Honour is respectable

Reconciling social change with kastom and tradition is a necessary condition for development

Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini famously said, ‘respect is honourable.’ The phrase is often quoted today by people from all walks of life as a means of recalling the best aspects of Vanuatu society: its use of deference and respect as an integral part of community peace-making. Modern influences have transformed kastom in many ways, but respect is still held tightly to the national breast.

We might do well, though, to turn the phrase around.

It must be said that traditional life in Vanuatu is indeed happy… for those men who survive their first five years in comparatively good health. And some women may be content living within the confines of their village roles. But like it or not, that life is no longer available to a growing number of people.

If we include people living in peri-urban areas around Port Vila and Santo, census figures show nearly a 10% change in the urban/rural population ratio between 1999 and the last complete census in 2009. Much of this change is composed of the so-called youth bulge – a growing number of young adults with limited opportunities both in the modern economy and in traditional life.

These are not the only source of discontent. Household dynamics are increasingly complex. Domestic relationships, both formal and informal, are more fluid –and generally more violent– than they were. This is largely a result of the clash between the de facto status of women as chattels, and women’s increased economic independence, and thence mobility, in the modern economy.

Men and women both are no longer subject to the social and geographical confines of village life. Mobility and distance undermine traditions that have sustained Melanesian societies since time immemorial. The coercive or corrective power of community scrutiny recedes once it becomes possible to evade the villagers’ gaze. The village’s role as collective conscience has been eroded and, to date, nothing has arisen to take its place.

At all levels of society, the dwindling power of social pressure leads to behaviour that once might have been unconscionable. Legal and regulatory checks go unheeded and national institutions teeter on the edge of dissolution.

But kastom is a resilient term. It has survived thousands of years of challenge and changing circumstance; it has managed to remain a viable idea throughout even the last two centuries of transformation. There is no reason to believe it won’t survive the changing economic and social conditions of the present day. Read more “Honour is respectable”

Web tricks are not for kids any more

Javascript is not a toy any more. Finally, after two decades of stumbling around blindly, wreaking more chaos and mayhem than a shirtless, drunken Australian on a JetStar weekend in Bali, web development has finally matured.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 12.01.22 PMI started writing web apps in 1994. Using CGI.pm in Perl was pretty much state of the art – and the art wasn’t very pretty. ColdFusion appeared shortly thereafter, but only supported basic control structures – no functions or even subroutines at the start. Then came ASP and a disastrous mishmash of security holes, ActiveX objects being called from the only thing worse than PHP for tag soup with spaghetti code for filler. PHP, for our sins, went from being a ‘hey, kids, look – I made a web page!’ app to an actual application platform.

.. and the list goes on.

I’ve lived through the browser standards wars, I’ve seen such sins committed in the name of the Web that I would wake up screaming, ‘Why, Tim Berners Lee?!? WHY???!!’ I’ve lived through <BLINK>, Flash, animated GIFs, <MARQUEE>… and other monstrosities whose names Shall Not Be Spoken.

I’ve used JavaScript since it was a toy.

But this, my child, is the key: It’s not a toy any more. Finally, after two decades of stumbling around blindly, wreaking more chaos and mayhem than a shirtless, drunken Australian on a JetStar weekend in Bali, web development has finally matured. A bit. It’s learned that being cool doesn’t earn you nearly as many friends as being useful. It’s learned that a guy’s gotta eat, fer Chrissakes, and sleep from time to time. It’s learned that popsicle-stick bridges may be neat, but won’t carry the load that a boring old concrete one will.

But, as the scripture says, ‘then I put away my childish things.’ Oh, it’s true that just because we’ve grown up doesn’t mean we’ve learned every lesson ever. It’s true that we Web Developers still get seduced by Teh Shiney. But all in all, we’ve grown; we’ve lost our innocence and our hair. But we sleep at night. And we parallelise. And we scale. We’re grown-ups now. With grown-up tools.

So put down your PHP child. Accept that JavaScript is a language. REST in your Bower and accept that some change is for the better.

A Bushknife Wedding

Wan Smolbag Theatre explores life, love and lost innocence in their new musical, Laef I Swit

Max bursts onstage, tears his mother’s headscarf from her head, covers himself with it and dives into the darkness, hiding among the audience members. Moments later, Sonia, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, appears. She demands to know where he is. She too disappears offstage, returning moments later with a bushknife in her hand and murder in her eye. The ensuing chaos brings the entire community out, and in the course of a raucous meeting, a chief decides that the only choice for these ‘Tom and Jerry’ lovers is for them to marry.

Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, a musical titled Laef I Swit (Life is Sweet) tells a tragicomic tale of passion, love and life in Vanuatu. Max and Sonia are a mismatched, all too typical modern couple. Sonia’s idealised dreams of love as a means of escape from the dangers, tedium and frustration of life as a downtrodden woman are dashed when she encounters Max, a sweet-talking, mercurial and charming –but utterly unreliable– man. Nothing can make them happy together, but the prospect of being torn apart seems too much to bear.

Thematically, Laef I Swit is a smaller play than usually emerges from playwright Jo Dorras’ pen. But this only adds to its power. The forces that act on Ni Vanuatu society are compressed into a domestic drama that is poignant, fleetingly sweet and often outright heartbreaking. Director Peter Walker’s staging is, as always, engaging and inventive. He blurs the line between audience and actors, driving the action right in among the seats. It’s a reminder that this play is not simply to be observed. It’s our story, not someone else’s, happening quite literally in our midst. Read more “A Bushknife Wedding”