Wantoks and Kastom (Solomon Islands and Melanesia)

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Wantoks and kastom
Location: Solomon Islands and Melanesia
Solomon Islands map.png
Author: Gordon Leua Nanau
Affiliation: The University of the South Pacific, Fiji


Original text by Gordon Leua Nanau

The wantok system in the Solomon Islands and the Melanesian countries more broadly, strongly links to the practices of group identity and belonging, reciprocity, and caring for one’s relatives. It is a term used to express patterns of relationships that link people in families, tribes, islands, provinces, nationality and even more superficially at greater Melanesian sub-regional aggregates. Various aspects of the wantoksystem are called different names by distinct language groups in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Nevertheless, the word wantok originates from the English words ‘one talk’, which literally means in Melanesian pidgin (Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama), speakers of the same language.


Wantok is an identity perception at the macro level and a social capital concept at the micro and family levels, especially in rural communities. It signifies a setting demanding cooperation, caring and reciprocal support, and a shared attachment to locality. It consists of a web of relationships, norms and codes of behaviour (kastom) that maintain group security and stability and distinguishes one group from another (Nanau 2011[1]). Renzio (1999[2]) defined the wantok system as ‘… the set of relationships (or a set of obligations) between individuals characterised by some or all of the following: (a) common language (wantok = one talk), (b) common kinship group, (c) common geographical area of origin, (d) common social associations or religious groups, and (e) common belief in the principle of mutual reciprocity’ (Renzio 1999: 19[3]). Wantok and kastom are attributes of Melanesian societies that both unite groups of people with a sense of identity and rhetorical common objectives but also distinguish them from others.


To appreciate the practice of wantokism, it is necessary to comprehend how local communities organise themselves and how kastom and cultures are employed in intra-groups and inter group relationships. A very good way of perceiving the wantok network is that of a picture of many small boxes in a bigger box where the bigger picture does not necessarily depict the status and condition of the smaller components, which may or may not relate to the bigger picture. Distinct wantok groups as clans and speakers of the same language present a formidable force for identity continuity and differences, even in the face of rapid social change. At the local level, a wantok connotes affective, moral relationships and claims to certain resource rights such as those over land, gardening areas and fishing grounds. Wantoks in this category determine one’s rights to existence and support and depends on the group to which the person belongs and affiliations of that person’s blood family. Narokobi (1980[4]) argues that wantok gives a new meaning to the word community. It is common to regard people under a particular bigman (clan leader)(Sahlins 1963[5]) as wantoks at the local level.


The smaller distinct wantok groups normally trace their origins to common ancestors. The common ancestral connection is the basic building block of what researchers now call a local wantok unit. A person’s claim to a piece of land is usually determined by his or her ancestral connections with the land concerned. Ascription to a common ancestor thus brings claims to land and properties of the wantok group, and it also requires group cooperation, often cemented by the act of reciprocity. Reciprocity plays an important part in the maintaining cordial relationship within wantok groups at the basic level. This could be in the form of food produce, the making of shelters, vegetable gardens, hunting and fishing catches, bride-prize (dowry) payments and land settlements. Giving and receiving are two sides of the of the reciprocity coin in Melanesia.


The ‘spirit of the gift’ entrenched in wantok is more of a ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ understanding. Bugotu (1968[6]) succinctly described it, ‘Gratefulness, sharing and giving are a way of life, accepted and practiced almost unconsciously by all. When I give, I have the satisfaction of giving in a continuation of friendly relations. I wouldn’t expect a verbal ‘thank you’ [or immediate reciprocation] because thankfulness is seen in deeds rather than in words’(Bugotu 1968: 68[7]). One person gives and does not receive payment, although (s)he knows that his/her giving will be returned when (s)he needs the support of his/her wantok members. Giving and reciprocating goods and services (physical work) is a way of caring and uniting, especially through festivities such as ‘feasts, gift exchanges, dances, and … ceremonies celebrated to mark stages in the growth of individuals, their births, deaths and marriages’(Belshaw 1947: 5 [8]).


Apart from these kastoms developing goodwill and cooperation, there are also instances where divisions and competitions occur that drive wantok groups apart. In both intra and inter wantok relationships, respect expressed through reciprocal gestures of good will and honest dealings by leaders is an acceptable norm. Each wantok group is happy when it is respected and its territories not infiltrated by external forces and groups. Accordingly, successive governments of Solomon Islands since independence in 1978 were conscious of this and often made decisions claiming to be in the interest of national unity and stability by appearing to address national needs but de facto on provincial and wantok lines (Nanau 2016[9]). Lipuma and Meltzoff (1990[10]) claim that ‘[t]he various Solomon Islands were joined not because they bore any inherent relationship or because their peoples desired to be united, but for reasons foreign and external’ (LiPuma and Meltzoff 1990: 83[11]). More directly, Kabutaulaka (Kabutaulaka 1998: 33) explained that the post-colonial nation-state of Solomon Islands exercises authority over boundaries carved during the colonial era.


The further one uses wantok away from the local towards the national, the greater the system changes from being a subsistence and livelihood buffer, to one of exploitation and corruption. This explains the identity and allegiance predicament demonstrated by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIP) during the 1998-2003 ethnic crises. Police officers who were supposed to be impartial took sides instead of protecting all citizens. Arms that were supposed to be used for the protection of citizens were used against them. A good number of Guadalcanal and Malaita Police officers ignored their national duties and affiliated themselves with militant fighters from their wantok groups (SIG 2001[12]). This was due to the strength of wantok affiliations over national considerations. The existence of very strong internal bonds among and between wantok groups nationally affects efforts towards a united and stable Solomon Islands.


The above discussions on wantok and kastom also convey an unequal system that supports the interests of certain individuals. This is more pronounced in relation to the formal state. In the modern government setting, the wantok system is often associated with nepotism and the use of one’s personal connections to secure public service jobs at the expense of equal opportunity and meritocracy. Cockyne (2004[13]) explained that wantoks could use their positions of influence to protect their own, as when police officers block or frustrate investigations involving close relatives (Cockayne 2004: 20[14]). Appeals to kastom could be the scapegoat for letting a wantok member off the hook. Others argue that because it promotes the traditionally noble act of reciprocity, politics is currently being administered poorly because of tribal, ethic and clan loyalties (Rynkiewich 2000[15]). Those who progress through the government hierarchies thanks to the wantok system have usurped the space for meritocracy.


In urban areas, at the personal and household level, a commitment to the wantok attributes of caring, sharing and looking out for other’s needs is increasingly difficult because city life engages with the cash economy on a daily basis. The Solomon Times Online Newsletter (16 February 2008[16]) highlighted the negative effects of unemployed families relying on other wantoks in Honiara for their children’s school fees, food and other needs. A ‘frustrated’ person who experienced the demands of such a network while trying to make ends meet for his family made the following statements on the negative impact of wantoks in Honiara; ‘I think the system is making us very poor, and we will continue to be poor if we encourage it’ (Solomon Times Online 2008[17]).


The concepts of wantok and kastom are important for our understanding of informal networks in Solomon Islands and Melanesia more broadly. The history of Solomon Islands integration into the global economy directly links to continuities and changes to the wantok system and networks at the local level. The wantok groups’ attachments to each other, and within themselves, changes from that of reciprocal redistributive buffer to that of exploitation and political expediency the further one moves away from the village. Despite the changes brought about by colonisation and now globalisation, wantok identities and kastom are maintained and continue to be the norms of operation at the village level. Cultural wantokconcepts and attributes such as kastom influence other aspects of development, particularly those related to opportunities, security, stability and access to government resources. It is the ‘invisible hand’ in livelihoods, governance and development in the Solomon Islands and Melanesia more generally.

Notes

  1. Nanau, G. L. 2011.'The Wantok System as a Socio-economic and Political Network in Melanesia,' OMNES: The Journal of Multicultural Society 2(1): 31-55.
  2. Renzio, d. P. 1999. 'Bigmen and wantoks: social capital and group behaviour in Papua New Guinea.' WIDER Project Meeting, "Group Behaviour and Development. The United Nations University, Helsinki.
  3. Renzio, d. P. 1999. 'Bigmen and wantoks: social capital and group behaviour in Papua New Guinea.' WIDER Project Meeting, "Group Behaviour and Development. The United Nations University, Helsinki.
  4. Narokobi, B. 1980. The Melanesian Way: Suva & Boroko, Institute of PNG Studies & Institute of Pacific Studies.
  5. Sahlins, M. D. (1963). 'Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political types in Melanesia and Polynesia', Comparative Studies in Society and History 5: 285-303.
  6. Bugotu, F. 1968.'The culture clash: a Melanesian's perspective.' New Guinea and Australia, The Pacific and South East Asia 3(2): 65-70.
  7. Bugotu, F. 1968.'The culture clash: a Melanesian's perspective.' New Guinea and Australia, The Pacific and South East Asia 3(2): 65-70.
  8. Belshaw, C.S. 1947. Post-war Developments in Central Melanesia, New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.
  9. Nanau, G.L. 2016. 'Solomon Islands.' in S. Levine.' (ed.) Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands. Wellington, Victoria University Press: 291 - 311.
  10. LiPuma, E. and S. K. Meltzoff 1990. 'Ceremonies of independence and public culture in Solomon Islands.' Public Culture 3(1): 77-92.
  11. LiPuma, E. and S. K. Meltzoff 1990. 'Ceremonies of independence and public culture in Solomon Islands.' Public Culture 3(1): 77-92.
  12. Solomon Islands Government (SIG)., Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), et al. 2001. Townsville Peace Agreement. Townville Peace Conference, Townsville, Australia, 15 October 2001.
  13. Cockayne, J. 2004. Operation Helpem Fren: Solomon Islands Transitional Justice and the Silence of Contemporary Legal Pathologies on Questions of Distributive Justice. New York, Center for Human Rights and Global Justice
  14. Cockayne, J. 2004. Operation Helpem Fren: Solomon Islands Transitional Justice and the Silence of Contemporary Legal Pathologies on Questions of Distributive Justice. New York, Center for Human Rights and Global Justice
  15. Rynkiewich, M.A. 2000. 'Big Man Politics: Strong Leadership in a Weak State. ' Politics in Papua New Guinea: Continuities, Changes, and Challenges Point 24
  16. Solomon Times Online, 2008. The Cost of the Wantok System", http://www.solomontimes.com/news/the-cost-of-the-wantok-system/1368.
  17. Solomon Times Online, 2008. The Cost of the Wantok System", http://www.solomontimes.com/news/the-cost-of-the-wantok-system/1368.