Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

While no name is attributed to the penning of the Preamble, the rising pinnacle-like structure of the poem and its rhythmic accent on key words bears the mark of Grace Molisa’s poetic hand.

The European-derived institutions of Prime Minister, Council of Ministers, Judiciary, Supreme Court, and other official government agencies are balanced by a traditional council known as the National Council of Chiefs. Although this body does not have any formal legislative or executive powers, it is a highly influential body of traditional leaders elected by their peers in the District councils of chiefs. Consisting of 22 kastom chiefs representing chiefs from the eleven local government council regions, it possesses ‘a general competence to discuss all matters relating to custom and tradition and may make recommendations for the preservation and promotion of Vanuatu culture and languages’ (Vanuatu 69). Women cannot be kastom chiefs – consequently there are no women on these traditional advisory boards of governance.

As stipulated in the Constitution, Independence was to be realised in two primary ways. The first step towards Independence involved the restoration of kastom, ‘traditional’ Melanesian values and practices, which also involved the restoration of traditional lands to their indigenous kastom owners. The second result of Independence was the promotion of Christianity as an indigenous and desired value system to follow and uphold in the new Vanuatu. Kastom and Christianity are inherent in nationalist rhetoric and symbolism (Jolly 1996 7). The national motto in Bislama is ‘Long God Yumi Stanap’ (‘In God We Stand Independent’), while the national logo and flag are explained in official Independence documents as invoking both kastom and Christianity as the two influences that serve as the ‘binding cords’ of the nation (Vanuatu).

However, for Molisa these ‘binding cords’ also have the power to strangle. Molisa was a staunch advocate for holding the government accountable to its pre-independence promises, indeed, by all accounts she became a painful thorn in Lini’s side, and arguably was removed because of it. Molisa’s specific use of a cohesive indigenous metaphor realised a Vanuatu poetics that created ways in which to work within disequilibrium in order to bring about equilibrium. For Molisa, equilibrium was only possible by counter-posing two counter-acting states and synchronistically addressing the ‘double jeopardy’ experienced by women of colour the world over: racism and sexism.

Divide and conquer

The ‘divide and conquer’ paradigm of colonialism was recognised early by the Vanuaku Pati. Movements towards Independence actively sought to create indigenous accord (Vanuatu 42) This was spearheaded by Walter Lini’s ideological call for the continued development of Bernard Narokobi’s conceptual idea of ‘The Melanesian Way’ (Vanuatu 63), a conscious shaping of Melanesian identity and culture towards the formation and realisation of Melanesian defined and determined goals in nationhood (Narokobi 1980; 1990; see also Crocombe 1976 for earlier Pan-Pacific articulations). ‘The Melanesian Way’ centered on kastom in conjunction with Christianity. This was an ideological marriage especially problematic for women.

Although pre-existent to European incursion, the term kastom came to evoke cultural practices that designated difference between indigenous and foreign epistemologies. Consequently, kastom rapidly became a reactionary form of culture, an ‘antithesis to the way of life of Europeans’ and used towards nationalist ends (Jolly 1982, 341; 1992; Jolly and Thomas). The male-only Council of Jifs (Chiefs) was primarily responsible for safeguarding – and selecting – what was considered kastom (Jolly 1996, 26). The Vanuatu Cultural Centre (primarily male-oriented in its outlook according to Jolly) was also largely responsible for promoting the practices presented as kastom. Revived, recreated, and reintroduced as a tool to counteract European colonialism, ironically kastom became a colonising weapon itself as it forged other hierarchies and associated forms of oppression amongst Ni-Vanuatu.

Part of this selective cultural revitalisation entailed what Māori feminist Kathie Irwin describes as a petrification of culture, especially for women: ‘The role and status of women remains petrified, like a slab of rock, unchanging, immobile, inflexible, whilst everything around us in our culture is rapidly changing’ (17). The arrested development of certain aspects of tradition served to reinforce patriarchy as both indigenous and non-indigenous men capitalised on existing (male-oriented, colonially inherited) power structures.

In Vanuatu Jolly observes how selective practices and contemporary male-defined definitions of kastom have been crippling for women:

Whereas many other values of tradition may be sacrificed to, or at least compromised by, development, globalisation or Christianity, the value to tradition signalled by women’s relation to men is often adjudged to be sacrosanct (1997, 19).

In Melanesian literature during the period of decolonisation (1970s and 1980s) the modern, feminist, liberal, educated Melanesian woman is stereotypically represented as disrespectful, scornful of traditional norms, and often cast in the mold of licentious (see the fiction and poetry of Saunana; Mapun), underscoring the general view that women’s rights can only be realised at the expense of customary rights (and vice versa). Molisa counters such beliefs in two well-known titular poems.

‘Custom’ makes it clear that colonial (‘custom’) and indigenous (‘kastom’) constructions need to be vigilantly interrogated in the hard won postcolonial nation of Vanuatu. It follows in its entirety:

is an English word
a confluence
of streams of words
is a reservoir
of every shade 
nuance and hue
limited vocabulary


a frankenstein
to intimidate 
the timid
the ignorant
the weak.

oft neglected
by non-conforming
the loudest
empty vessels ...

more honoured 
in omission
than commission.

A word
between multifariously varied
traditional vernacular
and accidentally
life and lingo
by pandemonic
Custom is
as custom does ! (24)
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