Citizens of the world
By order of Napoleon III, France took possession of New Caledonia on 24 September 1853. Treated as a day of grief by the local Melanesian population for many years, the day has more recently been transformed into a national holiday, “Citizenship Day”. This day is meant to include all New Caledonian citizens, including the Melanesians (or Kanaks), the Caldoches (or Europeans) and the Metros (those from metropolitan France).
This year’s festivities have been bereft of pre-event stress and tension.
In Bourail, just days before the event, Citizenship Day was cancelled after 6 months of planning. 8 million francs (67,000 EUR) had been budgeted for the host of conferences, debates, dances, sporting events and tastings lined up with participation from all over the island. It was cancelled due to a request from the local Kanak population to raise the Kanak flag over the town hall for Citizenship Day. Debate has been bubbling on this issue – some feel that the Kanaky flag does not represent all of New Caledonia, but a part. As the name and flag of the country is a controversial issue at the moment, the mayor felt it best to cancel the event and to discuss these issues calmly and outside the context of Citizenship Day.
Meanwhile in Nouméa, again just days before the event, the town hall informed the organisers of a project called “Tribe in the City” that their project had been rejected. The 150 Years Committee had planned to build 9 huts in the city centre, next to an important Kanak monument, Mwa Ka; to bring the tribes to the city, if you will. Though the project had been previously accepted, the town hall reversed their decision just 1 week before the huts were to be ready, on grounds of security and urbanism regulations.
“The hut, that’s at the (heart of) the Kanak Constitution. To tell us there will be no huts, is to tell us they don’t want Kanaks in the city.”
You can imagine the tension in the air that day. After a few more days of negotiations, it was decided last Friday that the project could go ahead, under certain conditions (that the huts would come down at the end of September rather than remain permanent fixtures; that security and urbanism rules would be respected; that no alcohol would be sold on the premises, etc.).
As it turns out, the huts are just down the hill from us. We were able to watch their day-to-day progress as they went from piles of logs to skeletal structures to habitable huts in just a few days. Melanesians worked through the night, starting on Friday afternoon.
On the left, you’ll see their progress on Sunday.
By this afternoon (Monday), we counted 8 of the 9 huts more or less ready (8 representing the 8 aires coutumieres and 1 representing the communal house). Though they were delayed by the town hall decision (and many said they wouldn’t be ready), they were!
The final touches were going up on the roofs of a few and the walls were going up on another, as we visited this afternoon. Women worked on weaving the palms and men built the rooftops. Workers were surrounded by Melanesians singing and cheering them on. Children running in and out of legs, adults seeking food from the many booths, it was a welcoming, warm and festive air.
To get a feeling for the tribes in the city today, watch this short video:
We asked ourselves where the other Europeans were, why they weren’t here, participating in this rare cultural exchange. Pablo, our 6-year-old also asked about the Kanaky flag, which was flying from almost all of the huts. Wasn’t that the issue in Bourail, he asked. We later read that the mayor was to raise the French flag in the square with the huts as well. I suppose a compromise had been reached, and both flags flew.
As we visited Mwa Ka, the Kanak monument pictured at the top of this post, we stopped and spoke with one of the Melanesians and her 9-year-old son. She explained some of the imagery in the totems and remarked that the Europeans never came to experience their culture – only the foreigners did. She said her son was hoping his school friends would come by, but his friends are European, and they hadn’t come, she explained. I could tell that he wanted to play with his friends (though there were many other children there) and though proud of his culture, was disappointed. I realised today, again, looking into his eyes, that it starts young, the “invisible barriers“. So many divisions in schools, both primary and university; so many divisions in the streets, in homes, in lives.
And yet, we are citizens of the world, mixed and mixing, moving across continents and cultures. She asked our nationalities. When she learned that my husband was French and that I was American, she smiled and said New Caledonia was the meeting place, the middle ground, where our New Caledonian son had been born. Yes, I nodded my head. We are citizens, all, of this place, and the point, she said, was to “vivre ensemble” (live together).
If you look carefully at the visual history painted on the pirogue/boat at Mwa Ka, you’ll find at the end of the Kanak history, “vivre ensemble”. It seemed to me, today, spending just a little bit of time with the Kanaks (kanaka means “human being” in Hawaiian), that they are much, much wiser than they are being given credit for.