portfolios during a long career in politics and is
now Minister of Lands. All three of their children have been educated
Gardening was Molisa's largely unknown source of relaxation and although
she suffered from diabetes for more than 20 years, she never let this
illness deter her from an active life.
A measure of Grace Molisa's standing in her nation can be taken from the
elaborate and lengthy mourning ceremonies and tributes that spanned five
days and three provinces -- from her untimely death at the age of 55 on
January 4 in a Port Vila hospital, to when she was finally laid to rest in
the grounds of her family's home on Santo, in her husband's village of
Molisa's body lay in state in the Nakamal (meeting house) of
Vanuatu' s Great Council of Chiefs, where for 6 1/2 hours the
nation's chiefs and women leaders paid tribute to her extraordinary efforts
on behalf of her nation, her people and her sex.
The following day, her immediate family accompanied her body to Ambae,
where she again lay in state in the chiefs' Nakamal. Then, in recognition of
the hard work she had put into improving the lot of women throughout the
country, her body was taken to the Santo Rural Women's Resource Centre.
Only opened last year by New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, the
centre was the achievement of a long-held ambition of Molisa's, who had
planned for it to be the first of many such centres for the country's rural
women -- who, as she never hesitated to point out, bore on a daily basis the
heaviest burden of providing for the nation. Official mourning will continue
for 100 days.
Grace Molisa is survived by her husband and their daughter Viran, a
lawyer, 24, and two sons, Pala, 22, and Vatumaraga, 18, all of whom are
likely to be prominent in Molisa's considerable legacy to her young nation.