Concept: Wantok System


The wantok system or wantokism is derived from the Solomons Pijin term for ‘one talk’, meaning from the same language, and implies giving preference to kin in the expectation of a series of reciprocal obligations being fulfilled.

The exact origin of the term is unknown, although wantok may date back to the formative period of Pijin English on trading and labour trade ships travelling through Melanesia, or to work groups on plantations in Queensland, Fiji and Samoa in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The word was in use on plantations within the Solomons as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. Once wantoks are outside of their village situation, where everyone spoke one language, the same-language social category applies, particularly in urban, school or plantation/work situations. As Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka observes, over time wantokism became a term used ‘to identify people from the same region or island to distinguish them from outsiders, even if they speak a different language’. (Kabutaulaka 1998, 24) In its broadest form it identifies all Solomon Islanders as one people, or even all Melanesians as one people, if they are abroad. An added complication in the Solomons is that there are also substantial Polynesian and Micronesian communities, which practiced their own type of wantokism but also became part of the nation, broadening the base of the concept.

Urban wantokism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and developed both horizontally and vertically. Wantokism operates like a social security system: your wantoks are obligated to give you food and shelter, and also defend you in conflicts. In the ‘valley’ communities of Honiara, wantokism was remade through weekend neighbourhood gatherings for sporting or church events, gardening together, birthdays, and many other forms of socializing. These are horizontal ties formed from roughly similar personal circumstances. For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s senior public servants worked alongside junior council labourers in their gardens on Crown Land in Honiara’s valleys, on lands leased from Guadalcanal people, or on land in Queen Elizabeth II National Park (q.v.). They had in common their agricultural backgrounds, the paucity of root and green vegetables in the town market, and the need to supplement their meagre wages and provide food for their extended families. The same principles applied to fishing together after work or on weekends, and to hunting together. However, as Honiara grew there was less spare land in the valleys and the animals people hunted together, such as opossums, became scarce.


Great tensions are sometimes caused when people are obligated to feed members of their extended families who flow in and out of Honiara and other smaller urban centres to hunt for jobs or sell copra, trochus shells or artefacts, or on shopping or medical or church group trips. They often stay for long periods, overcrowding houses and straining family finances.


There are also vertical forms of wantokism, pyramidal hierarchies with bigmen and bigwomen at the top, who may be superiors at work, or mothers- or fathers-in-law and tabus (relatives by marriage), or important people in the neighbourhood. Wantokism, both horizontal and vertical, is continually being created, communicated, stored and used by individuals. People rely on interconnected wantok groups for comfort, resistance, nostalgia, and everyday advancement.

Related Concepts

Published resources


  • Kabutaulaka, Tarcisius T., Pacific Islands Stakeholder Participation in Development: Solomon Islands, Pacific Islands Discussion Paper Series No. 6, World Bank, East Asia and Pacific Region, Papua New Guinea and Pacific Islands Country Management Unit, Washington D.C., September. Details
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