Oceania, Sept 1999 v70 i1 p43

Women, Place and Practice in Vanuatu: a View from Ambae. Lissant Bolton.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Sydney


This paper discusses the relationship between people and place in Vanuatu, focusing on the relationship between women and place. The paper draws on ethnographic data from the island of Ambae, arguing that practice mediates the relationship between people and place, and, in the new context of the nation, has become a way of demonstrating a person's affiliation to place. In contemporary Vanuatu, kastom mediates and expresses place-based identity. Landholding and land-use are aspects of the practice of a place. The fact that a person's identity is tied to their place raises issues for the identity and status of women, who move at marriage to their husband's place. It remains the case, however that at marriage a woman becomes identified as a person of her husband's place, no matter whether she lives there or not. Ni-Vanuatu women see their capacity to move and resettle in this way as a strength, a capacity of which they can be proud, and for which men respect them. The growth of urban centres since Independence i s bringing new presssures to bear on the relationship between people, practice and place.

I once had a discussion with Jean Tarisesei about Ambaean terms for, and ideas about, place. Jean, who comes from the north Vanuatu island of Ambae, is coordinator of the Women's Culture Project at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. We were sitting in the Port Vila International Airport terminal at the time, waiting for the plane that would take me back to my place, to Australia. When I asked about the relationship between women and place, Jean offered a proverb. A girl, she said, is like a branch of nanggalat -- a stinging-nettle tree [1] - whatever the ground you stick it in, it will grow. A girl can thrive in any place, planted in any ground. This proverb is about virilocal marriage, about the way in which a girl moves to live in her husband's hamlet at marriage. It is a gardener's proverb. It refers at one level to the way in which a branch stuck into the rich volcanic soils of Vanuatu will almost certainly take root and grow. It also refers to many of the central ideas about people and place held on Ambae, and more widely in Vanuatu. These ideas, the relationship between people and place, and more especially about women and place, are the subject of this paper.

In tracking ideas about place, this paper itself tracks between two places. These places are the contexts in which I have undertaken the greater part of my research in Vanuatu: the island of Ambae and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. I worked in east Ambae in 1991-92 doing my doctoral research, and maintain strong links with a number of Ambaeans. I have worked in the Cultural Centre since 1989 as a training officer and advisor, and have spent at least one month based there during eight of the last nine years. The Cultural Centre is a place where people from throughout the country meet to talk about the knowledge and practice of their own areas. It is national in the most literal sense, encompassing the practice of all the places within the nation. My discussions with the Cultural Centre's fleidworkers have given me the opportunity to recognise some of the ideas common to most residents of the archipelago, things which ni-Vanuatu [2] discuss and practise as part of their national identity and character. My view a bout women, place and practice, about why a girl might grow anywhere, is a view from Ambae, which nevertheless addresses these subjects as they are currently understood at a national level, as they are discussed in the conversation of many ni-Vanuatu.

The idea of place is presently receiving considerable attention within anthropology, and in Melanesian anthropology in particular. There have been a number of edited volumes exploring this subject, all of which address Melanesian material to some degree (Bender 1993; Hirsch and O'Hanlon 1995; Feld and Basso 1996; Gupta and Ferguson 1997), as well as a group of ethnographies which take place as a central focus (for example, Feld 1982; Weiner 1991). Ideas about place and the relationship people have with it are proving to be a powerful way to understand aspects of Melanesian ethnography. References to the idea of place have been a feature, to a greater or lesser extent, of many ethnographic accounts of Vanuatu. Such work includes that by Margaret Rodman (1987; 1992; 1995), Joan Larcom (1980, 1990), Margaret Jolly (1994), and Joel Bonnemaison (1994), among others, as I will show later in this paper.

In considering ni-Vanuatu conceptions of place, it is first of all wise to consider that the ways in which people relate to and perceive places should not be assumed. Alfred Gell, writing about the Umeda of Papua New Guinea (1995), makes a sustained argument that the Umeda do not perceive their environment by seeing it, but by hearing it. The Umeda live in an area of thick forest, where it is never possible to see more that about 500 metres ahead, and usually less than that. In perceiving their environment they rely on what they can hear. Gell says 'For an Umeda an audible but invisible object [is] entirely "present" in a way difficult for us to grasp, in that for us such an object is "hidden", however perceptible' (1995:238).

The forested hills, ridges and volcanic cones of Vanuatu's islands afford panoramas not so much of landscape as of the ever-present ocean, and I do not argue that the ni-Vanuatu put as high a priority on hearing the landscape as Gell argues that the Umeda do. However, ni-Vanuatu do put a considerable priority on perceiving place audially. People are always hearing, for example, birdsong, or the faint roar of an occasional vehicle passing along the dirt road, and in hearing they recognise the bird, or identify the vehicle from the sound of its engine, and from that draw conclusions about what is happening around them. Secondly, ni-Vanuatu do not, in my experience, observe the landscape as a formal composition of foreground, background, trees and sky. A comment on the beauty of a view, or the splendour of a sunset, nearly always invokes a puzzled, non-assenting response of the 'oh yes, I suppose so' variety. This is not to say that ni-Vanuatu have no sense of the beauty of place, but rather that they reserve v erbal appreciation for the made environment, for example, for the charms of a well-planted and decorated water-taro garden.

Ni-Vanuatu do not conceptualise the landscape as stable -- there is no notion, for example, of the unchanging hills. Rather, in a volcanic zone where islands rise and fall under the ocean, and where hurricanes, earthquakes and even volcanic eruptions frequently modify the landscape in small ways, places are understood to move. A significant number of stories about places on Ambae involve movement -- huge stones that get up from one place and roll away down to another, and so on. Gell argues that for the Umeda, 'landscape features are grasped as movements rather than as forms', observing that the Umeda landscape, 'formed as it is out of transient sounds and articulations, has to be understood dynamically, rather than as a fixed array of visual/spatial objects' (1995:242). This is also to some extent true for ni-Vanuatu. In both cases the point is significant. It is possible to see place not as fixed but changing, not as stable but dynamic.

The ni-Vanuatu perception of landscape is also, as everywhere, informed by the people who live in and engage with it. Part of the changing character of place is the ongoing specific interaction of people and place. Places are understood in terms of the culture heroes whose actions made or modified places in the past: the spirits and other beings who lived or live in them, and the people who lived in them in the remembered past and the known present. For example, as one story has it, the island of Ambae was created by the culture hero, Tagaro. He was travelling from the nearby island of Maewo to Santo, taking yams to feed his pigs there. His canoe turned over in rough seas, and from it he created Ambae. From a distance this is exactly how Ambae looks, the dome of a volcano creating the curved bottom of the canoe. Ambaeans live on the coastal plains to the east and west of the volcano (the prow and stern of the canoe) and on the lower slopes of the volcano, in named districts which radiate from it.

This perception of place in terms of people has another aspect. Rather than seeing themselves as the sole masters of the landscape they inhabit, in most places ni-Vanuatu see themselves as co-inhabiting places with other people, not with the spirits who are known to live in certain places in the bush, but with other communities. On some islands, like Efate, such other people are known as 'little people', [3] but on Ambae people understand themselves to share their districts with another group, of invisible people. In north Ambae for example, in the district of Walurgi, most settlements cling to the upper slopes of the volcano, at an altitude where taro grows, a very steep climb from the shoreline. There are now some people living down at the coast, but traditionally, the narrow coastal strip is home to a group of these invisible people, who are known as mwae. [4] These are not spirits or magical creatures, they are people, but a different kind of people, who while mostly invisible can choose to become visibl e, and who have some particular abilities or skills not available to real people. There are many stories about interaction between mwae and real people. Mwae are in some ways hazardous, dangerous to real people, but the interactions people have with them are often extremely productive in terms of knowledge and practice. It is from mwae, for example, that people learnt many tattoo designs, which were used to embellish and bring honour to women's bodies.

People on Ambae live in small hamlets, usually comprising the households of a number of closely related males, usually a man and his sons, built on land controlled by the senior male resident. These days hamlets are generally built on land selected for its proximity to a church building, clustering together so as to give the appearance of a village, but each hamlet has its own name and separate identity. Both hamlets and houses are private territory. Only specified categories of kin enter a person's house, and residents of one hamlet do not visit one another casually. Equally, residents of one district rarely visit another district. Although Ambaeans may have travelled to other islands of Vanuatu for one reason or another, frequently they have not visited districts other than their own. Indeed they often express suspicions of people from other districts, especially with respect to the practice of sorcery.

Hamlet residence is, however, mobile. There is a constant flux in the location of buildings within a hamlet, and hamlets themselves also appear and disappear (Rodman 1987a). A major dispute between hamlet co-residents may lead to some or all residents moving away, either to new hamlet sites or to join relatives in another established settlement. A new hamlet will have its own name, and the combination of people who live there may be different from the combination that existed in earlier hamlets. Anthropologist Margaret Rodman has argued that on Ambae 'a person's place in the narrowest sense is his or her hamlet' (1987:36); but if this is so the affiliation between person and place is not so much with a fixed point in the landscape, a hamlet site, as with the hamlet as the current manifestation of the connection between person and place.

The kind of engagement between people and place inherent in this system is given clearer expression in the very words Ambaeans use to refer to place. As Michael Allen who undertook research on Ambae in the late 1960s says, when land is thought of as a substance, as earth, it is called tano; but land as a social reality, in relationship to an individual or a group, is called vanua (1969:132). Rodman reiterates the point, remarking tat 'vanue is not land (tano), it is lived space in which people and place are part of each other' (1987:35).

Ideas about the entanglement between people and place are expressed more clearly in the understanding of place as the source of knowledge and practice. At one level this relationship is acknowledged at the level of landscape as mnemonic -- stories are written into the landscape because of their associations with particular places. On Ambae there are many different kinds of stories: very short stories tat small children learn and can repeat, stories like fables in which, for example, a kingfisher challenges a crab to a race around the island; stories of great moment and importance, about the origin of Ambae, the naming of places, the origin of people; stories of journeys; and stories which comment on Europeans, their advent and their difference. All these stories are set in Ambae, although they may refer to adjacent islands. They explain the history of specific locations and they also refer to various landmarks. As Hyslop shows (this collection), the link between people and place is established in the languag e itself. In common with many Austronesian languages, the North-east Ambae language depends on the form of the island landscape in its spatial reference system. When people speak about their own location, or the location of objects, they always do so with respect to the place itself.

The relationship between place and knowledge is made much more explicit on the southern island of Tanna. Lamont Lindstrom coins the phrase geographic oeuvre to characterise this connection, which is especially pertinent in the forum of male public debate. On Tanna an elaborate series of restrictions, which operate like copyright, prevent a person from speaking about knowledge or information to which he has no right. Even though someone may know something, he may not 'use, augment, reveal or discuss this publicly without encountering reaction and opposition' (1990:77). The Tannese divide the island into many small territories. Knowledge is copyrighted to these territories, and only a person whose very name identifies them as belonging to a territory has the right to speak the knowledge attached to it. Such knowledge, Lindstrom's 'geographic oeuvre', includes 'text-like formulaic statements such as genealogical lists, stories, legends, songs, sets of local names for men, women, and pigs, maps of land plot boun daries, medical recipes, spells, and magical technologies' (1990:80).

While this system is specific to Tanna it is possible to make a general observation. This is that in most parts of Vanuatu the notion of place as the source of knowledge and practice involves more than either the idea of landscape as mnemonic, or landscape as determining the distribution of knowledge. Rather place is seen as the source of knowledge and practice itself Cultural geographer Joel Bonnemaison observes that 'in traditional thinking, cultural identity is merely the existential aspect of those places where men live today as their ancestors did from time immemorial' (1984:118). Ni-Vanuatu scholar Selwyn Arutangai puts it this way:

All ni-Vanuatu feel that land is everything , it is basic to their identity ... Traditionally land is not only the source of subsistence but the mainstay of a world-view by which ni-Vanuatu cultures operate, the foundation of all custom. It represents life itself, both material and spiritual. (1987:262)

This connection between place and practice can be traced in various myths and stories, as, for example, in the following story from north Ambae about a real woman and a mwae. The story concerns the production of an important textile design. Plaited pandanus textiles are centrally important on Ambae, as exchange items, as clothing, as markers of achieved status and in the mediation of a number of ritual practices. There are today about 55 different named textile types on Ambae, distinguishable by their woven form and in some cases by the design applied to them using a technique unique to north Vanuatu -- log-wrap stencil dyeing. This story is about the development of a new textile type called vola walurigi, made only in the Walurigi district of north Ambae. I was told the story in a place called Kwantangwele, in Walurigi, by a woman called Marta Garae. The story goes like this:

In the past women didn't dye their textiles in the house, they took everything and went down to the sea. Kwantangwele women used to go down to a place called Singoisaru and dye their textiles on the beach. Many women gathered at the beach at the same time to dye their textiles together. Some of these women were good women, but some -- they weren't spirits, but they weren't real people, they were mwae. The mwae brought their textiles to dye, they used to make their own textiles. One time a woman from here, Tambetamata's wife (both she and her husband were from here, from Kwantangwele in Walurigi), saw another woman dyeing her mat with a pattern that was very, very beautiful. This woman wasn't a real woman, she was a mwae. Tambetamata's wife asked this woman how she made the textile, and the mwae showed her, the mwae showed the real woman. When they all finished, all the real women took their textiles back up to Kwantangwele, and all the other women also went away, but the real women didn't know where they went .

When they got back here, Tambetamata's wife said to her husband: 'I saw a woman make a different kind of textile.' Tambetamata asked, 'Did she show you how to make it?', and his wife replied 'Yes, but I have forgotten how to do it.' She felt really bad that she had been shown how to make this textile, but she had forgotten. Then in the night she had a dream. In the dream she saw the other woman again, and the woman said, 'In the early morning, go down to the beach, the design for the textile will be on the beach.' The name of this beach, this small anchorage, is Natora. Then Tambetamata's wife got up in the morning and went down, and when she got to the beach the other woman, the mwae, had already drawn the pattern there. Then the real woman learnt the pattern properly. She came back here, to Kwantangwele, and she made a textile, she took pandanus leaves and she made a textile from them, and she dyed it with the pattern.

People have been making this textile ever since. The name of the textile is vola Walurigi, which means design from Walurigi. The pattern is a picture of the hills that go down to the coast, a picture of the beach and the hill, the hill where we live, that goes down to Walurigi.

When Marta finished telling me this story a man called Mark Mwera took up the tale, telling me how Tambetamata and another man called Arevu went on to establish this new textile type as an important one in a ritual context. [5] Mark concluded the story by saying: 'This textile is very valuable because it comes from this place, from Walurigi.' [6] At the time that I was told the story I understood that the mwae had drawn the textile design in wet sand at the beach. It was only after I had left the area that Jean Tarisesei who had been with me tat day explained what I had missed understanding -- that the design was incised on an exposed rock by the sea, where it is still weathering away. [7]

The story of vola walurigi is at one level a story about women's practice of place, about the way in which women assert their attachment to landscape though practice. Women's practice of textile production is attached to certain locations in the landscape -- the village, the coast -- and it demonstrates their ease in moving through it. The story is extremely specific about the women's movement through the landscape, going from Kwantangwele down to the coast, coming back, going down again, and returning yet again, equipped with new skills. It is also the case that Tambetamata's wife succeeds in learning how to make this textile design by actually reading it from the surface of the landscape. The design is itself a depiction of the landscape -- I understand it myself as an image like contour lines on a map, showing a ridge that reaches from the volcano to the sea.

The story illuminates the interconnections between place and practice. A person demonstrates his or her affiliation to a place by what they do in it. The stories about the mwae add a further dimension to this connection. The mwae themselves can be understood as an embodiment of the landscape. They live invisibly within it and only manifest themselves at certain crucial moments -- they are place made into person. Knowledge which real people obtain from mwae can in this sense be seen as emanating from the landscape itself; in that Tambetamata's wife learns the design from the mwae woman, she learns it from the place itself -- literally in learning the design from the rock carving. In doing things that come from the place, one affirms that one belongs to that place. Today women who have the right to make vola walurigi are women from Walurigi; in making this textile type they demonstrate that they come from that place. It is perhaps for this reason that Marta Garae, in telling the story, keeps reiterating the na mes of all the places involved, emphasising that Tambetamata and his wife were from Kwantangwele. And it is for this reason that Mark Mwera concluded his part of the story with the assertion: 'This textile is very valuable because it comes from this place, from Walurigi.'


The intricacies of the relationship of person to place are gendered. As Marilyn Strathern has observed (1988), in Melanesia gender is a powerful metaphor, idiom, of relationship. Strathern considers the use of this metaphor beyond the simple constraints of biology, pursuing the way in which practices can be gendered as male or female. Her analysis informs my discussion, although I do not pursue the complexities of her argument here. In recognising that men and women relate to place differently in Vanuatu, it is important to understand these differences firstly through the idea of gender as metaphor, and only secondly through Western models of gender equality and ownership. Such an analysis is complicated by historical change in Vanuatu. It is difficult to retrieve a sense of gendered relationships to place pre-contact. Early European observers tended to understand what they saw within the frame of their own convictions and prejudices about gender relationships. Some of their understandings have subsequently b een incorporated into ni-Vanuatu discourse through mission and other kinds of education. In making this argument I do not wish to obscure questions of injustice and inequality in the relationships between ni-Vanuatu, in the past or in the present, but merely to suggest that it is crucial to begin by attempting to grasp ni-Vanuatu models.

In the Western economic system land is treated as a commodity which can be owned, bought and sold. In general, land cannot be treated in this way in Vanuatu, rather people hold rights to use it. Arutangai explains the ni-Vanuatu attitude to land in its productive capacity this way:

[B]efore the introduction of the European monetary system, land was valued symbolically as well as for what it produced. When a man married, he needed land to build a house, make gardens, plant fruit trees and some bushland in which to hunt and forage. The system of shifting cultivation required that he have access to much more land than he would be using at any one time... there was little need for a family to bring extensive land areas into direct use. (1987:262)

Land in its productive capacity is a crucial aspect of the relationship between people and place. Land is not only productive of food and other resources, but through that productivity it also provides other valuables. It is through the production of resources that men and women are able to mount the ceremonies and rituals that enhance their status and grant them power. The importance of this is made evident not least in the fact that landholding rights have always been one of the principle sources of dispute among ni-Vanuatu, a reason for warfare in the past, and for legal dispute in the present. Selwyn Arutangai, himself an Ambaean, comments that for ni-Vanuatu an individual 'must have some land to call his (and to a lesser extent "her") own, otherwise he is considered to have no roots, status or power.' (1987:262).

Men and women practise their relation to land in its productive capacity in different ways. In east Ambae [8] kinship is organised through matrilineal moieties, a person's social location is inherited from their mother. Land transmission practices appear to vary from district to district, the system seems to be changing; but both men and women have a variety of rights to land accessed through male members of their clan or descent group, while men exercise greater or lesser control over the allocation of these rights according to their social position. [9] Landholding and land transmission are predominantly male practices. Women exercise their relationship to land by bearing children to it. By bearing children to a place, a woman connects a descent group to that place. For people who have grown up in the Western economic system, which places a priority on land ownership, these two ways of relating to land may seem unequal, for Ambaeans they are not as unequal as such a perspective suggests. Both men and women exercise their relationship to land by using it. Each has access to a number of plots of land which they can use for gardens, access gained through relationships to other kin.

The most significant difference between male and female connection to place is the matter of where people live after they are married. Here is the point at which the proverb with which I opened this paper becomes relevant. In most cases a man stays living in his place and a woman moves to join him. The proverb suggests that wherever she goes she will become deeply affiliated to that place -- planted in it -- and that she will be productive there -- will grow herself, and will grow children, gardens, pigs, textiles. A woman's relationship to the place in which she lives most of her life is thus different to that of a man, not an affiliation of birth but of marriage. On Ambae, as indeed in many other places, marriage is also a means for establishing distant relationships and cementing alliances. As I heard Richard Leona, a fieldworker from north Pentecost, once say: 'a woman is like a stick that you throw' -- into a new place, to go before you and open the way there for you. Marriages sometimes involve a move not just from district to district but even from island to island. These distant connections are precious to communities in part because they open the road for trade.

Despite this kind of thinking and the implication that it is easy for a woman to be planted in a new place, Ambaeans often work hard to ensure that a woman marries to a place close to her natal hamlet. As Rodman and Rodman observe, Ambaeans used to practise district endogamy (1978:38), today marriages between districts remain an exception. Despite the optimism of the proverb, a woman who marries from afar will often, especially if her personality is difficult, be forever characterised as an outsider, not truly of the place. The proverb may, at this level, be more of an assertion of hope and reassurance than an observation about what happens. If women made and make major moves from place to place at marriage, they are in other ways less mobile than men. It was men who travelled on trading voyages, women stayed in their places. One might be tempted to argue that this reflects the fact that women are less secure in their places, and therefore can less safely move away from them.


As Kirk Huffman often observes (pers. comm.), ni-Vanuatu value travel highly. Although communications were difficult in the pre-colonial era, with both geographical and linguistic barriers to surmount, there was a considerable amount of trade and exchange through the region, and in most areas men were familiar with the ideas and practices of groups who lived adjacent to them. Huffman has published a map of precontact trade connections in north Vanuatu (1996a:184), [10] in which the whole region is criss-crossed with lines indicating exchanges in pigs, textiles, dye, shell money, kava, pottery and more. Along with these material items, there was an extensive trade in non-material objects, in rituals, myth cycles, dances, songs and so on. Indeed Huffman reports that in this area rituals 'were, and are, thought to have a power and spirit of their own that urges them to get up, move to other areas, to stay there for a while, and then move on' (1996a:190). A practice which originates in one place can, in this syst em, be traded and adopted widely.

Trade connections were not restricted to the archipelago itself. As Huffman reports (pers. comm.), trade connections linked the southern-most islands such as Tanna with New Caledonia, and equally there were connections between the northern-most islands and the southeastern Solomon Islands. There were also considerable connections between central and southern Vanuatu and western Polynesia, as Bedford et al., Wilson, and Rawlings all mention in this collection. What in a sense was not familiar to the inhabitants of the archipelago was the shape of the archipelago itself. In each place people had their own known world, with its own limited horizon, which could be visualised as a series of overlapping circles spread across the region.

Inter-island trading was much discouraged by missionary, expatriate commercial and Condominium government pressures from the late 1920s because it interfered with the project of evangelism and with expatriate trading interests. However, European presence in the archipelago brought new possibilities for travel. Conventionally, it is assumed that these opportunities were taken up largely by men, but this was not exclusively the case. As Lindstrom observes (1998a:5), one of the first ni-Vanuatu recorded as leaving the Pacific region [11] as an Erromangan girl called Elau, who travelled to England with the natural scientist and collector George Bennett in 1830, and died in Plymouth in 1834. Statistics reveal that some women also took up the opportunities to travel provided by the labour trade. Men, and to a lesser extent women, were recruited for work in plantations both overseas, for example in Queensland (Jolly 1987), and within Vanuatu. Shineberg estimates that ten percent of those recruited to work in New Ca ledonia after 1887 were women (1999:111-2). Bedford records that between 1912 and 1939 Condominium records show that planters signed approximately 32,000 contracts with ni-Vanuatu, including 4,700 contracts by which women were bound to work on French-owned estates (1971:31).

The movement of people for work increased greatly during World War II, when many men were recruited to work on American bases on Efate and Santo. Demand for labour was so great that in 1942 the resident commissioners permitted compulsory conscription of ni-Vanuatu men on three-month contracts to work with the armed forces. Bedford reports that in some areas so many men went to do this work that the preparation and cultivation of gardens suffered (1971:38). It seems that at this period communities were especially reluctant to allow women to leave their places, the demand for women for sexual relations being very high on the bases (cf. Lindstrom 1989:413).

If indigenous trading networks gave people a good knowledge and understanding of their own immediate region then the labour trade extended their horizons, taking them to new places within and outside the archipelago. At the same time, as Margaret Jolly suggests, the labour trade changed the way in which ni-Vanuatu identified their own place (1994:253). People learned to identify themselves not as belonging to their own settlement or district, but to their island, as being, in the Bislama expression, man Tanna or man Malakula. People did not, however, perceive themselves as New Hebrideans, which was in fact a legally meaningless appellation (MacClancy 1983:105). It was the Independence movement that first suggested that the inhabitants of this group of islands should perceive themselves as one people, broadening the ni-Vanuatu basis of identification to the archipelago as a whole.

The development of Bislama was crucial to the creation of this larger unity. This was the language in which people from different islands communicated with each other as they worked side by side in expatriate employment. Until the 1970s it was regarded as a language for these contexts only. Lindy Allen observed that when her father, Bill Camden, began his Bislama translation of the Bible in the 1960s, Bislama was largely regarded as a language for outcasts -- for those on the outside -- not a language for people in their own place (pers comm 1998). Margaret Jolly observes that when she worked in the early 1970s among the Sa in south Pentecost, men were very unwilling for women to learn this language, arguing that learning Bislama would 'make whores of our women' (1994:8),

Lindy Allen sees the acceptance of Bislama by the ni-Vanuatu themselves as crucial to the achievement of Independence, and attributes that acceptance to the translation of the New Testament. I myself see the use of Bislama on the radio as even more crucial to the process of wider identification, which led to and flowed from the Independence movement. As I discuss at greater length elsewhere (Bolton 1999), shortwave broadcasting was introduced to the country in 1966 by the Condominium administration. This contributed significantly to the standardisation of Bislama. Radio had several other crucial effects, as Godwin Ligo, a ni-Vanuatu who worked for the radio service from 1969, observed to me. Discussing the early effects of broadcasting, Ligo commented that radio brought people to understand that Port Vila was the capital of the whole country, and that country was the New Hebrides. The effect of radio was to enlarge people's concept of lived space.

The factors that prompted the Independence movement are complex, reflecting on international political and economic trends against colonialism, as well as on developments in Vanuatu. Within the archipelago, indigenous pressure for Independence was prompted in part by the increasing alienation of land for the developing beef cattle industry, especially on Espiritu Santo. It was thus in part prompted by pressures on people's access to their own places. The Independence movement involved contestation not only with the two governments (which had radically different approaches to granting Independence), but also between different local ni-Vanuatu political movements. These factions coalesced through the late seventies into a coalition of Francophone parties and one Anglophone party, the latter becoming the first government of Independence. As these political parties took shape, one point of debate was who could most legitimately claim to represent and support the ni-Vanuatu.

A central concept in the platform of all the indigenous political parties was the notion of ni-Vanuatu unity in distinction to both colonial powers. Uniting people divided by their mission, education and employment histories between the British and the French, the nation's incipient politicians made much of local practice as representing a unified identity for all the indigenous inhabitants of the archipelago. The Bislama term used to refer to local practice is kastom. This word seems to have been introduced into Bislama in the 1920s (Darrell Tryon pers. comm.), but it was not widely used until the 1960s appearing for the first time in a Bislama dictionary in 1977 (Camden 1977). Until the late 1960s the opposing term for kastom was skul, which referred not so much to 'school' in the English sense, as to the whole missionary project of education. In this contrast kastom was assigned a negative valuation, referring to the practices of people still living in the bush, in the bad old ways, in the darkness of une nlightened heathenism.

Kastom was redefined as something of great value during the movement for Independence. Politicians drew people's attention to the distinctiveness of regional knowledge and practice, they called it kastom and identified it as an important basis for claims for Independence. This use of kastom as a distinguishing marker separating local people from their colonial overlords embodied a conflation of practice and place. As local knowledge and practice arises out of each place, so in an overarching sense a nationally characteristic form could be understood to arise from the whole archipelago. The rhetoric established in this era presents kastom as the basis of identity, a positive characterisation of kastom which reached a highpoint with the First National Arts Festival, which took place in Port Vila in December 1979. Performance groups from all over the archipelago presented songs, dances, magical skills, carving and more to each other in an week-long festival of extraordinary vibrancy and enthusiasm. Writing abou t the festival a year later, Godwin Ligo said that it had: brought about an awareness amongst ni-Vanuatu of the importance and the vividness of our own culture. There is also a realisation of the importance of preserving and developing culture, custom and traditions as a means of reinforcing national identity. The first Cultural Festival came at a vital moment in the history of Vanuatu, and showed to the world at large their identity, which was their passport through the gate of Independence as ni-Vanuatu (Ligo 1980:65).

Since Independence the pace of ni-Vanuatu interaction with each other has increased considerably, and people have begun to negotiate ways of defining both themselves and each other. Ni-Vanuatu now travel extensively and live in other parts of the archipelago. They travel to schools and other educational institutions, and they move to new places to work. Language, which divides people into very small groups, has not been utilised as a basis for group identity as it has in PNG. Rather, people have drawn on place as the source of distinction between themselves and others. In describing themselves, ni-Vanuatu use a hierarchy of names derived from variously encompassing places. They identify themselves to other ni-Vanuatu as coming from their island -- as man Ambae, or man Tanna. To other islanders they are more specific, they identify themselves as coming from their own place -- the district or area with which they identify. The way in which they demonstrate this origin in contexts outside their own place is by e xpressing a knowledge of the kastom of their area.

This use of kastom results from an important elaboration of the concept which developed at and from Independence, beginning with the 1979 arts festival. Kastom is now constructed both as a source of national unity and a legitimate expression of local difference. This formulation of kastom is in significant measure the work of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, which through the fieldworkers, a weekly radio program, and through the promotion of further national and regional arts festivals, has given substance to the post-Independence political rhetoric about the importance of kastom. These programs have also drawn attention to the distinctiveness of kastom in different parts of the country.

Ideas of group distinction often involve fear of difference and of others. The rhetoric of national unity is presently powerful in holding ni-Vanuatu together without extensive antagonisms. In fact, people are not so much xenophobic as fearful of other places. Although ni-Vanuatu value travel highly, people are often nervous of staying in other places. This fear often manifests itself as a fear of the practices of other places, especially of sorcery. Certain islands within Vanuatu have obtained the reputation of having particularly efficacious magic. I have, for example, often heard ni-Vanuatu discuss seriously the danger of staying on Ambrym, which has the reputation of having the most powerful sorcery. That is to say, although it is the Ambrymese who practise sorcery, ni-Vanuatu talk about this as a practice of place, and express a fear of the place as much as of the people. [12]

The idea of kastom as encompassing regional diversity, tying kastom to place, both reinforces and subtly changes indigenous ideas about knowledge and practice as an outcome of place. Writing in 1990 about the Mewun of south Malakula, Joan Larcom makes the following observation:

[T]he Mewun have not perceived themselves as a separate cultural entity until recently. Their authenticity -- if such a concept ever crossed their minds -- was instead entwined with the land on which they lived and the relationships in which they participated. This home, their socio-mythic place, gave them a common frame for social connections and a joint history defined by inhabited space. Growing Mewun consciousness of the power inherent in cultural distinctions has arisen with their awareness of national politics and kastom. (1990:188-99)

If place is prior to and a source of knowledge and practice, then residence in a place is more important than the practices enacted in it. One is not defined by what one knows or does, but by dwelling in, being part of, a particular place. Ironically, perhaps, this actually frees people to be innovative in and acquisitive in what they do and think; hence the trading expeditions and the notion of the itinerance of rituals, which get up and move about themselves. Post-Independence changes have brought pressure to bear on this connection between people, practice and place. It is no longer practices which move from place to place but people, and the relationship of practice to place is problematised by this process.

Larcom comments that 'cultural identity ... if used to refer to the authenticity of a group based on a unique repertoire of values and artefacts, is new to the Mewun' (1990:188). She argues that the post-Independence concept of kastom involves, at a local level, a crystallisation of what in the past was open to change. Place-based identity enabled fluidity in practice. It was possible to trade for new stories, rituals and so on, and to adopt them without losing a sense of belonging or being, because 'identity' was a function of location. The very ability to adopt new practices and knowledge in this way was itself a practice of the place. Now the tying of kastom to place has resulted in some codification of practice. As Jolly shows in her discussion of the nagol, or land-dive, in south Pentecost, some ni-Vanuatu communities are strongly opposed to the performance of their practices outside their own place (1994a: 140). This is especially the case where those practices move not by the conventional routes of tr ade and exchange, but along the unspecified routes of personal mobility which Independence has brought into being.

The kastom that was practised in the new context of the nation was predominantly male. The stories, songs and dances presented at arts festivals and on the radio were mainly those of men. Likewise, Cultural Centre programs were until the early 1990s concerned with documenting and reviving male practice. In 1991, however, the Cultural Centre made a decision to set up the Women's Culture Project, designed to document and revive women's kastom. [13] The important thing about the project was that it was not an initiative only of the Cultural Centre. It was developed in response to pressure from women's organisations within Vanuatu, especially from Grace Molisa, then president of the Vanuatu National Council of Women. Speaking about the development of the project, Molisa commented that while the contribution of women might be recognised at village level (here thinking of the negotiations of everyday life), at the national level: 'women are missing. When men talk about kastom at this level they omit women, they pr etend that women don't have kastom' (pers. comm.).

It seems to me that the reason why women's organisations supported the development of the Women's Culture Project at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, and were keen to see the development of a group of women fieldworkers, was that the assertion that women have kastom too lays claim to an equal identity with men in the new nation. If national identity is founded on kastom then the assertion in public discourse (on the radio, in villages) that women's knowledge and practice constitutes kastom grants them the right to operate in the new contexts of the nation. An Ambae woman, Jennifer Mwera, who subsequently became one of the first women fieldworkers, commented to me on the importance of this project. She said that when one lives in one's village, one doesn't see the importance of kastom -- because it is part of ordinary practice -- but when one goes to Port Vila its importance is realised. There she said, people ask about one's kastom, and if you don't know (or perhaps more accurately, are unable to speak) about ka stom, then they say you're not really from Ambae . Kastom makes place evident.

The idea that knowledge of kastom is most relevant in town is very revealing. The growth of urban centres in Vanuatu since Independence is bringing new pressures to bear on the relationship between people, practice and place. In town people continue to identify themselves as coming from one island or another, not as belonging to the town, and kastom is a crucial marker of that identity. Despite this, and despite the fact that most urban residents continue to know and use the language of their place, a new urban practice of place is developing. [14] In town islanders are constantly negotiating the differences in their respective regional practices. This is most evident in the ways in which people are attempting to reconcile the different rituals of marriage. As people marry more and more often from island to island, ways of establishing kin connections and negotiating ritual and exchange expectations are constantly being developed. Significant differences in practices -- encountered, for example, in a marriag e between Ambae and Tanna -- require sophisticated adjustments and modifications of rituals that are still important to the parties concerned.

One assumption on which such negotiations are based is that throughout the whole archipelago marriage is virilocal. This means not that a woman necessarily moves from Tanna to live in Ambae when she marries a man from Ambae, although this may happen. It means, rather, that her place becomes Ambae. She becomes, at marriage, woman Ambae, and her children, even if they live all their lives in town, should identify as being from Ambae themselves, even if the high price of inter-island transport means that they have never been there. Her sons can expect to have access to their father's land in Ambae, again, even if they never use it. If the assumption is that marriage is virilocal, however, the practice is different. It more often happens that marriage is other-local -- that is, that inter-island marriages are contracted and lived out in town.

In these marriages a woman's relationship to her new place is thus not reinforced by residence there. Indeed, although some women do happily visit and become involved in their husband's place, this is not always the case. Some women, even while they identify as belonging to that place -- as being woman Ambae -- are actually very reluctant to go there, preferring to stay in town on more neutral ground. The anthropologist Jean Mitchell suggests, further, that as pressures on land in some islands intensify, men are increasingly activating connections to land on other islands through their wives (pers. comm. 1999). [15] Urban growth is effecting significant shifts in kinship arrangements and in land entitlements.

Independence has brought greater mobility to ni-Vanuatu not only in freeing them to move from island to town, but also from island to island. It is interesting to see how some of these changes are negotiated. A fieldworker from Maewo, Irene Lini, told me about the marriage of one of her two daughters in about 1993. A man came to Maewo from the west coast of Santo, seeking a wife for one of his sons. He wanted a girl skilled in the Maewo techniques for making water taro gardens who could bring those skills to Santo. [16] Irene's daughter, Dora, married to Santo, far from Maewo, to someone she did not know at all, taking to her new place important skills from her own island. This offers a valuable perspective on virilocal marriage, here is a woman whose connection to her new place is brought about because of the skills and knowledge, the kastom she brings with her.

The analogy with which I began this paper, that of a girl as a branch of nanggalat, and Richard Leona's proverb ('a girl is like a stick that you throw'), both suggest, to western ears, that the girl herself is undervalued. Comparisons to a stinging nettle, or a bit of wood picked up casually and thrown, seem far from respectful. During the the fifth Women Fieldworker Workshop in October 1998 I had an opportunity to ask the fieldworkers about the analogy. I explained that Jean Tarisesei had told it to me, and I asked if in other parts of Vanuatu people used similar ways of speaking about women and place. I was taken aback by the enthusiastic response -- women all around the table offered similar analogies, comparing a girl to a stick of nanggalat (Ambae; Pentecost), or of magaria [17] (Uripiv, Malakula; Ngunga, Efate), or just to a stick (Epi). The analogy from central Maewo is different in reference but similar in idea. It is lagiana uli manu, meaning literally 'marriage feather bird', comparing a girl to a bird's feather which the wind blows this way and that. [18]

Puzzled by the positive way in which the women proffered this information, I asked the Ambae fieldworker Roselyn Garae for further elucidation. She said that nanggalat grows so easily that if you throw a piece of it, no matter where it lands, 'even half way up a cliff', it will take root and grow. She explained that one might throw a stick like this in order to dislodge a fruit growing high in a tree, an explanation which connects the Ambae analogy with Richard Leona's comment. She said that the phrase which expresses this -- 'kaigugi galato' -- is a form of respect, an honouring expression used on ritual occasions. Place is central to identity, it is a strength in a woman that she can change her place and become connected and established. This capacity is something that women are proud of, as the fieldworkers made clear. As the nanggalat takes root and grows where it falls, so a woman becomes a part of the place to which she marries, growing and becoming productive. By her practice, her productivity, in tha t new place, she becomes a part of it. [19]


(1.) Dendrocnide sp.

(2.) This paper refers to periods both before and after Independence. For the sake of clarity, I refer to the archipelago as Vanuatu and its inhabitants as ni-Vanuatu, no matter what the period to which I am referring.

(3.) Little people are referred to as levsepsep in Bislama.

(4.) Mwae is the term used in north Ambae for these invisible people. In east Ambae, in the Longana district, the term used is vavi.

(5.) Tambetamata and Arevu introduced the textile as a marker of achieved rank in the hungwe, the Ambaean status-alteration system based on pig exchange and pig-killing.

(6.) Marta Garae and Father Mark Mwera told me these stories in Kwantangwele on 13 April 1992.

(7.) As Meredith Wilson discusses in her paper in this volume, rock art has been produced by and associated with women in many parts of Vanuatu.

(8.) Ambae is divided by Ambaeans into east and west (formerly referred to as Meraculu and Merabeo). People in the two western districts speak one language (Nduindui), while those in the seven eastern districts speak North-East Ambaean (see Hyslop 1998). There are broad differences of knowledge and practice between east and west. My account of Ambae in this paper refers to the east.

(9.) Margaret Rodman addresses landholding and land transmission practices on Ambae in some detail in a number of publications (1987; 1995).

(10.) Huffman says that it would be possible to produce a similar map for the southern region of the archipelago (pers. comm.).

(11.) Lindstrom points out that de Quiros took three boys from Espiritu Santo in 1606, one of whom survived a journey to Mexico, where he died six months later (1998a:5).

(12.) People from other islands also practise sorcery, of course, but the sorcery of Ambyrm, Ambrym itself, is the most feared.

(13.) I was involved in this project as a training officer for the ni-Vanuatu co-ordinator of the project, and continue to act as advisor to the Women's Culture Project, teaching the annual women fleldworkers workshop with Jean Tarisesei (see Bolton 1993).

(14.) Jean Mitchell is presently preparing publications which discuss this issue, as a result of her doctoral research in urban settlements in Port Vila.

(15.) As Rawlings observes in this volume, men have sometimes moved to their wives' places and lived there, especially as a result of movements they made through the labour trade. My point here is that men based in town are now more actively utilising marriage to negotiate access to land in places to which they have no established means of access.

(16.) West coast Santo is also an area where people plant water taro gardens. I do not know what it was about Maewo skills that made this man seek a wife for his son from so far afield.

(17.) Nanggaria is the Bislama term for two different species of shrub, both of which have coloured leaves and are often used in ritual contexts. They are croton (Codiaeum variegatum) and ti plant (Cordyline veriegatum).

(18.) I am indebted to Catriona Hyslop for this translation.

(19.) This paper is based on fieldwork supported by the Emslie Horniman Scholarship Fund, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Australian Research Council. I am indebted also to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, the Australian Museum and the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University.