The weeklong cultural festivities conclude in style and in full colour today with the Head of State’s bestowal of medals of honour on a group of close to 50 or so people comprising field workers and a number of chiefs and respected individuals who have contributed immensely to the promotion of culture over the past 2-3 decades since Independence. Delegates around the country are already asking, when will the next National Arts Festival (NAF) be held? When will the 5th NAF be? Will it be another 10 long years wait before the next NAF?

If we continue with tradition to hold the country’s National Arts Festivals (NAFs) every 10 years, the 5th NAF will be staged in 2029. In view of its very important contributions to peace, stability and our economic development efforts, why has culture been placed at the back-burner and financially at the very bottom of our priorities since Independence, especially when during the 4th NAF the entire country was brought to its senses about the very closely relationship between our hotspot issue of climate change and culture?

Why does one of the country’s top revenue earners (Tourism) exploit culture for commercial purposes without the Government giving back to culture its due recognition and place in our policy priorities?

Why is culture featured very prominantly in the national constitution and yet given a very scrappy annual budget to preserve, promote and sustain it?

Culture lives with us, teaches us all sorts of values (food preparations, health and longevity, sustainable traditional infrastructure, etc.) and more so the “respect” which the Hon Minister for Justice Hon Don Ken highlighted during his official opening speech on Sunday afternoon this week at the launching of the 4th NAF. Vanuatu’s First Prime Minister late Fr Walter Lini coined the phrase, ‘Respect is Honourable’.

Fes Napuan 2019 features “Respect” as its theme throughout the music festival.

In recent weeks the entire country received text messages reminding the mass population about the importance of “respect” due to the inroads created by social media over the past 5 or more years. Vanuatu has fared better compared to its neighbouring countries when it comes to issues of social stability largely due to the high level of ‘respect’ our citizens give to cultural leaders and culture for that matter.

But where has respect gone? The Government wants to offer ‘free education’ or make education more accessible to our young people even as far as Year 13. But modern classrom eduation that leads to tertiary qualifications don’t teach respect. Unversity professors don’t teach respect.

And nobody graduates from university with a qualification in respect. An old Ambaean grandfather once warned, ‘modern education is teaching a new generation of criminals’ especially as it draws them away from culture without addressing values that hold society together.

Culture is under attack and heavily threatened by foreign influences of modernisation.

As with climate change that is severely threatening our countries and which has been the subject of hot and firy debate at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu, Vanuatu’s cultures have been under serious threat from western influences imposed by technology, changing food preferences, and attitudes our young people in particular learn from mass media. The respect we debate about is being eroded at an alarming rate by these foreign influences.

We need to pick up the broken pieces of our shattered cultural ways of life today and find ways to sustain the beneficial aspects of culture.

In his speech on the second day of the 4th NAF, His Excellency the President of the Malvatumauri chief Willie Grey Plasua appealed to the national government on three fronts. Firstly, to consider establishing a separate Ministry dedicated to ‘Kastom and Kalja’. Secondly to reduce the practice of holding our national arts festivals from 10 years down to 5 years. And finally, to give full recognition to culture as a nation building mechanism for our country given the heavy inroads of modernisation.

In his response, the Right Honourable Prime Minister responded very positively to and agreed especially to the need to reduce our cultural festivals down from 10 years.

But he advised that even five years is still a long time, and strongly recommended three (3) years. His recommendation that our cultural authorities need to think of culture as sports. We need to revive island and provincial arts festivals in order to prepare us for the national arts festivals so that we are fully prepared to participate in the regional arts festivals. He cited some past regional festivals where our participation was very poor even compared to New Caledonia which is yet to attain Independence, yet send bigger delegations to these regional festivals compared to Vanuatu which has numerous cultures but which has performed rather poorly, comparatively.

The PM further advised that he wants to see our cultural authorities come up with ‘very clear plans’ about the advancement of culture especially now at a time when the challenges facing it are far reaching. He strongly argued the importance of culture as the very foundation of “our identity”.

The momentum created by the 4th NAF which has taken Vanuatu by a storm (especially through its live coverage by our top media bodies in the country) has raised the profile of culture at a very appropriate moment. The responsibility now rests on leaders within the cultural arena to refocus their efforts on all that the Malvatumauri President has said, and more so the response of the Hon Prime Minister. We are Vanuatu. Our culture is our identity.

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