Kastom and Reconciliation

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s April 30 arrival in Honiara, Solomon Islands marked what everyone hopes is a historic beginning of a new era in Solomons – and Melanesian – politics.

When the Nobel Laureate first posited the idea of Truth and Reconciliation, it was, for South Africa and much of the world, a startling, even revolutionary approach to dealing with societal and political conflict. The idea that an entire nation could dispense with winners and losers was unorthodox, to say the least. Enlightenment thought, based as it is on the rights of the individual, ranks justice higher than all else, making it the very measure of democracy.

Not so in the Solomon Islands, nor in the bulk of Melanesian society. Thousands of years of largely static village life have built into the Melanesia consciousness a tendency to focus more on peace-making than on justice per se. Put simply, retribution doesn’t make for good neighbours. If the person next door has wronged you, you’ve got to measure the merits of retribution against the knowledge that the two of you are going to remain neighbours for your – and your children’s – lifetime.

Good relations are more important than anything else, even if it means ignoring past slights.

In a 1997 article for the Australian Financial Review, journalist Ben Bohane[*] suggested that the key to re-establishing peace in war-torn Bougainville lay in the much-derided kastom movements that animated much of the conflict. “Cults of War” traces the roots of Melanesian kastom movements and cults to the spiritualisation of a fundamental desire for equality between indigenous peoples and their colonial masters. Although expressed in a simplistic mix of metaphor, legend and charismatism, the cargo cult movements that took root throughout PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are a clear expression of the desire for a more equal distribution of wealth.

Had Karl Marx been born in the South Pacific, he might have phrased things in much the same terms.

One hopes, therefore, that Desmond Tutu’s message will fall on fertile ground. Of all the regions in the world, Melanesia is most sympathetic to his philosophy of social reconciliation at the expense of individual justice.

The Solomon Islands are far from healed. The armed RAMSI patrols were welcomed by everyone I encountered during my last visit to Honiara. Every person I spoke with shared the opinion that without this overt imposition of discipline and restraint, the Guadalcanal natives (or Guales) would fall back to fighting the increasingly numerous Malaitans.

As with their neighbours in Bougainville, many members of the loosely-coordinated Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) were united mostly in their adherence to the back-to-roots philosophy of Moro, a spiritual leader who, it is claimed, died and was reborn in his spiritual role back in 1957.

The vast majority of commentators on kastom movements such as this (for example the John Frum movement on Tanna island, most recently mocked, albeit fondly, in the BBC documentary ‘Meet the Natives’), treat these beliefs as signs of a benighted, backward people searching naively to understand technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Were people to listen a little more sympathetically, they would see that unrest and dissatisfaction lie intertwined at the very roots of such movements. But scattered amongst them are the seeds of reconciliation.

Democracy in Melanesia has proved a difficult, not to say intractable, mechanism of governance. While few politicians or societal leaders would discard it entirely, there isn’t one who won’t admit that some aspects of it simply don’t mesh with the millennial traditions that make up so much of village life.

Throughout the Melanesian Arc ranging from West Papua, across the Pacific to Fiji and down to New Caledonia, issues of democracy, representation and social justice remain unreconciled. While some nations, most notably Vanuatu, have managed to maintain a modicum of stability and growth, the majority have not flourished.

Most Melanesian countries are coming to the end of their first full generation of independence. Many lessons have yet to be fully learned, but a new crop of politicians is entering the scene with a distinctly more nuanced understanding of the world. Unburdened by the onerous, unforgiving task of carving out democratic vehicles acceptable to their erstwhile colonial masters, they have begun to reflect on the steps necessary to reconcile the competing priorities of individual justice and societal peace.

Archbishop Tutu’s visit should not be a one-off event. Nor should his message be ignored by other nations in the region. If it does nothing else, the nascent Melanesian Spearhead Group would do well to take some momentum from the renewed peace process in the Solomons and sponsor research, advocacy and education that seeks a reconciliation between the clear-cut mechanics of Western democracy and the subtle, oblique and generally non-confrontational lessons of kastom.

If they do, they will help to arm the next generation of leaders with the knowledge and understanding they need to avoid the conflict, ineptitude and venality that have tainted the efforts of even the most well-intentioned leaders during Melanesia’s first generation of Independence. Their sons and daughters can – and must – do better.

[*] Bohane later expanded on this idea – that spiritualism plays a much larger role in Melanesian politics  than most commentators give it credit for – in his Masters thesis in Journalism for Wollongong University. You can read it here. The abstract is here. Both are in PDF format.