Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

In the poem, ‘Custom’ denigrates neither custom or kastom. Rather, it highlights (and condemns) political and social manipulations of the word ‘misapplied / bastardised’ by the powerful and influential who, according to the last stanza, can be Ni-Vanuatu, French or British. Lini himself noted the susceptibility of custom – what ‘cannot be written down’ – to manipulation, in particular its use by foreign-backed secessionist groups to oppose democracy and nationalism in the push for Independence (41, 42). Molisa’s poem asserts that the customs used to oppress people are not the time honoured customs passed down through generational wisdom and practice but, like the poem’s image of Frankenstein’s terrifying composite monster, reconstituted with particular agendas in mind, stitched together for unnatural purposes. The personification of custom as a ‘bastard’ in a culture where lineage is significant emphasises its illegitimacy in Ni-Vanuatu lives and its travesty when masqueraded as the natural heart of a culture.

The use of ‘Custom’ (‘an English word’) as opposed to the Bislama word kastom, is significant. From the beginning of the poem Molisa foregrounds linguistic differences between English and Melanesian usage, and compares the different ways of communicating underlying epistemologies. In the second stanza it is the English word ‘custom’ (highlighted by inverted commas) which signals the oppression carried out under its name. By avoiding the term kastom, Molisa strategically sidesteps the criticism that her stance is anti-culture. She also avoids succumbing to the insidious dichotomy that links men with the preservation of custom and women’s freedom with its destruction (Jolly 1996 16). A close reading of ‘Custom’ reveals that the issue is not one of cultural celebration or resurgence, but one of oppressive control.

For Molisa, ‘Custom’ is a word used to proliferate meanings justifying discriminatory practices. The danger of hasty and uncritical resurrections of ‘traditional’ practices in a post-Independence era is that they are inevitably subject to colonial influence and male bias. Irwin argues that because indigenous men were taking over essentially foreign patriarchal systems, only the customs that supported this introduced form of patriarchy were revived. ‘Custom’ thus provides an extraordinarily revealing example of ‘double jeopardy’ and the collusion and collision of systemic race/gender discrimination. Jolly argues that women’s oppression:

can only be challenged by women insisting that human rights are not necessarily inconsistent with kastom, by appropriating and indigenising notions of the ‘human’ to suit their local context, and by insisting … that tradition is not a static burden of the past but something created for the present (1996 16).

To return to Molisa’s final two lines, ‘Custom is / as custom does!’

Under colonialism, customs were rejected or selectively practiced or transformed. The connection between indigenous and foreign men in positions of power often came at the expense of indigenous women (Trask; Irwin 16). Hilda Lini (Father Walter Lini’s sister) asserts that the colonial system was deliberately set up to discriminate against women by linking the role of patriarchal missionisation with the disempowerment of indigenous women (qtd. in Johnson 64). Hilda Lini’s observation supports the contention of much feminist anthropological research in the Pacific that prior to colonialism there were social, cultural and political systems in place within indigenous societies that had mechanisms for dealing with potentially oppressive imbalances of power between men and women – systems that were removed, broken down, and diluted with the advent of colonialism. In many Ni-Vanuatu cultures, women hold importance as proprietors of communal wisdom, arbitrators of disputes, and healers and intercessors of the spiritual realm. Matrilineal clans exist, as do clans where women can attain and hold the rank of chieftainship (as in Molisa’s clan). The existence of gender-distinct, autonomous, social organisations ensure the continuance of varied distributions of power (Pala Molisa, Pers. Com; Jolly, 1996; 1997).

Colonialism, based on Western models of civilised Christian society, undermined many of these kinship-based social organisations. By way of missionisation, colonialism implanted and reinforced its own models of social organisation, one of them being the nuclear family forged by the West’s ‘cult of domesticity’ (Grimshaw 1989). The singular legitimisation of the role of ‘wife’ undermined other roles which empowered women through wider support networks offered by access to extended families. Protection and privilege held as sisters, daughters, aunts and grandmothers deferred to the role of wife under the headship of one man – the husband.

Complicity between indigenous patriarchy, colonial interests and introduced religion is powerfully illustrated by Molisa’s long, titular poem ‘Colonised People’. In Stanza 13 Molisa shows not only her characteristic mastery of the coloniser’s English, but her ability to subvert its inherited political framework and iconography:

of culture
and refinement
in politics
in church
in custom
according to
the Melanesian
or our extended
family system
according to
our Christian
according to
our democracy
Man’s freedom

More than any other symbol, Vanuatu’s national logo signifies the amalgamation of kastom and Christianity – principles promoted as intrinsic to the indigenous identity of the newly sovereign state. More than any other national symbol it demonstrates the complicity between patriarchy, colonialism and Christianity and how Ni-Vanuatu women are rendered invisible.

The central figure represents a Melanesian chief. The spear he holds signifies his role as defender and protector of his people while the shell money armbands symbolise his role in economic exchanges and as a distributor of goods, services and resources. The cycas leaves connote peace resulting from chiefly authority and jurisprudence while circular pig tusks indicate unity and wealth. Both form a circle symbolising the dawning of a new day (Vanuatu: 10 Yia Blong Independens (1990)). The logo is inserted at the end of stanza 13, and appears to exhort Vanuatu’s official ideals and its adherence to ‘Melanesian / values’ and ‘Christian / principles’. The base of the logo, ‘Long God yumi stanap’, serves to finish the line of Molisa’s poem and translates as ‘In God we are Independent’. (Jolly 1997, 29)

But, as Jolly points out in her feminist anthropological article on the nation-state of Vanuatu, the symbol used to represent the new nation is inherently flawed. The ‘Melanesian chief’ is far from representative of the Ni-Vanuatu post-colonial citizen. The central figure is not only from a specific region and culture (the spear, pig tusk, and cycas leaves are traditional symbols of male rank specific to the Northern islands of Vanuatu), but the figure is also gender specific. In fact, Jolly points out that the logo is a significantly edited version of its original, derived from a mid-nineteenth century European lithograph. In the original logo, the man wears a comparatively smaller nambas (attire characteristic of Efate) and a waist girdle complete with a long pandanus tail behind him. The male figure in the contemporary logo is significantly older, conforming more to the image of a kastom jif of the Northern Islands. Astoundingly, the Melanesian woman and child accompanying the man in the original logo have been edited out (Jolly 1997, 29). The removal of the more familial representation was thus a deliberate act of erasure. Significantly, while the choice of the Ni-Vanuatu flag and the national anthem was subject to public debate and decided through a national competition, the national logo was not. Its design was determined by the then curator of the Cultural Centre (1977-1989) at the Vanuatu Museum, Kirk Huffman, a French anthropologist and Ni-Vanuatu sympathist.

Why, in the midst of national rhetoric upholding equality, were the woman and child figure removed? The official explanation given is that women are in fact present in the national logo. The government-funded anniversary publication,Vanuatu: 10 Yia Blong Independens, explains:

(T)he mat in front of the man recalls the importance of agriculture in our traditional economy. Mats are the product of women’s labour, and women are the producers and managers of our agricultural economy (28).

Women are thus symbolised by the mat and ground upon which the man stands. The logo serves as a telling example of the kinds of visible invisibility mentioned earlier. This symbol of national prominence and influence places women conveniently ‘under foot’. While fully cognizant of the perils of applying a western feminist critique to indigenous iconography, I am merely following Molisa’s prompt.

In contrast to the national logo, the Vanuatu National Kouncil of Women (Molisa was a founding member) resurrects the image of a representative family, underlining from a Vanuatu perspective the importance of visible representation.1 The VNKW logo features a family (albeit a Christianised nuclear version) where a man and woman stand with a child between them. They are all holding hands – united, inter-relational, and interdependent. Included in the logo are the familiar symbols of the pig tusk in the background with cycas leaves (or feathers) forming a border around the family who stand on stoney ground (a reference to Vanuatu soil and black stone). The VNKW logo is inclusive. It places primary importance on unity, peace and prosperity. Such principles are not just for the exclusive realisation of women, but for the family, community and the nation as argued throughout Molisa’s poetry.

It remains unclear as to why the familial image of the 19th century lithograph was deemed inappropriate to symbolise the newly Independent Vanuatu. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then the placement of the National logo in Molisa’s poem, ‘Colonised People’, is telling – it appears just below the line ‘Man’s freedom’.

For Molisa it is vital that people understand that women continue to be colonised after Independence. This message is evident throughout her poetry: within each volume, among the thematic shifts that occur between them and in use of technical devices such as space on the page, layout, the recycling of words and word germination. Significantly, close-readings of these poems reveal actual strategies for recognising and addressing existing imbalances between national and gender emancipation. Molisa’s thematic emphasis alternates between nationalism and feminism, often placing them side by side, demonstrating the need for a synchronic consideration of cultural and gender issues if Independence is to be realised for all Ni-Vanuatu. Paradigms of Independence lie within her key working metaphor of black stone.

The themes in Black Stone (1983), published three years after Independence, were colonialism, Independence and nationhood. ‘Vanuatu’, the first poem in the collection, glories in new found nationhood, recalling the ‘bitter - sweet / fruit / of sovereignty struggle.’ Black stone is Molisa’s primary metaphor for the new nation state of Ni-Vanuatu, asserting the timelessness, endurance and solidity of Ni-Vanuatu throughout and beyond the colonial experience. However, while the realisation of Independence was the primary focus in Black Stone, the volume also contains a number of poems (including ‘Marriage’, ‘Pregnant Blues’, ‘Ladies of Precedence’, and ‘Status Costs’, as well as her most widely known poem ‘Custom’) that criticise selective patriarchal reconstructions of culture. The inequity suffered by women in the postcolonial nation-state becomes the central focus of Molisa’s second volume of poetry.

  1. In Molisa’s explanation in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in Women Ikat Raet Long Human Raet O No?, published in her capacity as chairperson of VNKW Information and Publication committee, the cover is cornered by four powerful symbols/logos including that of the United Nations, Vanuatu’s National logo and its banner ‘Long God Yumi Stanap’ (In God We Stand Independent), and the logo of VNKW and its banner ‘Yuniti, Pis, Prosperiti’ (Unity, Peace, Prosperity). A peace dove symbol together with the symbol for woman are also included.
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