Stephanie Mahuk is a former associate at Thornburgh Lawyers and president of the Vanuatu Surfing Association. Daughter of ‘Golden Mama Blong Vanuatu’, Marie-Estelle Mahuk, Stephanie has paved her own path and is an inspiration to young Ni-Vanuatu women aspiring for a successful career. In this edition of Sista I Shine, Stephanie talks about practicing law in Vanuatu and her love of surfing.
I was born in Port Vila and moved to Papua New Guinea when I was a few months old. I went to preschool and primary school in Port Moresby until 1998 when a riot took place with the trade union. At the time, my dad was the president of the trade union and it became very risky for us as we received death threats so my brother and I relocated back to Vanuatu.
My brother and I speak fluent PNG pidgeon, Bislama and Tannese. My mum and her family were hugely involved in raising us and I think they managed to install traditional values with our modern lives. My mum would often send us to the village to learn the old ways so we could know our roots. It was important for her that we had a balanced life.
I consider myself both Ni-Vanuatu and Papua New Guinean but I guess because I’ve lived here most of my life, I identify more as Ni-Vanuatu. But both my Tannese and PNG people are receptive to me – I may look and think different to them but the minute I speak Tannese or PNG pidgeon, they accept me and realize I’m one of them.
When I moved back to Port Vila, I went to Peter Pan for two months before attending Port Vila International School. I then passed to Malapoa College where I received the DUX prize for year 13 and received a full scholarship from the Australian government to study at the University of South Pacific.
I went to Fiji for two years in 2006 where I did a Bachelor of Commerce and then I came back to Port Vila where I completed my Bachelor of Law in 2011.
I worked at Transparency Vanuatu advocacy centre before working at TVL as the in-house counsel for a year and a half. Then I applied to work at Thornburgh Lawyers where I went from trainee lawyer to associate.
I believe in the judicial system and I really enjoy what I do. Everyday is a challenge in itself – the practice of law can be pretty complex because you are dealing with other human beings and their emotions. There is always something different happening, sometimes it’s a new case or dealing with new facts and you need to know how to manage people and manage expectations. I enjoy the challenge of it all.
My boss is very supportive
My very first appearance in court was an appeal class, which is hugely intimidating for any first time lawyer. There were eight Supreme Court judges from New Zealand and Australia and you have to argue the technicalities of the law.
I won and defended it in the court of appeal. But even today I still have my doubts. Sometimes I think I’m not ready or that the case is too big, but I have a good boss, Dane, who cheers me on and dismisses my doubts.
He just says, ‘That’s rubbish, you can do it!’ He has the same mind frame as my mum where they believe that if you are prepared and you have the tools, just use it. No complaints, no excuses.
I have been able to excel in the practice of law because of Dane. In fact, all the other lawyers have also been very supportive; there is a comrade among us. Unless it’s really warranted, you have to keep a cool head and take nothing personal. We all understand that we are servants to the court and what the court wants overrides what the client wants.
I don’t think I’ve faced major obstacles in my life. It all comes down to perspective – is it a challenge or opportunity?
I don’t think I’ve even experienced jealousy. Or maybe it’s the Ni-Vanuatu culture, where people will smile at you even if they harbor jealousy or resentment. I hope I never experience jealousy. Any narrow minded or shallow person would think jealousy is an easy option to justify their position in life at the moment. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the opportunities afforded to us and how we use it.
Kastom and women’s rights
I have only been a spectator to kastom law but in some context, it does make sense especially in regards to land issues.
However in regards to women’s rights, I don’t think there is anything that can mitigate the level of violation against a woman unless it’s through the formal justice system.
If a woman gets beaten or raped, the practice of kastom is usually done to appease the family, not the actual victim. I know people who have been in this situation – it’s something you carry for life. Some women get over it with help and support of loved ones but the kastom way it to give a mat to the family and sweep the issues under that mat.
The final decision is that the matter is now rested and not to be spoken about again. That is neglect. Just because we are a communal society where everyone is interlinked and reliant on each other, we don’t need to say sorry that way.
Kastom has it’s place in Vanuatu
People expressing remorse on your behalf works sometimes. That’s the beauty of the Melanesian way – we come together as a group. For example if someone comes back to the village drunk and making noise and wakes everyone up, the family will arrange a mat or a pig or some other traditional currency to apologize.
I think that’s a beautiful and considerate side of our culture. But when it comes to criminal law and the extent of the damage that’s done to a person, nothing can mitigate what’s happened.
My mum and aunties are my heroes
My mum was part a family of four boys and four girls. My uncles were straight talkers and hard workers and I think my mum and her sisters aspired to be like them.
My mum and her sisters’ installed my strong sense of character. They are the kind of women who get things done – no excuses! If they said last week that this week we are going to plant a hectare of yam, we are planting a hectare of yam. Impossible is simply not an option.
I’ve seen someone in the village say that they can’t do something because they feel ill. And one of my mum’s sisters will say ‘Well I’m ill and I still did it. Being ill is not an excuse – just get it done.’ They are determined women.
My mum is my inspiration. She has a big drive but is still so humble despite all her accomplishments. She doesn’t go beating her own drum and is very selfless – she always sees the bigger picture. It’s never been about business or family, it’s always been about the country and putting Vanuatu on the map.
Life as President of the Vanuatu Surfing Association (VSA)
I started getting involved with the VSA three years ago. I wanted to spend time with my friend Florence but she was always out in the water so I had to get out there to spend time with her.
I ended up getting hooked on surfing.
I was surfing on a 10 feet board and eventually met Sandrine and Ben Johnson, ‘Papa Blong Surf’. Sandrine had also started surfing and we shared a board that Ben gave us. From there, everything fell into place. In 2015 I was the secretary and now I’m the President.
The VSA is a voluntary organization. Due to the voluntary nature of the job, it can be difficult to execute our vision but we’ve been working really hard to get media exposure and more people involved.
In terms of social media, we are the most watched sports and get 1000 hits a day. We just negotiated for a lighthouse and we are so excited for it. Once it’s finished, we can rent out boards and create a sustainable hub because at the moment, all our money comes from fundraising and selling merchandise.
Mamas can come to the beach and sell food for people surfing and we hope that by March, the VSA Lighthouse will be running.
Why I love surfing
The surf life is heaps of fun. We are all very different people but we share this one passion and we are trying to make it accessible for all the kids in Vanuatu, not just in Pango.
We are working harder in our outreach programs, such as in Tanna, to scout for the best surfers because surfing is now included in the 2020 Olympics and we are very excited for it!
Unlike in athletics, we don’t need access to a quality track and shoes. When you surf, all you need is a board and a love of nature. Age doesn’t dispare and neither does skill level. All the best surfers have their wipeouts and it humbles you. You come to have a lot of respect for the ocean and become more aware of the environment.
Seeing a kid smile because they caught a wave or because they’ve gone overseas for a tournament is a huge achievement. In fact, I would say it’s even bigger than my professional achievement to be able to put a smile on a kid’s face.
I owe my success to my education
I think my greatest fear in Vanuatu in terms of progression is the government neglecting the health and education sector. I owe my success to my education. I believe a lot of Ni-Vanuatu women can achieve what I have if they were only granted the opportunity.
The government needs to wake up and put as much money as they can into the education system. In my mum’s time, the British ran Malapoa College and during my time, the education was still decent. But now I’m not too sure.
Having a successful career should be the RULE, not the exception
In any other country like PNG and Fiji, it is normal for people to have high paying jobs. All my friends who I went to university with are doing amazing things. People ask me how did you get your job, what’s the secret and that should NEVER be the case.
Women who are achieving something mediocre in any other country are regarded as an exception in Vanuatu. I want to see a day when having a career that you aspire for is not an exception.
The population is growing and the government needs to focus on empowering a working class youth and that means investing in our education system. Everyone should be able to have the opportunity.