Monday, 14 May 2012

Vanuatu Tuesday - Working between cultures

I am almost overwhelmed at the thought of writing down an account of our work. At one level it is so simple - we are in Vanuatu to help our ni-Vanuatu colleagues prepare and deliver a program about community development, or as they have termed it 'Komuniti Aksen'. Our skills are in facilitating, in helping people think through things, in asking some challenging questions about purpose and strategy. We have skills in helping people develop effective working relationships; we have our individual experiences and knowledge about community work; we have a strong set of guiding principles to work from. We are not content-free but in terms of Vanuatu culture and Vanuatu thinking we are certainly not the experts. Mark knows an amazing amount about the local culture and, in some cases, knows more than about the history of particular islands and their progression from pre-missionary to post independence than some of the locals. But even with that body of knowledge he is challenged as to how to combine that information with the needs of our hosts.

The challenge for each of us is exactly that. How can we be helpful without imposing our western values and assumptions on our colleagues while not shying away from sharing what skills we have? Our unacknowledged assumptions manifest themselves in surprising ways. I ask one of the chiefs during a planning session why he has chosen to build a meeting house rather than install a water tank in his village. He looks at me strangely and, try as I might to encourage him to articulate the why of his choice he thinks my question absurd. He just knows. It's not even a question he can contemplate. My logic, his certainty. Another time I ask a question about relationships within families and I get two answers - first the western father mother son cousin uncle etc I am familiar with (and which is taught in local schools), and the real picture which is a statement of responsibilities; where, what I would call my uncle, can be named as brother to my son but be regarded as father to me. I probably have that all wrong but it is about who is watching out for whom.

We're absurdly out of our depth in that we are working under the umbrella theme of strengthening Kastom and Tradition at the community level. How that is managed in what, even in Vanuatu, is a global and changing environment (including modern democracy as their chosen form of government) staggers me. We are all in a constant, though sometimes ignored, dialogue between government and governance, between tradition and modernity, between sometimes idealised 'old' ways and the daily evidence of influence by the church and colonialism. Tradition is constantly in flux but some prefer to idealise it as fixed, created by a Christian God - part of the missionary story.

Chiefs, the guardians of tradition, are a case in point. Before the arrival of missionaries people lived in family groupings in small village communities. There was a set of relationships and a social structure and a leadership figure/elder. It was only with the arrival of the missionaries that these, often warring, families, were brought together to live around the church building that the era of the Chief took hold. It was a convenience for the churches, and they often appointed a supportive member of the flock as the new chief.
The result is ongoing confusion and conflict as to who is a 'real' chief and who is an appointed chief. As all land is still vested in the family, and the family "chief/leader' has final say as to its use (and that there are no land titles or survey pegs) this creates constant conflict as unauthorised chiefs sell land which is not theirs to sell and violence sometimes ensues or equally sadly the court cases mount up.

Over our five day workshop, where we are merely the back-up team, approximately 40 leaders will participate in negotiating some of the challenges of this landscape, exploring how Kastom and traditional values intersect with community aspirations for improvements in community life.

It is always a more than interesting week. Each time I come away amazed at the passion of the participants and of our presenting team of facilitators. Each time I am humbled by how little I understand and how articulate and insightful these people are.

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