what is kastom

The view from inside a Pentecost nakamal.

‘Kastom’ is a handy portmanteau, a catch-all term. Often, it’s used to distinguish between everything Melanesian and things that come from elsewhere. All too often, the term is used to divide us, not unite us.

If the essence of kastom is harmonious coexistence, peace and reconciliation, then we need a new word to describe that other thing.

A recent report concerning access to justice states that the use of the term in this way “is not neutral, and what is identified and mobilised as kastom often represents particular interests, and even particular interest groups. This most likely has the greatest impact in the spaces where power and financial interests are at play (land ownership, community governance, gender relations, and even national politics).”

We can see most of these issues in the recent contempt of court ruling against chief Viraleo.

At the heart of the criminal case against the nine men from north Pentecost is a long-running dispute concerning the chief’s authority over residents of a particular area, and Viraleo’s attempt to curb their harvesting of local sea cucumber.

There are conflicting versions of what exactly transpired there. Some of them, sadly, are just not credible. But here’s the thing: the confusion itself is most of the problem. The chief ordered an increasingly drastic series of penalties on a group of people who claimed he had no authority over them.

In the end, a church, a store and several residences were destroyed by fire.

According to chief Viraleo’s statements in court, the entire issue should have been settled in kastom court back on Pentecost and not in the Supreme Court.

Most chiefs don’t agree. According to the Access to Justice report, “95% of chiefs who were interviewed said that there were some matters that should only be dealt with by the state justice system. When asked what these were, chiefs identified ‘criminal’ matters most frequently….”

A full 80% of the chiefs interviewed in the Access to Justice report felt that the rules they enforced in their own areas should be in line with the laws of Vanuatu.

The charges against Viraleo and eight others include Riot, Arson, Threats to kill, Intentional assault and Malicious damage to property. These are all extremely serious charges. To question the right of the courts to try such a case is tantamount to asking why we have courts at all.

It is fair to ask, though, if the state is doing enough to ensure equal and easy access to justice. The Access to Justice report helped quantify what we all know: that police are under-resourced, often ineffective and sometimes remiss in providing law enforcement. It also indicated that access to the courts was a time-consuming and costly endeavour. The difficulty of getting access to state justice effectively cut many vulnerable people off entirely. One woman in a remote village remarked that she could only hide at home and pray that her problems would end.

There may be a grain of truth to the perception that kastom and the law are contradictory in some ways. But when people play up those contrasts, you have to ask yourself, ‘to what end?’

Those who argue most vehemently for the restoration of kastom will tell you that it’s necessary to restore the authority of the chiefs. But ‘chief’ is just as broad a term as ‘kastom’. The powers, jurisdiction, selection and hierarchy of chiefs vary widely from island to island, and sometimes from one end of an island to the other.

Pentecost alone has at least three quite distinct flavours of kastom, with many permutations. Turaga, the vision of kastom promoted by Viraleo, is distinct from Raga, which predominates in the North. While it’s admired by some, it is viewed as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately by several high-ranking northerners.

It’s been argued that the image of the bloodline chief who rules over his people—almost a ‘little king’—is a fairly recent construct on many islands. One researcher who has studied the question in depth attributed the phenomenon to the arrival of the missionaries. Most mission communities were established in new locations, which presented opportunities to recast local society in a new mould.

Typically, he said, missionaries selected one man to be chief and one to be pastor, and did what was necessary to make sure their mandate was enforced. Scratch below the surface of some very highly touted lineages, he suggested, and you’ll find that some families owe their stature to the very same European interlopers they’re railing against today.

This phenomenon has been widely documented. It even has its own name: Missionisation.

But none of this should take away from the value, the richness and the essential nature of kastom. Quite the opposite. Kastom defines Vanuatu. The argument here is that the way we talk about it is too narrow, too focused on preserving the authority of an already privileged few.

The access to justice report puts it bluntly:

“While Vanuatu tries to bridge local practices and global processes—a difficult and complex feat in any location—decisions about where these lines are drawn, by whom and with what impact, are not neutral. In this way kastom, in its more simple common usage, can also become a way of hedging up authority, increasing access to resources for certain individuals, and of disciplining others, in ways that may have more to do with power, and the politics of certain interest groups….”

The Opposition’s decision to whip up support over the expulsion of Justice Chetwynd seems to have more to do with that than with fundamental questions of justice and respect for culture. The Leader knows, as an experienced and talented lawyer, that the chief has every right to appeal the contempt ruling if he doesn’t like it. He also knows that the judge has a legal duty to defend the authority of the court.

But whatever he thinks of the decision, he should know better than to call the integrity of the court into question.

We made it all the way through 2015 without second-guessing the court. This is no time to start. The attack on judge Chetwynd is almost comparable to Serge Vohor’s lamentable depiction of the Chief Justice as ‘pikinini blong waetman’ back in 2004. That time, Mr Vohor used the figleaf of Parliamentary privilege to escape punishment. It would be regrettable to see kastom used the same way.

Vanuatu should make extraordinary efforts to preserve the invaluable cultural, linguistic, social and practical treasures that make up kastom—that make this country a pearl of great price. But we need to be clear about what exactly it is we’re preserving, and for whom.

What does kastom really mean? That question takes a lifetime to answer. And the answer changes from person to person, and place to place. But it’s clear that the term that’s being bandied about on social media is far too narrow.

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