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The Wantok System as a Socio-Economic and Political Network in Melanesia

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Understanding the wantok system as a socio-economic and political network in the Western Pacific is critical to understanding Melanesian societies and political behavior in the context of the modern na-tion-state. The complex web of relationships spawned by the wantok system at local, national and sub-regional levels of Melanesia could in-form our understanding of events and development in Melanesian states in the contemporary period. This paper will analyze the concepts and historical roots of wantok and kastom in Melanesia, with particular reference to the Solomon Islands. It will also assess the impact of colo-nialism in the development of new and artificial wantok identities and their (re)construction for political purposes. It concludes with a con-textual analysis of wantok as an important network in the Solomon Islands emphasizing its central role to people's understanding of social and political stability and instability.
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OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1, pp.31-55
Arti cle
The Wantok System as a Socio-economic and
Political Network in Melanesia
Gordon Leua Nanau*
1)
Abstract
Understanding the wantok system as a socio-economic and political
network in the Western Pacific is critical to understanding Melanesian
societies and political behavior in the context of the modern na-
tion-state. The complex web of relationships spawned by the wantok
system at local, national and sub-regional levels of Melanesia could in-
form our understanding of events and development in Melanesian
states in the contemporary period. This paper will analyze the concepts
and historical roots of wantok and kastom in Melanesia, with particular
reference to the Solomon Islands. It will also assess the impact of colo-
nialism in the development of new and artificial wantok identities and
their (re)construction for political purposes. It concludes with a con-
textual analysis of wantok as an important network in the Solomon
Islands emphasizing its central role to people’s understanding of social
and political stability and instability.
Key wordsWantoks, Kastom, Bigman, Colonialism, and Melanesian Way
Introduction
Wantok is used in this paper to refer to distinct cultural
and resource controlling ideological groupings that connect
pre-contact and post colonial periods. It also includes artificial
wantok political units established by legislative processes like
wards, provinces and constituencies. In fact, the term “wantok”
could mean slightly different things to different people de-
pending on the context and circumstances under which it is
* University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji Islands.
32 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
used. Nevertheless, wantok is an important concept associated
with networks of distinct tribal, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic
groupings in Melanesia. The paper will highlight the history of
wantok relationships; its frontiers, the relationships between and
within wantok groups and within wantoks groups from an anthro-
pological position. In other words, what holds wantoks together
and what separates them and may instigate hostility? It should
be stressed that the term wantok is a recent creation as it was
formed with the development of the Melanesian pidgin during
the 1800s. However, its moral structure and spirit are integral
parts of Melanesian societies since time immemorial
Describing wantok networks and kastom
Wantok is a term used to express patterns of relationships
and networks that link people in families and regional localities
and is it also a reference to provincial, national and sub-regional
identities. It is an identity concept at the macro level and a social
capital concept at the micro and family levels particularly in rural
areas. Kabutaulaka (1998, p. 134) likened the wantok system to
other similar terms in the South Pacific region like kerekere in Fiji
and fa’asamoa in Samoa where they all advocate cooperation be-
tween people who speak the same language. A more detailed
definition was offered by Renzio who defines the wantok system
as“... the set of relationships (or a set of obligations) between in-
dividuals characterized by some or all of the following: (a) com-
mon language (wantok = one talk), (b) common kinship group, (c)
common geographical area of origin, (d) common social associa-
tions or religious groups, and (e) common belief in the principle
of mutual reciprocity”(Renzio, 1999, p. 19). The wantok system,
therefore, signifies a setting demanding a network of cooperation,
caring and reciprocal support, and a shared attachment to kastom
and locality. It consists of a web of relationships, norms and co-
des of behavior which we will refer to as kastom (see below). The
following figure depicts the fragmented web and levels of refer-
ence in the wantok system.
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 33
(source: Nanau, 2008)
Figure 1: The Wantok System
It is necessary at this juncture to highlight a related term,
“kastom”, that is a set of practices used whenever references are
made to the wantok system. Kastom is also a generic term em-
ployed to mean different things and a derivative of the English
wordcustom. It is a reference to practices, including in-
digenous leadership norms, and is locality and wantok group
specific. The idea of kastom was made popular in Melanesia as a
response to colonial experiences, particularly after World War II
and the transition to independence. Lawson for instance, ex-
plained that “...kastom has been an important factor in countering
the negative images surrounding the worth of colonized people’s
and the intrinsic value of their own cultural practices” (Lawson,
1997, p. 108). Keesing also explained that the Solomon Islands
Ma’asina Ruru Movement’s references to kastom was “...a defense
of embattled ancestral custom and local sovereignty ... against the
engulfing forces of Westernization and modernity” (Keesing,
1997, p. 260). Wantok and kastom are aspects of the Melanesian
Way ideology (see Narokobi, 1980) that both unites groups of
people with a sense of identity and rhetorical common objectives
but also separates them from others.
34 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
The term wantok was coined by plantation laborers after
contacts with European planters and establishment of coconut
plantations where people from different language groups lived
and worked together. It has ultimately become an easy way to
label and identify people. The principal point of reference and
identification by Melanesians would be in relation to the lan-
guage spoken. This is fundamental because Papua New Guinea
is said to have 800 languages, Solomon Islands 80 Oceanic lan-
guages and Vanuatu 108 languages (Terrill, 2003, p. 373). Toktok
(languages) also determines the specific identity of people who
visit or relocate to other places in the eyes and ears of others. It
is generally accepted that language diversity is testament to the
fragmentation and relatively small size of Melanesian societies in
pre-contact era (Whiteman, 1981, p. 76). Ross, for instance, ex-
plained that “Malaitans identify themselves by native languages
or dialects (Ross, 1978, p. 164). Pacific anthropologists, linguists
and archaeologists use language distinctions to identify settle-
ment patterns. The early settlers of Melanesia for instance, espe-
cially in New Guinea, parts of the Bismarck Archipelago, parts
of Bougainville and Solomon Islands, were categorized as
Papuan speakers. Peoples who arrived later were labeled as
Austronesia speakers (Mühlhäusler, et al., 1996, p. 411). In the
same spirit, Pacific Islanders use language as an identity to dis-
tinguish themselves from other groups, thus an important wantok
reference.
At the local level, a wantok is someone with whom one could
identify. It connotes affective, moral relationships and claims to
certain resource rights like those over land, gardening areas and
fishing grounds. References to groups who have rights and au-
thorities over certain land areas could be referred to as a wantok
group although it is a very specific aspect of identity. Wantoks in
this category determine one’s rights to existence. One’s support
depends on the group the individual is a part of or affiliations
of that person’s blood family. It determines political structures at
the local level in societies where the bigman system of govern-
ment exists. It is common to regard people under a particular
bigman as a wantok group or network. As Sahlins explained, a big-
man in Melanesia is not really a political title but rather... an
acknowledged standing in interpersonal relationships - aprince
among men so to speak as opposed toThe Prince of Danes
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 35
(Sahlins, 1963, p. 289). Those who live under the leadership of
such an elevated person, a successful bigman, could be regarded
as constituting a wantok network in both pre-contact and post-col-
onial Melanesia. From an anthropological point of view, the
wantok system” is a way of organizing a society for subsistence
living that ensured the survival of a group of people. It empha-
sizes reciprocal networks and caring for each others’ needs as
and when necessary and ensures the security of members from
external forces and threats.
It may be worth noting that wantok has been extended as a
structural societal reference for the whole Melanesian sub-region
of the South Pacific. It is so because of the fact that commencing
with European contacts, a lingua franca emerged in Papua New
Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands and Vanuatu commonly known
as Melanesian pidgin. People from these countries could use their
own versions of pidgin (PNG Tok Pisin, Vanuatu Bislama and
Solomon Islands Pijin) to communicate across national bounda-
ries, thus forming a certain kind of over-arching wantok identity.
Populated by people sharing similar cultures, kastom, geographic
proximity, and experiencing similar development obstacles, it
triggered a sense of belonging to a sub-regional group, now
known as the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
This MSG wantok network also incorporated the Kanaks of
New Caledonia, Fiji and West Papua in their now formalized
sub-regional political and trading arrangements (PIPP, 2008).
Nevertheless, this aspect of wantokism will not be discussed fur-
ther here as the focus is more on the local, and arguably stron-
ger, intra and inter wantok relationships as seen from the anthro-
pological literature. It is important simply to note that the term
wantok can be used at many levels and it has different meanings
from these vantage points. Wantok is to an extent an overused
word that sometimes loses its importance but for this paper, it
is a very relevant term and concept for understanding social, eco-
nomic and political networks and behavior in wider Melanesian
contexts.
Commentaries on the wantok system are not all rosy as they
also convey an unequal system that supports the interests of cer-
tain individuals. In relation to the formal state, the wantok system
is often associated with nepotism and the use of ones personal
connections to secure public service jobs at the expense of equal
36 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
opportunity and merit. Cockayne explained that wantoks could
use their positions of influence to protect their own, as when po-
lice officers block or frustrate investigations involving close rela-
tives (2004, p. 20). In this example, appeal to kastom could be the
scapegoat for letting a wantok member off the hook. The network
groups created by this complex web of wantok relationships could
both be negative as well as positive forces in development and
livelihood terms.
Historical Roots of Wantoks
To understand wantoks as an essential network, it is neces-
sary to understand how local communities organize themselves
and how local kastoms are employed in intra and inter group
relationships. The pre-colonial wantok networks existed to pro-
vide defense and control other intruding forces that produced in-
stability and threatened the security of the group. Like many oth-
er societies around the world, Melanesians perceived the world
where good and evil exist and where the latter is always seeking
to overwhelm the former. Combining the totality of wantoks as a
social network in contemporary Melanesia, four bases on which
the network is premised are identified. These are family and trib-
al ties, reactions to warfare and superstition, the impact of mis-
sionary work, and colonial and modern government structures
and processes. Let us consider these factors individually.
Tribes, Clans and Families
The primary basis for wantok identification like clans and lin-
eages are resilient and respected by Melanesians. One way of
perceiving the wantok network is to picture many small boxes in
a bigger box where the bigger picture does not necessarily depict
the status and condition of the smaller components. Likewise, the
smaller component may or may not relate to the bigger picture.
Distinct wantok groups as clans and speakers of the same lan-
guage present a formidable force for identity continuity and dif-
ferences even in the face of rapid change. It is these identities
that hold the wantoks together and apart. The smaller distinct
wantok groups normally trace their origins to common ancestors.
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 37
These are then linked to rights like land ownership and the right
to use and access land for basic needs and survival. The common
ancestral connection is the basic building block of a local wantok
unit in a Melanesian society.
A persons claim to a piece/block of land is usually de-
termined by his/her ancestral connections with the area concerned.
Ascription to a common ancestor thus brings claims to land and
properties of the wantok group, and also requires group coopera-
tion often cemented by the act of reciprocity. Reciprocity plays an
important part in maintaining the cordial relationship within
wantok groups at the basic level. This could be in the form of
food produce, the making of shelters, hunting and fishing catch-
es, bride price payments and land settlements. Giving and receiv-
ing are two sides of the reciprocity coin in Melanesia. The sig-
nificance of this local level redistribution among wantoks is an as-
pect of kastom that unites individuals and families who are re-
lated through tribes and clans which are the foundations of the
wantok system.
Superstition and Warfare
Wantok groups in pre-contact days lived in fear of each other
and so they tended to dwell in villages secured from negative su-
pernatural forces and tribal warfare. Supernatural forces like the
use ofblack magic and sorcery were said to be practiced then.
Wright explained that Melanesian sorcerers...were a part of the
social system and lived under the protection of the chiefs, who
used them to uphold authority and execute their will” (Wright,
1940, p. 208). It could be that the threat of using magic and the
fear of supernatural interventions may help maintain stability
and instill a sense of security in such communities. Wantok iden-
tity usually attaches itself to the supernatural or references made
totaem bifoa (era of the ancestors).
Anti-colonial movements in the Solomon Islands appealed to
supernatural forces and interventions to establish kastom (way of
life) that people would identify with. Pelise Moro who started
the Gaenaalu Movement on Guadalcanal, for example, told of
his visionary experience with a bird who turned into a man tell-
ing him to form an association for his people to own and exploit
38 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
their resources (Davenport & Coker, 1967, p. 141). Likewise, the
Ma’asina Ruru Movement on Malaita appealed to kastom and a
cargo cult explanation to attract followers (Alan, 1951, p. 94;
Healy, 1966, p. 202). Lewis-Harris (2006) gave a similar account
of Mr. Saun Ati, a Papua New Guinea carver from the Western
Iatamul area of Sepik. Atis carvings were said to be inspired by
visions from his clan ancestors who directed him to carve accord-
ing to their commands.
Ati faced fierce opposition from the wider community be-
cause such statements have implication for land ownership and
other identities in that area. As Lewis-Harris puts it,[h]is por-
trayal of these and other spirits as tied to his ancestors had direct
bearing on land rights in the region and the sacred and secret
knowledge associated with these rights” (Lewis-Harris, 2006, p.
230). The point is that historical origins of both pre-contact and
post-colonial wantok groups could be attributed in most instances
to supernatural visions and explanations. Such appeals to super-
natural origins going back to “taem bifoa” gives wantok groups
the identity they could cling on to and is thus a uniting and sta-
bilizing network.
Apart from internal forces that pose security threats to
Melanesian wantok groups, there are also external undertakings
that involved fighting, raids and tribal warfare. These are nor-
mally in response to perceived grievances and wrongs committed
by some groups against another. Woodford
1) reported two differ-
ent incidents in two different settings in the Solomon Islands
during his 1888 voyage. One incident he reported involved a
group of men from a coastal Guadalcanal village who raided a
mountain village (possibly a payback to some wrongs committed
against them) and brought back a prisoner and dead people’s
limbs and flesh on their return (Woodford, 1888, p. 363). In an-
other recorded incident, a group of several villages from
Roviana, in the Western Solomon Islands went headhunting on
Ysabel and the Malaita Outer Islands of Lord Howe and Sikaiana
and brought back heads and prisoners (Woodford, 1888, p. 361).
These raids and headhunting expeditions have symbolic sig-
nificance as they were overt ways of maintaining people’s iden-
tities with their wantok groups in pre-colonial Melanesia. At
1) Woodford later became the first British Resident Commissioner of the Solomon Islands
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 39
times, such activities assisted in the identification of leaders.
Roscoe argued that being a warrior was important in defining
leadership in Papua New Guinea in some instances. He ex-
plained “...warriors become leaders by their prowess and bravery
in battle: because of their importance to hamlet, clan and village
survival, great warriors were lauded, rewarded, and to some de-
gree obeyed” (Roscoe, 2000, p. 90). Wantok units and networks
were thus important for conquest, retaliations and defense in
pre-colonial Melanesian societies.
Missionaries
Contacts with Europeans, especially missionaries and colo-
nialists, led to the subsequent establishment of bigger villages
facilitated by the encouragement of movement of people from
mountain communities to coastal areas. Some reasons given
for these relocations to bigger coastal villages were for easy
control and organization of the new Christian converts, to re-
inforce conviction and root out heresy, better access to materi-
al welfare and shipping, and, to protect the new Christians
from the bad influences of pagans in the mountain villages
(Ross, 1978, p. 180). Unity for the new Christians was there-
fore forged with the introduction of new ideologies and struc-
tures that made meaningful sense to people. Through time,
this form of wantok founded on missionaries’ work and de-
nominational affiliations become a prominent source of iden-
tity and network in Melanesia. It served purposes ranging from
employment opportunities, cultural and regional exchanges, and
support networks in times of crisis. During the social tensions
that brought misery to many Solomon Islanders from 1998-2003,
one of the networks that people relied heavily on was the es-
tablished Christian denominations.
Despite huge divisions brought about by missionary activ-
ities and colonial administrators, local group identity through
kastom and tribal networks continued to be maintained (Keesing,
1967, p. 91-93; Ross, 1978). These cultural identities and under-
standings were overlaid by new teachings and interactions but
the basis of people’s connections to their respective more local
wantok networks remained intact. A sense of suspicion and skep-
40 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
ticism continued between wantok communities despite the devel-
opment of bigger settlements and the initial moves by some
missionaries to establish more united congregations. This may
be a consequence of pre-colonial divisions surviving and new
wantok identifications brought about by missionaries taking root.
The transitions from heathenism to Christianity and the rule of
law and education processes were such powerful forces that rel-
ative peace and security were fostered for many years between
wantok groups. Christianity became the basis of kastom and the
‘Melanesian Way’ of thinking (Otto, 1997). Nevertheless, it must
be noted that the origins of wantok networks are attributable to
family connections, language groups, appeals to supernatural vi-
sions and kastom (era of ancestors), and often forged through and
defended with hostility and violence.
Colonialism and the Nation State
Like Christianization, colonialism also gave rise to other dif-
ferent forms of wantok groups and networks. Colonial rule cre-
ated contemporary political and administrative boundaries amal-
gamatingdistinct communities into seemingly acceptable con-
venient groupings of the nation state. Modern political bounda-
ries did not erase the distinct (see Nanau, 2002). However, they
created artificial wantok identities above local wantok differences
in perspectives and identities recognized by language and clan
groups networks that are useful for political mobilization. While
these artificial creations by the nation state are useful admin-
istratively, they sometimes encouraged divisiveness and conflict
when used by politicians and militant leaders to push for a cer-
tain cause.
During the 1998~2003 tensions between Guadalcanal and
Malaita warring factions, the wantok system created notions of
homogeneous ethnic identities in both islands (Kabutaulaka,
2001, p. 4). The charismatic leaders who orchestrated such moves
appealed to the collective identities relied upon by early political
‘kastom-wantok’ groups and more generally, aspects of wantok
solidarity and reciprocity. Such perceived homogeneity existed
only for purposes of social mobilization and it collapsed when
the unrest ceased or in the early political kastom groups (such as
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 41
the Ma’asina Movement) when the colonial government im-
prisoned its leaders. The important conclusion though is that ap-
peals to kastom are effective in developing networks for mobiliz-
ing support in a fragmented country, even if only temporarily.
Colonialism and the emergence of the nation-state gave way to
the creation of new wantok identities as well as those that counter
the work of colonialism and the nation state.
Wantok Mutation and Resilience
Christianization and the emergence of the nation-state gave
rise to other artificial forms of wantoks. The most prominent ones
are Christian denominations, allegiance to provinces of origin
and what I would call political ‘kastom-wantok’ groups. Political
‘kastom-wantok’ groups refer to the likes of the Ma’asina Ruru
and the Gaena’alu Movements described earlier that appealed to
culture and indigenous ways of perceiving things in response to
changes brought about by modernization. Leaders of these
‘kastom-wantok’ groups and movements often convinced fol-
lowers that they have a common identity and cause. It should be
stressed that both Ma’asina and Gaena’alu movements were born
out of frustration with the slow opening of income generating
opportunities in their areas.
Despite the overlay of new identities and boundaries created
by Christianity, law and governments, the basic distinct com-
munities that comprised the bigger wantok communities remained
intact and kastom was reproduced. In his study of the Baegu peo-
ple of Malaita, Ross (1978) revealed that kinship obligations and
ties transcend the Christian-pagan boundaries. Relatives unite to
face opposition when their land is threatened by disputing
parties. They all contribute towards things like bride wealth to
younger male relatives and enact dances and otherpagan pub-
lic festivals alongside Christian feasts (Ross, 1978, p. 180). This
was also reported among pagan and Christian relatives in the
Kwaio communities of Malaita (Keesing, 1967, p. 92).
In recent years, the system was praised for its strengths in
mitigating a looming manmade disaster during the five years of
civil strife in the Solomon Islands from 1998~2003. One Solomon
Islands Government report lauded the strength of the wantok sys-
42 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
tem in that it “...has provided the social framework within which
they [Solomon Islanders] can cope, and by which the immediate
effects on individuals and families have been minimised. Without
the wantok system, the effects on individual well being would
have been as devastating as they have been on the national econ-
omy (SIG, 2004, p. 6). The social framework and oral codes of
behavior that guided peoples actions in such situations could be
regarded as kastom. The wantok system in this instance is resilient
and a useful safety net for people when faced with natural and
man-made disasters.
Understanding Intra- and Inter-wantok Relationships
It is important that this paper contextualizes wantoks through
an understanding of what unites them or keeps them apart.
Once again the uniting force between otherwise distinct wantok
groups could be a historical link of ancestral relationships or rela-
tives cooperating at some distant times in the past. This is espe-
cially true for wantok groups whose settlements and villages are
close to each other. The Lengo speakers2) of north Guadalcanal,
Solomon Islands, refer to this communion between different wan-
tok groups asthaidu (literally meaning working and sharing) in
their local dialect. Different wantok groups usually move together
and subsist on adjacent lands and this in itself allowed for ex-
tended networking in spite of varying ancestral origins. In many
instances, thaidu often results in cross marriages which then con-
solidate relationships between different wantok groups. Working
and cultivating the land in proximity to each other and in-
ter-marriages are two crucial bonds that normally hold different
wantok groups together. A wantok group could call for the others
support when needed or when in trouble. Alternatively, one wan-
tok group or its bigman could mediate in tensions that arise be-
tween neighboring groups, thus averting fully blown conflicts. In
general terms, what unites wantoks at the local level are reciprocal
gestures and goodwill. Division and competition on the other
hand separate them.
2) All references to concepts and realities from North Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, are
from a Ph.D. fieldwork by the author in 2007 at Tumurora and Obo Obo villages.
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 43
Reciprocity and Goodwill
Reciprocity and goodwill determines the nature of intra- and
inter-wantok relationships. Abigman for instance would show
support for a neighboring bigman by participating in the launch-
ing of their feast. The real challenge is more distant wantoks. As
Belshaw pointed out “[n]ative life was rich in festivities. Feasts,
gift exchanges, dances, and the offering of sacrifices to propitiate
evil spirits were features of ceremonies celebrated to mark stages
in the growth of individuals, their births, deaths and marriages”
(Belshaw, 1947, p. 5) within wantoks. A bigman would direct wan-
tok members to support other leaders or wantok groups with their
festivities and significant ceremonies. They normally contributed
towards the cause and also established their presence alongside
other wantok groups in a show of status and cooperation.
For instance, if a bigman and his people offer a feast to com-
memorate say the adoption of a landless group into his tribe, the
other would send people to assist with labor, food preparations
and maybe pigs. He would also seek the assistance of his own
people and accumulate food, pigs and shell money to stage on
the day of the actual ceremony. This shows his support and sig-
nifies his people’s approval of the occasion, in this example, the
adoption of the landless group by a nearby bigman. Reciprocity
and the making of renown is one way of maintaining stability
and relationship between wantok groups. Indirectly, it can be ar-
gued that the need for such ceremonies suggests a potential for
conflict.
In the above example of a group adoption, a wantok unit that
is a migrant community in pre-colonial Melanesia could be
adopted by a host tribe or clan in the region they settled in after
negotiations and assessment of behavior over long periods of
time. It rarely was an immediate action but one that might take
decades before formal recognition as adoption may be resisted.
This is what is commonly known as lavi thaghe (group adoption)
in the North Guadalcanal language. In lavi thaghe, the landless
people are accepted by a particular wantok group to be members
of their clan and tribe. On acceptance, the adopted wantoks are
given specific areas on which they and their off spring can culti-
vate and subsist with the goodwill of their new clan (CELDAPG,
44 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
2010, p. 2). Alternatively, and for extra special reasons, a group
may be allowed to do what is commonly known as vuti pari
(literally, uprooting the land) from their hosts.
This is where the land ownership is transferred from the
original owners to the new owners, with a transaction symbol-
ized by food, shell money and other valuable transfers. In such
instances, the guardians of the land changed but the people from
the original wantok group who cultivated and survived on that
land would continue and it rarely affected their livelihoods. As
the Commission affirmed,[i]f a child is adopted into a tribe, the
child becomes a full-blooded member thereof, and a recipient of
all entitlements. If a female is adopted, she is entitled to land
ownership rights and can pass on those rights to her children
(CELDAPG, 2010, p. 3). This is a system to be distinguished from
the land title transfers inherent in the European land tenure con-
text because the rights of others to use that land is maintained.
Land uprooting does happen but on rare occasions where there
is a need to accommodate a dying clan (meaning that the clan
will become extinct with the passing of the last remaining mem-
bers of the clan), landless orphans, or as a trophy for doing
something vital to safeguard the interests and livelihoods of the
wantok group offering the said land. In both the lavi thaghe and
vuti pari processes, wantok groups share, reciprocate and show
their allegiances to each other and they consolidate and strength-
en bonds between these wantok groups.
Security and stability is maintained by giving as it is done
in thespirit of the gift. It is more of ayou scratch my back
and I scratch yours” understanding. Bugotu succinctly described
it saying, “[g]ratefulness, sharing and giving are a way of life, ac-
cepted and practiced almost unconsciously by all. When I give,
I have the satisfaction of giving in a continuation of friendly
relations. I wouldnt expect a verbalthank you [or immediate
reciprocation] because thankfulness is seen in deeds rather than
in words (Bugotu, 1968, p. 68). One person gives and does not
receive payment although he knows that his giving will be re-
turned when he needs the support of his wantok members. The
photo below is an example of wantok groups giving towards a
feast to commemorate the laying of a headstone in Melanesia.
Some of the food bowls displayed are reciprocates of previous
assistance given in kind in earlier events of significance.
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 45
(photo: by author)
Figure 2: Monument Feast at Ngalitavethi Village, North East
Guadalcanal
Giving and reciprocating goods and services (manual work)
is a way of caring and ensuring unity within the various wantok
groups. It is possible that the whole ideology of kastom, the
Pacific or Melanesian Ways, revolves around this expected act of
caring, reciprocating, support and respect for each other, care for
the physical surrounding and the reverence for supernatural be-
ings (ancestors). As Firth points out, work is an obligation where
...people go and work for other people because they are
relatives. Being relatives, they have a moral duty to help (Firth,
1956, p. 3). This may explain why a wrong committed against a
wantok member receives support from others in instances where
retaliation is warranted, thus escalating tension by involving
more people in a dispute.
In this web of giving and supporting each other, there is al-
ways a towering individual who is a sign of unity that usually
leads the people. He is the key player and is always responsible
for the needs of all in his close group. This bigman is a sign of
unity, security and stability among wantok members. The state-
46 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
ment by Hogbin summed up the uniting and caring force of this
type of person in Melanesian societies:He [bigman] was like a
banyan ..., which, though the biggest and tallest in the forest, is
still a tree like the rest. But, just because it exceeds all others, the
banyan gives support to more lianas and creepers, provides more
food for the birds, and gives better protection against sun and
rain”(quoted in Sahlins, 1963, p. 290).
The bigman system has developed in that way with the most
generous and caring being given the most respect and regarded
as a person of worth and renown. Trust and reliance are built on
this process of reciprocity and caring; thus, security and unity
within the group are assured. Bigman politics remains a feature
of Melanesian societies and it is through such structures and
mechanisms that wantok unity and goodwill is channeled. The be-
haviors of Members of Parliament (MPs) when dishing out dis-
cretionary funds can be explained in the context of this bigman
structure.
Divisions and Competitions
Apart from goodwill and cooperation between wantok
groups, there are also instances where divisions and competitions
occur that drive wantok groups apart. One way of showing divi-
sion is in the display of wealth through the accumulation and
show of food, valuables, buildings and pigs. Where a wantok
group is “rubbished” or degraded by other groups through
words or actions, they sometimes react by hosting feasts to dis-
play their worth. The challenge is usually for the opposing wan-
tok group to match that display. It attempts to exert the im-
pression of being different from an opposing or other wantok
grouping. As explained earlier, food produce can be used to
complement other peoples efforts but it could also be used as a
show of power, prestige and competition between Melanesian
bigmen (see Roscoe, 2000). The group with the largest number
and size of pigs, food crops and cooked food is usually regarded
the most prominent and thus earns respect. This wantok and big-
man characteristic is usually visible during election campaign pe-
riods in the affairs of the modern nation state.
Killings and raids on other groups also kept wantok groups
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 47
apart and also led to the identification of a leader in some
instances. The raids and headhunting trips by the Roviana people
reported by Woodford in (1888) and (1890) above attests to this
inter wantok rivalry and warfare. Raids and killings in the past
were linked to land disputes, revenge killings for sorcery and
cases of adultery. Usually, there are intermediaries who could in-
tervene to negotiate and solve such tensions with the payment of
hefty compensations. When all these efforts are exhausted, how-
ever, the possibility of raids and revenge killings became highly
plausible. Ian Hogbin (1964, p. 52-69) described the raids and
killings among the Kaoka speakers of Guadalcanal as often stem-
ming from accusations of sorcery (vele) killings, adultery and re-
venge killings. Sorcery is strongly believed to be prevalent in
Melanesian societies with people getting sorcerers to get rid of
their enemies through the performance of “black magic”.
In his other study of a society in north Malaita, Hogbin
(1969) discussed in great detail how crimes were punished there.
He stressed that acts of vengeance are often undertaken to
avenge wrongs done to one’s group. Some of the serious crimes
that usually ended up with raids and group warfare were the al-
leged killing of people with magic spells and sorcery, murders
and sexual offences particularly adultery (Hogbin, 1969, p.
82-101). These sometimes portray Melanesian societies as some
kind of primitive barbaric groups in anthropologists’ accounts. It
should be stressed on the contrary that killings and raids were
usually carried out as last resorts for putting right wrongs.
Following the above line of argument, wantok groups have a mo-
ral obligation to assist their members even if this assistance in-
cludes the use of violence. Revenge killings and raids are ways
of displacing other wantok groups, acquiring new land areas and
generally setting wantok groups apart from each other.
In both intra and inter wantok relationships, respect ex-
pressed through reciprocal gestures of good will and honest deal-
ings by leaders is an acceptable norm. Each wantok group is hap-
py when it is respected and its territories not infiltrated by ex-
ternal forces and groups. Could these anthropological accounts of
intra and inter wantok relationships help us understand current
trends in violence and insecurity in Melanesia? The difference
though between these accounts and contemporary security issues
is the emergence of new and artificial forms of wantok identi-
48 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
fication in post colonial Melanesia. It may therefore be necessary
to highlight the new wantok identities brought about by contacts
with Europeans, particularly the creation of the nation-state and
the complexities of governing in the context of wantok networks
and relationships. The examples are mostly from Solomon
Islands where the author has information.
Contextualizing Wantok as a Socio-economic and
Political Network
Post-independent Melanesian governments are faced with
challenges to govern countries that are made up of distinct wan-
tok communities with diverse values and kastoms. Successive gov-
ernments have therefore been preoccupied with combating in-
stability rather than nation building in most of Melanesia.
Henderson (2003, p. 227) attributed an absence of a sense of na-
tional identity as contributing to political instability in the South
Pacific, a negative impact of the colonial creation of artificial
boundaries that became current national boundaries. Others felt
that the lack of a national identity in culturally and linguistically
diverse countries like the Solomon Islands should be a cause for
serious concern (LiPuma & Meltzoff, 1990, p. 79). Wantok groups
at the local levels see themselves as people from a certain island
or a certain region of the island defined by the language spoken
and kastom - the wantok element. The basic national uniting force
is probably the ability to communicate in a common vernacular.
Other national symbols may include the national currency, na-
tional anthem and national flag. It could be asserted that the only
symbols of any direct value to rural Melanesians are the modern
currencies - the Solomon Islands dollar, the PNG Kina and the
Vanuatu Vatu.
Anti-colonial and “political kastom-wantok” groups’, like the
Ma’asina Ruru and Gaena’alu Movement, influences were restricted
to specific regions and at best to adjacent islands. The overall
trend is that people see themselves according to their language
and island groups and rarely as members of a national entity.
Successive governments since independence are conscious of this
and have often made decisions claiming to be in the interest of
national unity and stability by appearing to address national
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 49
needs but de facto on provincial lines. Lipuma and Meltzoff
claim that “[t]he various Solomon Islands were joined not be-
cause they bore any inherent relationship or because their peo-
ples desired to be united, but for reasons foreign and external
(LiPuma & Meltzoff, 1990, p. 83). More directly, Kabutaulaka
(1998, p. 33) explained that the nation Solomon Islands did not
exist naturally but was constructed by European explorers and
colonialists. The post colonial nation-state of Solomon Islands ex-
ercises authority over boundaries carved during the colonial era.
It is therefore imperative to recognize that different islands re-
gard themselves as different and not related to others in the
Solomon group, for example. Such sentiments become prominent
when attitudes of certain segments of the country are seen as dis-
ruptive and when national wealth distribution is not seen as fair.
The threats by the Western Province to secede in 1978 and the
Guadalcanal Provincial Assembly’s submissions to national gov-
ernment both in 1988 and 1998 attested to this dominant percep-
tion (Premdas, et al., 1984; Nanau, 2008). The wantok identity that
takes center stage in such political exchanges revolves around the
newly created and artificial political wantok groups like provinces
and constituencies.
Politicians and charismatic leaders normally use these mod-
ern wantok identities to mobilize political support. Recent expe-
riences showed that land and land based resources usually trig-
ger conflicts. There is a tendency that when resources are ex-
tracted, benefits normally go to other wantok groups rather than
those from whose lands such resources were extracted. This
sense of being neglected and exploited for other peoples bene-
fit usually evoke sentiments like those expressed by Western
and Guadalcanal provinces mentioned above. Premdas and
Steeves pointed out that... the cost/gain principle was imposed
on national elites by the threat of secession by regionalists if ex-
tensive local autonomy was not conceded (1984, p. 47). The es-
tablishment of provincial governments as agents of national gov-
ernment was a welcomed move on the surface but deep rooted
disagreements on national wealth distribution and provincial
contributions to national wealth exist. Liloqula stressed: “[s]ince
we became one country, Solomon Islanders have yet to accept
each other as one people. The situation has been ongoing but we
ignored it in our efforts to remain united, focussing on the good
50 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
and positive small things that happen and burying the big issue
[of being different] as if it does not exist” (Liloqula & Pollard,
2000, p. 6). Solomon Islanders have taken and utilized the wantok
system for different purposes at different levels.
The further one uses wantok away from the local towards the
national the system also changes from being a subsistence and
livelihood buffer to one of exploitation and corruption. This ex-
plains the identity and allegiance crisis demonstrated by the
Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) Force during the 1998-2003
ethnic crises. Officers who were supposed to be impartial took
sides instead of providing protection for citizens. Arms that were
supposed to be used to protect citizens were used against them.
A good number of Guadalcanal and Malaita police officers ignor-
ed their national duties and affiliated themselves with militants
from their wantok groups. It is this likelihood to support a fellow
wantok in times of need that usually gives way to corruption and
nepotism - the negative attributes of the wantok system often
highlighted by commentators. One thing is certain, and that is
that the existence of very strong internal bonds among and be-
tween wantok groups nationally and their effects on the idea of
a united and stable Solomon Islands are immense.
The wantok system also plays an important role in sustaining
livelihoods and maintaining peace and stability at the local level.
It is a social structure that emphasizes respect and reciprocity.
More importantly, the wantok system ensures that the ruthless ex-
ploitation of one group of people is checked continuously and
avoided. Indeed, the distinct local wantok groups ensure that
their relatives are assisted economically and socially when the
need arises. As such, the extreme disparity of wealth distribution
is not really expansive. As noted throughout this paper, it is only
when wantok is used away from the local level towards the na-
tional and sub-regional contexts that it becomes a corrupt and ex-
ploitative system.
Conclusion
The concepts and realities of the wantok system and kastom
are important for an understanding of livelihoods, security and
stability in Melanesia. The history of Solomon Islands integration
OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1 51
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 missionaries and
colonization, wantok identities and kastom were maintained and
continue to be the norms of operation at the village level. These
local, cultural wantok concepts, attributes and realities influence
other aspects of development, particularly those related to se-
curity and stability in Melanesia. Unless wantoks and the net-
works and relationships it provides are understood, it may be
difficult to appreciate the reasoning behind some decisions made
by Melanesian political leaders and contemporary political events
that continue to confuse analysts. The wantok system is resilient
and has evolved over time. It will continue to be influential in
Melanesian social, economic and political spheres for many more
years to come.
52 OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society2011. Vol.2 No.1
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Biographical Note
Gordon Leua Nanau is currently working as a Lecturer of Politics and
International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
Islands. He teaches Contemporary Melanesian Politics, Political Ideologies,
Pacific Islands States in World Affairs, and Political Leadership. He holds
a Ph.D. from the School of International Development, University of East
Anglia, United Kingdom. His doctoral dissertation is devoted to under-
standing the impacts of globalization on local peoples livelihoods in the
South Pacific. Dr. Nanau’s research interests revolve around areas of politi-
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tenures, rural livelihoods, constitutional development and globalization.
E-mail: nanau_g@usp.ac.fj
... It is contended that the wantok system may create a sense of belonging and concern for community well-being, as people share limited resources and vital information (Murray, 2016). From another perspective, the wantok system is described as a distinct ideological setup in the Melanesian culture, which controls resources and connects the pre-and post-colonial contact periods (Nanau, 2011). Based on this background, we have identified two main types of the wantok system: a more traditional setup, preceding colonial contact, and a contemporary structure, which originated in the post-European colonial contact era. ...
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Abstract Solomon Islands suffered a national identity crisis in the sense that it barely sees itself as one people working together to make things work. This near absence of nationalistic pride at the local level obscured efforts attempted at achieving common. This consequently led to difficulties in identifying appropriate governing structures to govern the diversity. Moreover, modern structures of governance and government were not well received and owned by the country’s citizens. Many times, local understandings of what constitutes good leadership often contradict modern good governance philosophies and political structures. Contradictions brought about by interactions of western philosophies (ways of doing things) and traditional governance modes proved costly for the country after two decades of political independence. This paper argues that the source of current problems in the country is rooted in the national identity crisis and mismatch between modern political structures and traditional perspectives. The diverse cultural, geographic, social and political features of the country and its population has never been fully acknowledged and accommodated in the country’s political structures and constitution. As, Mamaloni, a former Prime Minister of the country once said “… island communities or nations of this archipelago want to be their own and themselves in terms of organization, having greater freedom to enjoy their lives as much as anyone else in the world”. Unless a system accommodates these “confusions”, and recognizes the distinct diverse groups in the country, and systematically acknowledges them, the desired democratic and good governance standards would not be satisfied and a nation that is united for the common good may never be realized. The current constitutional reforms are therefore a paramount to peaceful co-existence and national unity.
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