Reflecting on the Wantok System after 40 years of community

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By Derek Mane

ON the morning of July 7, 1978, Solomon Islanders in various locations throughout the country lower the Union Jack and raised the Solomon Islands flag. A birth of a new nation, 40 years later to be ravaged by a civil conflict in 1999 to 2003, deteriorating socioeconomic development, rampant corruption and a malfunctioned public service that contributes to lack of development and poor government services.

But who are we blaming for all these misfortunes? Will we be lamenting on the institutions left by our colonialist or review ourselves on our failures and visions towards the future. Indeed, there are many commentaries often made by scholars, journalists, politicians, development partners and others pointing to the lack of consciousness or a sense of nationalism as one of the country’s largest challenges to development. Francis Fukuyama a Japanese American scholar emphasises the country’s informal social network (the wantok system) as the culprit to lack of modernisation.

The story line portrays that the fragmentation of the wantok system produces weak institutions that have failed to drive development. But is this the case for lack of development at the rural areas? Is Solomon Islands’ fault lines really ethnic diversity and fragmented informal social networks? Just recently, we close the Melanesian Arts Festival where we showcase our cultural heritage with other neighbouring island nations. Solomon Islander even recognises the importance of their culture and traditional land tenure system within the national constitution. So if the wantok system and culture are important elements to development in the Solomon Islands. What is it? What is the wantok system?

Informal social networks have been around for generations in both developed and developing countries. Although different societies use and apply them in various context and setting, many have used them to cope with hardship or elevate themselves from poverty. In more developed countries informal social networks are often organised and practised in more formal arrangements such as social clubs doing community services, neighbourhood watch groups and sports or building networks in business and commerce. In the developing world where government organised social protection mechanism are weak, informal social networks are important social safety net that assists people to access needed resources, jobs, educational placements, favours or just basic essentials household needs to survive. Informal social networks are formed and organised around family, kinship, church groups, sport clubs, neigbourhoods or just work colleagues. In Latin America, such informal social network is popularly known as ‘Parenteso’ that allows families to seek assistance via the extended family or kinship. Similar informal network is called ‘Jeito’ in Brazil, ‘Blat/Sviazi’ in Russia and ‘Yougo’ in South Korea. In the Pacific region, particularly in Melanesia, especially in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, such informal social network is called the ‘wantok’ (one- talk).

The term ‘wantok’ is a Solomon Islands pidgin term that refers loosely to people who are united through kinship or share the same language, although people use and understand it differently. The term Wan-tok comes from the English word ‘one-talk’ which literally means speaking the same language or belonging to the same kinship group. The wantok system however, refers generally to the widespread practice of helping and favouring one’s wantok. Such informal social networks are also found practised in other Pacific Island countries. In the Fiji Island, it is called the ‘Kerekere system’ ‘Karekare’in Kiribati and ‘Fa’asamoa’ in Samoa. In Vanuatu it is called the ‘Penama’ System, to which describes a tendency of Penama people favouring their own people over other in assisting and helping those in need.

In a more rural setting, a Santa Isabel chief (Jason Leguhavi) once said “The wantok system is a system that involves people who are related (clan and kin-members) working together in assisting and looking after each other in their livelihood. However, the system also includes those individuals who are married to us (sons and daughter of our brothers) and those relatives who are members of the village. In Santa Isabel, those who are born from our brothers are considered not of the tribe (only have secondary rights to land), because their mother is of another tribal group. The wantok system also caters for the welfare of these groups of people in the tribal land. In Uta language this system is call ‘glegu gu’, in Bugotu language it is call ‘tamagha’. ‘Glegu gu or Tamagha’ are terms used to refer to our sons and daughters (nephew and nieces) who are born from our brothers. These individuals we cannot say no or turn our backs on them whenever they need assistance or help.”

Although the system is known in many different languages throughout the Pacific, the term ‘wantok’ describes a cultural way of life based on relationship building (sharing and caring) and reciprocity network that urban and rural households and communities use to cope with stress and shock that affect their livelihoods. Sometimes it can be viewed as a social network that promotes kinship and group identity, where individuals from the same tradition language come to collaborate. However, Melanesians employ the wantok system to influence politics, power (who get what) and control (resource sharing and equality) in their society. At the village level, the wantok system is widely practiced as a social system to maintain social order (family ties and respect), governance (land rights), resource sharing (wealth and redistribution), and to cope with daily stresses of life.

From a theological view point, Maladede a theologian from Papua New Guinea described the ‘wantok system’ as a culture that possesses certain characteristics and roots which she describe as tangible’, has ‘structure’ and ‘intangible’. She argues that in Papua New Guinean culture for instance, the circle of intangible are ‘beliefs’, ‘natural theology’, ‘world view’ and ‘philosophy of life’, which cannot be changed. Structure includes the ‘community’, ‘relationships to the living and the dead’, ‘environment’, ‘exchange and marriage’. The tangibles which can be altered or change are; customs, ‘rituals’, ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘mannerism’, ‘social habits’, ‘fashion’ and the ‘arts forms’.

In any Melanesian society the ‘wantok system’ consist these three characters, however, it is the intangible factors that shape and drives the philosophy of the ‘wantok system’. Although, the structures and intangible factor may or can change, the ‘wantok system’ as a belief and philosophy is embedded and ingrained in the society’s political and economic systems. Therefore it is natural for any Melanesian man to always serve his families and relatives first. In other words, family and relatives are important assets and must be assisted in any circumstances. However, Mohanty an associate professor from the University of the South Pacific has observed that the wantok system is gradually fading due to modernisation factors but is still relevant and widely practiced by the socially and economically vulnerable. So what do we need to do about it?

Derek Mane

Derek Mane Smiles has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of the South Pacific, Fiji Islands, MA (Political Science) from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (USA), and BA (Hon) from the University of Papua New Guinea (International Relations and Public Policy).

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