Two Solitudes?

Notwithstanding its strengths, French’s permanent minority status here in Vanuatu has certainly allowed the perpetuation of some of the same kinds of injustice seen in Quebec in past generations. French has often received less attention than it should. The demonstrably superior education system has not received the recognition it deserves. The use of French in law, in government services and publications is often an afterthought.

Given my personal experience living on the cusp between two cultures, I am naturally sympathetic to Education Minister Charlot Salwai’s efforts to increase the French component in the core curriculum. Having benefited from a completely bilingual education, and having experienced the consequent benefits of a more nuanced, more cosmopolitan view of the world, I can only consider his plan to be a good thing.

That said, I am vividly conscious as well of the potential for division that language issues can create. In Canada in 1970, Quebec separatists conducted a series of murders, kidnappings and bombings that resulted in the imposition of martial law and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of activists, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than caring about their culture.

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

I grew up in a border town, in a border generation. One side of the river was majority French, the other English. My elders held tight to decidedly parochial views about their respective cultures. The English felt the ascendancy of their language (and subsequent control over business, government and education) was an inevitable and unavoidable result of their conquest of French Canada in 1760. The French, on the other hand, used their language as a cultural badge of courage, an undying assertion that they had never been conquered in spirit.

During the 1960s and 1970s an intense and occasionally violent cultural revival swept the French-speaking province of Quebec. Language became a weapon, leveraging access to public and private services.

Many of these reforms were necessary, long past due. Pierre Trudeau, the bi-cultural, bilingual Prime Minister at the time, had agitated for social justice in his youth. He was, nonetheless, a strong federalist, and opposed growing cries for Quebec’s secession from the Canadian confederation of provinces.

Vanuatu and Canada’s respective histories reveal more than a few parallels. Though different in detail, many common themes emerge. In Vanuatu, French and English camps were pitted against one another in the run-up to Independence, with the largely English Lini camp charging full-blown toward freedom and numerous, largely French-speaking, elements advocating a go-slowly (or not at all) approach.

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Expression is Wealth

The wealth of nations is often measured in monetary terms. I say it should be measured in how that wealth is used.

Investment in media and in the mechanics of free speech and open exchange of ideas creates immeasurable wealth. Such wealth will never appear in economic reports. It will, however, define our history.

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

I’ve been following a few different stories these last few weeks. Thousands of miles apart and separated by decades, they might seem at first to have little in common.

The first is the story of over 500 websites in China that have decided to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre by voluntarily taking themselves offline for ‘non-technical maintenance’. The censored are boycotting the censor.

The second story is the ongoing suppression of media in Fiji. In a June 2nd statement, Fiji’s interim Permanent Secretary for Information, Lieutenant-Colonel Neumi Leweni indicated that the current state of emergency would continue into August at least. It’s not clear whether this means that state censorship of media will continue as well.

The last is a story of the Australian movie ‘Balibo’. The recently-released film recounts the story of 5 Australia-based journalists killed by Indonesia during the 1975 invasion of East Timor.

Following decades of patient, determined investigation, the facts of the Balibo case have at last come to light. In the years following the murders, nobody – not even Australia – wanted the full extent of Indonesia’s depredations in Timor to see the light of day. Through a combination of determined neglect and deliberate distortion, countries in the region and across the globe allowed Indonesia to act with impunity against the Timorese people.

All of these stories have one thing in common. Every single one of them has been shaped by our collective complacence. The passive-aggressive self-imposition of censorship by Chinese website operators is more an act of sullenness than outright protest. According to one commentator, the increase in censorship activity in the lead-up to Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary is a “minor annoyance for most, perhaps making them remember, but they don’t care that much.”

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40 Dei Ramble

I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.

My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.

I’m not going to attempt to structure this in any useful way. This really is as much a personal exercise as a public one: If I succeed in conveying a sense of what makes Smolbag so unique to you, I might understand it better myself….

I ran into Peter Walker and Jo Dorras, the founders of Wan Smolbag Theatre company, in town yesterday. They stopped and thanked me for the review I wrote about 40 Dei, their latest stage production. As she turned to leave, Jo said, “Nobody’s ever written that kind of a review on us before.”

Public commentators in Vanuatu don’t write nearly often enough about Wan Smolbag. Even when they do, their description of the work and its effect tend to fit them into the ‘development NGO’ straitjacket. That’s not entirely inaccurate, of course; Smolbag is a development NGO. But such descriptions are incomplete.

Woefully so, in my opinion. Once understood, the reasons for this misperception explain a great deal about the failures of many formal development programmes. (That’s programmes, mind you, not projects. But that’s an essay for another day.) The problem, ultimately, is our human incapacity to quantify, or even adequately to analyse, certain cultural inputs.

Now, given that Smolbag has been working with the softer tools of drama, dialogue, understanding and community awareness for twenty years, they’ve got the issue pretty well sussed. At least innately. If there are still tensions between what they want to do and what donors are willing to fund, they’re manageable, and it must be said that, from top to bottom, Smolbag staff know what they’re about. They’re are as good at demonstrating the value of their work to donors, partners and the public as anyone I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of part- and full-time advocacy work.

But the preceding is really just a digression – I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.

My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.

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The Devil at our Shoulder

Anybody who’s opened a newspaper in the last few years will recognise the characters and events portrayed in 40 Dei, Wan Smolbag Theatre’s latest stage production. Smolbag’s greatest gift to us is its ability to show us our own world. The play is populated by the same reprobates, righteous hypocrites, prostitutes, politicians and just plain folks as we find in any neighbourhood in Port Vila.

We all walk with the Devil at our shoulder. Without surrendering to dogmatic, moralistic finger-wagging, 40 Dei confronts us with the knowledge that the most insidious enemy to Vanuatu society lies within it, not without. Until we recognise that there are no easy answers to the complex afflictions of a society in transition, until we accept that prostitutes, prisoners and penitents alike are all our family, until we recognise our own weakness in the face of venality and ambition, we will never completely be whole.

In the words of the immortal Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

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

ABOUT THIS SHOW: 40 Dei plays at Wan Smolbag Haos in Tagabe on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are 50 vatu for adults, students and children. Because of its popularity, attendees should arrive at least one hour before show time to be guaranteed seating.

The thematic heart of 40 Dei (40 Days), Wan Smolbag’s powerful new play, is the story of Jesus’ 40 days of suffering and temptation in the desert. With Satan constantly at his side, Jesus fasted, contemplated and steadfastly resisted the Devil’s threats and inducements. Even in the extremities of suffering, he accepted his humanity, refusing assistance either from above or below.

As the New Testament tells it, Jesus embarked on this pilgrimage of suffering immediately after his baptism. It was, in a sense, his preparation to enter into the world. We first meet Matthew, the protagonist in Jo Dorras’ stark, deeply probing script, as he emerges from his own moral desert, a wasted youth of faithlessness, drinking and violence.

Lying on the roadside, bloody, filthy, half-clothed, Matthew presents a repulsive figure. Only Lei, a pastor’s daughter, sees him for what he is – a lost soul. Ignoring imprecations to leave this filth, this ‘doti blong taon’ where he lies, she instead recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan to her father.

Matthew awakes from his stupor to a vision of love – a beautiful young woman beside him, joyous music and light emerging from a nearby chapel. He is transformed, and decides at that moment to leave his errant past behind, to seek redemption and salvation.

But as with Jesus in the desert, the Devil is always at his side. And Matthew is human, all too human. Beset by difficulties, he tries to navigate the narrow passage between hypocritical moral rectitude and the nihilistic, hopeless existence of his young friends.

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Lost in Translation

The continuing confrontation between the government of Vanuatu and business interests over recent amendments to the Employment Act is being exacerbated by failures in translation. Either through unwillingness or inability to bridge the gap between cultures, needs and concerns, people on both sides of the issue now find themselves staring each other down.

The fuse has been lit on an issue that could have explosive impact on ni-Vanuatu and expat alike, but nobody seems to be able to step forward and quench it.

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

Poetry is what gets lost in the translation – Robert Frost

This quotation is one of those handy catch-all phrases that scholars love to use to explain – and often excuse – people’s inability to capture the essence of a statement when it’s translated between languages and cultures. Examples of miscommunication between peoples are everywhere.

One of the most startling examples of the limits to cross-cultural communication occurred during US-Russian nuclear talks. Disarmament expert Geoffrey Forden writes:

‘It turns out that when the US START II treaty negotiators tried to explain to their Russian counterparts the need for a “strategic reserve” of nuclear warheads, they called it a hedge. The Russian interpreters alternately translated that as either “cheat” or “shrub”.’

You can imagine the confusion and consternation this would have caused. More than poetry was at stake in this particular translation.

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Just Desserts

A congenital weakness in Vanuatu politics is the lack of real opposition. In most parliamentary democracies, the term ‘loyal Opposition’ is more than just a pleasant bromide, serving only to placate the loser. It’s an effective reminder that policies must be publicly, thoroughly and constructively scrutinised and critiqued. The give-and-take of parliamentary debate is the most valuable service MPs can render their constituents.

In Vanuatu, however, there is little if any critical evaluation of policy and legislation. Rather than accepting the implicit legitimacy of the ruling coalition and performing the integral public service of scrutinising its every action, the Opposition fritters away its political capital in a petty game of parliamentary musical chairs.

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

One of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy is our right – and our responsibility – to question every aspect of our national institutions. If the political dialogue over the last few years is any indication, Vanuatu’s democracy is alive and kicking.

Kalkot Mataskelekele’s adult life has been devoted to promoting and defining an independent, democratic Vanuatu. The nation has benefited from his consistency, wisdom and guidance. He has long been a public proponent of a US-style system with a clear division of power between legislative and executive branches of government. He has been joined by others in suggesting that factionalism could be addressed by putting limits on the number of political parties.

Mataskelekele is one of many leaders who have remarked on numerous occasions that we should not take the structures of government for granted. He rightly points out that Vanuatu’s Westminster system was created mostly as a sop to its departing colonial masters seeking reassurance that the nascent democracy would remain recognisable to them.

In the rush to create a new constitution, important aspects of Vanuatu culture were overlooked. The consensus-driven style of leadership-from-within that typifies chiefly rule is difficult to reconcile with majority rule and a codified, winner-take-all legal system.

Most difficult of all are the contending principles of public service and entitlement.

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Adventures in Paradise

The rain drives the tourists off the sidewalks, diminishes the Pacific to a neighbourly size, and melts all my plans like ice cream.

I open the paper and read a wandering, questing letter about the ‘beautiful, innocent people of Vanuatu‘, and ache a little because it’s so nearly true.

In the wall-high mirror, a woman spins her Mickey Mouse umbrella, angles it into the wind, and passes the doorway humming. Her vibrant purple and white island dress is garlanded with ribbons and bows.

An obese Hyundai motor coach lumbers to a halt beside the cafe. Emblazoned in heavy capitals along its side: ADVENTURES IN PARADISE. There is no one on board.

I wrote those paragraphs back in 2003. I’d just arrived in Vanuatu, and was trying to express my first inklings of the nature of the people and the place.

The beauty of Vanuatu and its people has worked itself into the very fibre of my being. The ability to remain gracious and smiling through the most arduous circumstances, to snap out a bawdy joke without missing a beat, to remain impassive in the face of gross affront – these aspects of the national character have impressed, confounded and ultimately seduced me.

But this is no one’s Paradise. Nor will it ever be.

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Paradise Dreams

Over the last few years, investment in Vanuatu has boomed. It’s been estimated that the amount of cash in the economy is increasing by an astounding 150% per year. Compare that with the period between 1990 and 2004, when economic activity grew more slowly than the population.

But for most of the residents of this so-called paradise, little has changed.

Prices have increased somewhat, but curiously many of the more common expenses have not. Bus fares, for example, have not budged even though fuel prices have soared. Consequently, Vanuatu’s minimum wage has about the same buying power today as it had years ago.

That’s not entirely good news….

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