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Chief Willie Bongmatur Maldo and the incorporation of Chiefs into the Vanuatu state

CollectionsANU Dept. of Pacific Affairs (DPA) formerly State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program
Title: Chief Willie Bongmatur Maldo and the incorporation of Chiefs into the Vanuatu state
Author(s): Bolton, Lissant
Keywords: chiefs
Chief Willie Bongmatur Maldo
Date published: 1999
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) discussion paper series: 1999/2
This paper is about chiefs in Vanuatu. The archipelago of islands now known as Vanuatu is inhabited by people who speak 113 different languages and have many different systems of knowledge and practice, including many different forms of community leadership. In Vanuatu today, knowledge and practice understood to derive from the pre-colonial past—traditional ways of doing and being—is called kastom in the national lingua franca, Bislama. The word provides a way of summing up what the ni-Vanuatu understand to belong to themselves and to their place, in opposition to all that contact with other people and other places has introduced into their way of life. Kastom is thus a flexible term used to denote a category of knowledge and practice, the content of the category is left largely undefined. This paper is about how the ni-Vanuatu took hold of the introduced concept of chiefs, and modified and incorporated it with respect to both traditional systems of authority and the structure of the independent state. The Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs was founded in 1977, as part of the leadup to Independence (gained in 1980), and it has continued to be an important body. In the late 1990s, both in rural areas and in the towns, chiefs are the primary community leaders, and the idea of chiefs has been so far incorporated into local contexts that when people speak about chiefs, they speak of them as ol kastom jif (traditional chiefs). Indeed chiefs are seen as having a special role and responsibility to preserve and promote kastom. I consider this transformation through one particular man, Chief Willie Bongmatur Maldo, both because I think that this complex history is helpfully seen from an explicit personal position, and because I am increasingly convinced that Chief Willie had much to do with the way in which the concept ‘chief’ is presently understood in Vanuatu. Chief Willie himself comes from the north Vanuatu island of Ambrym: his own personal knowledge and understanding of kastom has suffused his contribution to public life in Vanuatu. This contribution has been considerable—he was influential in the formation of the Vanuatu state, and was the founding President of the Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs. In 1996 Chief Willie asked me to record his life history. This paper is largely based on his reminiscences. Of course my account is suffused with the rose-coloured light of Chief Willie’s remembrance, which places him more firmly at the centre of events than others would. However, such a positioning is a useful corrective to many accounts of Vanuatu’s Independence, which tend to overlook the role of chiefs. I supplement Chief Willie’s account by drawing on a report summarising political events in the country from the 1950s until 1978. This report was prepared by Keith Woodward, who, as Political Advisor to the British Residency until 1978, was another participant in the events leading to Independence. I will first discuss the nature of chiefs in pre-Independence Vanuatu, and then take up the story of their changing role through Chief Willie’s own experience. I will take an Ambrymcentric perspective on chiefs, drawing on information on north Ambrym published by the anthropologist Mary Patterson. The introduction and acceptance of the concept of chiefs varied greatly through Vanuatu—this paper inevitably makes general what occurred as a diversity of particulars.
ISSN: 1328-7854


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