Youth in New Caledonia search for identity in rapidly changing times

Members of USTKE, a union representing the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia. Photo: Marc Le Chelard/AFP/Getty

Members of USTKE, a union representing the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia. Photo: Marc Le Chelard/AFP/Getty

This photo and article below have been reproduced verbatim from The Guardian, 15 February. I don’t normally reproduce articles on this blog, but I was so taken by the fact that the international press is picking up on the social challenges New Caledonia’s indigenous population (the Kanaks) are facing.

The article presents a fair picture of what is happening here. I couldn’t agree more, while talking to the locals, both in Nouméa and at Ile des Pins and Lifou, that their challenge is about a loss of purpose. I spent some time speaking with a youth in Ile des Pins who despaired that “there is nothing to do, so we do things we shouldn’t do.”  Colonisation has left its mark here, as has Western modernisation, stripping the land not just of its minerals (nickel), but its people of its raison d’etre.

While the state spends a year and CFP 370 million [€3.1 million/$4.1 million] on re-sanding a beach (and tourist attraction, Baie des Citrons), our roads worsen, our indigenous youth quit school, hang out and get into trouble, theft rises (you have 1 in 130th of a chance of being broken into in Nouméa, a rise of 22.5% in 2012) and young women are the victims of rape and beatings in Nouméa proper.

I wonder where this country’s vision is and where it is going, as we creep towards an independence vote and a shortage of skilled and motivated individuals and groups.


Youth in New Caledonia search for identity in rapidly changing times

Indigenous population of France’s South Pacific archipelago caught between European individualism and collective tradition


Stanley Jemes would like to go back to his native island of Maré and plant sandalwood and yams, far away from the city “where everything comes at a price”. “On Maré we all live together, here at Tindu, it’s every man for himself,” says the 24-year-old Kanak (a native of New Caledonia). The archipelago in the South Pacific remains part of France.

Jemes has a six-month contract as a neighbourhood educator, earning 85% of the minimum wage. He counsels other young people from Tindu, a poor district in the north of Nouméa, the capital.

“Even in primary school there are kids who just hang out all day. I tell them I’m sorry I didn’t finish school, that there’s no point drinking and smoking dope. But often they don’t listen,” Jemes says. He has a four-year-old son and another child on the way. He applied for a council flat five years ago, but still does not earn enough, so he occupies a studio flat with his partner, son, his parents and a brother.

Jemes is worried about “all these Kanak kids running wild” on the housing estates round Tindu. In his tribe, the elders would speak to the young ones; they knew when to assert their authority.

In New Caledonia, where half the population is under 30, discontent among young people is a continuous problem.

The archipelago was colonised by the French in 1853. A period of serious unrest between Kanak separatists and the Caldoche (European) settlers was ended by the Matignon agreement signed in 1988, followed by the Nouméa agreement in 1998.

The French government hopes to take the islands to independence. With technical and financial help from Paris, local authorities are taking over areas of government, and a referendum on self-determination is planned before 2018.

In the meantime, the challenge is to give substance to the notion of a common destiny for New Caledonia’s young.

“They’re not suffering from the loss of culture, more a loss of meaning, which is far worse,” says anthropologist Patrice Godin. “Young Kanaks are not torn between tradition and modernity, they have to invent a whole new scheme of things. In Japan, for instance, society is very traditional and extremely modern.”

Bruno Calandreau, a psychiatrist at a youth treatment and drop-in centre, sees people who are “ashamed of who they are, worried about who they may become”.

“New Caledonia itself is an adolescent country, in search of an identity, gradually breaking loose from the motherland. It is changing very quickly, without really knowing where it’s going, its political future not being settled. This climate feeds young people’s anxiety,” Calandreau says.

Several forces are pushing the Kanaks into the modern world: urbanisation, with more than two-thirds of the population living in or around Nouméa; the booming nickel industry and the multinational firms it has attracted; and the internet and television.

Elie Pougoune was the fourth Kanak to pass the baccalaureate in 1964. He now heads a branch of the Human Rights League. For years he has been trying to draw attention to young people’s problems. “People just don’t realise what a terrible shock colonisation was. European ideas steamrollered our values, beliefs and paganism.”

Pougoune highlights the cultural duality people face: “Kanak society is based on the group, collective living and exchange. At school and in the European way of life, it’s the individual that counts. But our organisation leaves no room for youngsters to develop their individuality. They don’t know which world they belong to.”

In 2009, only 12% of Kanak secondary school students passed the baccalaureate compared with 54% of students of European origin. Although primary and secondary education is now the responsibility of local authorities, political in-fighting has held up work on a new education framework.

Richard Waminya, an educationist, points out: “Kanak students are still trapped in a scheme that does not suit them, because their thought processes are not linear but circular, taking the form of networks, relations between the individual and the object”.

On the island of Lifou he is achieving “spectacular results, thanks to an approach that maintains the link between home and school”. Waminya hopes parents “will once again take their role as transmitters of knowledge seriously” and stop seeing school as a white preserve.

With substantial investment, along with affirmative action, progress has been made – but more needs to be done to redress disparities between Kanaks and the rest of the population.

The last 20 years has seen a sevenfold increase in the number of Kanaks in managerial positions, but they still only represent a tiny percentage of the community’s active population. Kanak doctors, judges, architects and dentists are still few and far between.

• This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde.


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