Back from latest fieldwork in Melanesia
With apologies. I have been away for a couple of months and have neglected my endless blogging promises for far too long. The original trigger to abandon my office was the opportunity to present a couple of papers at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the ASAO in Canberra. That turned out to be a very productive and stimulating event. However, my excursus quickly morphed into a perfect excuse to carry out a bit of ethnographic fieldwork in the Torres Islands and Santo, Vanuatu.
That is where I have been for the past couple of months. And what a stint of fieldwork it was! Full of extraordinary insights and novelties, in addition to a Torres homecoming that was moving beyond description. Even after nine years of return visits and follow-up discussions with my Torres friends, there are always new layers of meaning and complexity to reflect upon. It can never really be otherwise, as any good ethnographer would have to admit.
But for once I feel that I have managed to round off all of the basic information regarding the kinship system, ecological and agricultural cycle and, most importantly, the cosmology and ritual of the islands to the point where I will confidently be able to write about them at length in my long-delayed book. This alone has made this trip worthwhile beyond measure. But there was more to it, including the renewal and extension of a new field project across Big Bay and the North Santo region, as well as a re-encounter with my Malakulan friends from Atchin, which led to a hurried planning session to go back to Malakula and check up on the intended and unintended impact that has resulted from the academic re-introduction of ancestral information by way of a recent project coordinated by my friend and colleague, Haidy Geismar, of NYU, with Anita Herle (Cambridge) and Numa Fred (VKS Fieldworker, Uripiv, Malakula).
Today and in the following days I hope to gradually expound 0n all of these themes, so as to not leave any remaining readers of this blog in the dark. Meantime, enjoy a few pics.
Approaching Loh Island. Notice the two white sand beaches. Lunharigi village is located just behind the larger of the two. Note also the narrow mangrove lagoon separating Loh from the small island of Linua, where the airstrip is located. Below: Titus Joel, a brilliant, energetic and extremely bright man and the most experienced fieldworker of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in the Torres Islands.
Lunharigi and Kwurengretakwe villages in early morning light.
Lengwe mi salul. My house in Lunharigi village. It may not seem like much, but the roofing is 100% natangora. That is high-quality thatch, and its manufacture implies many hours and days of communal work by many people. It is, in fact, the basic element that gives makes a house a house. Perhaps the best example of the structural firmness of the roofing is the fact that it experienced minimum damage from cyclone Fune this past January (the walling, admittedly, is a bit crap, because it was originally put up in a rush…but that only gave us a good excuse to get to work on it and upgrade it during this last visit).
This is John Hawelikwe, a dear friend and one of the founders of the hamlet of Likwal, which is located on the north shore of Toga. John is an extraordinary individual, having become the first businessman in the Torres Islands in order to prove that it could be done. This was in the early 1990s. He continues to be the most successful and respected merchant in the Torres group. Indeed, perhaps the only businessman who could be explicitly identified as such. During this last visit I was finally able to take down his life’s story in great detail, and am enormously grateful for the insights that he has given me regarding the history of this small place throughout the twentieth century.
I hope to do them justice – his and all of the other biographies that I have recorded through the years – in the coming months and years.