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<i>Kastom</i> as Development: Opening the Na'hai Kaljaral Senta

On October 24, 1998, a new cultural center opened in Leunari Bay, in the Na'hai-speaking area of south Malakula, Vanuatu. Called simply the Na'hai Kaljaral Senta in Bislama, it is the first language-based cultural center to exist in Vanuatu. The building resembles a typical local house, albeit on a much larger scale, with a cement floor, woven bamboo walls, and a pandanus roof. In front of the building is a large dancing ground on which several tamtams, or slit-drums, have been erected.

The ceremonies and festivities that marked the opening were the culmination of several years of work. The money for materials had been supplied by the Australian South Pacific Cultures Fund. To mark the event, a visiting party of foreign dignitaries was invited. The party included the Australian High Commissioner to Vanuatu, the director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, a broadcaster from Radio Vanuatu, the director of the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens (MAAO) in Paris, a retired curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC), some Australian National University academics (associated with the VCC), some of the regional fieldworkers for the National Museum, and a few companions of the official delegation. Local people came from all of the Na'hai-speaking villages as well as some of the neighboring Nahava- and Ninde-speaking villages of South West Bay. The events of the day included speeches, pig killings, ceremonial dancing, and food exchanges. This was a day to celebrate kastom. Yet for those who had worked to build the museum it was also much more than just a celebration of an ancestral way of life; it was a day of "achieving development," a day for celebrating a future vision of community.

Support for the project had by no means been unanimous. For those who opposed it, usually from a Christian perspective, the museum symbolized "heathenness" or "darkness"--a regressive rather than a progressive project. The cultural center raised notions of both development and of kastom, and of the dialectics between them, in local discourse.


The Na'hai-speaking area lies at the southwest tip of Malakula, Vanuatu's second largest island. This region is the most linguistically diverse area in a country that boasts the most languages in relation to population of any part of the world. With an estimated population of 18,000 and at least 34 identified distinct languages (Tryon, 1996), Malakula presents a mosaic of both linguistic and cultural variation. Jean Michel Charpentier, a French linguist, identified 24 distinct languages in the southern region alone. (1982) There are fewer than 1,000 speakers of the Na'hai language, most of whom live in the mainland villages of Mbonvor, Malfakhal, Bwad Bang, Milip, and on the offshore island of Tomman. Just north of the Na'hai area lies the area of Sinesip (or Seniang) where the Nahava language is spoken.

The population of South Malakula is almost entirely Christian, although both experiences of conversion and denominational affiliation vary greatly both between and within linguistic groups and villages. In the village I worked in, there are three denominations (Presbyterian, S.D.A, and Pentecostal), each with its own church house, as well as a few members of another denomination which has its church in a another Na'hai-speaking village (The Holiness Fellowship).

The first mission was established by the London Missionary Society (Presbyterian) in 1895 at Wintua village, South West Bay. The mission was set up on a kind of no-man's land between the Nahava-speaking area of Sinesip and the Ninde-speaking region of Mewun. (Deacon, 1934; Larcom, 1980) Until the mid-1990s, several scattered interior communities resisted converting to Christianity (even today, a few individuals refuse to be baptized). Evangelization has been a protracted and negotiated process, revolving more around intra- and inter-community politics and the appeals and pressures of a monetary economy, than spiritual conviction (although spiritual motivations must not be discounted). As is often true in the archipelago, those who have been Christian the longest have become the most politically and economically affluent in the area. Today the village of Wintua has become a regional center with an airstrip, telephone, and "hospital" (without doctors). It boasts former members of parliament (Aileh Rantes) and a well-known national radio personality (Ambong Thompson), and in the last few years villagers have started generating a regular income by supplying one of Port Vila's most popular nakamals (kava bars) with kava (as opposed to copra, which is still more important in other areas).

There is no doubt that the cultural center was promoted as an alternative, even competitive, project, which would solidify the "community" of Na'hai speakers and act as a source of pride in contra-distinction to their Ninde- and Nahava-speaking neighbors to the north.


The project was initiated by Longdal Nobel Maasingyau, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre's fieldworker for the Na'hai-speaking area. The center runs a fieldworker extension program that provides recording facilities for designated fieldworkers to interview people and record various events, stories, and issues, all referred to by the Bislama term kastom. (Bolton, 1994) Annual workshops are held in the capital of Port Vila to familiarize fieldworkers with linguistic, archaeological, and anthropological methods and ideas, as well as to provide them with a forum in which to compare their respective kastom, usually surrounding a specific theme. Men’s and women's workshops are held separately, in accordance with kastom, and an underlying philosophy for the fieldworkers is to encourage the promotion, maintenance, and revival of kastom.

In 1984 the Vanuatu Cultural Council imposed a moratorium on virtually all foreign research; anthropologists were especially targeted. Issues of ownership and the control over the circulation of kastom knowledge were the major concerns voiced. The moratorium was lifted in 1995 with the introduction of new guidelines for doing research in Vanuatu. The guidelines required the deposition of recordings and other findings with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and collaboration with a local fieldworker where one was present. The current director of the VCC (and co-author of the research agreement) writes:

"In its objective of ensuring collaboration between foreign researchers and ni-Vanuatu to their mutual benefit, the policy did not negate the concerns that had prompted the imposition of the research moratorium a decade earlier. In fact, these concerns--that kastom belongs to ni-Vanuatu and that this must be respected by outsiders--have become significantly more pertinent today." (Regenvanu, 1999)

An engagement between foreign researchers and those being trained by the National Cultural Centre is clearly expected. But the methods and aims of these two parties only partially converge. Far from pretending to be detached observers, Filwokas have become recognized "institutions" in many island areas. Their role usually entails more than the recording and promotion of kastom. I witnessed Longdal being called on to negotiate certain relations with foreigners or the state. He had also been asked to play a role in certain land disputes, and was elected to preside over the Na'hai Council, a body he had formed to represent the language group. He also spoke out on environmental issues, and implemented a ban on the exploitation of coconut crabs on his Umaas land. Longdal is neither old nor considered the most knowledgeable about kastom, yet he is in general respected as a middle-aged man who is active in community life (in both church and political activities).

Longdal's interest in kastom and subsequently in anthropology-linguistics-archaeology developed in the mid 1980s after he returned from two years in the Tolai area of Papua New Guinea, where he trained as a Presbyterian pastor. On his return to Malakula, he worked briefly in Unua on the east coast, doing his practical/apprenticeship for the Presbytery, and he decided that he did not want to be a pastor. Soon afterward, in 1985, he was spotted at the Malakula Arts Festival by the director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Kirk Huffman, who offered him a position as a fieldworker for his language area. A man with experience of the outside world (including a few months in Australia to work on "writing down his language"), he has since devoted much of his time to kastom. But Longdal's enthusiasm for kastom has not always been met with approval by everyone living in this region. His most ardent critics went as far as accusing him of "promoting Satan."

Work for Roads

As a Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworker, Longdal received some funding in 1994 from the Australian government to build a museum. Money was provided to cover costs for a cement floor, nails, and other hardware. The museum opened in October 1998. In the four years between funding and project completion, Longdal had to encourage people in the community to join in his vision and help him build the cultural center, supporting him in his vision of maintaining and upholding kastom. Despite the skepticism and even outright opposition he had encountered, Longdal also had some enthusiastic support in the community. Among his supporters, he had to mobilize labor--wok fri (work free) or wok nating (work nothing)--for the museum's construction. The success of his project was more dependent on the strength of his relationships with others in the community than on the few thousand dollars of funding he had obtained from the Australian South Pacific Cultures fund. He was vying for a concept he wanted to see physically actualized--he wanted kastom actualized in a special house and in a special place.

Kastom for Tomorrow Stones were placed by each of the Na'hai amel, or clans, at the front of the museum, making its opening an important event in "community history." For locals, the stones are one of the most important aspects of the museum. This significance extends beyond the realms of aesthetics or education, the more common motivations for a museum. The stones instead are a material manifestation of the politics of being manples (man-place, a person of the place), and delineate groups with rights to land within the Na'hai area. The stones placed that day also marked the various amels that exist today. (The term ‘amel’ refers to the notion of "clan" or kin group, but is also very much a physical object: a house.) The line of stones, of course, also reinforced the parallel between the museum and a traditional amel. When the slit-drums were erected in the large dancing ground in front of the museum, its resemblance to an amel was even more striking.

A couple of days before the museum's opening, some of the elder men told Longdal that the museum was "just like a big amel," and that women and children should not be allowed to enter. Longdal argued that it was a cultural center, not an amel, and that people would come to see kastom; he insisted that women and children be allowed to enter. Longdal pointed out that the back of the museum contained a walled-off tambu (taboo) room, locked and only accessible to certain men. He reminded them that when the High Commissioner cut the ribbon at the museum's opening and the voices of the spirits arose from the tambu room at the back, some of them were also in the back room with the noisy spirits.

Longdal's museum is most important for its emphasis on the future. Kastom, in this context, is a "development project"--a quest for tomorrow--and is the aim of the museum and its supporters, both political and financial. The Australian High Commissioner's speech included references to the "two wings" of the "bird" that is Vanuatu. One wing is all that is modern, and the other is kastom. The bird needs both wings to fly straight ahead in the direction it wishes to go.


Longdal has been trying to "solidify" the notion of a Na'hai community for more than a decade now. His first major step toward this goal was the Na'hai Arts Festival on Tomman island in 1988. In 1994 he created the Na'hai Council. The Na'hai Kaljaral Senta can be seen as a direct continuation of his previous efforts. The "Na'hai identity" Longdal promotes contrasts with the perceived affluence and power of their northern neighbors, the people of Mewun and Sinesip in South West Bay. Longdal is engaged in a process that both imitates and differentiates; he asserts a very localized, even parochial, identity, but expresses it in a form, and in a forum, that has become a global institution itself.

What is important for local people is that this is a Na'hai project. On the national level, the project was the first cultural center for any one language group in Vanuatu. At the same time, the museum put the notion of "Na'hai community" at risk, stretching the bounds and the concept as a material manifestation of an idealized notion. Those who labored every week were working for kastom as well as for that equally constructed notion of man-Na'hai. Longdal has been trying to promote a language-based sense of community. He has appropriated non-indigenous discourse--that of anthropology and museology--to promote a very localized sense of identity, yet at the same time he has indigenized the concept of a museum so that, for example, the important symbolic aspects are not those that lie inside the walls and on the shelves of the house, but those that delineate its relation to the outside. The line of stones is undoubtedly the most important artefact, the most crucial spatial structure, and the biggest motivation for his supporters. Moreover, the motivation for all of this is less nostalgic reminiscence than energetic concern for the future. Longdal is, after all, a man who has traveled, who has lived abroad, and who returned to proclaim a strong sense of localized identity. He is appealing to a kastom for tomorrow.

Tim Curtis is a researcher at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University. He has been working with the Na'hai speakers of Malakula, Vanuatu, since 1995. He currently works as a consultant for UNESCO in the Division of Cultural Heritage, Intangible Heritage Section.

References & further reading

Bolton, L. (1994). The Vanuatu Cultural Centre and its own Community. The Journal of Museum Ethnography 6, pp 67-78.

Bolton, L. (1999). Fieldwork, fieldworkers. Developments in Vanuatu research. Oceania 20:1.

Charpentier, J.M. (1982). Atlas linguistique du sud-Malakula/Linguistic atlas of South Malakula: vol 1. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique et de l'agence Culturelle et Technique.

Deacon, B. (1934). Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides. London: Routledge & sons.

Larcom, J. (1980). Place and the Politics of Marriage: The Mewun of Malekula, Vanuatu/New Hebrides. California: Stanford University Department of Anthroplogy.

Regenvanu, R. (1999). Afterword: Vanuatu perspectives on research. Oceania 70, pp 98-101.

Tryon, D. (1996). Dialect chaining and the use of geographical space. In Arts of Vanuatu. Bonnemaison, J., Kaufmann, C., Huffman, K. & Tryon, D. Bathurst, N.S.W: Crawford House Publishing. Pp 170-181.

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