Best northern New Caledonia experience ever with Brousse O’thentik

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Looking for a bit of the “back of beyond”, marooned on a desert island, with only a knife, matches and a little salt and pepper to get you by? Have we got the adventure for you!

A few weeks ago, we ventured back up to Poindimié for a long weekend. It’d been a while since we’d been up north, and we missed it – the crashing waves at night (and the niggling feeling, “Will we be swallowed up whole in our slumber?”), the fresh air, the friendly people, the break from everyday life. With the aim of doing some geocaching and discovering the Poindimié area a little more, off we flew on our next island adventure.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Casting about for something to do on our first full-day visit, our hotel (Hotel Tieti) advised against visiting the waterfalls (nearly all dried up due to a drought), but suggested a walking adventure or a tribal visit. We opted for a bit of both with Alain, of Brousse O’thentik. Though we had visited the Oua Tom tribe 18 months before, this visit was as instructive, if not more so. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the chief (and faire la coutume – offer our gifts, show respect and ask for permission to visit his lands), but Alain spent all morning with us explaining many of the Melanesian traditions and customs (and showed us the lands anyway (leaving the gifts with the chief the next day), ending with a lesson on making bougna and properly throwing a fishing net).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

In the north, the tribes live very simply. Ernest (the chief), had for example, only just purchased a kitchen stove (as you can see in the photo). Retired, he and his family had lived for years with an outdoor fire to cook their food. No electricity, no warm water, no running toilet, no washing machine (and he is considered prosperous, as he is a chief and owns quite a bit of land, which he cultivates with bananas, root vegetables, coconuts, etc.), a visit puts our lives into perspective. No books, no toys, one mattress, one hut where the four family members sleep, a hose for a shower, no refrigerator, no car, but organic food (he uses natural, rather than chemical, pesticides), access to fresh fish and a strong community.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We were very impressed to learn more of Kanak law during our visit. The Kanaks have their rules and punishments in addition to the French law, and to my mind, they are much stricter. Alain gave us an example. Recently some youth stole the pastor’s 2 pigs. According to Kanak tradition, the pastor is a highly respected member of the community. Any harm to him or his property is gravely punished – the only more highly respected member of the community is the chief. Just after the 2 pigs were stolen, the 200 members of the tribe were summoned by the chief: he pressed them to identify the guilty parties (or to come forward). Eventually, 2 young men came forward. They were publicly beaten within an inch of their lives.  Alain tells us they were right to come forward early, for it they had not, if they had ever been found out, they would have been banished from the tribe. To regain their place in the tribe, they would have had to replace the pigs, repay the pastor via work or other ways, request forgiveness of the pastor and the chief and the community, and make an offering to each member of the tribe. Alain explained that rather than face banishment, youth (and adults) go away to work to be able to repay their debts and rejoin the tribe – as being ostracized results in much harder lives (homeless, without work, no support, hungry, etc.).

Having learned so much with Alain, we decided to spend another day with him the next day. Brousse O’thentik provides cultural visits in the north in an “a la carte” fashion. If you want to go biking and learn how to fish for shrimp, Alain will take you. If you want to go hiking up the mountains for an incredible view of the lagoon, he’ll take you (and you’ll learn about all the plants on the way). Is canoe-ing and net fishing your deal? He’ll take you. How about doing stand-up on wooden rafts or discovering the waterfalls or discovering the countryside on a horse? Alain and his brother offer all of these visits at reasonable prices – and he is not only professional, but funny, personable and a fountain of knowledge. Does he do these visits in English? He assures me he’s been working on his English. If you speak a bit of French (even if only a little), my guess is you’ll be able to communicate and you will learn a lot from him (he has a pedagogical, hand-on approach, which accompanied by gestures, will make sudden sense in context – throwing a fishing net, climbing, doing stand-up, cleaning fish, etc.).

So what’s this adventure I’m talking about?

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Well, before the adventure (and the one I have for you), I am somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t know how to:

1. Fish with a net

2. Make a meal on a desert island.

Many of you may be experts in the field, but fishing and cooking with nothing are not among my skills – well until now. We had a survival course of sorts during our one-day outing with Alain to Ilot Tibarama the next day.

We met Alain at the dock at 7:45am with protective shoes, bathing suits, sun protection, snorkeling equipment and plenty of water. He provided all the rest (breakfast, lunch supplies, a few wooden bowls, chopsticks, a net, more snorkeling equipment, table, coffee, water, lemonade, matches, salt and pepper, a knife or two) and off we went to a sliver of an island (I like to think of it as “Gilligan’s Island”), 5-10 minutes away by boat.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

When we landed, we off-loaded the boat and said goodbye until 4pm that afternoon. Things stored away, off we went around the island in search of fish (which Alain taught us to look for, not on land or in water, but from the tops of trees). Parrot fish dine on coral and when eating in shallow waters, their beaks dip down and their blue tails stick out of the water – this is what we were looking for. We were also looking for schools of sardines. Unlucky at 8am, we collected coconuts and wood for later.

Back at “camp”, Alain taught us to clean some fish he had brought, in case we were unable to catch any ourselves (we did later that day, but after lunch). They had been caught 2 days before on another outing. Cleaned fish, we chopped it up for Tahitian salad, which is a raw fish salad. Table installed in the water on the beach, we chopped and seeded cucumber, chopped a carrot, sliced half of an onion, squeezed a lemon, and checked and double-checked the fish for bones.

 

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Then, we learned how to make coconut milk. Alain cracked open the big coconut exterior (this is bigger than the coconut you are imagining – it is its exterior). You want the brown coconuts for this, not the green ones – and you’ll need to make sure that when you shake them, you can hear liquid sloshing about. Once he had the coconuts out, he cracked them in two with a machete – best to do with a very sharp knife or a hammer at home. This is the hardest part done. Then, we grated the coconut flesh into a bowl. Finally, we put the flesh into a tea towel and squeezed it over another bowl – out came the most delicious coconut milk you have ever tasted in your life! Who knew?

Having “cooked” the fish in lemon juice, we now added the carrots, onion and cucumber, and added the coconut milk last of all. Et voila! Tahitian salad!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We then set to grilling fish on the fire in papillottes (wrapped in aluminum), made with the wood and fronds we had gathered, and shortly, everything was ready. Tahitian salad, freshly grilled fish, another salad prepared by Alain, lemonade, water, and my, it was the most delicious meal made fresh we’d ever had.

The afternoon saw more fishing adventures, and this time, we learned how to catch parrot fish with a net. Having spotted schools of parrot fish, Alain went gingerly out into the water and placed a huge net around an area. When he gave the signal, my husband was to make a lot of noise splashing his hands in the water and shouting, to drive the fish into the nets. My son was to throw rocks to scare the fish into the direction of the nets, and I, wearing white, was to run up and down the beach waving my arms (apparently white – moving quickly – can be picked up by the fish and scares them as well). What a sight it was! A communal effort, and after several tries, we caught 4 fish and threw a 5th one back. We replenished the stocks and would feed another family.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

With time at the end, after coffee, for some snorkeling in pristine waters, the day was one of our best yet. Our little Robinson Crusoe experience had taught us some new skills, brought us together as a family, and made us a new friend. We learned even more about Kanak traditions and customs and walked away the wiser in body, mind and spirit!

If this sounds like something you’d like to do – an all-day outing on a desert island, learning about life in New Caledonia and gaining some survival skills – or if any of the other activities mentioned above strike your fancy, do contact Alain at Brousse O’thentik (email: brousseothentik@hotmail.fr | mobile: 97 59 69). Tell him I sent you!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

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Family life and gender roles in New Caledonia

Photo JH

Photo JH

With regard to my last post on etiquette, I’ve been asked about family life and gender roles in New Caledonia.

From what I have been able to observe and understand here on the ground in New Caledonia is that given the two different majority cultures (European and Melanesian), there are very different approaches to family life and gender roles.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Among the French/European populations, family life is as you’d find in the United States, Australia and other English-speaking countries. The family unit has moved over time from an extended-family model to a nuclear model. It is exacerbated in New Caledonia for the Metropolitans (or people who have come from France on short-term postings), who are obliged to leave extended family behind in France. They sometimes also leave their older sons and daughters behind to  complete their university studies or to work  (which is our case) and remain in contact via technology (email, phone, Skype  texts). This means that families are cut off from direct support and assistance from their extended family and are unable to provide in-person support to their sons and daughters. The Caledonians, on the other hand, have closer contact with extended family as extended family are in most cases, still on the island.

With regard to gender roles among the European and French populations, again we find similarities with other countries. Though inequality remains between the sexes and females earn less than males in the workplace, we are seeing slightly more equality in the home. This being said, many Metropolitan spouses are unable to find work in New Caledonia due to rules around the hiring of locals (to ensure that locals are employed and are not out of work due to the influx of Metropolitans). This can translate into a higher percentage of stay-at-home spouses in New Caledonia. We’ve heard cases of loss of identity and depression among those spouses who are unable to work or find another role for themselves while here. This is particularly hard on those who have had careers before arriving in New Caledonia.

The island does tend to function from a 1950s mindset, requiring that the male of the home set up bank accounts, post office boxes, phone and electricity accounts. Wives must provide written permission from their husbands (and a copy of their IDs) to do so in their stead (which I must admit still baffles and frustrates me – as an independent Western female). I remember that I was told by an insurance company here in 2005 to be a good little wife and go home and discuss the matter with my husband, and that then he could come back and sign the papers. I could not believe my ears! Really? Are women considered that inferior? I’d never come up against such blatant sexism. Back in 2013, I find that sexism is still here – but no one has yet told me to be a good little wife and go home.

Photo JH

Photo JH

With regard to the Kanak approach to family life and gender roles, the clan, not the individual is the important element in traditional Kanak society. Life is based on communal principles achieved through village living, a system sometimes labelled by Westerners as “tribal socialism”. Generally, no one is or should be better or worse off than someone else, as equality is a cardinal rule. Village life ensures that nobody goes hungry or is uncared for – everyone contributes in some aspect, whether it is fishing, gathering food, tending fields, sculpting wood or repairing huts. In return, everyone reaps the rewards. The ancient Kanak code of la coutume keeps this system alive and it provides a common bond and understanding between all Kanaks.

Kanak women have a special status in the family. A woman generally becomes a member of her husband’s family after marriage, and children are named after the father. However, when a child is born, it is permanently linked to its mother’s clan through the mother’s brother, known as the “maternal” or “uterine” uncle; Kanya in one Melanesian tongue. The Kanya takes on a role in the child’s life that is more important than that of the father, because he is the child’s guardian and lifetime mentor.

We have been told that once a child is born, he/she belongs to the clan. The clan raises the child. Parental ownership is a foreign, Western concept, as is the concept of a nuclear family. “It takes a village to raise a child” is common practice among Kanaks.

Women in modern Kanak society face the contemporary problems of women in many countries. Because of the long-reaching influence of religion, contraception is something that is not often discussed. Alcohol abuse has lead to domestic violence and rape.

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Source for much of the content on the Kanak approach to family life and gender roles:  Logan, Leanne and Geert Cole (2001), New Caledonia, Lonely Planet Publications.

Etiquette: dos and don’ts in New Caledonia

Photo JH

Photo JH

For those who have never visited New Caledonia or a French-speaking country, there are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when interacting with the local population in New Caledonia.

Photo JH

Photo JH

First of all, New Caledonia is a French territory and the official language is French (though 28 distinct Kanak languages are spoken here, in addition to Indonesian, Vietnamese, Tahitian, Wallisian, and Chinese).

Relatively little English is spoken in Nouméa and even less is spoken outside the capital and on the Loyalty Islands, where the percentage of the Melanesian population is much higher (the Kanaks constitute 94% of the population in the Loyalty Islands, 74% in the North Province and 27% in the South Province). By way of example, far more English is spoken in Paris than in Nouméa. The great thing here, though, is that people are very warm and patient, so mistakes are just seen as steps towards connecting. A list of helpful French phrases to know when you arrive are included at the end of this post as a starting point.

Second, the population is composed as following:

In 2009, 40.3% of the population reported belonging to the Kanak [or Melanesian] community29.2% to the European community and 8.7% to the community originating from Wallis and Futuna. The remaining identified communities represented 7.3% of the population, and included Tahitians (2.0%), Indonesians (1.6%), Vietnamese(1.0%), Ni-Vanuatu (0.9%) other Asian (0.8%) and other (1.0%). 8.3% belonged to multiple communities, 5% declared their community as “Caledonian”, 1.2% did not respond.[53]

So when one discusses etiquette, it is important to keep in mind that we have several different cultural groups (in addition to upwards of 30 languages) – which require similar, and yet, different sensitivities. When in doubt, it is best to smile, speak quietly and show respect (in terms of physical space, how you gesture and in the way you dress). But let’s dig deeper into some of those tips and tricks.

Meeting and greeting

When meeting both Europeans and Kanaks (or Melanesians), you can make eye contact and extend your hand in a handshake. Melanesians may not return your gaze, and may shake your hand gently, and both of these gestures are out of politeness.

Note that Melanesians will say hello to you on the street and on the roads, either verbally or by waving. Again, this is considered polite, and it is respectful of you to return their greeting.

The French, among family and friends, usually greet each other by kissing each other on both cheeks. They also do so upon saying goodbye. One does not however “fait les bises” in work situations (unless the colleagues know each other very well).

When greeting both Europeans and Melanesians face to face, maintain a respectful distance (the distance of a handshake). Do not attempt to hug a European or Kanak, unless you are very, very close – and even then, bear in mind that this may make them uncomfortable.

It is best to avoid touch for emphasis or to establish trust. Melanesians consider hair sacred, so it is best to ask before you touch someone’s hair.

La Coutume

Photo JH

Photo JH

You may have heard of “la coutume”, which is an introduction and the offering of a small gift when you enter tribal lands in New Caledonia.

When Kanaks enter the home of a chief, they will offer a small token as a sign of respect and to introduce themselves. Food, a few metres of textiles (cloth, easily found in Chinatown in Nouméa), money or a packet of cigarettes are the traditional and contemporary offerings, and if you’re given the rare privilege of being invited to a tribal home, you should respect la coutume by bringing a gift. When you want to camp on a clan’s ground or visit a site, it’s wise and courteous to introduce yourself to the chief, if possible, or at least to someone in the clan.

Proper names for major ethnicities

There has been much debate over whether or not to use the word “Kanak” when referring to the native people of New Caledonia.  Some have said:

  • My friend prefers me to use the word Melanesian or Indigene rather than Kanak.
  • I only use the word Kanak when referring to an object such as a piece of art.  I never call a person a Kanak.
  • Kanak is totally acceptable.  I have been using Kanak with my Melanesian friends for more than 20 years.  

I use Kanak and Melanesian interchangeably in both written and verbal communications, as a form of respect (Melanesian) and compassion (Kanak) for the culture. The few Melanesian friends and people I have met refer to themselves as Kanaks and prefer that I also do so. I see both terms regularly in the press, though Kanak seems to be the preferred term.

With regard to the Europeans on the island, it is recommended to use the word “Caledonian” instead of “Caldoche.”   The Lonely Planet Guide says  “the word Caldoche was initially used as an insult and there are still some people not fond of the term.”

Those recently arrived from France on short-term postings of 2-3 years are called “Metropolitans” or “Metros”.

Showing respect for elders and females

Photo JH

Photo JH

Respect is demonstrated in different ways in various cultures.  Dressing modestly and waiting to be invited into a conversation are some of the ways South Pacific cultures show respect.

Kanaks show respect in personal interactions. Certain relationships involve compulsory familiarity. One respects maternal relatives, one’s elders, and aged persons. Women must respect men by maintaining spatial distance, keeping silent, and using special terms of politeness. Familiarity allows people to stand close together, touch, and talk together. In public places, Kanaks adopt a discreet and subdued attitude, avoiding excessive speaking or gesticulating, which are considered rude. Contact with strangers is marked by gifts and formal speech. Strangers are observed attentively from afar and judged on the basis of their behavior.

Dining etiquette

When invited to dinner for the first time at a private French home, a bouquet of flowers and/or a bottle of wine is usually presented to the hostess.  If you have been invited to a Kanak home, you should also bring a small gift. If you are invited on the fly to join a Melanesian for a cup of tea or coffee, a simple “thank you” is acceptable.

It is best to arrive on time when invited somewhere by both Europeans and Kanaks.

With regard to eating and conversing, French etiquette rules should be followed. These include serving women first, waiting for the hostess/host to take the first bite, using cutlery from the outside in, keeping both hands on the table (in view) and not interrupting others.  If you enjoy your food, do say so, thanking both the host and hostess.

Alcohol consumption should be moderate at most.

As most Caledonians rise early, it is also advisable not to overstay your welcome.

See above for how to greet and say goodbye to your hosts.

Dos and don’ts

Photo JH

Photo JH

It is part of tribal life to greet passers-by, even if you’re inside a vehicle going past pedestrians – you’ll soon find you do a lot of waving (especially outside Nouméa).

The ancient Kanak customary law of offering visitors food persists. Arriving in a village, you may be invited to share a cup of tea or coffee or even an entire meal in the house of someone you met only 10 minutes earlier. Nothing more than a “thank you” is expected in return if you are just passing through. However, if you stay a day or so, out of politeness to their custom you should present your host with some food.

Do not enter villages wearing just swimwear or revealing shorts. Women should make sure their skirts or pants are of a decent length and men shouldn’t be bare-chested. Dressing in revealing clothes is okay around the beach suburbs of Nouméa, but everywhere outside the capital it’s frowned upon and on Isle of Pines, by decree of the chief, such clothes are strictly illegal (except at tourist beaches). Going topless is fine on Nouméan beaches but it’s not accepted outside the capital.

Traditional Kanak cemeteries are the abode of the ancestors and, unless you have permission from tribal elders, you should not enter these places.

Visitors are expected to ask permission of local people before exploring forests, swimming in waterholes or wandering around any tribal areas.

We also learned recently that you are not to photograph the huts in Lifou without permission, as these are sacred. As a general rule, it is best to ask permission before photographing Kanak children and adults.

Building trust

The best ways to build trust with people in New Caledonia, be them Europeans, Melanesians and others are to:

1. Remain respectful at all times.

2. Show humility, as a visitor here.

3. Listen to, and remain open to, what the locals have to share with you.

You will break trust if you:

1. Act disrespectfully.

2. Speak unkindly of the locals (Europeans and Melanesians).

3. Do not follow through on your commitments or do the opposite of what you have said you will do.

A few common phrases that are helpful to know upon arrival

Hello/Good morning Bonjour [bone-JURE] (the “n” in bone is silent and the “j” is pronounced like “s” in “pleasure”)
Good evening Bonsoir [bawn-SWARR]
Goodbye Au revoir [oh ruh-VWARR]
Yes Oui [wee]
No Non [nohn]
Maybe Peut-etre [PEUH-tetrr]
Please S’il vous plait [see voo PLAY]
Thank you Merci [MAIR-see]
You’re welcome Je vous en prie [jeuh VOOZ ohn PREE]
Excuse me Excusez-moi [EX-quoo-zay MWAH]
I’m sorry (Forgive me) Pardon [PAR-dohn]
How are you? Comment allez-vous? [KOM-mohn TAH-lay VOO?]
I’m fine, thanks. Je vais bien, merci. [bee-ehn MAIR-see]
I’m from … Je viens de … [jeuh VI-ehn deuh …]
I understand Je comprends [jeuh cawm-PRAWN]
I don’t understand Je ne comprends pas [jeuh neuh cawm-PRAWN pah]
Do you speak English ? Parlez-vous anglais ? [PAR-lay VOO ahn-GLAY ?]
I’d like … Je voudrais … [jeuh VOO-dray]
Where is … Ou est … [oo way…]
I’m looking for … Je cherche … [jeuh SHERSH …]
Help ! Au secours ! [oh SKOOHR!]

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Sources used for this post:

Gagnon, Jo-Ann (2009), The New Caledonia Newcomer’s Guide.

Logan, Leanne and Geert Cole (2001), New Caledonia, Lonely Planet Publications.

Homosexuality in New Caledonia: One Kanak speaks out

If you’ve been following the news in Europe and the United States lately, you’ll know that same-sex marriage has been hotly debated. Should it be legalized (France’s president Francois Hollande promised voters it would be in the lead-up to his election), allowed, recognized? Several states in the United States said yes during its election rounds earlier this month. Meanwhile, France is having problems making gay marriage happen (having left it up to individual mayors, who are the ones with the authority to preside over weddings in France).

Zoom in on New Caledonia, one of France’s territories. When mayors here learned on 20 November of the French policy that mayors could decide to honour or not honour requests from same-sex partners to wed,  arms flew up and flailed. One mayor declared:

“That’s totally against nature and I can tell you that will never happen here!”

Another said:

“In any case, there aren’t any gays here.”

Yes, we are on a tiny island in the South Pacific, isolated from much of the rest of the world. And yes, we are in the 21st century. I assure you it sometimes feels like we’re living in the Dark Ages, locked forever in time.

Below is a translation of a story that appeared in the local newspaper today (with my thanks to Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes for having run it). It is the testimony of one young man who has dared to speak out, to tell his story. He is a Kanak and he is gay. As you will see, the views of one’s family and tribe are still so very important here, and it appears that homosexuals are not non-existent in New Caledonia, but silent.

Having worked with runaway and homeless youth in California in the early 1980s, his search and suffering brings back many a memory of  youths who had left their families or been ostracized because of their “disease”. The number of hours my colleagues and I worked with these youth to help them come to terms with their sexuality were endless. Reading this man’s testimony reminded me that though we think we have come so far in making this world a safe, accepting and equitable place for people of all color, age, sex, religious belief, intelligence, and sexual preference, we still have a distance to go.

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I am a Kanak, and homosexual

Photo DR

“I wanted to tell the story of my life, this life I lead and that is not really mine.” So starts the testimony of a young Kanak, the son of a tribal chief and homosexual, who has decided to come out, at nearly 30 years old, “to breathe normally and live normally.” It is also the occasion for this man, deeply rooted in his Kanak culture, to shed light on the facts, for all those (including some Melanesian mayors) who think (and have affirmed in our column) that homosexuality does not exist [in New Caledonia]. His testimony in ten points:

Happy childhood

I had a wonderful childhood with caring parents who instilled my brothers and sisters and I with an education worthy of our success. It is in this context that I have always had respect for my family, my mother and especially my father, a highly respected chief of a tribe. I received all the love parents can give their children; I was very deeply loved. At the age of 14, like all young people, I started dating girls. I dreamed of having children, a house, and to live the life of the perfect couple.

Troubled adolescence

But when everyone was celebrating the second millennium, I began to discover another part of myself. I was drawn to boys. I looked at them as if they were girls. I did not understand what was happening, but I thought it was, above all, some sort of phase. I thought everything would return to how it had been before. Without realizing it, my attraction to boys grew.

Denying the obvious

I developed a strategy to deny this attraction and to obstruct it. I stayed home. But the worst thing was that I always found more to say about the beauty of a boy than a girl’s. And with time, the balance finally shifted towards boys. I tried everything to deny it; I disgusted myself; I prayed to God to stop me being this way because I suffered so from it. I ran far away from home, into nature, to isolate myself, to cry, and to scream out my pain, my suffering.

Like a disease

At age 24, I heard about a person who could transform me, change me and erase all my bad thoughts. I accepted the person with all my heart, I was faithful to God. I was told that it was the evil spirit that was in me, that it was he who fed me with bad thoughts. I was happy, but even at church, I always had these thoughts. I ended up leaving the church so as not to soil it even further. I did not feel worthy to be there.

Acceptance

Ultimately, I came to understand that I was born like this, that God is a God of love, and that he should love me as I am. I could not ruin a girl’s life, and pretend to be happy.

Love

One fine day, I met someone that has marked my life up to now. I met a guy with whom I felt good. For once in my life, I felt like myself, I was free. The chains turned into wreathes of roses. I always wanted to see him, we spent sleepless nights talking out in the middle of the square or in front of his house. I could go such distances for him. For once, I was happy in my relationship. The night of my first kiss, I burst into tears, of happiness, but also because I knew the sun would rise and that this dream would dissipate again for twelve hours.

Fear of what people would say

This lasted for months, until one day, although I still loved him, I left. I told him by telephone that it was all over. The only explanation I could give was that I no longer loved him, when in reality I was afraid of what I felt for him. I was afraid of what my parents, my brothers, would think.

The time of regrets

Today, I still think of him; I missed out on so much. I wasted years I would have liked to have spent with him. I have learned that he has found someone else, and I hope he is happy. I made my choice in favor of my identity, respect for my people, my tribe, my brothers and sisters, my mother and my late father.

Incomprehension

If being gay is a disease, please bring me the remedy. I did not want this life. But if this is my destiny, I will follow it. I am proud to be a Kanak, of my culture, my traditions and for nothing in the world would I trade it. I am but a victim of my feelings. I need to be happy and live a normal life like everyone else.

Coming out

I still want to bow, to lower myself, in front of my mother, my little brothers, who have had great respect for me all these years and have given me confidence. Continue in this way, my feelings for you have not changed. I love you even more. To my sisters who wanted to have a sister-in-law, I’m sorry I can not bring you this happiness. To my tribe, to my late father, who would have had the wisdom to understand me, but out of respect for him, and for his office, I tried to live a life of lies.

Yes, I am a Kanak and I am homosexual.

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.).

Huts in the cityAs 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.

Storytelling and discovery at the Centre Culturel Tjibaou

By an unexpected turn of events, we were privy to an old Kanak story this afternoon. The Centre Culturel Tjibaou was free and open to the public as part of the Journées du Patrimoine (or “Heritage Days“) and as it was a cloudy, rainy day, we decided to go along. One of my absolute favourite places in Nouméa, I was keen to share it with my husband and son (who’d last been when just weeks old).

Little did we know various events had been set up for both adults and children at the Centre.

Our first stop was a storytelling session with the lovely Melanesian man pictured left. He loved his story and entreated us several times to listen carefully. It was a story for the young and old alike. The story was about two birds, one who worked hard and one who enjoyed flying above the mountains. It was a cautionary tale about the importance of working hard. At the end, he explained that for the children it is a story about the importance of working hard at school, to get qualified, and go on to university, to aim high and accomplish much. If they didn’t work hard, they would be empty-headed like the bird who did nothing but flew over the mountains. This of course struck me as odd, as my own time is so far away from having to encourage children to go to school and work hard. I also do not think children are tabulas rasas, or that we have to fill their heads with knowledge (rather I think we should be encouraging them to discover all that they already know, but call me crazy).

My husband was verily relieved when I did not disagree with our storyteller.

The other part of the story was for adults – he explained that we too have to work hard, all of our lives. How curious, I thought. My culture is so consumed with reducing stress and overload. And here was a culture pushing us toward it. (But as one spends time here, one begins to understand the whys and wherefores of this Kanak story.)

After the story, we were treated to a guided tour of the permanent collection. This was magnificent! We were not allowed to photograph the pieces (to protect the artists’ copyrights). There was a beautiful exhibition wall that came alive with light, sound and colour (called My Garden) along with stunning totems and sculptures. A sizeable and enchanting collection that I plan to revisit again and again. We were then taken behind the scenes, where we saw the storage areas, the temporary exhibition areas, the transition areas, the exhibition build areas and the receiving area. We had no idea that the centre had such massive and complete exhibition areas underneath it!

 

We then went to visit one of the other stunning parts of the Centre – the Kanak “cases” or living areas. We  loved them – for their beauty, size, simplicity and symbolism. Each case has certain plants at its entry, each pole inside is carved. Each case has a cooking area and mats for the tribe members to sleep on. We are looking forward to visiting the tribes in the north during our stay here to see more of this up close. We have so many questions – and I have so much research to do! If any of you out there are deeply familiar with the Kanak culture or can point me in the direction of more information, I’d love to hear from you!

And thus ended our visit, but we plan on going back this week or next to learn more about the Kanak traditions and customs. Do stay tuned …