This article was originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.
Freelance writer and Sista editor Yasmine Bjornum conducted a series of interviews to commemorate people’s memories of independence and its impact on their lives. These are their stories.
When Vanuatu gained independence, I had just arrived from Copenhagen after attending a UN women’s conference. The celebrations started on the 26th of July and continued until the 31st of July. I led the parade that launched the celebrations at seafront, where Evergreen is now. We marched through town with a band and were welcomed on the other side by the chiefs of Ifira and the Chief Minister, my brother Father Walter Lini, who would later become Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister.
As I coordinated the Women’s Wing of the Vanuatu Liberation Movement, I was heavily involved in the celebrations. I attended the functions, presidential cocktails and Independence Ball. On the eve of the 29th, I watched the President and Prime Minister take their oaths in front of the constitutional building before the British lowered their flags on Iririki Island.
There were 45 countries that came to celebrate our Independence and I spent a lot of time with the liberation movement representatives – East Timor, West Papua, the Kanaks, Maoris and Aboriginals. We had shared the same struggle. Vanuatu has been fighting for it’s self-determination since 1906 and we only led the final nine years. That’s why I call it the liberation movement as it took the consolidated efforts of different groups of people that led to our independence.
There were three things that the liberation movement fought for. One was the return of the customary land. The second was sovereignty. The third was the end of slavery, whether it was black birding or bad working conditions in the country. We got our land and freedom back, but it’s been 36 years and we still don’t have better working conditions. Even when people go overseas for seasonal work, they are still not paid fairly.
Economic self-reliance was a national development goal in 1980. The infrastructure was set up and we hoped to achieve it in 10 years, but instead we had power struggles and by the end of the decade, its own people toppled the government. I do believe outside influences were involved and it was not for the interests of the people.
We are still waiting for the fruits of Independence. The government is not valuing the indigenous system to ensure it works with the modern economy. 80% of the population live on the land and use traditional currencies. The constitution of Vanuatu already recognizes two systems to co-exist, but if only 20% of the population is supported by the modern economy, we are marginalizing the majority who don’t have the same opportunity to participate.
Modern wealth is not accessible to the whole population and this is why people are stealing. People have been peacefully living traditional lifestyles for thousands of years and now we are telling them to come into the system of cash money and yet there is no room for them. Why should they anyway? They have their own land and grow their own food. I work with the Melanesian Global Institute and we promote a system that reflects our Melanesian culture. Unfortunately the government is not interested in knowing about it, perhaps they are too comfortable in this system and don’t want to marry the indigenous with the modern but it can be done.
I believe that Vanuatu belongs to all of us. We’ve all built it up – not just indigenous Ni-Vanuatu but also investors and expat families who’ve lived here for generations – but it’s about respecting each other. Indigenous governance is about the community and peace whereas foreign governance is about individualism and competition. In the future, I would like to see the integration of the indigenous system into the modern system. There is room for all of us but we need to administer things so there is dignity for everybody, not just so that some benefit and others don’t.