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Unfolding the Moon

Unfolding the Moon: Enacting Women's "Kastom" in Vanuatu

Lissant Bolton
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Unfolding the Moon
    Book Description:

    In the first decades after independence in 1980, kastom--indigenous knowledge and practice--became a key marker of ni-Vanuatu identity. However, it was almost entirely concerned with men. Then in 1991 the Vanuatu Cultural Centre initiated a project that focused on women's knowledge and skill in producing plaited pandanus textiles (mats) on the island of Ambae in north Vanuatu. This acknowledgment that "women have kastom too," widely welcomed by rural ni-Vanuatu, was a significant step in establishing women's kastom. Lissant Bolton's account of this important but undocumented period considers the circumstances that led to these events and analyzes their effects on Ambae. Her ethnography of women's production and use of plaited pandanus textiles shows a changing world whereby colonial and missionary ideas about the position of women and feminist discourses on women's rights have engaged with specific, kinship-based constructions of gender to create contemporary ni-Vanuatu views on the position of women.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6540-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. XIII-XXXVI)

    When women exchange textileson the island of Ambae in north Vanuatu, they move onto the exchange plaza carrying the textiles in great baskets on their heads. When they reach its center they drop the baskets and take out the textiles, unfolding them and laying them out in piles upon the ground. There is a proper and important order to this. The women first remove and lay out the most valuable textiles, themaraha,according to their kinds, and then on top of them less valuable textiles, theqana,according to their kinds. There is a specified sequence in which...

  5. 1 History / Kastom
    (pp. 1-25)

    The beginning of the storyabout how it came to be said that “women havekastomtoo” is about the idea ofkastomitself, how the term appeared in the ni-Vanuatu lexicon, and what it was understood to mean.“Kastom”is a term with a history. First used in the early colonial era, it was invested with new meaning and importance during the movement for independence and, after 1980, through the ongoing creation of Vanuatu as a nation-state. In Vanuatu, in the early 1990s, I encountered talk aboutkastomat every turn. I found ni-Vanuatu to be interested in ideas...

  6. 2 Kastom in the National Arena
    (pp. 26-50)

    Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu,climbs the hills that surround a harbor on the south coast of the central Vanuatu island of Efate. The seat of the condominium government, during the colonial era it was inhabited primarily by expatriates. New Hebrideans lived in a number of villages nearby and were employed on adjacent plantations, but it was not itself a village site. It was constituted primarily as white space: the movement of local people was restricted between 9 P.M. and 5 A.M. (M. Rodman 200:33–35). After independence ni-Vanuatu began to move there for employment and entertainment, and by...

  7. 3 Women without Kastom
    (pp. 51-66)

    Ihave been building an argument, thus far, that the term“kastom”does not refer to precolonial knowledge and practice as a whole system—as “culture”—but rather to specific items, aspects, of that knowledge and practice. More importantly,“kastom”is a term that confers certain kinds of comparative value. During the colonial era, missionaries, government officials, and other expatriates used“kastom”(often as the English “custom”) to distinguish local practice from what they identified as their own morally and practically superior practice. Islanders used the term but did not adopt its European connotations. They used“kastom”to signify the...

  8. 4 Ples
    (pp. 67-77)

    In the IntroductionI made a comparison between the structure of an Ambae textile and the structure of this book. In that comparison, this short chapter functions like the central seam of an Ambae textile: it provides the point at which the two sides of my argument are joined. Ideas about place(ples)are crucial to the formulation ofkastomin Vanuatu; they are also fundamental to Ambaean knowledge and practice.Kastomrefers to what people know and do in the archipelago; at the same time, it is itself framed by that knowledge and practice. The relationship betweenkastomand...

  9. 5 Ambae: On Being a Person of the Place
    (pp. 78-105)

    Leah Ture Leo and I moved to Ambaein August 1991 to commence the WCP Ambae project. After a series of visits to the Ambae districts of Nduindui, Lombaha, Longana, and Lolovoli, we moved in November 1991 to the Longanan hamlet of Vunangai, part of a collection of hamlets designated as Lovonda. We chose Lovonda, which is on the coast at the southern end of Longana, both for practical reasons (it is situated at the intersection of two roads, and there was a truck based there that we could hire) and because Jean Tarisesei lived there and was interested in...

  10. 6 Plaiting: “The Reason That Women Came into the World”
    (pp. 106-129)

    When Ture Leo and I moved to Lovonda,Jean Tarisesei and other women set up a program for us by which we joined a number of groups of women who were meeting to plait textiles and participated in other community gatherings. The formality of this arrangement enabled us to observe that ethos of domestic privacy described in the last chapter, by which people do not enter each other’s hamlets casually. It also mirrored the style of our visits to other districts, where, in each place we visited, we were always greeted by a meeting of women. By expressing an interest...

  11. 7 Dyeing: Designs, Power, Status
    (pp. 130-151)

    Plaiting binds women togetherin relationships of assistance, obligation, and shared labor. Dyeing, a process formerly associated with risk and anxiety, has a different set of associations. The process used to be hedged about with restrictions of various kinds, directed at achieving a clear stencilled image on the fabric. Groups of women dyed textiles together, apart from men and children and outside the hamlet space, generally by the sea, where there was easy access to salt water. When dyeingmarahaandqana,they apparently gathered together to work on a number of textiles at once; the dyeing ofsingo, however,...

  12. 8 Making Textiles into Kastom
    (pp. 152-182)

    On my first full day on Ambae, which was in Nduindui, James Gwero called upon me to make a speech to a meeting of women. I was asked to explain why I had come to Ambae and what I was going to be doing. This request established a role for me quite other than any I had foreseen: I became a public speaker. In explaining why I was on Ambae, I described the Women’s Culture Project, outlining why it had been developed and what Ture Leo and I were going to be doing. The irony did not elude me: I...

  13. Conclusion: Women with Kastom
    (pp. 183-192)

    Several weeks after the Saratamata workshopthe Ambae project concluded, and Tarisesei and I returned to Port Vila. In August 1992 we went as part of a large Vanuatu delegation to a week-long conference, “Developing Cultural Policy in Melanesia,” held in Honiara, Solomon Islands, where we spoke about the Women’s Culture Project (Lindstrom and White 1994). At a meeting of the delegation after the conference, Grace Molisa spoke about the development of the WCP. She commented that while the contribution of women might be recognized at village level (here thinking of the negotiations of everyday life), at national level in...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 193-196)

    The first women fieldworkers workshopwas held in Port Vila in 1994 and was attended by ten women. Women fieldworker workshops have taken place annually thereafter, directed by Jean Tarisesei and me, and the group has grown steadily in size, reaching approximately forty in 2002. Women fieldworkers have hosted and supported researchers, initiated and participated in video projects, contributed to radio programs, and revived almost-forgotten practices in several different parts of the country. Some women fieldworkers have participated in linguistic and archaeological training programs, and several took part in workshops discussing aspects of condominium history. When a new Vanuatu Cultural...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 197-204)
  16. Glossary
    (pp. 205-208)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-222)
  18. Index
    (pp. 223-232)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-236)