Sunday, 27 May 2012


 I was laughing out loud at the Queensland Gallery Of Modern Art (GOMA) today because I've just watched a series of video clips of an international community music project - The Complaints Choirs.

Two Finnish mucicians began this movement as a tongue in cheek way of giving local communities an opportunity to VENT. Some people confuse this whinging with, well, whinging, but I'm inclined to read it as a comment on whingers. You know, those people for whom nothing is ever good enough. There are now many choirs across the globe and the numbers are growing.

GOMA had clips of about a dozen - German, Scandanavian, Russian, Singaporean, Australian, British - the list goes on. My favourite was the Sointula, British Columbia choir. It's a small community in the north west of Canada which experiences some pretty extreme weather from year to year so they might have a lot to complain about. The line I like best is where they sing about the three days of summer they experience each year.

The Australian one was boring. I was surprised. I thought our sense of humour would shine in this piece. I was surprised to find that Germans and Finnish people have a great sense of humour and of self deprication. It seems we share a global sense of humour when it comes to whingers. Strangely no Complaints Choir from Mainland China at this stage.

I've also included the Toronto complaints choir for my blog friend Jennifer at Realia. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Madness - Eve Langley

Eve Langley
 I saw a show last night in Brisbane which was an account of the life of Eve Langley. It was essentially a one woman show with actor/therapist Margie Brown-Ash in that role. It was confronting. I knew little about Eve Langley but suffice it to say she had a troubled and sometime brilliant life. Mother, schizophrenic, 7 years in a mental institution, a writer obsessed with Oscar Wilde and convinced of her own destiny - she went as far as changing her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde in 1954.
Margie Brown-Ash
Eve Maria Langley was born Ethel Jane Langley in Forbes, New South Wales, Australia, on 1 September 1904, to Arthur Alexander Langley, a carpenter, and his wife, Myra Davidson. She left school at 14 and worked in various jobs before following her mother and younger sister Lilian May (known as June) to Paekakariki, New Zealand, in 1932. She worked as a journalist, a travelling bookseller, and then a gardener and housemaid at a hostel in Wanganui. Around 1934 she moved to Carterton, where she met Luigi Rinaldi, a car salesman. In 1935 at Auckland she had his child (who died shortly after birth). Afterwards she met an art student, Hilary Roy Clark, whom she married at the Registrar’s Office, Auckland, on 6 January 1937. Although 32, she gave her age as 28; he was 22. Five years and three children later he had his wife committed to a mental institution.She was released from the Institution in 1949, divorcing her husband in 1952. In 1956 she returned to Australia, travelled widely overseas and died in 1974 in a shack in the Katoomba bush in the Blue Mountains. She had become increasingly eccentric, wearing 'mannish clothes' and a white topi and always wore a knife in her belt. She died alone at home but her body was not found until about 3 weeks after her death. She was 70. A life of torment and talent ending so alone. How does that happen?

Margie Brown-Ash's portrayal of Eve was a harrowing 70 minutes, though not nearly as harrowing as Eve's reality.. I felt for her and also perhaps even more so for her young children.

This is one of her pieces. I've never read any of her work but I love this piece - so full of life and pain and yet a deceptively simple story beautifully written.

In a white gully among fungus red
Where serpent logs lay hissing at the air,
I found a kangaroo. Tall dewy,dead,
So like a woman, she lay silent there.
Her ivory hands, black-nailed, crossed on her breast
Her skin of sun and moon hues, fallen cold
her brown eyes lay like rivers come to rest
And death had made her black mouth harsh and old
Beside her in the ashes I sat deep
And mourned for her, but had no native song
To flatter death, while down the ploughlands steep
Dark young Camelli whistled loud and long,
'Love, liberty and Italy are all.'
Broad golden was his breast against the sun
I saw his wattle whip rise high and fall
Across the slim mare's flanks, and one by one
She drew the furrows after her as he
Flapped like a gull behind her, climbing high
Chanting his oaths and lashing soundingly,
While from the mare came once a blowing sigh.
The dew upon the kangaroo's white side
Had melted. Time was whirling high around,
Like the thin woomera, and from heaven wide
He, the bull-roarer, made continuous sound
Incarnate lay my country by my hand:
Her long hot days, bushfires, and speaking rains
Her mornings of opal and the copper band
Of smoke around the sunlight on the plains.
Globed in fire-bodies the meat- ants ran
to taste her flesh and linked us as we lay,
Forever Australian, listening to a man
From careless Italy, swearing at our day.
When golden-lipped, the eagle-hawks came down
Hissing and whistling to eat of lovely her
And the blowflies with their shields of purple brown
Plied hatching to and fro across her fur,
I burnt her with the logs, and stood all day
Among the ashes, pressing home the flame
Till woman, logs and dreams were scorched away
And native with the night, that land from whence they came.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Vanuatu - Red Nose Days

I was once a clown. I have told my ni-Vanuatu colleagues about that era in my life. They laugh at me a lot. Perhaps I carry my clown closer to the surface than I realise. I'm okay with that. Sometimes there's a danger with giving yourself a label. Some people might use it as an excuse to dismiss you and diminish what you have to offer. That doesn't worry me either. I trust my colleagues to judge me by what I do.

On this my fifth trip to these islands I sense that I have gained some respect and trust with this group of workers. So on the second day of our preparations for our five day workshop I whip out a red clown nose and place it in the middle of the table we work around. I tell them a story. The story of the Court Jester, who is the King's fool; the one, and only one, in court vested with the right to speak the truth with impunity. I tell them that this red nose can be a very powerful symbol. That, if used wisely, it can become a metaphor, a tool for them in tackling tricky situations in their role as facilitators; in dealing with chiefs.

This group is comprised by a few who have chief status but the majority are ordinary community members,  young and old, men and women. They are aware of the protocols of Vanuatu life. Society appears very relaxed but the rules are clear. Women do not speak directly to chiefs; young people do not have a voice in decision making; the chief's is the ultimate voice. I ask them where that leaves them as facilitators. Do they have a mandate to disagree with a chief? Can they raise contentious topics? When are they empowered to take control of discussion groups? Can they step in when the discussion goes off track?

They like the clown story. They understand that there are times when the obvious might not be stated for fear of offending. They are a little afraid for the 'Fool' in the King's Court. Is immunity guaranteed? They note that the 'Fool' is alone. Who will support him?

We don't go into role as clowns but Christian picks up the clown nose and dons it, immediately inventing his own gibberish language. On his large oval face and shaved brown head he has become an instant clown. It's a perfect illustration of the form. The red nose has obviously crossed cultures before my tabling of it. I ask them to think about using it, not literally, but metaphorically, during the next week when they want to remind themselves that they are giving themselves permission to speak 'out of turn' but with good intentions.

Over the next week I too, literally at times, grab the red nose and warn them that I am about to comment on aspects of the workshop that may make them feel uncomfortable and which I am seeking to bravely draw to their attention.

It's a work in progress.

Strangely when I arrive back in Brisbane a week later I am looking for a new book to read and pick up a novel that my wife recommends. It's called Mister Pip by New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones. It's set in a Melanesian village on the island of Bougainville off New Guinea and within the first five pages there is a startling image of a lone white man wearing a red clown nose pulling his Melanesian wife along on a cart through the village. It's only in the last five pages that the significance of this is revealed.

It's a great book, based around Charles Dickens Great Expectations woven through traditional village life in a time of civil war. It's a book of great hope and redemption and explores how lives and concepts can exist across cultures and ultimately the power of a story to transform lives. 

Vanuatu Tuesday - Working between cultures

I am almost overwhelmed at the thought of writing down an account of our work. At one level it is so simple - we are in Vanuatu to help our ni-Vanuatu colleagues prepare and deliver a program about community development, or as they have termed it 'Komuniti Aksen'. Our skills are in facilitating, in helping people think through things, in asking some challenging questions about purpose and strategy. We have skills in helping people develop effective working relationships; we have our individual experiences and knowledge about community work; we have a strong set of guiding principles to work from. We are not content-free but in terms of Vanuatu culture and Vanuatu thinking we are certainly not the experts. Mark knows an amazing amount about the local culture and, in some cases, knows more than about the history of particular islands and their progression from pre-missionary to post independence than some of the locals. But even with that body of knowledge he is challenged as to how to combine that information with the needs of our hosts.

The challenge for each of us is exactly that. How can we be helpful without imposing our western values and assumptions on our colleagues while not shying away from sharing what skills we have? Our unacknowledged assumptions manifest themselves in surprising ways. I ask one of the chiefs during a planning session why he has chosen to build a meeting house rather than install a water tank in his village. He looks at me strangely and, try as I might to encourage him to articulate the why of his choice he thinks my question absurd. He just knows. It's not even a question he can contemplate. My logic, his certainty. Another time I ask a question about relationships within families and I get two answers - first the western father mother son cousin uncle etc I am familiar with (and which is taught in local schools), and the real picture which is a statement of responsibilities; where, what I would call my uncle, can be named as brother to my son but be regarded as father to me. I probably have that all wrong but it is about who is watching out for whom.

We're absurdly out of our depth in that we are working under the umbrella theme of strengthening Kastom and Tradition at the community level. How that is managed in what, even in Vanuatu, is a global and changing environment (including modern democracy as their chosen form of government) staggers me. We are all in a constant, though sometimes ignored, dialogue between government and governance, between tradition and modernity, between sometimes idealised 'old' ways and the daily evidence of influence by the church and colonialism. Tradition is constantly in flux but some prefer to idealise it as fixed, created by a Christian God - part of the missionary story.

Chiefs, the guardians of tradition, are a case in point. Before the arrival of missionaries people lived in family groupings in small village communities. There was a set of relationships and a social structure and a leadership figure/elder. It was only with the arrival of the missionaries that these, often warring, families, were brought together to live around the church building that the era of the Chief took hold. It was a convenience for the churches, and they often appointed a supportive member of the flock as the new chief.
The result is ongoing confusion and conflict as to who is a 'real' chief and who is an appointed chief. As all land is still vested in the family, and the family "chief/leader' has final say as to its use (and that there are no land titles or survey pegs) this creates constant conflict as unauthorised chiefs sell land which is not theirs to sell and violence sometimes ensues or equally sadly the court cases mount up.

Over our five day workshop, where we are merely the back-up team, approximately 40 leaders will participate in negotiating some of the challenges of this landscape, exploring how Kastom and traditional values intersect with community aspirations for improvements in community life.

It is always a more than interesting week. Each time I come away amazed at the passion of the participants and of our presenting team of facilitators. Each time I am humbled by how little I understand and how articulate and insightful these people are.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Vanuatu Monday - Rain and Horses

Last night a thunderstorm swept through the strait between Nguna and the mainland. At times the storm lit the volcanic mountains across the water as if it was midday. The rain followed hard on the heels of the thunder, lashing and slashing the coconut palms and working hard to find the weak points in the roof of the thatched bungalow I'm sharing with Mark. Our one room accomodation sits below a giant fig tree. The trunk and some of the overhanging limbs have the girth of three to five men's linked arms.

Humans and animals are common yardsticks here. Wealth is measured by the number of pigs you own. They are the basis of the customary economy. One can even become a chief on some islands by slaughtering the requisite number of porkers - demonstrating your power and material wealth. Distance is often described as a half day or two hour walk.

On the boat ride over the strait a chief sat beside me reading the words on the outboard motor. He turned to me and asked Why do they call it horsepower? Vanuatu has few horses and their colonial history was not a horse and buggy experience - there were few roads and travel was by foot.  Strangely, at the time the British and French annexed the New Hebrides as a jointly governed condominion, the rest of the world had finished with carriages and was moving to cars.

I explained the concept of horse drawn vehicles using 2, 4, 6 or 8 horses. There was great amusement among the chiefs about the possibility of fifty horses pulling the boat across the strait. Horses don't swim that well, I mused, and surely fifty horses on land would exert more power than this 50 HP engine could harness on the water.

All this was racing through my head as I reviewed the day from beneath my mosquito net and waited for an unpredictable flow of water through the roof above me. I lay awake enjoying the roar of the wind and the thump of rain until the fury eased. The woven pandanus leaf roof held true and I awoke dry and refreshed. Mark had not been so fortunate. He had moved his bed twice to avoid leaks and, sleeping on a hard bed, had not enjoyed the night.

It's still raining the next morning. I haven't seen rain like this in quite a while. It's so heavy that the first few presentations of our five day workshop are almost washed away. No one can hear the speakers so loud is the pounding rain, and the visuals on butcher's paper are almost invisible so dark is the unlit room. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Vanuatu Sunday - Nguna Welcome

Four boats, thirty people, luggage, workshop materials and a windy afternoon. The Emua wharf is a length of concrete pushing beyond remnant coral reef. Last time I was here I was staying in a thatched bungalow with Missus A. We had a great four days, each morning waking to see the sun sparkling on the strait of water between us and the island of Nguna. At times Nguna disappeared behind a gossamer of mist and rain. At others it jumped up from the surrounding waters shining like a piece of polished jade. That day it had taken ninety uncomfortable minutes riding in the back of a Toyota Hilux fitted out with wooden bench seats and a canopy. We were on the milk-run. This time we were in a Toyota Hi Ace ten seater and we covered the distance in thirty five minutes.

There are four boats lined up for us to share. Ours is a fourteen foot aluminium fishing dingy with a forward canopy. We sit shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter. Do you have life jackets? I ask the operator. It's okay. It's safe, he assures me and we set off.

We leave from a tongue of concrete and arrive on a sandy beach, met by fifty members of the local village including the paramount chief. He offers our coordinator a cluster of crocus leaves, the plant always used on these occasions. Our leader accepts this offer and after shaking hands offers it back. The agreement is complete. We have been welcomed and we have assured the chief that we come in peace.

Our bags, which have been littering the beach like a pod of beached seals, disappear and the throng dissipates and moves towards the centre of the village. We visitors process along a back path lined with vivid green hedges. As we near the village the sound of a conch shell blasting a long sweet foghorn note sounds out accompanied by shouting. We are being challenged before we enter the village. Again we pass the test and move through a palm fringed arch emerging onto a ridge overlooking a large traditional meeting house twenty five metres long and fifteen wide. It's constructed from huge timbers and ribbed with timber held together with hand woven pandanus ropes. The roof is thatched with thousands of individual clusters of pandanus leaves woven together into metre long flaps which overlay each other. It is open at the front and tapers towards the back. I later learn that this tribe has the whale as their totem and the Nakamal references that shape.

In the space between us and the Nakamal stands a warrior, a man who has applied charcoal to his body to become even blacker. He has become a moonless night. Now the real Kastom welcome begins.

Fifteen men accompanied by the same number of children and a handful of women rush from behind us and, dressed in full skirts of rustling banana leaves and anklets of dried seed pods, begin a circling dance stomping and thrumming to the sound of clacking sticks, chanting and the haunting call of the conch shell. The little ones run around the dancing adults circling them. On a signal they all stop and join the vocal chanted chorus. The little ones who are having a great time miss the cue and there's a pile up as each one bumps into the body in front. The crowd is in stitches. The welcome is complete. The village has welcomed the new arrivees who will spend the next five days as guests in their village.

There is no mains power here. No permanent water supply, no flush toilets, no roads, no motor vehicles. Life is lived by the rising and setting of the sun. The only nods to the modern world are the aluminium and fibreglas boats and their outboard motors lined up along the beach. That and the ubiquitous mobile phone. To my surprise most of the delegates and village leaders carry one and coverage is remarkably good.
Once during the following week I am surprised by the sound of what I guess is a small chainsaw. I hear it for five minutes and then its gone. Occasionally I spot a Yamaha generator quietly humming. It powers our printer and digital projector and a single fluorescent light. The only other evidence of modernity is the power cable bisecting the open space beneath an enormous mango tree as it runs towards the block-built church hall where our workshop will take place.