Thursday, March 23, 2006

Casse pas la tête…


… which literally translates from the French to “Don’t break your head!!” basically meaning “Don’t worry!” or “no rush!” It’s a motto by which the people live their lives by. And honestly, in a place as beautiful as their home, I don’t blame them! Coconuts to quench the thirst, a daily dive in the water to catch some fish (for those on the islands) or a walk in the forest to hunt a deer (although, they are becoming rarer now) and then a few yams (ok, those you do have to cultivate), Pandanus trees (a sort of palm) to make mats on which to sleep, sun, warm weather all year round, and delicious tropical fruits (mangoes, passion fruits known as “pomme liane”, “pomme cannelle” for which I don’t know the name in English). What more could one ask for?

La Baie de Jinek in Lifou, where the neighboring family regularly came to fish at dusk. It's a really cool place to snorkel too!

Kids in their playground- in Lifou

Grande Case in Lifou.

Decorations in the garden of the Grand Chef de l'Ile des Pins

The Kanak mentality is so different from the Western-capitalist-individualist one. It's no surprise there was so many clashes in the history of colonization. From my understanding and through my few encounters with the kanaks, most of them are happy with what they have and do not necessarily aspire for more. And so that's why they're not interested that much in tourism- I guess they don't want to be bothered by hordes of Australian, French or Japanese tourists, and they don't make much effort to please the few adventurous. Apparently, there is very little sense of ownership, because youngsters are to have devout respect for the elders (especially for their uncle, the maternal uncle if I remember correctly). So anything that belongs to you, also belongs to your uncle and the elders. Hence, if someone wants to start a business (say a petrol station) it is almost certainly doomed for bankruptcy, as there's nothing to say if elders from the tribe want to come and get petrol without paying. So people are having a hard time combining their traditions, where the tribe is a lot more importand than the individual, with the capitalistic system that was brought by the French.

Fete des ignames in l'Ile des Pins. Each year, at the beginning of the yam harvest, yams from the different tribes are combined, blessed and then redistributed among the tribes of the island.

The annoyed Caledoniens, Zoreilles, or Asians would say that half of the population is working for the other half. Because, while it is true the kanaks are happy living simply with fish, fruits and yams, most don't look very hard for a job so that they can receive government aid. Maybe it's a wrong assessment, but it's what I could sense in the 5-6 weeks I spent on the territory, talking to people and seeing the life in some tribes. At least one thing is sure, social dynamics in New Caledonia are extremely complex, and it would require a few years of living there to really understand what's going on.

I personally only had one somewhat uneasy encounter with a Kanak (and it actually didn't have anything to do with me being a tourist). Turned out he was the Chef (the chief) of one of the districts in Lifou. I was passing in front of his house when he saw me and told me to come and see him. I was a bit ashamed, because I hadn't done the "coutume" yet. Normally, when a visitor arrives in a village (or a tribe), he has to pay a visit to the chief and show his respect by giving him something (a manou which is a piece of cloth and tobacco are the usual gifts). So I excuse myself and do the coutume. The chief was completely drunk (and it was only 11 am!!!)... Really really drunk and he didn't make any sense. In me, I was thinking that this behaviour is definitely not worthy of a chief- it disgusted me. I obviously kept my feelings for myself and continued talking to him. Since it was lunch time, he told me to stay for lunch. I couldn't refuse- but seriously, I've never felt so uneasy. The whole way through I struggled to keep my mouth shut to not tell him what I thought and thus be disrespectful of the great chief of the district!!! Alcohol and marijuana are serious problems within the indigenous population. Many men are addicted, which makes them lazy and worse, very violent... Most 20-30 year olds in the North of the Grande Terre seem completely schizophrenic, because they've been smoking marijuana for so long that their neurons went completely "bizurk"!! It reminds me of the problems withing the aboriginal community in Australia.

All other interactions with the Kanaks were amazing!! For example with the women of the Tribu de Neami in the North of the Grande Terre near Kone, while they were collecting Niaouli leaves, with the workers of the sandalwood oil factory on l'Ile des Pins or with the Vanilla producers in Mucaweng and Hnathalo in Lifou.

The Women (and one guy) of the Tribu de Neami in Kone, after collecting Niaouli leaves.

One day, one of the elder women of Hnathalo decided to follow me in my investigation of the vanilla production system. She decided to introduce me to all the people that she knew grew vanilla in Hnathalo. So the whole day, we hitch-hiked together to visit different producers. She probably didn't have much else to do anyway. Many times I would tell her she should go to catch a ride before dark. To my concern, she would just answer "Ahh... Casse pas la tete!". When hitch-hiking, which is a common practice in NC, especially on the islands, people would always take me all the way to where I need to go, eventhough it may have been completely out of their way!

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