Academic journal article Oceania

'The Kite Is Tied to You': Custom, Christianity, and Organization among Kanak Women of Drueulu, Lifou, New Caledonia

Academic journal article Oceania

'The Kite Is Tied to You': Custom, Christianity, and Organization among Kanak Women of Drueulu, Lifou, New Caledonia

Article excerpt

PROLOGUE

In July 1990 the women of the village of Drueulu held a meeting at which they decided to organize a protest march against alcohol abuse by men? I participated in the meeting and followed but did not take part in the protest march. Although the Groupe des femmes de Drueulu, 'Drueulu Women's Group', was the organizing body, this event brought together Catholic women from the village regardless of their membership in the group. The next day, elderly and younger women gathered at the home of a middle-aged married woman to discuss the organization of the march. Some women who had shown confidence at the planning meeting, now, once actual preparations had begun, expressed doubts about men's likely reactions and were unsure whether to take part in the protest. Therese, (2) who had provided her house for the women to meet, commented that even a widow could not ignore the problem: if it were not a drunk husband, then it was sons who were drunk. In the end all the women present agreed to participate. Coconut leaves were used to make sticks to which placards were attached. 'Independence will be declared by women. All the men will be dead, killed by alcohol' read one of them, alluding to the ongoing Kanak campaign for independence from France. Others carried messages in Drehu, the indigenous language of Lifou: Trijepi la kahaitr ke hna mecin angeice, ka helen la tingeting, 'throw away alcohol because it kills and banishes peace'.

Generally people are formally or informally aware of events taking place in the village, but not in this case. When the protesters arrived at the destination of the march, the Mission--the term still used to refer to the Catholic church and its annexes--a fight broke out between a man and his wife who had marched. Women surrounded her to keep the husband away. The young woman refused to follow her husband and defended her position by saying that Hatreqatr (3)--an elderly woman who was married to a catechist with an important customary role (see Plate 6)--was speaking and that out of respect everybody should be listening to her. The same woman strengthened her argument by telling her husband 'to have respect for the place, the Mission'. Later the man publicly apologized for his behaviour. Although this was the most vigorous reaction by men, it was not the only one. Another man watching the march commented that he did not recognize the Women's Group; at that point the local nurse, a member of the elected committee of the group, retorted that all the women were involved and not just those belonging to the Women's Group. Following this heated exchange of words, Hatreqatr held forth to the men saying that they should moderate their drinking otherwise 1998 would mark 'independence for women but men will not be there, they will be dead, all because of alcohol', repeating one of the slogans of the placards. (4) Her assertions were framed in language which stressed women's concerns for the well-being of the community as a whole. This was echoed by another woman who noted that men's abuse of alcohol meant that the tribe was already largely made up of women and children, a reference to the number of widows living in Drueulu.

I use this episode to introduce an analysis of women's collectivities in Drueulu, specifically women's engagement during the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Groupe des femmes de Drueulu, 'Drueulu Women's Group', a group affiliated to the umbrella Catholic organization, the mouvement feminin vers un Souriant Village Melanesien (mfSVM), 'Movement of Women for a Smiling Melanesian Village'. (5) I consider how the organization mobilized cultural elements, including the centrality of motherhood and Catholic affiliation, to assert women's agency and empowerment. Various articulations of women's concerns, customary bonds, and religious affiliation informed women's engagements and commitments at the village level and in the wider context of the annual general assembly of the mfSVM held in Drueulu, 5-8 February 1992. …

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