Describing Wantok System


Understanding the wantok system as a socio-economic and political network in the Western Pacific is critical to understanding Melanesian societies and political behavior in the context of the modern nation-state. The complex web of relationships spawned by the wantok system at local, national and sub-regional levels of Melanesia could inform our understanding of events and development in Melanesian states in the contemporary period. This paper will analyze the concepts and historical roots of wantok and kastom in Melanesia, with particular reference to the Solomon Islands. It will also assess the impact of colonialism in the development of new and artificial wantok identities and their (re)construction for political purposes. It concludes with a contextual analysis of wantok as an important network in the Solomon Islands emphasizing its central role to people’s understanding of social and political stability and instability.

Describing wantok networks and kastom

Wantok is a term used to express patterns of relationships and networks that link people in families and regional localities and is it also a reference to provincial, national and sub-regional identities. It is an identity concept at the macro level and a social capital concept at the micro and family levels particularly in rural areas.

Kabutaulaka (1998, p. 134) likened the wantok system to other similar terms in the South Pacific region like kerekere in Fiji and fa’asamoa in Samoa where they all advocate cooperation between people who speak the same language. A more detailed definition was offered by Renzio who defines the wantok system as“… the set of relationships (or a set of obligations) between individuals characterized by some or all of the following: (a) common language (wantok = one talk), (b) common kinship group, (c) common geographical area of origin, (d) common social associations or religious groups, and (e) common belief in the principle of mutual reciprocity”(Renzio, 1999, p. 19).

The wantok system, therefore, signifies a setting demanding a network of cooperation, caring and reciprocal support, and a shared attachment to kastom and locality. It consists of a web of relationships, norms and codes of behavior which we will refer to as kastom (see below).

The following figure depicts the fragmented web and levels of reference in the wantok system.


It is necessary at this juncture to highlight a related term, “kastom”, that is a set of practices used whenever references are made to the wantok system. Kastom is also a generic term employed to mean different things and a derivative of the English word “custom”. It is a reference to practices, including indigenous leadership norms, and is locality and wantok group specific. The idea of kastom was made popular in Melanesia as a response to colonial experiences, particularly after World War II and the transition to independence. Lawson for instance, explained that “…kastom has been an important factor in countering the negative images surrounding the worth of colonized people’s and the intrinsic value of their own cultural practices” (Lawson, 1997, p. 108). Keesing also explained that the Solomon Islands Ma’asina Ruru Movement’s references to kastom was “…a defense of embattled ancestral custom and local sovereignty … against the engulfing forces of Westernization and modernity” (Keesing, 1997, p. 260). Wantok and kastom are aspects of the Melanesian Way ideology (see Narokobi, 1980) that both unites groups of people with a sense of identity and rhetorical common objectives but also separates them from others 

The term wantok was coined by plantation laborers after contacts with European planters and establishment of coconut plantations where people from different language groups lived and worked together. It has ultimately become an easy way to label and identify people. The principal point of reference and identification by Melanesians would be in relation to the language spoken. This is fundamental because Papua New Guinea is said to have 800 languages, Solomon Islands 80 Oceanic languages and Vanuatu 108 languages (Terrill, 2003, p. 373). Toktok (languages) also determines the specific identity of people who visit or relocate to other places in the eyes and ears of others. It is generally accepted that language diversity is testament to the fragmentation and relatively small size of Melanesian societies in pre-contact era (Whiteman, 1981, p. 76). Ross, for instance, explained that “Malaitans identify themselves by native languages or dialects” (Ross, 1978, p. 164). Pacific anthropologists, linguists and archaeologists use language distinctions to identify settlement patterns. The early settlers of Melanesia for instance, especially in New Guinea, parts of the Bismarck Archipelago, parts of Bougainville and Solomon Islands, were categorized as Papuan speakers. Peoples who arrived later were labeled as Austronesia speakers (Mühlhäusler, et al., 1996, p. 411). In the same spirit, Pacific Islanders use language as an identity to distinguish themselves from other groups, thus an important wantok reference.

At the local level, a wantok is someone with whom one could identify. It connotes affective, moral relationships and claims to certain resource rights like those over land, gardening areas and fishing grounds. References to groups who have rights and authorities over certain land areas could be referred to as a wantok group although it is a very specific aspect of identity. Wantoks in this category determine one’s rights to existence. One’s support depends on the group the individual is a part of or affiliations of that person’s blood family. It determines political structures at the local level in societies where the bigman system of government exists. It is common to regard people under a particular bigman as a wantok group or network. As Sahlins explained, a bigman in Melanesia is not really a political title but rather “… an acknowledged standing in interpersonal relationships – a ‘prince among men’ so to speak as opposed to ‘The Prince of Danes’”(Sahlins, 1963, p. 289). Those who live under the leadership of such an elevated person, a successful bigman, could be regarded as constituting a wantok network in both pre-contact and post-colonial Melanesia. From an anthropological point of view, the “wantok system” is a way of organizing a society for subsistence living that ensured the survival of a group of people. It emphasizes reciprocal networks and caring for each others’ needs as and when necessary and ensures the security of members from external forces and threats.

It may be worth noting that wantok has been extended as a structural societal reference for the whole Melanesian sub-region of the South Pacific. It is so because of the fact that commencing with European contacts, a lingua franca emerged in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands and Vanuatu commonly known as Melanesian pidgin. People from these countries could use their own versions of pidgin (PNG Tok Pisin, Vanuatu Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin) to communicate across national boundaries, thus forming a certain kind of over-arching wantok identity. Populated by people sharing similar cultures, kastom, geographic proximity, and experiencing similar development obstacles, it triggered a sense of belonging to a sub-regional group, now known as the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

This MSG wantok network also incorporated the Kanaks of New Caledonia, Fiji and West Papua in their now formalized sub-regional political and trading arrangements (PIPP, 2008). Nevertheless, this aspect of wantokism will not be discussed further here as the focus is more on the local, and arguably stronger, intra and inter wantok relationships as seen from the anthropological literature. It is important simply to note that the term wantok can be used at many levels and it has different meanings from these vantage points. Wantok is to an extent an overused word that sometimes loses its importance but for this paper, it is a very relevant term and concept for understanding social, economic and political networks and behavior in wider Melanesian contexts.

Commentaries on the wantok system are not all rosy as they also convey an unequal system that supports the interests of certain individuals. In relation to the formal state, the wantok system is often associated with nepotism and the use of one’s personal connections to secure public service jobs at the expense of equal opportunity and merit. Cockayne explained that wantoks could use their positions of influence to protect their own, as when police officers block or frustrate investigations involving close relatives (2004, p. 20). In this example, appeal to kastom could be the scapegoat for letting a wantok member off the hook. The network groups created by this complex web of wantok relationships could both be negative as well as positive forces in development and livelihood terms.

Source: The Wantok System as a Socio-economic and Political Network in Melanesia, by Gordon Leua Nanau*, OMNES : The Journal of Multicultural Society|2011. Vol.2 No.1, pp.31-55