Academic journal article Oceania

Another Time, Another Place

Academic journal article Oceania

Another Time, Another Place

Article excerpt


Our languages of time and place frequently articulate. Both in the idiolect of theoretical physics and everyday talk in English, there is a condensation of the temporal and the spatial. This 'talking together' of time and place (1) is apparent in many languages other than English and there is reason to believe that this might represent a universal propensity in human thought. Nancy Munn (1986) speaks of space-time in her study of value transformations on Gawa in the Massim. (2) Bakhtin earlier (1981) devised a parallel concept of the chronotope to deal with this condensation of space and time in literary texts such as the epic and the novel. Such notions convey the inseparable connection of place and time, but simultaneously suggest that this connection is configured differently. (3)

Here I explore the particular ways in which space and time are conjoined in some narratives from South Pentecost, Vanuatu. The spatial values of fixity and fluidity are linked to the temporal values of persistence and transience, and both spatial and temporal transformations are gendered in intricate ways. Moreover, the divergent impact of colonial history on men and women has created novel and profound tensions in the way that space and time are articulated.


Place and time are conjoined in Vanuatu in both national and local narratives. Elsewhere I have explored this in national representations of ples (place) and kastom (tradition) (Jolly 1992). I pointed to how the colonial experience was presented as a rupture, and how in nationalist rhetoric the reclaiming of land was tantamount to a reclaiming of the ancestral past. One of the key tropes in this was the idea of the rootedness of manples, as against the rootlessness of Europeans: rootedness implies permanence or persistence, while rootlessness implies temporal as well as spatial transience. But such nationalist narratives, told in English or French or the lingua franca of Bislama also echo the spatio-temporal constructs of many vernaculars. (4) Here I focus exclusively on narratives from South Pentecost, recorded in the Sa language, predominantly from those people who still proclaim adherence to kastom or tradition. (5)

In Sa, the term ut condenses the concept of time and place. Ut refers both to a geographical site and to a moment or an epoch of time. In the canonical form of address, one asks o mama ra ut mbe--"where are you coming from' (rather than 'how are you' as in English). Ut more particularly means garden or cultivated site. The topography of garden sites is crucial in the everyday arts of memory. In the process of recalling past events, or trying to establish the age of a person, it is usual to mark time by marking space--e.g. 'that was the year that we made our yam gardens at Lon Beriul', or 'that was the time that I was clearing the taro gardens at Lon Butua'. Cultivated sites are distinguished from those uncultivated groves, ut loas which are conceived as originary sites of ancestors and which it is expressly forbidden to cultivate (cf. Bonnemaison 1985:41-42). Past events and the memories of ancestral trajectories are thus traced on the ground, but the living reconstitute and recreate these places by their movements, for instance by cultivating some places and not others. (6)

The attachment of people to place, as many have noted, deploys a botanical idiom (7)--people are planted or rooted, as is a taro or yam, and even more forcefully and permanently, a banyan tree. (8) Conventional Sa metaphors recurrently contrast banyans and birds, rootedness and movement. Other ethnographers of Vanuatu, like Bonnemaison (1985, 1994) and Lindstrom (1990), have observed how this tension between rootedness and movement--between the values of the tree and the canoe, to use a Tannese idiom--is gendered. Men are canonically constructed as rooted and powerfully in place and women as 'like birds' who must at marriage fly from one place to another. …

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