Academic journal article Oceania

Fellowship and Citizenship as Models of National Community: United Church Women's Fellowship in Ranongga, Solomon Islands

Academic journal article Oceania

Fellowship and Citizenship as Models of National Community: United Church Women's Fellowship in Ranongga, Solomon Islands

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, violence has become a primary means to ensure privileges within Solomon Islands. Beginning in late 1998, militants from the island of Guadalcanal began attacking groups of people from the island of Malaita who, since World War II and especially since independence in 1978, had settled in Guadalcanal around the capital city Honiara. The attacks eventually resulted in the evacuation to their home islands of approximately twenty thousand settlers. Although quickly dubbed 'ethnic tension', the conflict emerged less from primordial animosity between Malaitans and Guadalcanal people, who had peacefully coexisted for generations, and more from the interplay of government corruption and criminal activities with the resentment felt by many Guadalcanal people at land alienation and their unequal opportunities within a post-colonial economy (Kabutaulaka 2000). On 5 June 2000, a Malaitan militia united with a faction of the Solomon Islands police force to take over the national armoury, depose the constitutionally elected government, and take the Prime Minister hostage.

In the tense days following the coup, many Solomon Islanders attempted to find a nonviolent solution to the national crisis. Rather than asserting the prerogatives of opposed 'ethnic' groups, they called on Malaitan and Guadalcanal militants to recognize their shared Christian faith and citizenship in the Solomon Islands. Particularly important in this movement was a group of Honiara women from various church and secular organizations who formed 'Women for Peace' (Pollard, this issue). Speaking as 'mothers of the nation' in radio broadcasts and newspaper articles, Women for Peace pleaded for an end to the fighting. They crossed road-blocks on the edges of town to hold prayer meetings with militants on battlefields, during which they implored them to remember their own mothers and sisters and to see one another as brothers. These actions inspired a temporary reconciliation and members of the opposed militias embraced and shed tears. Women for Peace orchestrated exchanges of store-bought goods for garden produce between Malaitan women living in town and Guadalcanal women living outside. They visited official representatives of both the Guadalcanal and Malaita militias to call for a peaceful and a democratic resolution of the crisis (Fugui 2001; Liloqula and Pollard 2000; Pollard 2000). (1)

In the days, weeks, and months following the coup, everyone from militia spokesmen to High Commissioners lamented the fact that women had not been involved earlier in peacemaking efforts in Guadalcanal. A New Zealand representative, for example, even suggested that if his government decided to send in troops they would align themselves with organizations like 'churches and women's groups' (Solomon Star, 27 June 2000). In the Solomons and throughout the Pacific Islands, there are good reasons why outside agents might want to mobilize Christian organizations, and particularly women's Christian organizations, for their own purposes. Not only is a church the centre of nearly every village community in Solomon Islands but churches also link local communities in island-wide, provincial, national, and regional networks. As Bronwen Douglas has argued, women's groups in Melanesia 'articulate the local with wider spheres in contexts where the state is locally absent or invisible' (2000:6). Yet, women's groups and church groups are not primarily institutions of governance their primary goals have little to do with either formal government politics or planning development projects. (2)

The project of harnessing local institutions and actors to meet external agenda is not new but what has changed is the kind of local institutions thought relevant to governance. After the Second World War, British colonial officials attempted to transform indigenous political arrangements into instruments of colonial government: they designated chiefs as headmen and encouraged efforts to codify 'custom' as law. …

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