Academic journal article Oceania

Leading Lights in the 'Mother of Darkness': Perspectives on Leadership and Value in North Ambrym, Vanuatu

Academic journal article Oceania

Leading Lights in the 'Mother of Darkness': Perspectives on Leadership and Value in North Ambrym, Vanuatu

Article excerpt

Heading in a small boat towards North Ambrym, an island in north-central Vanuatu in 1999, I asked the young man at the outboard about the recent death of the famous leader and notorious sorcerer, Rengreng Mal. 'How did he die'? I inquired disingenuously, having already heard one account of the sorcery that killed him. 'From malaria', he replied with a pause for effect. 'Malaria?' I repeated. 'That's right, the malaria of Ambrym' he explained, as we all broke into raucous laughter. Rarely a laughing matter, sorcery is perceived by North Ambrymese to be a major factor in the recent government classification of this, the most populous part of the island as a 'backward area' and indeed, one of the reasons why one cannot reach it by air, unlike the west and south-east of the island. (1) Recently, in the latest of several abortive attempts to clear an airstrip after years of acrimonious negotiation over its siting, workers fled when one of their number was mysteriously drowned, his death widely rumoured to be the result of Ambrym sorcery. Neither the ubiquity of sorcery discourse in North Ambrym nor the reputation of the island as 'the Mother of Darkness', is new. This epithet was applied by missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to an island where opposition to their efforts was carried on with constant recourse to threats of sorcery against converts and the missionaries themselves by the leaders they referred to as 'chiefs'. Sorcery was part of the leaders' armory, used to perpetuate a system of inequality in which the young in particular, but also most women, were at a decided disadvantage.

In the mid 1990s a watershed area of North Ambrym featured in a pilot study for a partly UN funded project- 'Pacific Regional Equitable and Sustainable Human Development Programme' (1996). In this particular area, over 50% of all land was under dispute according to government reports, leading to a failure to implement infrastructural projects like water supplies, health clinics and schools and to encroachment into the rainforest for subsistence agriculture at a rate of almost a kilometre per year. The preliminary diagnosis of the problem as 'breakdown in human interaction', linked the lack of 'community' to the land disputes, rather than seeing the disputes themselves as symptomatic of a much deeper malaise in the whole of North Ambrym that had its immediate roots in the history of the colonial period in the district.

The accelerating pace of transformation in many Pacific rural areas that is a dialectical response to novel national political institutions and the varied penetration of global market forces, is manifest frequently in the ebb and flow of desire, fantasies and values, also itself connected to the way in which the past and future are imagined and represented in the present. Focusing on leaders, their trajectories and the resistance to them, is one means of gaining access to the complex processes by which post-colonial desire and representation are dynamically connected to power at the local level (2). The perception of North Ambrym as 'backward' is shared by many North Ambrymese themselves, who see their failure to improve basic living standards as related to the fear, distrust and animosity inspired by sorcery in outsiders and locals, and the lack of consensus that would enable leaders to transcend ancient and recent divisions.

Notoriously difficult to define, leadership is a 'fuzzy category' in an ill-defined field (Watson-Gegeo, K. & Feinberg, R. 1996:8). Some recent studies suggest that this is not simply the result of analytic failure, but rather a constituent aspect of what leadership is; even in the most apparently hierarchical political systems, leadership is resistant to typology and to delineations that emphasise either structure, or process, rather than the complex interaction between them. Inherently fraught with ambiguity, contradiction and contestation over behaviour, position, legitimacy and indigenous notions of power, as much as the ways we devise to talk about them, questions of leadership are inevitably connected to the wider political fields of which they are part. …

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