Understanding Wantok System

Historical Roots of Wantoks

To understand wantoks as an essential network, it is necessary to understand how local communities organize themselves and how local kastoms are employed in intra and inter group relationships. The pre-colonial wantok networks existed to provide defense and control other intruding forces that produced instability and threatened the security of the group. Like many other societies around the world, Melanesians perceived the world where good and evil exist and where the latter is always seeking to overwhelm the former. Combining the totality of wantoks as a social network in contemporary Melanesia, four bases on which the network is premised are identified. These are family and tribal ties, reactions to warfare and superstition, the impact of missionary work, and colonial and modern government structures and processes. Let us consider these factors individually.

Tribes, Clans and Families

The primary basis for wantok identification like clans and lineages are resilient and respected by Melanesians. One way of perceiving the wantok network is to picture many small boxes in a bigger box where the bigger picture does not necessarily depict the status and condition of the smaller components. Likewise, the smaller component may or may not relate to the bigger picture. Distinct wantok groups as clans and speakers of the same language present a formidable force for identity continuity and differences even in the face of rapid change. It is these identities that hold the wantoks together and apart. The smaller distinct wantok groups normally trace their origins to common ancestors. These are then linked to rights like land ownership and the right to use and access land for basic needs and survival. The common ancestral connection is the basic building block of a local wantok unit in a Melanesian society.

A person’s claim to a piece/block of land is usually determined by his/her ancestral connections with the area concerned. Ascription to a common ancestor thus brings claims to land and properties of the wantok group, and also requires group cooperation often cemented by the act of reciprocity. Reciprocity plays an important part in maintaining the cordial relationship within wantok groups at the basic level. This could be in the form of food produce, the making of shelters, hunting and fishing catches, bride price payments and land settlements. Giving and receiving are two sides of the reciprocity coin in Melanesia. The significance of this local level redistribution among wantoks is an aspect of kastom that unites individuals and families who are related through tribes and clans which are the foundations of the wantok system.

Colonialism and the Nation State

Like Christianization, colonialism also gave rise to other different forms of wantok groups and networks. Colonial rule created contemporary political and administrative boundaries amalgamating “distinct communities” into seemingly acceptable convenient groupings of the nation state. Modern political boundaries did not erase the distinct (see Nanau, 2002). However, they created artificial wantok identities above local wantok differences in perspectives and identities recognized by language and clan groups networks that are useful for political mobilization. While these artificial creations by the nation state are useful administratively, they sometimes encouraged divisiveness and conflict when used by politicians and militant leaders to push for a certain cause. During the 1998~2003 tensions between Guadalcanal and Malaita warring factions, the wantok system created notions of homogeneous ethnic identities in both islands (Kabutaulaka, 2001, p. 4). The charismatic leaders who orchestrated such moves appealed to the collective identities relied upon by early political ‘kastom-wantok’ groups and more generally, aspects of wantok
solidarity and reciprocity. Such perceived homogeneity existed only for purposes of social mobilization and it collapsed when the unrest ceased or in the early political kastom groups (such as the Ma’asina Movement) when the colonial government imprisoned its leaders. The important conclusion though is that appeals to kastom are effective in developing networks for mobilizing support in a fragmented country, even if only temporarily. Colonialism and the emergence of the nation-state gave way to the creation of new wantok identities as well as those that counter the work of colonialism and the nation state.