Tribal ways in New Caledonia

Photo JH

Photo JH

The day was a rainy one, the rainiest we’d experienced since our arrival 9 months before. Spirits were dampened and the walk was wet. We’d end up spending 7 hours in the tribe that day, at Oua Tom. And hours, days, weeks, months digesting what we had learned.

I looked at my husband at one point and said, “The title of the blog has to be ‘I hope you never do anything I don’t like. If you do, I’ll have to kill you.’

But the draft title is too long and says too little about the content of this post, so I couldn’t use it. But keep that quote in your mind, for it is indeed a direct quote. Our guide’s father had said it to him, in all seriousness, when he was a young boy.

About 75 minutes outside Nouméa, up near La Foa, we visited the Oua Tom tribe last weekend.

We were in a relatively large group and were able to choose from a few activities within the tribal grounds that day. Some dared an “easy” walk with a guide, up a mountain, that was to last 3 hours. It lasted 4 hours, was rather dangerous, and was not a marked path (imagine your guide clearing the way with a machete up a wet mountain in the driving rain, dealing with mud slides: you get the picture). Others stayed behind to learn basket weaving and take a tour of the huts (“cases”) and tribal lands. We opted for the second set of activities, which was followed by a traditional lunch of “bougna“.

Our first lesson came when our group commenced “la coutume”. La coutume is an introduction and the offering of a small gift, as an act of respect. It is also the time when you should express gratitude and ask permission to see or visit the tribal lands. Protocol is such that you should not hand your gift to the chief or tribe member, when carrying out la coutume. You should place the gift on the ground in front of the person. This then allows the person to accept your gift or not. If you hand it to him or her, you are obliging him/her to accept it, which is very badly viewed and will most likely get you off on the wrong foot.

Our second lesson came as we were walking through the tribal lands with our guide. He explained that at a very young age (around 5 or 6), the tribe teaches their children that white people are the enemy, that they are bad, that they are evil. They explain that it is the white man who stole their land, killed their men and took their women. As the guide pointed to our son, a blonde child, he explained that little boys like this are despised, from an early age. And that their sons, our son’s age, were the ones doing the despising.

At this point I had to ask myself why our guide was telling us this, and with what seemed like pride. Was it to inform us, somehow, of the way things are? Was it to somehow warn us? Why were we welcome here on this visit? Or were we?

Photo JH

Photo JH

Our third lesson was in tribal law, as it existed before French law came into place. You see the tree branch planted in the ground above? You’ll find one in front of most tribal huts. This is where “justice” is done. Thieves, rapists, murderers used to be tied here. In the case of rapists and thieves, they would be beaten with whips of fire by a wide circle of tribal members. Thieves also had their hands chopped off. Murderers, their heads. Today, they no longer carry out these punishments (because French law forbids this).

But our guide explained that the elders have lost control of the youth, that the youth no longer respect elder/tribe or chief authority. He explained that they have learned that if they go to the police, they can say they were crazy or disturbed when they committed the given crime. Then they’ll be sent to prison, and will be housed and fed, and that’s much easier than what would happen to them in the tribe (note the Nouméa gunman earlier this week wanted to go to prison to escape the pressure of his family to find a stable job).

He despaired of what is happening, that with the loss of control, things have gotten far more dangerous in New Caledonia. He explained that at night, the police no longer circulate outside Nouméa. When the sun sets, the police close up shop. He said that if you run out of gas on the roads, you can call the police, but they won’t come get you. They’ll tell you to get in your car, lock it, roll up the windows and not get out (and not let anyone in). They’ll come get you in the morning.

Keep in mind that this was a Melanesian, an Oua Tom tribal member (whose brother is the chief) telling us this. He said that when the police want to enter tribal lands, they call ahead, from the entrance, but they will not come at night. At times, the tribe will allow the police to enter the lands, but will not give up a guilty party. They are invited to “try and find him”.

He also explained that sometimes it’s not hard to find someone – you just have to know the ways of the tribe. He demonstrated the messages they leave for each other on leaves. They scratch a place and time onto a leaf for others to find. All you have to do is look at the leaves …

Photo JH

Photo JH

Our fourth lesson was about their tribal meetings. These meetings last from 12 to 16 hours, without food or drink. The chief and the elders discuss problems in or across tribes and talk until they come to a solution. You are not allowed to have a voice (thus, attend the meetings and speak) if:

  • You are a woman.
  • You are drunk.
  • You are stoned.
  • You are not married.
  • You are unfaithful.

He assured us, however, that sometimes, some of them drink. And that then the meetings went on for an eternity, the minute an inebriated elder got the floor.

The way out of a meeting is to fight first, he explained. In their culture, he explained, one should always fight before one discusses. I suppose to shorten the meeting time? (As a Western woman, I have to admit, this felt a bit odd – why not just shorten the meetings? Agree to a few options to try for a week’s time and reconvene for a 45-minute walking meeting a week later? But clearly, I must be missing the point. Fighting is more fun?)

Fighting happens, as it turns out, not between chiefs (who do the talking), but other members of the tribe, usually the ones who own or occupy the land (rather than govern it). And when the meetings happen, the chief sits not in a place at the head, but among the other members. This is to prevent an assassin from knowing which one is the chief should he enter the hut during a meeting with the intent to kill.

And back to the quote we started this all off with. ‘I hope you never do anything I don’t like. If you do, I’ll have to kill you.’ Such were the words that our guide’s father spoke to him when he was young, one son among ten. Such was the law the tribe practiced and such was the warning a father issued his son, as the young man grew into manhood.

All very encouraging, no?

It is entirely possible that what we learned that day is erroneous or mistaken. I did ask questions and tried to clarify things as so much of this was surprising, and I discussed what we learned with other people there that day – to try to validate that I had heard correctly.

One clearly came away thinking that the tribe wishes it could return to its old ways, that it could punish and control its youth, that it could resolve things like it used to. They blame us for what we’ve done, taken their land, stolen their livelihood, spoiled their young, tempted their young into crime and utter disrespect. I wish they didn’t look upon us all as if we were evil, the ones to blame. For many of us are not, many of us share their concerns and sense of unfair treatment.

How in the world are we going to work towards a common destiny, as they say, if the young are told that white or black or brown or yellow, man, woman or child are to blame for what has happened? The gunman this week knew that if he “injured a white”, he’d be sent to prison, and thus set out to hurt someone based on skin colour.  Surely this cannot be the way up and out for the future of our youth, for the future of New Caledonia.

Photo JH

Photo JH


4 thoughts on “Tribal ways in New Caledonia

  1. hi, first of all, i don’t make any claims to be an expert, but i have lived here for several years and have had contact with people from all walks of life, in the Kanak and in the non-Kanak communities of New Caledonia. It is so very sad to read yet another example of ignorance – taking one person’s point of view (in this case, the guide’s), generalising it across an entire population, without checking your facts, without considering that perhaps the guide was playing with your expectations/prejudices, it’s just so depressing to see people like you reinforcing existing (and often convenient) stereotypes. Please take the time to get to know people properly before you condemn them as you have in this blog. Have you never come across someone in your own culture who says things to shock people, for whatever reason? Imagine if outsiders chose to believe that person’s point of view about your community as the truth, then spread it around the world…

    • Dear Emmeelu – Thank you for your reply. I cannot agree with you more, and I appreciate your writing in. If you have read a lot of this blog and my other posts on the Melanesian culture (including about the huts that were destroyed in the middle of the night in central Nouméa), you’ll know that I am a great defender of the Melanesian culture. I am by no means an expert, and recount only what I am experiencing on the island. I was very shocked by what the guide said and it took me a long time to be able to express it. I did not write the post to judge or cast down on the Melanesians – far from it. But I wrote it as my first experience with Melanesian prejudice. I do not believe that this is the true picture of Melanesian culture, but perhaps a part of it, for one guide (as you rightly point out). Please do read my other posts on Melanesians (in this blog and on my other blog, Sojourn in the South Pacific), and you will see that this is the only post of its kind. It is unfortunate that it is read out of context. Thank you again, for opening this up, and allowing me to clarify. My apologies to you for any offense – it is far from intended! Kind regards – Julie

  2. Pingback: Best northern New Caledonia experience ever with Brousse O’thentik | New Caledonia Today

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