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Les dynamiques religieuses dans le pacifique

Gabriele Weichart
Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon

Giving-for-Being: The Religion of Vula’a Exchange*

Deborah Van Heekeren

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  • * My fieldwork among the Vula’a in 2001 and 2005 was supported by financial assistance from the Univ (...)
  • 1 I acknowledge, though, that a number of excellent studies have drawn attention to other important (...)

1The ethnographic focus of this chapter is the “combined fellowship” exchanges that are part of the United Church Women’s Fellowship (UCWF) program of the Vula’a people (conventionally known as the Hula) on the south-eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. I bring the perspective of existential phenomenology to bear on a configuration of issues presently of concern to Melanesian anthropology to argue that contemporary Christian practice is grounded in a pre-Christian ontology. Following Heidegger I understand existential phenomenology to be a way of addressing the Being of entities – ontology thematically focussed on the “ontologico-ontically distinctive” entity which he identified as Dasein or there-being (Heidegger, 1962: 32-5). For Heidegger Being is always already being-in or being-with the world; this facticity of Being unifies essence and existence and suggests a fundamental unity between ontology and social being. Set against the socio-historical background of the region my analysis points to the conservatism inherent in women’s exchange activities in the face of anthropological claims about shifting gender relations and a discourse which links Christianity to modernity. This encompasses recent attention to the increasing influence of women’s groups, many of which are church-based, in Melanesia and the debate about individualism and relationalism, particularly for understanding Melanesian Christianity. The anthropology of exchange is also reconsidered here. Theoretical attention to exchange, which has traditionally been a cornerstone of anthropology and the defining paradigm for interpreting Melanesian social relations, has waned considerably with the rise of anthropological studies of Christianity. This is partly due to Christianity’s suppression of the traditional systems in which exchange is perceived to operate but also stems from a reluctance to see politics and economics, the terms in which exchange is generally constructed, as part of a religious system1. In some areas of Melanesia, though, Christianity has promoted new forms of exchange which are, predominantly, the province of women (see Eriksen, 2005, McDougall, 2003).

2My argument is that Melanesian exchange must be understood primarily as an ontological modality – by which I mean its constitution as a fundamental ground of existence. Combined fellowship exchanges are exemplary in that they reveal multiple modes of being but most significantly they illuminate the dimension of gift exchange. I propose that Being is constituted in a range of modes or possibilities of existence (see also Van Heekeren, 2004a, 2004c). Heidegger employs the term Dasein ontologically to designate humanity in respect of its being. He writes, “Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence – in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself. Dasein has either chosen these possibilities itself, or got itself into them, or grown up in them already” (1962: 33). He goes on to argue that “In every case Dasein, as essentially having a state-of-mind, has already got itself into definite possibilities” (1962: 183). Christianity, then, offers the Vula’a an existential choice insofar as it brings people to confront a certain possibility – a possibility of a mode of being. The existential possibility arises from an encounter with the message of the Bible and the stories of Christ’s life. This is universally so, but in Melanesia Christian existence is underpinned by a more compelling imperative. It is that no member of these societies – if they wish to go on existing –“can decide to cease giving and receiving” (Godelier, 1999: 67). Christianity must then engage those modes of existence which preserve the relationships engendered in exchange.

3Through Christian fellowship, Vula’a women effect communal imperatives that have their origins in pre-Christian cosmology. In this cosmology, religiosity is not limited to a discrete realm of practice. What we have described as the “religious” or “sacred” is experienced as a lived reality rather than a separate “supernatural” domain, and human existence is not that of a subject in a world of objects. It is recognised (felt and known) through relationships–with other people, with the ancestors and with the living environment. While separate human bodies support ontic beings (see below), they do not entirely determine existence. Human substance is shared and transformed. For instance, as I have elaborated elsewhere, the manipulation of food as body plays an important part in the constitution of various modes of existence; living and non-living, male and female, human and non-human (see Van Heekeren, 2004b). Identity is thus located within shifting sets of relationships which are activated in a variety of ways, many of which now coincide with Christianity. Vula’a Christianity is, though, a remaking of an earlier ontology – a mode of being that manifests itself as the need to establish and maintain relationships through exchange. These are more than the social relations of economics proposed by Malinowski (see below). They are relations of existence in Heidegger’s ontological sense. I want to bring ontology to bear on what is generally constructed as social relations.

4Based on the idea of paramount cultural values, Louis Dumont identified two distinct types of society. Where the individual is a paramount value, he speaks of individualism and where the paramount value lies in society as a whole, he speaks of holism (1986: 25). Joel Robbins has cited Dumont’s comments on Papua New Guinea to highlight its uniqueness.

by comparison with other cases, we have not discovered at all – the ideological axes which would provide a relatively coherent and simple formula […]. In terms of our present interest, these differentiations would lie beyond or outside the opposition individualism/holism, with the result that they would be as badly described from one point of view as the other. (Robbins, 2004: 13 original emphasis).

  • 2 See also Robbins (1994).
  • 3 Leenhardt reportedly had regular conversations with Henry Corbin, who was a phenomenologist, Islam (...)

5Robbins’s answer to Dumont is that the societies of Melanesia place primary value on the relationship and “hence might be called relationalist…” (2004: 13)2. This relation, though, does not exist merely at the societal level. If, as I suggest, it is also ontological, the implications for theories of exchange are profound. I want to move beyond relationalist arguments and propose that Vula’a exchange relations are better understood in terms of Maurice Leenhardt’s formulation of “participation”, a term which he borrows from Lévy-Bruhl but which, as I have argued elsewhere, is also interpreted according to Heideggerian philosophy3.

6When Malinowski laid the groundwork for modern economic anthropology in his ethnography of the Trobriand kula exchange system, he formulated the classification of “gift” and “counter-gift” (Weiner, 1992: 2). Exchange relations in non-Western societies have since been viewed by anthropologists almost exclusively in terms of the “norm of reciprocity” (ibid). Annette Weiner has elaborated a theory of economic behaviour which is grounded in the Western tradition of the eighteenth century and which has consistently theorised that “reciprocity was the basis for social relations in ‘primitive’ societies” (1992: 2). Her critique extends to Marilyn Strathern’s recent arguments on Melanesian exchange. Weiner writes:

Strathern’s argument cannot account for the temporal aspects of the movements of persons and possessions and the cultural configurations that limit or expand the reproduction or dissipation of social and political relationships through time. All social values are existential rather than, as Strathern claims, intrinsic. Social value must be created and recreated to prevent or overcome dissipation and loss. (1992: 14-15, my emphasis).

  • 4 For an elaboration of these arguments see Van Heekeren (forthcoming, chapter 5).

7The converse of dissipation and loss is aptly expressed in the notion of plenitude which is the outcome of participation. Strathern engages with Leenhardt’s most widely known work, Person and Myth in the Melanesian World (1979 [1947]), in The Gender of the Gift but does not acknowledge the Heideggerian referents of his study. When he speaks of “person and myth” Leenhardt is not referring to distinct phenomena but, rather, to a unique conjunction, person-and-myth: a Melanesian Dasein. If Melanesian ontology is relationalist in this participatory sense, as I will argue in the following pages, then the primordial status of the norm of reciprocity (e.g. Malinowski, 1961: 166-191) is invalidated. For it is not exchange relations that create society but, rather, ontology that engenders exchange4.

The Vula’a

8The Vula’a occupy six villages on the south-eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. Hula, the largest of these, gives its name to their language and lies about 110km east of the national capital, Port Moresby. Taking into account those now living in the National Capital District, the Vula’a constitute a population of more than 5,000. They speak an Austronesian language which shares a basic vocabulary with some other Central Province coastal groups. My research was conducted mainly in Irupara, a small village to the west of Hula with a population of about 550 during 2001. The Vula’a describe Alukuni, which lies on the eastern side of Hood Bay, as an ancestral village although it is commonly thought that they arrived there from the Marshall Lagoon area, further east, around the middle of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the colonial era the Vula’a were well-established in the Hood Point area, having gained a reputation as expert fishermen and skilled traders. They engaged in elaborate trade networks with the Motu and Kerema people further west as well as with neighbouring inland villages, exchanging fish for vegetables, sago and clay pots (Oram, 1968: 248). They also visited the nearby Balawaia beaches and the Mailu villages to the east.

9The Vula’a first encountered Christianity during the early contact period of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the late 1800s. They enthusiastically adopted the ways of the LMS and any distinctions between village organisation and church organisation were soon indiscernible. The principle of Christian “community” played a central role in this transformation. It underpins the organisational structure of what is today the United Church and confers a particular Christian identity on local people. Village church congregations belong to regional “circuits”, larger Christian communities which together form the nationally recognised United Church of Papua New Guinea. One of the ways in which membership in the Christian community is rendered meaningful to Vula’a villagers is through “fellowship”.

Fellowship and individualism

10The ideal of Christian fellowship has been adopted from the Greek word, koinonia, which is translated as communion, fellowship or sharing. What is anthropologically interesting about koinonia is its position in regard to Christianity and individualism. Dumont points out that there is a dualism posited between the promise of the eternal salvation of the individual, and the life actually lived in Christian fellowship:

It follows from Christ’s and then Paul’s teaching that the Christian is an “individual-in-relation-to-God” […]. The individual soul receives eternal value from its filial relationship to God, in which relationship is also grounded human fellowship: Christians meet in Christ, whose members they are (1986: 30).

11Much debate surrounds the question of the origins of individualism in Western society. However, Dumont proposes that “something of modern individualism is present with the first Christians and in the surrounding world, but that it is not exactly individualism as we know it” (1986: 24). He claims that, “the old form and the new are separated by a transformation so radical and so complex that it took at least seventeen centuries of Christian history to be completed, if indeed it is not still continuing in our times” (1986: 24). The transition, he argues, is across “two antithetical universes of thought”– from a holistic society to an individual one (1986: 25). This argument raises important questions for the anthropology of Melanesian Christianity. With this in mind, I turn to an example of Vula’a Christian practice.

  • 5 For a discussion of the history of the UCWF in Papua New Guinea see Dickson-Waiko (2003), Rendell (...)
  • 6 The name “Iru-ale” refers to the combined United Church congregation of two Vula’a villages, Irupa (...)

12In conjunction with its weekly cycle of devotional services, the United Church of Papua New Guinea runs fellowship programs for men, women5 and youth. All are organised along the same lines, but here I focus on the women’s fellowship. The women of Iru-ale6 take full advantage of the fellowship to achieve various goals. Membership is formalised by the wearing of a uniform and identification on an attendance roll which is called at every meeting. All groups pay a levy to the circuit (in this area the circuit included 15 village churches in 2005 which were administered from Hula village). The fellowship groups are led by elected committees, however the pastor’s wife, also known as the “mother” of the church, effectively directs the women’s fellowship and, to some degree, undermines its democratic principles. Wives or daughters of pastors, past and present, and deacons’ wives also enjoy high status in the fellowship where age and a talent for public speaking are important ingredients for influence.

13Fellowships are divided into subgroups known as the “foursquare” groups which represent the goals of Christian fellowship: Devotion, Recreation, Service (“community” service) and Education. Each week one of the foursquare groups takes a turn to lead the service and organise the activities which follow. Fellowship participation is neither exclusively social nor religious as the foursquare groupings denote and the large-scale events which are organised through the fellowships and the Church more generally have taken the place of the communal feasts which were the centre of village life in the past (see also Eriksen, 2005, Van Heekeren, 2003).

14The exchanges, known as “combined fellowships”, are meetings hosted by Church groups from neighbouring and sometimes quite distant villages. On these occasions one group invites another along to participate in their meeting. Special “items” (the term refers to the activities, religious or otherwise, that are selected for a particular meeting) are placed on the agenda for the visit, and there is a presentation of food made to the guest group. The presentation may include cash and other gifts. Then, in the coming months – preferably as soon as is possible–the visiting fellowship group will return the invitation, the hospitality and the gifts.

15Fellowship exchanges share similarities with a number of traditional forms of exchange in which the Vula’a engaged. For example, they acquired arm shells for trade from the Keapara and Aroma people through wari wari (visiting) relationships with relatives from these villages (Oram, 1968: 250). There is also evidence of exchanges with the inland villages between Gaba Gaba and Kaparoko. According to Oram, “The people of these villages invited the Hula to their feasts and the latter provided large quantities of fish. They had attended the feast and the feast-giving village helped them to carry large amounts of vegetable food to their canoes. This form of exchange was called raiwa” (1968: 249). Vula’a women regularly carried the fish which they had smoked inland to exchange with their neighbours and sometimes the women from the agricultural villages would bring food down to the beaches (ibid: 248).

16At the invitation of senior fellowship members, I attended the Wednesday meetings which, as with all United Church gatherings, began with singing. The women begin to sing peroveta (prophet songs) as soon as there are sufficient numbers present in the church (or at any other location) to provide the necessary harmonies. Singing is always the required prelude to further activities. In these meetings it is followed by prayer, Bible readings and exegesis, and more singing which together constitute the devotional part of the program.

  • 7 It is also important to note that participation in fellowship and church activities has significan (...)

17The business part of the meeting follows. It begins with roll-call then each woman makes a small cash contribution which is recorded by the secretary. There is a formality to the weekly meeting proceedings that overshadows the more social aspects. This formality resembles schoolroom protocol and the trappings of Western bureaucracy. The wearing of uniforms, the roll-call, the common practice of carrying exercise books and the meticulous cross-checking of financial details combine to express the importance the women place on participation in the fellowship. The meetings also provide a forum in which individual women acquire status which is subsequently recognized by the village. Although women’s voices are muted by men in public life, collectively the women's fellowship is an influential force in the village. Men acknowledge the value of the women’s fellowship and often comment that women are “strong in the Church”7.

Combined fellowship with Hula village

18When the Iru-ale women were invited to participate in combined fellowship with the Hula women, the request was received with delight as these events are an important part of their social calendar. They are very well attended, a phenomenon locally explained as “the attraction of food”. Importantly, though, eating-together, or what some Melanesian ethnographers including myself have described as the feeding relationship (Strathern, 1988: 251, Bamford, 1998: 166, Van Heekeren, 2004b) is located at the core of Vula’a ontology. And, as I have shown in my earlier writing, the consubstantiation of body and food is an underlying theme in Vula’a cosmology and mythology. What is important about combined fellowship is that it incorporates multiple modes of Being: eating-together, singing-together and gift-exchange.

19Shared devotion and the exchange of food and other gifts constitute the basis of a combined fellowship. It is, though, the magnitude of the gift of food that is most remembered in the recounting of past fellowship exchanges. I was told of one visit to an inland village where the women were so generous that an extra PMV (Passenger Motor Vehicle, the 15-seater mini buses commonly used for inter-village transport) had to be called for to take everything home. While this may appear to be a matter of “economics” dressed in religious and social clothing, the actual experience of such a fellowship gathering is quite another thing. It is the spirit in which these events take place that makes them significant in women’s lives.

20Concerned that discourse always contained the possibility to become “idle talk”, Heidegger gave attention to emotional states and moods as he sought to communicate phenomenological concepts. One way he expressed this was with the German word befindlichkeit (lit. the state in which one may be found). The women’s mood on the morning of the meeting I attended in May 2001 was, in contrast to the seriousness of other meetings, light and playful. Elizabeth, my companion, explained that when these kinds of events take place the women “get happy and put flowers in their hair”. It was midday when we arrived at the Nixon Memorial church, a very impressive example of modern architecture, which had been officially opened about a year earlier. As is the custom, we left our footwear at the main entrance before making our way into the vast expanse of cool, dark space. In keeping with the smaller United Church buildings in the surrounding villages, the only elevated seating was located along the sidewalls. Most of the congregation enthusiastically found themselves a place on the floor, while the group leaders, who were to conduct the sing-along that occupied the next hour, assembled in front of us.

21The sing-along is an important component of all United Church worship and sometimes stands on its own as a form of devotion. Singing also overflows into many other areas of social life. The full ontological power of this was made clear to me a few weeks after the combined fellowship at Hula, when I attended a funeral at Alewai village. There, one of my companions explained that “it doesn’t matter what they [the mourners] sing as long as they keep singing”. I was reminded of this many times. To “keep singing” is to participate in a particular mode of being that is fundamental to Vula’a Being. Although I am presently concerned with exchange, this aspect of Vula’a ontology deserves further investigation.

22A series of prayers presented by a pre-organised group of women followed. Then the cash offering was made. Elizabeth advised me that 20 toea (about 20 cents) would be considered adequate but confided, without remorse, that she had spent hers on betel nut at the Hula market. The offering was followed by a reading from the Book of Judges after which our “mother” gave an eloquent and powerfully delivered sermon. The passage was about Deborah – she was “a mother, a planner and a judge” and the intention was to offer a role model for Christian women. We had been two and a half hours in the Nixon Memorial church when it came time to engage in the customary thank-you handshakes with the fellowship leaders that marked the end of the devotion, retrieve our footwear, and make our way to the village meeting ground for the food presentation.

23Elizabeth had correctly predicted that a large number of women would attend “because there was food”. Three large tables, which been arranged in banquet fashion to display the food, were soon filled with a variety of prepared dishes, young coconuts which are considered a delicacy – “their milk is sweeter than 7’up” – and cordial, all provided by the women from Hula. Iru-ale women seated themselves in groups along one side of the meeting ground and betel nut was distributed. They began to sing as they waited for the distribution to commence. The sound of peroveta rose from the united voices and the lightness of the mood increased.

24When all the food – gifts from the Hula fellowship to the Iru-ale fellowship – had been presented on the tables, the group leaders from Iru-ale took charge of the distribution. After much swapping and redistribution of various foods, the Iru-ale women began to eat. Much of the food was consumed on the spot; some would later be carried home to share with family. Hula village women did not eat at the feast. They sang as their guests ate and some of them danced. The effect of total generosity was overwhelming in that interlude of light-hearted feasting in which one group enjoyed their favourite foods while another amplified their guests’ enjoyment through singing – a pleasure of a different kind.

25Speeches were made by senior women from both fellowships, the most lengthy by wapu (Hula: widow) Kila from the Iru-ale group who had a reputation for such orations and whose propensity for long-windedness was occasionally given as a reason for younger women’s low attendance at fellowship meetings. The large gathering then moved to the local playing field where a crowd of spectators was awaiting the commencement of the women’s softball game that would conclude the day’s events.

26In 2005 I made another visit to Irupara village. I learned that a few weeks prior to my arrival the Irupara women had attended a combined fellowship at Porebada, a western Motu village. The Porebada UCWF had visited Irupara in 2004 and this was the return visit. The combined fellowship at Porebada was reportedly a much larger event than the one I had attended at Hula in 2001, with about forty women along with some of their children and six men making the journey. The party left Irupara in two trucks on a Thursday morning, stopping at Koke market in Port Moresby for lunch then going on to Porebada where everyone was billeted with a fellowship member.

27The combined fellowship was held on the Friday. The women from Irupara exchanged garden produce consisting mainly of cassava and coconuts for rice, flour and sugar. The women of Porebada generally keep pigs rather than cultivate large gardens because “pigs are money” they say. Conversely, in Irupara the women commonly say that their gardens are their “bank”. Nevertheless, these are more than economic exchanges. When the Irupara group left Porebada on Saturday morning, Elizabeth was pleased to receive a wide-brimmed sun hat from her host. She wears it proudly whenever there is a suitable occasion, as a “memory” of the visit to Porebada.

  • 8 Irupara and Alewai (Iru-ale) split in 2002.

28More broadly, the combined fellowship marked an event of historical significance for the Irupara UCWF8. It was the first combined fellowship ever undertaken outside of the Hula circuit and was new insofar as the exchange was direct, rather than the delayed reciprocation that takes place locally, that is, when it is more likely that kin are involved. In this sense, it more closely resembled the pre-Christian exchanges that established vital relationships with other groups that were deeply necessary to the construction of Vula’a identity and to existence itself. To exchange among kin is to maintain relationships, but to create new ones is to increase the possibilities for plenitude, the value of which is shown through “historical return” – another concept I borrow from Heidegger.

Individual, communal, relational

29The Vula’a originally settled in the Hood Bay area as a maritime people when the established agricultural villages granted them permission to build houses off shore. The village of Irupara initially consisted of two lines of houses built over the sea. They represented two kepos, the large double-hulled trading canoes from which the Vula’a today take their “clan” names. By the 1920s the village had grown to five lines and the houses, which now included those of Paugolo (inland people), had been moved closer to the shore as relations with the inland villages improved. During the intervening years the two groups had consolidated through inter-marriage, and the Vula’a gained rights to the use of garden land.

  • 9 Kwalu, a shortened form of kwavalu, is now commonly translated as “clan” around the Hood Point are (...)

30The house lines were imagined to project in the direction of an inland exchange partner creating a path known as a kwavalu9, which was used exclusively by the partners. It was common practice for the inland partner to leave a gift of garden produce on the path and a story is told of an Irupara man who one day found a heap of goods which was so impressive that he was compelled to acknowledge the loss of one of his daughters. I have heard other stories of powerful men making demands for daughters. And it is largely through marriage alliances that the Vula’a have flourished. My male informants in Irupara often remind themselves of their debt to the women who married in to landholding villages. It is this imperative to create and extend relationship that underlies Vula’a existence and which finds form in gift exchange. Today Christian fellowship provides this opportunity, although it is achieved in the name of community. The very notion of “community” is, though, problematic in the Melanesian context.

31When speaking of Christianity a distinction between Western individualism and Pacific communalism is often noted by anthropologists and other commentators. Dickson-Waiko highlights one of the central issues for the anthropology of Melanesian Christianity when she writes that “Christian theology encourages women to utilize their mental capacities as individuals while Christian ideals of community promote membership of fellowship groups where they can develop their emotional capacities” (2003: 112). She has observed the fundamental Christian dualism that Dumont wrote of – the tension between the goals of an individual-in-relation-to-God for all eternity and the challenges of earthly Christian unity. In itself this is unproblematic insofar as it is engendered in the Christian ethos. Further, though, “Indigenous Christianity still retains strong community and participatory values” (ibid: 105). In the context of Melanesian relationalism this raises significant questions, not the least of which is that for Melanesians the personal sacrifices (the obligation to share) and the project of communion embedded in the ideal of koinonia required of Christian individuals are not goals in the Western Christian sense. In the Melanesian lifeworld they are ontologically prior. They cannot be sought because they already are.

32My fieldwork suggests that participation in Christian fellowship, while appearing to represent the promotion of Christian values (and I am not saying that it does not do this) in fact preserves a pre-Christian ontology that is participatory and which is counter to the emergence of the individual. In other words, while Christian ideals of koinonia share similarities with Pacific communalism, there are important differences which must be acknowledged if we are to genuinely understand Melanesian Christianity.

33Attention to Melanesian women’s groups has situated the notion of “Christian community” as a discursive feature of contemporary social life in Papua New Guinea. Women are often perceived as the caretakers of community in this context, as is reflected in the passage from the Book of Judges cited earlier and, more broadly, in the way in which women are held up as models of virtue and responsibility by the United Church (see Van Heekeren, 2003).

34“Community” as an analytic category is, though, less favoured in its application in Melanesian anthropology than more conventional descriptive categories such as clan, village or region (Gudeman, 2001: 86). The term occurs more frequently in discourse concerned with Western social, geographical and religious groupings, all of which are sometimes collapsed to equate “community” with a rural or preindustrial world that embodies a “community spirit”. A definition of “community” proposed by Gudeman includes people’s shared experiences of real on-the-ground associations and imagined solidarities (2001: 1). This accurately represents women’s experiences of fellowship and their perceived relationship with the wider Church. It also accounts for the sense of obligation which the Vula’a acknowledge. It does not, though, address what I see as a central issue in the anthropology of Christianity – the distinction we must make between a Western Christian understanding of community in which people’s shared experiences are those of groups of individual persons and the Melanesian sense in which Being is experienced primarily in terms of pre-existing relationships. Rather than the goal of sharing and communion, the achievement of an individual self-in-relation-to-God would, surely, be the primary theological concern of Melanesian Christianity.

35In response to a growing body of ethnography which argues that Melanesians prioritise the establishment and maintenance of relationships (Waiko, 1982, Strathern, 1990, 1994, Bamford, 1998: 169, Telban, 1998, Jolly, 2003, Robbins, 2004: 187, Van Heekeren, 2004b, 2004c), some recent commentators have preferred to highlight similarities rather than differences in respect of various cultural constructions of the person. Douglas has argued for example that “with the binary logic itself historicized and dislodged, ‘Western’ men, like ‘Western’ women and ‘non-Westerners’ generally, can be seen as variously individual or relational according to perspective, culture, situation and strategy” (2003: 8, see also Carsten, 2004: 83-108). The fact that moments of relationality are experienced by the Western person is not at issue here. Rather, my concern is that we should not trivialise the enormous anthropological value of analysing the specific contexts of relational experiences. To do otherwise would be to miss important differences. Most notably, that relationality is an ideal state for most Melanesians and that considerable effort is invested in its continuance (see Bamford, 1998: 169, Robbins, 2004: 187). Here I want to take the argument a step further and suggest that we have been largely mistaken, not in our assumptions about Western relationality, but about Melanesian experiences of individuality.

36I have argued elsewhere (Van Heekeren, 2004b) that for the Vula’a “differentiation” or “individuation” which is “achieved” and “temporary” is not the same as Western individualism (see also Bamford, 1998: 166, Eriksen, 2005, Weiner, 1992). Vula’a men who gain reputations as exceptional fishermen, fighters, or leaders are set apart by seemingly singular performances which bring fame. In some instances they are elevated to legendary status. Ultimately, though, the success of such men is a matter of iavu (lit. heat or power). This Hula term refers to a state of being that is synonymous with physical heat. Ordinarily iavu is a characteristic of the ancestors but, through ritual abstinences invoked to alter the body and separate the practitioner from the living community, proximity to the nonliving, and hence access to their influence, is established. The other ingredient for success is expert knowledge which is inherited from or, more precisely, given by the ancestors. So although great achievements are attributed to singular persons, they are not to be understood as the gains of individuals. They are negotiated as a matter of shifting relationships between the living and the nonliving world. The fruits of differentiation are not “privately” owned but belong to all.

37As I am here suggesting for the Vula’a, Eriksen has argued that the Christian Church of North Ambrym has taken on the relational form of the older ceremonies: “the principles of sharing and creating social wholes lie at the bottom of every ceremony” (2005: 291). Most interestingly, these are tensioned against the fact that, in all ceremonies, one person emerges as the “big man”. Eriksen’s analysis of ceremonial exchange also shows that individual displays of leadership are deliberately constructed by the group. As she explains, these “as if” gestures are essential qualifications for leadership (2005: 291). This is not to say that personal characteristics are irrelevant to the establishment of reputations. Clearly certain qualities are valued over and above others in any cultural setting and these will influence matters of inheritance and leadership, for example. Nevertheless, it is evident that what must be seen as an aspect of relational existence – moments of differentiation – are not the same as the achievements of Western individualism.

38Weiner’s (1992: 148) exegesis of the complex of constraints which impinge on Trobriand endeavours to achieve fame through participation in kula – their most politically and culturally significant exchange activity – makes a similar point. Her analysis is underpinned by the concept of “cosmological authentication” in which cosmologies are more than ideologies located outside the production of material resources; they are the cultural resources that societies draw on to reproduce themselves (1992: 4). At the centre of cosmological authentication is the presence of ancestors. Vula’a ancestors continue to inhabit and to participate in the Christian lifeworld where possibilities for being are linked directly to opportunities for participation. This must be taken into account if we are to unravel the general confusion that results from the equating of the “communal” values espoused by Christianity with the relationships that are fundamental to Melanesian existence, that are, in short, ontological.

Re-viewing Vula’a Christianity

39Through the process of conversion, the Christian missions sought to establish new communities of Christian individuals. Most did not recognize that these individuals were unavailable to them. Maurice Leenhardt was an exception. He wrote of the New Caledonian: “He knows himself only by the relationships he maintains with others” (1979 [1947]: 153). He used the concept of “participation” to elaborate a mode of being that defied Western rationalist constructions based on the mind/body dichotomy. By participation Leenhardt meant the ability of entities to experience a shared physical existence. It followed that to exist authentically was to achieve a plenitude of relationship through participation.

  • 10 See Heidegger (1962: 31, and fn.).

40What I see as the political exigencies of a relationalist ontology are popularly and reductively glossed in Papua New Guinea as the wantok system, that is, a system of rights and obligations based on quasi-kinship relationships. Here, though, I want to transcend the simple notion of wantokism to illustrate an important Heideggerian distinction and so return to the concept of Dasein. Heidegger states that “The question of existence is one of Dasein’s ontical ‘affairs’” (1962: 33), by which he means it belongs to the realm of ordinary discourse and experience. In short, we can say that “ontology” is concerned with Being, and “ontical” enquiry is about entities and the facts about them10, or we could say questions about “Being” are ontological, and those about “beings” are ontic. Consequently, Heidegger can claim that “This does not require that the ontological structure of existence should be theoretically transparent. The question about that structure aims at the analysis of what constitutes existence” (1962: 33).

41The contrast between the ontological and the ontic illuminates the distinction between relationalism, understood in Leenhardt’s participatory sense, and wantokism. In Irupara there is much that might be construed as stemming from a sociality based on the wantok system. For example, despite the decline in large-scale communal activities such as fishing and net-making since the 1960s, there remains a strong sense in which one must do one’s share in order to survive as a member of the village. This is sometimes a matter of family obligations, for instance, the provision of labour for the building of a house or providing food for a feast. Sometimes it is a matter of Church obligations, such as maintaining the pastor’s house, grounds and church, and other community work. These are, though, ontical affairs. They are underpinned by a fundamental ontology, which engenders the modes of being that are expressed in “communal” obligations; in gift exchange, in eating together and singing together. This ontology is expressed linguistically as awana. There is no direct translation for this Hula word but it suggests: perfect and abundant relationship, right relationship with a total lifeworld, or, as Leenhardt would say, plenitude. Success in any domain depends on awana.

42The importance of eating together and the role of feeding in establishing and maintaining relationship is evident across Melanesia (Strathern, 1988: 251, Jolly, 1991, Sexton, 1995, Bamford, 1998, Eves, 1998). For the Vula’a, the manipulation of food as body is instrumental in the creation of differentiated and relational states. The feasting that takes place in combined fellowship serves to reproduce relationships between UCWF members who share the food among themselves, eat together and thus reproduce their collective identity. Also evident, though, is the feeding relationship between the host church-group and the guest women and the families of both, who are unseen contributors and potential recipients. Combined fellowship with new groups such as Porebada demonstrates the paramount value (if we are to use Dumont’s term) of extending relationship through participation, yet it is more than a social or moral value. This imperative is fundamental to Vula’a ontology and cosmology and as such it permeates their lifeworld and encompasses those practices which are generally described as religious.

43Leenhardt argued that sensations and emotions provide the means for experiencing le mythe vécu or living myth (1979: 6-7, 190) and thus invite participation with a range of beings. Myth, in Leenhardt’s sense, is synonymous with religious experience and consequently avoids more common anthropological constructions of religion that separate “myth” and “ritual”, and “doctrine” and “practice”. As experience, religion is free to inhabit the various corners of everyday existence. This is the phenomenological point. For the Vula’a, living myth encompasses the various modes of being I have identified. Mythic experiences belong to existence and constitute it (see Van Heekeren, 2004c). The presence of Christianity does not, then, infer the absence of mythic being. Nor does it replace the exigencies of gift-exchange, which are fundamental to existential plenitude.

44The religiosity of eating-together and singing-together that finds expression in combined fellowship draws on the very foundation of what it is to be Vula’a – the desire to reproduce and extend relationship through exchange. While gift-exchange has often been discussed in terms of economic anthropology, some recent studies have returned to Mauss to highlight the need to see exchange not simply as a mode of economics but in much broader terms (Gudeman, 2001, Godelier, 1999, Godbout, 1998, Weiner, 1992, Strathern, 1988). Mauss suggested the existential significance of exchange when he wrote of the kula that it is the “gathering point of many other institutions” (1970 [1925]: 25). He claimed, for instance, that the Trobriand form of exchange known as wasi is a part of the kula system but it serves other purposes (1970 [1925]: 27). His description bears striking similarities to the Vula’a:

This sets up regular and obligatory exchanges between partners, between agricultural tribes on the one hand and maritime tribes on the other. The agricultural partner places produce in front of the house of his fisherman associate. The latter, after a great fishing expedition, makes return with interest, giving the partner in the agricultural village the product of his catch. (Mauss, 1970 [1925]: 27)

45Weiner’s comments are also compelling: “Although kula is about profit and loss in an economic sense, it can also signify other more existential concerns… kula actions are associated metaphorically with seeking lovers, being married, and giving birth, kula paths die and are reproduced” (1992: 144).

46Historically exchange relations have played a central part in the establishment of Vula’a identity. It makes sense that the predisposition towards the establishment of new relationships as well as the reproduction of existing ones is viewed, as Godelier has suggested (1999: 67), as an existential necessity. And further, that this is expressed through contemporary religious practices such as those which I have described for the Iru-ale women’s fellowship. It is evident that Vula’a gift-exchange is ontologically fundamental. As such it extends beyond the world of humans into the domain of the gods, transcending historical transformations. For example, the sea, which is vital to Vula’a existentiality, is today seen by them as a gift from the Christian God. In the past their ancestors controlled its bounty. Vula’a mythology and cosmology like others in Melanesia reveals that the gods and the spirits of the dead “are the true owners of the things and possessions of the world” (Godelier, 1999: 80). We are reminded that nothing is produced, everything must be given. A productive garden, a good catch, finding a marriage partner are all dependent upon relationships which extend beyond the human world.


47Drawing on Heideggerian existential phenomenology I have examined Vula’a women’s Christian fellowship to shed light on three interrelated topics; women’s groups, the individual/relational binary and exchange. Recently Margaret Jolly observed that “the configuration of women’s groups in contemporary Melanesia is distinctive in that intersubjective relation is valued rather than the boundaries of individual or group” (2003: 136). I have revealed multiple aspects of relational experience – eating-together, singing-together and gift-exchange – that are indeed highly valued. We have seen that the relational is more than communal or even, as Jolly suggests, “sociocentric” (ibid). Vula’a women’s exchange promotes a mythic, that is, pre-Christian experience of Christianity, and gift-exchange and the effort of maintaining community circumvent the individualising tendencies inherent in Christianity through the continuance of a participatory ontology which underpins “social” experience. Pointing to differences in Western Christian traditions, such as those between most protestant Christianity and the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and state-church Protestant traditions, Bishop Terry Brown correctly cautions against characterising all Christianity as “individualistic” (2005: 335). We must identify what is unique to the Melanesian experience, as Christianity continues to play a defining role in the lives of the people we study. The task for anthropology appears increasingly difficult, as we are faced with the necessity of engaging with an intellectual tradition that is perhaps more foreign than many of the cultures we have sought to explain – that of theology. In the meantime, it will serve us well to acknowledge not only the changes that Christianity has brought but to recognise the continuities it contains.



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1 I acknowledge, though, that a number of excellent studies have drawn attention to other important dimensions of exchange systems (Godelier, 1999, Weiner, 1992).

2 See also Robbins (1994).

3 Leenhardt reportedly had regular conversations with Henry Corbin, who was a phenomenologist, Islamic scholar and translator of Heidegger (Clifford, 1982).

4 For an elaboration of these arguments see Van Heekeren (forthcoming, chapter 5).

5 For a discussion of the history of the UCWF in Papua New Guinea see Dickson-Waiko (2003), Rendell (1975).

6 The name “Iru-ale” refers to the combined United Church congregation of two Vula’a villages, Irupara and Alewai.

7 It is also important to note that participation in fellowship and church activities has significantly added to the burden of village women. The ambivalence of women’s relationship to the church is discussed by McDougall (2003) and Douglas (2002, 2003: 4).

8 Irupara and Alewai (Iru-ale) split in 2002.

9 Kwalu, a shortened form of kwavalu, is now commonly translated as “clan” around the Hood Point area. It is important to notice the original form because it suggests the value of shared residency over descent.

10 See Heidegger (1962: 31, and fn.).

Notes de fin

* My fieldwork among the Vula’a in 2001 and 2005 was supported by financial assistance from the University of Newcastle. I am grateful to the women of the Iru-ale UCWF, to the Rupa family and all those in Irupara who generously gave of their time and knowledge. I thank Terry Brown for his helpful comments on my previous articles and for sharing with me an appreciation of the writings of Maurice Leenhardt, Michael Goddard for his patient readings of earlier drafts of this paper, and the session organizers and participants of the ESfO conference in Marseilles in July, 2005. It was there that I became convinced of the need for the anthropology of Melanesian Christianity to take seriously recent debates concerning individualism and relationalism.


Chargée de cours à l’Université de Macquarie à Sydney (Australie). Elle a mené une recherche de terrain chez les Vula’a, dans la Province Centrale de Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée, où elle a étudié plus particulièrement les effets du christianisme, introduit au XIXe siècle, sur la socialité de cette population. Ses travaux sur les Vula’a se placent dans une perspective phénoménologique influencée par la philosophie de Heidegger. Ils sont centrés sur l’ontologie et la cosmologie des Vula’a, ainsi que sur le mythe et le genre tels qu’appréhendés dans les interstices des dichotomies occidentales comme mythe/histoire, chrétien/préchrétien etc. Son livre à paraître The Shark Warrior of Alewai : a Phenomenology of Melanesian Identity (Sean Kingston Publishing) est une monographie ethnographique fondée sur l’ensemble de ces approches.

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