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The gender of the church: conflicts and social wholes on Ambrym.


In 1912 Pastor T. Watt Legatt wrote a letter to "The New Hebridean Magazine", the journal for the British colonialists in the New Hebrides. In this letter he expressed his utter horror at the position of the Melanesian women:
 The outstanding feature of Woman's position is that of inferiority.
 In some places she cannot pass in front of a man. She may be bowed
 to the earth with a heavy load, but if a man comes along she must
 crush herself into the bush at the wayside to allow him a clear
 road. When he is seated she must make her way behind him, and if he
 is of high rank, crawl out of the sight on her hands and knees.

He was not alone in having this opinion. Frater, who visited the northern islands of New Hebrides in the early part of the 20th century, wrote:
 Apart from the fact that we are carrying out the Lord's command,
 I do not think a stronger argument for mission work could be
 obtained than the great change it makes for the lives of women.
 (Frater 1922:119)

In spite of the influence the church has had on the lives of women in this region the church has traditionally first and foremost been looked upon as a new arena for male power, and male leadership in the church has been looked upon as a continuation of traditional male leadership (Allen 1981; Rubenstein 1981). However, more recently, the connection between church and women's lives has been a matter of more anthropological focus (Jolly and Macintyre 1989; Jolly 2003; Douglas 2002, 2003; McDougall 2003; Paini 2003). I will in this paper show how the church on Ambrym has become first and foremost a female gendered institution. I argue that the female appropriation of the church has influenced the relation between the genders in certain practices and also the relationship between the church and kastom. Whereas the church has become a female institution, kastom has to a certain extent become male. This gendered relationship between church and kastom is, as I will show, one of mutual interdependence, rather than exclusion and opposition. I argue that one of the reasons why the church has become female gendered is the connection between the way the church has come to represent social communities and the way structural premises underpinning kinship and marriage make connection-making a female gendered practice. I will therefore start this argument by showing how the church becomes gendered and thereby how it has become an idiom of social belonging.


The village of Ranon, with about 150 inhabitants, lies on the north-western coast of Ambrym. Ambrym is part of the chain of islands making up the nation Vanuatu. These islands were officially colonised in 1906 under the name of New Hebrides as a joint British-French condominium government. As a result of the dispersal and remoteness of many small islands and maybe even more the character of this dual, and often split joint colonial administration, Vanuatu was never really efficiently colonised. On the contrary, the impact of colonialism has been very small compared to other French colonies in the Pacific such as New Caledonia, or British colonies like Fiji. On Ambrym there was also at first a strong resistance to the establishment of a mission. Both the Melanesian Mission and London Missionary Society made efforts to build a mission on the island, but had to surrender because of 'native hostility' (see also Patterson 1976; Miller 1981, 1989; Rio 2002). From the year 1900 and onwards the Presbyterian mission made an effort to get a foothold on the island, but they were not very successful. In the first part of the 20th century the non- Christians were the majority on the island, and very few men who were part of the graded society (the mage) had joined the church. The graded society has been thoroughly described in the literature from Vanuatu (See Allen 1981; Rubinstein 1981; Patterson 1976, 1981; Jolly 1995; Rio 1997, 2002). It is a ritual society where men compete for hierarchical grades through large pig-killing ceremonies. The missionaries on the island strongly opposed traditional institutions such as the mage. The conflict between the Christians and the non-Christians on the island has often been a conflict between those with most traditional resources, i.e. pigs, land, magic, and those with the least. Those who had access to pigs could pay for grades in the graded society, but those without had nothing to lose by becoming Christian.

Even though the church was established rather late, and in spite of sustained resistance, the church is today without doubt the most important social institution on Ambrym. Arriving in Ranon, as with most places in Vanuatu, on a Sunday just before church time you will witness a whole community, young and old, women and men, dressed in their best clothes. Men wear their newest pair of trousers and cleanest white shirt and women wear long spectacular colourful "Mother Hubbard" dresses with umbrellas against the sun, everyone carrying a Bible or a psalm book under their arm. Inside the church, women are placed on the one side and the men on the other while the children run between the rows and join either one. Long before the service starts there are people in the church, and often someone starts singing, and those present join in while waiting for the service to begin. I never saw or heard of anyone in Ranon doing any other work than cooking on a Sunday. There were no activities in the gardens and no one cleaned their houses or washed their clothes. Even the cooking was done before church time. The women of a household would get up early in the morning and prepare the traditional pudding, the lap-lap. It would be placed in the ground oven before they set off to church. It was amazing how almost everybody attended church. Although the Ranon church was quite large, with seats for about a hundred, there would always be a crowd outside because the church was full. They would sit on their mats in the shade of a tree and join in on the singing of psalms. It was therefore no surprise to me that when I returned to Ambrym in 1999 they had started building a new and bigger church in Ranon which they were still working on during my last visit in 2000.

During my first visit in 1995-96 they had only one priest in the Presbyterian Church in Ranon. He was a man from West Ambrym and during most of our stay he was in the West. However, the community did not suffer without him. Both Sunday ceremonies and regular morning sessions with Bible reading were held by one of the elders of the community. There were five elders and among them one woman. They were all very capable of saying prayers and performing church services. My impression was that the Presbyterian Church in Ranon, which was the one I most frequently visited, was locally run. Jolly (1989) as well has pointed out that protestant organizations in Melanesia, with a congregational ideology, have made an effort to train indigenous people to be leaders of the church. The Presbyterian Church is today predominantly run by ni-Vanuatu. This is in contrast to the Catholic Church which is based on a much more hierarchical structure, and is even today run mainly by Europeans. The Catholic Church in West Ambrym for instance had, during my fieldwork in 1995-6, a French resident priest.


The Presbyterian Church is the dominant church in Ranon, and most of the people in the surrounding villages join the services in this church. In Fantor village however, a neighbouring village that seems to be almost an extension of Ranon, there is another church called the Church of Holiness or the Neil Thomas Ministry (NTM) named after the Australian founder of the church. The NTM in Fantor was established in the early eighties and during this period there had been much turbulence and also violence between people in Ranon and people in Fantor. The NTM members in Fantor had previously been part of the Presbyterian Church in Ranon, and their break with the Ranon church triggered fights and accusations of sorcery for years afterwards. At its peak the conflict culminated in a big fight on the beach where men from Ranon fought men from Fantor with clubs and knives. This fight is still talked about as one of the big events in recent history. The police from the capital had to show up and cool matters down. Today most of the people in Fantor are members of the NTM church community, and they have recruited some members from Ranon and other surrounding villages as well.

The borders between the different church communities are not random and the breakaway from the Presbyterian Church and the establishment of the NTM church in Fantor is significant. In order to analyse the factors relevant to this process of splitting a church and the borders created between them, I include an analysis of the relation between the church and what I have elsewhere (Eriksen 2004) called 'origin route', a concept designed to describe people's historical movement. People have always moved, and mythological stories and genealogies tracing back ten to fifteen generations show that movement is an essential part of social life on Ambrym. Tracing origins, whether it is the origin of people or of rights to knowledge or designs for material objects, is usually done by recounting stories of where people come from and how they moved in the landscape; always underlining the temporary character of any settlement. However, during the last hundred years, as a result of the colonial plantation economy in Ranon, the degree of population movement has increased. Whole villages were deserted as people moved in order to seek employment on the plantations. During the latter half of the eighteen hundreds white land speculators had bought up large areas of land on several of the islands in Vanuatu. In particular the French company CNNH (Compagnie Caledonienne des Nouvelles-Hebrides) was aggressively seeking to bring French settlers in to create business. After the Condominium government was established in 1906 the British tried to control the French in their land policy and vice versa. It thus slowed down the process of expatriate settlement and business to some extent. Nevertheless, a great number of plantations had been established, and among them one in Ranon on North Ambrym. Ambrym people not only moved to work on the plantation in Ranon but also to other islands such as Malo. It might be argued that the opportunity to move beyond not only the village but also the island was eagerly sought by the Ambrym men and women who travelled widely.

The escalation of movement and travel under the colonial economy contributed considerably to the increased level of disputes over land rights, especially after Independence when land was to be retrieved by the 'kastom owners'. Both on the national as well as the local level attempts have been made to negotiate and find solutions to land disputes. Land surveys and genealogical enquiries have been undertaken by the land department's local representatives, but this was not an easy task, because there was no agreement on who the original dwellers in a place were and where they had moved. I argue that such a disagreement over 'origin routes' might trigger the establishment of new and rival church communities. I will illustrate my point here by analysing the conflict between Ranon and Fantor that culminated in the big club fight mentioned above.


Ranon was the site of the first mission station on North Ambrym and it was also the site of the only plantation on the island. The plantation owner also ran a store and Ranon became a centre for commerce and trade on Ambrym. People moved from the inland settlements to the mission station and plantation. Old people remember how their grandparents decided to leave the old settlements because of the fear of posen (black magic) or as a result of war and conflict with neighbouring villages. The increasing fear of posen was partly a result of a growing number of people dying of new diseases brought along by the missionaries and the traders. Accusations of posen led to tensions and club fights broke out between villages. When the fear of posen and the tensions escalated, people sought refuge in Ranon close to the mission station. The missionaries were concerned about presenting the mission station as a peaceful area (see for instance Frater 1922). Ranon then became a settlement of people from different areas, all with different origin routes. In the figure below I have showed some of the routes followed by people who settled in Ranon two and three generations ago. One of the routes goes from Hawor and down to Ranon, another one goes from Wilifil and ends up in Ranon, and the third goes from Fante in West Ambrym, through Port Vila, and ends up in Ranon. The last two routes going into Ranon, the Wilifil route and the Fante route, end up in Fantor.

When Fantor was established as a new village with its own church, it was only people in Ranon who had origin routes from elsewhere who moved to Fantor. I have elsewhere (Eriksen 2004) described in detail the relationship between origin route and church adherence. Here it suffices to point out that there seems to be a connection between the complex compositions of villages today on Ambrym on the one hand, and the establishment of new church communities on the other. This complex composition of settlements is characteristic of most villages on North Ambrym, and Patterson (2002:206) has described this for Fona village north of Fanrereo in the following manner:
 In 1968 the only Fona residents who were also Fona people in the
 senses of the origin narratives, comprised male and junior or
 elderly, divorced female members of two out of eleven households.
 The majority of Fona residents were actually "other" people, who,
 while strongly maintaining their domain of affiliation, had been
 drawn to Fona by preachers, stores and the persuasive powers of the
 senior man of the village, the yam master Koran, over which
 eponymous ritual he presided annually.

In Ranon, as I have pointed out earlier, the same has happened as in Fona, and furthermore, negotiations between different origin routes take place through the churches. The distinction between Ranon and Fantor is made visible through their different church communities.

The specific church you belong to on Ambrym works, then, as an idiom for conflicts and difference. These conflicts often turn around political control over land and resources. By remaining Presbyterian in Ranon one shows that one is of the place. The conflicts between Ranon and Fantor, or between the Presbyterian Church and the NTM Church, were a matter of emphasizing origin, but churches can also be used as an idiom for conflicts at other, more personal, levels. For instance, in North Ambrym an elderly woman had for some time been dissatisfied with her son's wife. The wife had lived with her son for close to two years without yet becoming pregnant. There were rumours in the village that the wife was drinking abortive substances, to prevent getting pregnant. The two women, the wife and her husband's mother, were often observed having loud arguments, and it was not uncommon that the young wife ran home to her mother, only to return quietly before nightfall. The conflict culminated with the mother of the man demanding that the wife of the son return to her natal place; in other words a divorce. A village council, a kot (court) gathered run by the three chiefs in the village, and the whole village attended, and several of the relatives of the girl spoke in her favour, arguing that the mother-in-law- was too stronghed (strong head, stubborn). The chiefs asked the young man himself whether he was unhappy with his wife, and he replied that he did not want her to leave. The mother however, argued that the couple were only merred long bus (married in the bush) and were not properly married in the church. After loud arguments and a lot of crying by the women present, the man's mother's brother, spoke to the mother (his sister), and said: 'You call yourself a Christian woman. You carry the Bible under your arm. But you kill love!' The village court ended without any agreement having been achieved. The following Sunday, however, the mother-in-law did not turn up in her usual church as she usually did, but was seen on her way to another church with her bright umbrella and Bible.

Another Amhrym woman broke with her Church and joined another after a domestic conflict. This woman had moved to her husband's village after marriage, and had also changed church adherence after marriage. Her husband was never in the village during any of my fieldwork periods. He was working on a cargo ship abroad and sent her money now and then. This could not compensate for his absence and all the work she had to carry out alone in the garden as well as at home. The mother-in-law was old and sick, and needed care. Gradually the woman started attending the church in her natal village instead of the church in her husband's village, and people saw this as the beginning of a movement back to the village she came from.

The church makes social wholes manifest. Through the church social communities, to a certain degree based on origin route, are distinguished. But it is also through the church that conflicts between such communities are made apparent. This relates to the function of the church as the primary basis of association and cooperation beyond the household. I noticed during my stay in Ranon that when work parties were organized, for instance to make copra, these are organized within the churches. So that when for instance a woman living in Ranon, but a member of the NTM Church in Fantor, called people to help her on her copra plot, she only called people who were members of the NTM Church in Fantor. This emphasizes the way the church defines social communities, and divisions between them.

We have seen how the church marks difference and how the distinction between the churches has long historical roots. I now want to focus on how the internal 'tying together' of the church takes place. How can the church operate as a community within?


In order to understand the dynamics of the internal solidarity and community within the church I will argue that it is essential that we include an analysis of what I will analyze as a new form of ceremonial economy: fund raisings.

The Presbyterian Church in Ranon involves much more than Sunday services. Quite often people organize different kinds of fund-raising events for the church. This is a part of church activity that is almost exclusively performed by women. Sometimes women in Ranon organize small markets and sell the produce among themselves and give the money to the church. This was organized every Tuesday morning on the lawn in front of the secondary school during my stay in Ranon in 1999. On other occasions larger fund-raising activities are organized. These involve a number of people and are something of a happening in the village. The women start cooking early and already at dawn the fires in the kitchen houses show that women are busy preparing food for the occasion. Some make pudding, others kill a fowl, and some just bring their garden produce. These larger occasions often take place in front of the church where there is an open space under the shade of two huge breadfruit trees. The women sit around on their mats and sell the food. On these days no one prepares an evening meal as usual. Together everyone eats the food made for the fund raising event at the site.

During my fieldwork in 1999, people in Ranon organized a fund-raising event which they called 'mate to meet' after an Australian fund-raising concept. The idea was that everyone should bring along a plate with food and then the organizers would read out names of people who should eat their meals together. Two families would exchange plates and pay for the food they got from the other family, and then sit down together and eat. The money would then be contributed to the church. This particular fund-raising event was organized on the lawn in front of the secondary school and had been planned and announced during church service the week before. It was one of the village chiefs who organized the event. He had made accurate lists of all the households in Ranon and decided who should eat together. As people started arriving one beautifully decorated dish after another appeared. It was an overwhelming sight. They had wrapped traditional pudding (laplap) and meat in green banana leaves tying the leaves together with red hibiscus flowers. Most of the food brought to the event was traditional style cooking based on crops from the gardens. Every household in Ranon turned up at the event, sitting in groups around an open space where the chief was standing as he called out the names of those who should eat together.

These fund-raising events do not involve a great deal of money. Actually they 'sell' their products rather cheaply compared to prices of rice and tinned meat in the cooperative store. I suggest that the main reason for organizing these markets is not primarily to bring money to the church. The time and energy they put into these markets far exceed the money they bring in. At the 'mate to meet' event every dish, which was enough to feed a whole family, was sold for a hundred vatu, which is less than a kilo of rice in the store. It seemed that people were eager to arrange different kinds of fund-raising events almost for the fun of it. People enjoyed organizing and participating in fund-raising activities. It broke up the routine of everyday life. The children played, women laughed together, and men would sit around in groups smoking their stick tobacco. However, perhaps the most important reason was that these events brought people together for a common purpose, sharing food.

It has been pointed out from elsewhere in the region that decline in traditional ceremonial exchange activity and the commoditization of food does not necessarily involve the disruption of kin obligations. Rather, in order to understand how food becomes a commodity (see also Maclean 1989), the social dynamics of a network of social relations based on kinship is of primary importance. Benediktson (2002) has described how creating a sweet potato market in Papua New Guinea was framed within a kinship universe, and cannot be understood separated from this. On Ambrym as well, the monetary economy has not ended the logic of sharing. It was often pointed out to us that a kitchen house full of garden produce; yam, taro, and banana, was not a pleasant sight. This produce should not be harvested in order to be piled in the kitchen house. Rather, this produce should be circulated among the villagers and even beyond the village. An economy based on frequent sharing easily adapts to fund raising regimes which make the produce of individual labour circulate in the village.

The ceremonial economy on Ambrym, based to a large degree on generalized exchange, for instance at marriage, circumcision ceremonies, or death ceremonies, also provides contexts for the circulation of this garden produce. A large number of people contribute to the payments during these ceremonies, and thus transform produce from the garden from private into communal produce. In the past there was a greater repertoire of ceremonies that had this effect. Patterson (1981) has described some rites that were common on North Ambrym before the church was established. The Serebuan rite for instance was a rite closely connected to the joking relationship that exists between a man and some of the kinsfolk from his mother's place, on North Ambrym called the wuruen. This ceremony is no longer performed on North Ambrym, because it is no longer regarded proper to do so. The church has banned it because it entails the singing of insulting and 'improper' songs with reference to sexual intercourse. The rite involved payments between a man and his wuruen for the right to sing these songs in public, by which the singer would gain status and metaphysical power. Another ceremony which is still performed to a certain degree, but which is becoming less frequent, is the tobuan ceremony. This ceremony is directed towards the mother's place as well, and involves payment of pigs and yams. The tobuan can also be directed towards the wife's place, as a way of paying respect to the maternal place of the children.

The North Ambrym ceremonial economy was, and to an extent still is, based on people contributing substantially to each other's ceremonies. I understand the fund-raising events as part of this economy. In addition to raising money for the church, people share the food piled up in their kitchen houses.


McDougall (2003) has pointed out in the case of people in Ranongga in the Solomon Islands, that the church offered a new kind of opportunity for collective action, in particular through fund-raising events. In a similar manner I found that the fund-raising events make the products of individual labour circulate and thereby become communal. In the name of the church individual products are transformed into relational products. The events of history have decreased the repertoire of elaborate kinship ceremonies on Ambrym and given way to the church, but the church has not remained foreign. Strathern's hypothesis about social life in Melanesia that 'relations are only recognized if they assume a particular form' (1988:180-81) is particularly relevant in this context. It is as if the principles governing the old ceremonies are now present in the church activities. In Strathern's terms the appropriate 'forms' are a matter of 'aesthetics' (Strathern 1988). Relations can either be closed or open. Ceremonies where people share food are a means to open relations, and new relations are generated. The new kinds of ceremonies, such as church fund-raising, must be pressed into these 'appearances'. Contributions of foodstuffs and the sharing of other household's contributions make the fund-raising events into events that pull an individual household into the larger community. In this way the fund-raising events open the relations between households. The old ceremonies had the same effect. The individual household contributed and then they shared a meal together served by those who were given the original contribution. Both the older ceremonies and the fund-raising events open relations in this manner and thus merge households into a social whole.


On the one hand the church has, through different kinds of fund-raising activities, taken on a relational form creating social wholes, and in this way the church takes on the same form as the older ceremonies. In other words, the church maintains the open relational form that the traditional ceremonial economy required. On the other hand, it is not the case that the church has just replaced the old ceremonies, and thereby given the old content a new appearance. I will show how the church has transformed certain aspects of the ceremonial economy tied to gender relations.

The social structure of the Ambrym ceremonial economy has an inherent internal contradiction. On the one hand, the principles of sharing and creating social wholes lie at the bottom of every ceremony. The prestations are based on generalized exchange. On the other hand, the main persons of the ceremony eclipse this generalized exchange. The man who pays for his son's circumcision for instance (the malyel) or pays for his son's bride price, presents the heap of food he has received from a large number of relatives as if it was a gift from him to the wife's place and he thus emerges as an industrious man (see also Rio 2002). This is essential in the demonstration of leadership qualifications. Patterson (2002:129) has argued with regard to leadership development on Ambrym that:
 In the emergence of leaders, the interplay between precedence in
 an apparently fixed hierarchy related to place and origin, and
 achievement in an inherently competitive system that required great
 organizational skills and political acumen and a forceful
 personality, was a delicate matter.

The great organizational skills are first and foremost made visible during these ceremonies. It is of vital importance that the man who organizes a ceremony emerges as the one who had managed to extract resources, and that the resources are presented as a gift from him. This illusion is only momentary, because after the presentation of food to, in the case of a marriage and a circumcision ceremony, the wife's place, the return prestation is shared out among the many relatives who contributed to the original payment. This tension between the social whole on the one hand and on the other hand the one person who emerges as the big man (Sahlins 1963) is present in all ceremonies whether it is a marriage, a circumcision, a tobuan etc. For instance, in Fanrereo in 2000 I observed the payment of one of the largest bride prices, to my knowledge, in North Ambrym. It had been rumoured for quite a while before the ceremony that the bride's brothers had signalled that they expected to receive a rather large sum of money and a great number of pigs. The groom's father had, on his side, mentioned figures that had made people wonder where he would be able get that kind of money. I was told that one of the bride's brothers, one of our neighbours in Ranon, expected 200 000 vatu, at least. The average on Ambrym is often lower than the national standard of 80 000 vatu. The groom and his father had been watched as they walked around and visited villages and people from whom they expected contributions. They visited father's sisters of the groom married in other places, and they visited classificatory fathers and brothers of the groom in other villages. Rio (2002a) has followed in detail the collections of contributions to ceremonies of this kind, and has concluded that contributions come from different kinds of relatives, and not only agnates. Relations to other affines and to the agnates of the mother are also used to collect contributions. In a marriage the total population who participate is divided into two sides, the groom's and the bride's side, and people choose on which side they contribute.

In the days before the ceremony, people walked to Fanrereo where the groom lived and put their contributions in the groom's kitchen house. Some just left a yam or two. Others arrived with several bundles of bananas as well as money. On the morning of the ceremony, people were still arriving with contributions to the bride price. From Ranon people carried heavy burdens of garden crops and live pigs. On the ceremonial ground in Fanrereo everything was gathered in ten different heaps. Beside each heap, there was a stick with money fastened on the top, and to each stick a pig of variable size, was fastened by a rope. At this point, when all the contributors on the groom's side were present and busy helping the groom make different heaps to go to different parties on the bride's side, the communal effort to gather the bride price was highly visible.

As the ceremony officially started and her father's sister had led the bride to the ceremonial ground covered by the red mat, the groom's father played the leading role. The relatives who had contributed food and money had disappeared and were sitting at the outskirts of the ceremonial ground. No one but the groom and his father and a father's brother was allowed to enter the ceremonial ground as the payment of the bride price had started. This was emphasized strongly to me several times. It was as if no one should disturb the image created when the groom's father initially gave an envelope to the bride's brother which made the father's sister lift the red mat which until then had covered the bride, and then continued to call out the names of the different parties on the bride's side who should receive their share of the bride price.

The envelope given had contained the bride price, which I later heard had been somewhere near to 200 000 vatu, in cash. The father of the groom had with this act given the contribution of half the population in the area, who had contributed with varying shares, as if it was a payment from him to the bride's brother. It was the groom and his father's show altogether. The others were only spectators. At this moment the groom and his father represented all those who had contributed. They were the big men of the show, eclipsing all the others who had contributed during the last few weeks. This transformation from a number of small items from a number of people into one large contribution given by the groom and his father was however only momentary, because as the payment was being made, the large heaps disappeared into small pieces given in different directions on the bride's side. The pigs were given to each of the bride's brothers in Ranon.

During this ceremony there was a shift from the communal contribution to the personal achievements of the groom and his father. This tension can be seen as gendered. It is men who emerge as the one person who eclipses the social whole, and although it is not only women who contribute to the payment, it is often relations to out married sisters or mother's agnates which are used in the process. One might say that the total social whole is female gendered in relation to the personification of the ceremony which is usually male.


What happens then to the gendered dynamics of the ceremonial economy as the church becomes the arena for the sharing? On the one hand the church replaces the older ceremonies, in the sense that social wholes are now represented through the church, as I have shown by pointing to the connection between origin route and church adherence. On the other hand, the church has not just replaced the old ceremonies. I will claim that the essential change is related to the gender of the church. The church has become female. Established views on the relationship between the church and the ceremonial economy in Vanuatu have focussed on the relationship to the men's graded society. Allen (1981) has argued that the men's graded society in West Ambae in northern Vanuatu, is reflected in the title-hierarchy of the church. After missionization men sought these titles in order to make the church into a new form of graded society. Allen has pointed out that even the numbers of grades coincided, respectively as: moli, levuhi, vira with deacon, teachers and elders. Whereas political authority earlier was achieved through titles in the graded society, the namange or the hungwe, the church was now the road to leadership. Allen has pointed out that the different church communities; the Church of Christ, which was the dominating Church in West Ambae, the Melanesian mission, the French Marists, the SDA, and the Apostolic Church, were 'the modern equivalent of local differences in graded society hierarchies and rituals' (1981:127).

Rubinstein (1981) has addressed the way Christianity was first introduced on Malo in northern Vanuatu. The traditional power structures remained. The local graded society, the sumbuea, had fifteen ranked eating classes, implying that the holders of each grade had to eat separately, as was common in the graded societies in northern Vanuatu. The higher the rank, the higher the prestige and the political power. Major pig killing ceremonies opened the entry into new eating classes. Big-men attracted followers by sponsoring the pig killing ceremonies of others. The formation of the church did not alter this conception of 'following': 'lesser men still followed greater men, in this instance the greater men being those who were best versed in Christianity; women still followed men' (1981:143).

Barker (1992) has argued that we must stop regarding Christianity as a substitution for traditional religion, and explain the changes it has created as well as its integration and adaption into indigenous life-worlds. Philibert (1992), for instance, outlines the changes that the introduction of Christianity has had on the lives of the ni-Vanuatu in Erakor village on Efate in Vanuatu. He stresses that the 'traditional institutions' were lost in the villagers' 'new life'. Not only changes of spiritual order but also the political organization of the village was altered. Philibert argues that: 'By adopting Christianity the people of Erakor obtained a new tool, a new model, for thinking about themselves, for defining themselves, and for guiding their actions' (1992:116). However, Philibert sees a link between the traditional authority and the new social order as well. He claims that the 'Erakor villagers in a sense simply replaced one set of sacred figures by another' (1992:117).

I believe that in North Ambrym this process may have worked somewhat differently. Women run the church markets and the fund-raising events. Women are teachers as well as elders in the church. Women's involvement in the church does not only parallel, but far exceeds, men's preoccupation with the church. Both men and women go to church regularly, but in addition women have their own church organization, the PWMU (Presbyterian Women's Mission Union) and attend church meetings exclusively for women. There is no such church organization exclusively for men. Every Tuesday morning the Presbyterian women in Ranon and the neighbouring villages gather in the church, either in the big concrete church in Ranon or in smaller bamboo-churches in the other villages, for meetings in the PWMU. Once a month or so they have their so called 'combined meetings' which involve PWMU women from all over North Ambrym. Every year there are General Assemblies in Port Vila. Quite a few of the women in Ranon had been to one or two of these assemblies, and many of the almost worn out T-shirts used by both men, women and children with church slogans bear witness to this. In addition to these formal meetings, women often just gather in the church in order to make handicrafts in each other's company. These handicrafts, like flutes and pandanus mats, will be sold and the money is given to the church.

It seems as if the church is more open to women than some of the older institutions and ceremonies were. I have shown how personifications of ceremonies usually were male, and how the 'social whole' became eclipsed in the background One might say that the church has been presented as an alternative to the already existing social order where men performed the leading parts of the ceremonial economy. I argue that the church has taken on an open relational form that includes ceremonies where the sharing of food is central but the church has also changed important aspects of the ceremonial economy, in particular the possibility of becoming the big man of the ceremony. I will describe one ceremony, a new yam ceremony, through three different periods in order to illustrate my point. During the last hundred years this ceremony has significantly changed, first and foremost in gender emphasis.

New Yam 1996

I took part in the New Yam ceremony in Ranon in 1996. The day that was selected for the New Yam ceremony some time in advance by a ritual expert from Fona village, started with a church ceremony where the yams were blessed. The day before everyone had been to their gardens to dig up the first yam tubers. This is something of a ritual in itself. Extreme care has to be taken. If one of the yams breaks on the way down to the village it implies that a man in the village will die. On the morning of the day of New Yam, everyone brought some of their fresh and unbroken yams to the church. The church was not as crowded as usual, and there were almost only women present except for the male elder who was to lead the ceremony. The women placed the yams in front of the altar, and the elder held a brief ceremony and blessed the yams. Shortly afterwards some women placed the yam in different heaps with price tags on them. Then all the women bought some, and the money was collected for the church.

Immediately after the church service everyone gathered outside the old Nakamal (communal house) bringing new yams. This time almost the whole community was gathered. The men however, sat in the background except one of the chiefs who helped the women organize the yams in different heaps. They took quite a long time on this process. Tubers were carried back and forth between heaps, in order to make all of the heaps equally big. When I asked about possible patterns in the yam distribution I was told that the important thing was that no one left with the same yam they had brought. After the women had finished their work, the chief called out the names of various women who were to cook the New Yam meal together. These women were gemasul (related through husband). The different women collected the yams and went off to prepare their meal. The yam was cooked with taro and coconut milk, mixed with 'island cabbage', and cooked in a ground oven. At dusk the women who had cooked together gathered with their children and ate. For a while I wondered where the men were, because they usually eat together with the women. I quickly found out that almost all the men were drunk. They had gathered together just after the yam was distributed and shared some bottles of wine and whiskey that had been bought the day before when the chief of the community owned speed boat had had an errand in West Ambrym. For many of them the day ended without the New Yam meal.

New Yam is about distributing yams in the village, and thereby making the product of individual labour into something communal, in the same way as the other ceremonies and the fundraisings I have described. The church is the framework for this transformation. As we can see from the description I have given, women are the organizers of the distribution. I was surprised when I learnt about the key roles women have in this ceremony, because as a symbol the yam is used in various male contexts (cf. Deacon 1934; Layard 1942; Patterson 1976; Rio 1997, 2002a). Jolly (1995:67) reports that on South Pentecost women do not take part in the planting of yam, because yam is associated with men, connected to male work and the male part in procreation, whereas taro is associated with women, and appropriate as women's work. The same is true for North Ambrym. Furthermore in descriptions of New Yam ceremonies from the past women played quite another role in the ceremony:

New Yam in 1887

The first missionary on Ambrym, Charles Murray, gives in his diary an account of a New Yam ceremony he attended in Metanmerbul. On the 10th of March 1887 he writes:
 As there is to be a great feast of "First Fruits" tomorrow, and as
 all the missionaries on their islands set their faces against it as
 being an unmitigated evil, I asked Bongnaim about it.... Is there
 any evil about it then?

 'do you offer the first fruits to spirits or demons?'

 'before you allot the large heap into its several portions, do
 you say anything?'

 'No, we just beat the drum, and each individual comes to take
 his share'

 Bongnaims replies were clear and firm, and from my opinion of
 Bong, I was inclined to believe him.

On the 11th of March he walked to Metanmerbul having told himself that perhaps the other missionaries were wrong about these first fruit ceremonies. Maybe these ceremonies were not a matter of sacrifice to demons, but had another dimension:
 On arriving found all busy, sat down ... they spoke of the feast
 'Yes' I said, 'I am to watch it, and what is more, I am to return
 thanks to God for his goodness for supplying us with so much food,
 for it was he that made it grow'

 Leaving my position I went to see the chief ... I next proceed to
 the 'har' = the public place in the village. As we approached, the
 drum beat for them to gather the things into one heap. This took
 some time. During the interval I spoke with the chief Magmagmelun,
 who sat on my left. I was to return thanks to God for his goodness.
 He said that there had been a great deal of rain. The yams were
 small. 'Tell him to send no more rain, but plenty of sunshine',
 which I undertook to do. Seeing one of those in charge of piling up
 the heaps, I said I was as soon as all was gathered together, to
 return thanks to God.

Murray went on to thank God, and prayed for more sunshine. He held a long talk about good and evil, and in the end asked for forgiveness for all sins.
 The men then proceeded to allot with dignity and gravity, becoming
 judges. They spoke in whispers so that none might know where their
 portions lay. This took a long time. Everyone in the village of the
 male sex, had to get their share. After the allotment, came the
 counting by a couple of tellers. The moment the counting began, the
 drum struck up at exactly the same second. No English hand could
 have been more prompt. The counting took a long time ... I had
 incidentally come to learn there was an allotment for me. So, I said
 I am a white man and I won't deprive you of your food. 'No' they
 shouted, 'you are one of ourselves- a native'. I had to
 submit.... This part of the program over, the old chief on my left
 and one of the tellers arose. The chief pronounced the names of the
 owners of the lots.... After the lots were all assigned, the chief
 gave a speech. He had a very dull commonplace style of talking.
 Stepping from side to side, from one foot to the other. He got
 slightly more animated, but only a little.... His spoke of what had
 recently taken place amongst them. He alluded to deaths, and to
 charges of poison. How they had been avenged...

 I enjoyed the whole affair very much, and could for my part see
 no evil in it...

Murray did not mention women much in his account, and it is uncertain whether his remark that all the men in the village should receive their share of the yam, was something he was told, or whether it was he himself who deduced this. He however, remarks that he, half way during the proceedings, 'went visiting the women', while the men were busy allotting the yam, and from this I conclude that the women were not present on the 'har' and were not taking an active part in the proceedings he was describing.

New Yam in 1943

Paton (1979) described a New Yam ceremony that took place in 1943. The whole ceremony takes place at a ceremonial ground, which he calls the hara, where the Chief of Fanla at the time, Hanlam, had the leading part:
 When all seemed ready, the men took the yams and bananas into the
 centre of the enclosure, and placed them in a heap, yams resting
 against the bananas. Hanlam took in his hand a small bundle of
 sticks called muju, which represents yam. With the muju in his left
 hand, he moved to the further side of the hara, enclosure, and made
 passes with the muju in various directions. He was said to be
 thinking about the yam in all the surrounding villages, and, in a
 sense, to be 'praying for a good crop for all'. He then turned full
 on to the gathering of men, and gave the sign for the climax of the

 One man, squatted in front of the two drums (atingting),
 heartily began to beat a specific rhythm.... Being specific rhythms
 significant of the New Yam ceremonies, they carried the message to
 the surrounding villages, where other drums began to beat and
 spread the message further ... The rhythm was said to represent the
 sound of rainwater...

 During all these proceedings the women stood watching from
 beyond the stone walls of the enclosure.

 At the same time as the vigorous beating of the drums, the
 conch shells were blown, and all the men shouted and cheered, and
 threw oranges out beyond the enclosure, mainly in the direction
 beyond the spot where Hanlam stood during his part in the ritual.
 They were said to be chasing away the old year, or the old yam.

 To end the formal proceedings, the food is piled in little heaps,
 much care being taken to divide it equally or fairly equally; and
 the piles are then distributed, as free gifts, among all the men

Comparing the role of women in the three descriptions, it becomes obvious that the role of women has changed dramatically. Murray described a scene where only men are present and in Paton's description the women were outside the enclosure. What has happened?


Today women's roles in the ceremony have become much more prominent. Not only are women now made visible in the ceremony, but their parts are also far more dominant than the parts the men play. Whereas men before performed the whole ceremony by themselves, behind the large stone walls of the enclosure, men have today lost their prominence in this ceremony altogether. As my account of the ceremony in 1996 reveals, men were not present in the church at all, and although they were present outside the Nakamal, when the actual redistribution was taking place, they only watched the whole procedure. Only the chief and the women were taking part in the distribution of the yam. The chief did not have the prominent role that Hanlam did in 1943 or Chief Magmagmelun in 1887. The Chief who helped the women allot the yam during New Yam in 1996 had a very quiet role.

One might say that men and women have changed parts in this ceremony. Whereas women some decades ago were the observers of the ceremony, men are the spectators today. Not only have women been able to take part in the ceremony, but they have also replaced the men. Why is this so? The church, as the new arena for conducting ceremonies, has changed the structural principles on which the ceremonies are conducted. The role of men who seek to emerge as those who control the work of the others in the ceremonial context, by presenting the food as if it was their own, has disappeared as the ceremony has come to be a church based event. The other aspect of the ceremony, the contributions and distribution of food within the social whole, remain as the main aspect of the ceremony. Women were of course before the establishment of the church also part of this generalized exchange although their physical presence on the harl was tabooed. Women worked in the gardens with their husbands to produce what the husband brought along to the ceremony and they received the yam their husbands brought back. Women's work was eclipsed (Strathern 1988) by men's ceremonial performance during the New Yam ceremony, as well as in other ceremonies where men exchanged food that women had contributed. During church based ceremonies women's roles are made apparent.

The New Yam ceremony is significantly changed because of the new Christian framework it operates within. The ceremony is no longer conducted by a chief but by a priest or an elder. One no longer beats the drum and blows in the conch shells, but rather preaches from the Bible and thanks God for the crops. One no longer throws oranges but buys yam from each other and contributes the money to the church. The basic idea of the ceremony, making the yams circulate, remains, however, but now it takes place within the framework of the church. The ceremony builds on the established models for making the yams circulate and thereby emphasizing the sharing of substances within the community, the way it had been done previously in the harl. However, the change in the sacralization of space when the church substitutes for the harl (see also Jolly 1989), opens up for women's participation and women are no longer eclipsed in these contexts, but recognized.


I suggest that women are prominent not only in the New Yam ceremony, but also in the church, because transformations and opening up of new domains have been tied to female agency in many respects. I have argued elsewhere (Eriksen 2004) that it is the links through women, often mothers, which stand out as alternative roads of relation making, and movement and the creation of new settlements historically relied on women opening up the roads. Furthermore, during movement into completely new territories, such as the urban spaces of Port Vila and Luganville, women became key points for their male relatives on their journeys to and from the towns. Christianity represents another such new territory that has been opened up by the female movement. It is women's ability to make connections, or to be 'roads', particularly after marriage, which has made the making of social wholes, the creation of communities, a female capacity. At the same time as the church has made women more visible in the ceremonial domain, women have made the church into a communal movement. The church today has through the visualized female agency become the most important social institution on North Ambrym.

The church is thus 'female' in the sense that it connects people and operates as a social whole in regard to most important social activities. The church is thus not about creating big men and about leadership the way the graded society was, and to a certain extent the general ceremonial economy. Rather, in order to understand the social dynamics of the church on Ambrym, and I would think on other islands in northern Vanuatu as well as elsewhere in Melanesia, it is important to recognize that the church has brought about social change and is not only about giving the old content a new expression. On Ambrym the re-gendering of the ceremonial economy within the context of the church is one such clearly visible change. By this I not only mean that women are more prominent within the new ceremonial economy, but, and more importantly, the focus is no longer on personifications of the ceremony but on the social whole, and this implies a shift in gender values. This does not imply of course that men are no longer present in the church or that women in the past did not take part in the ceremonial economy. Rather it is the dominant gender value which has changed; whereas the value of connection-making before was dominated by the value of personifications, the opposite is the case today.

Within the frameworks of the church on Ambrym, personifications cannot take place at the expense of the social whole. The social whole is not about competition in a graded hierarchy, as the graded society was, but about emphasizing the opposite; lateral connection making. The church has thus become female, because it is a female capacity to connect people and places and open relations by creating social wholes, it is a male capacity to do the opposite. Practices that are male gendered on Ambrym are about emphasizing oneself more than emphasizing the social whole. Such practices create objectifications that refer back to one great person who is male gendered on Ambrym. These objectifications can be regarded as personal representations. In the male graded society, for instance, large tree fern figures were erected after every grade taking. This tree fern figure represented the man and his grade, as well as the number of pigs he killed and his new name and status. The figures remain as a representation of him (see Rio 1997). The church has no room for such objectifications. During the 1960s for instance the church launched large campaigns against traditional objects, such as for instance magical stones, because they were regarded as strengthening the heathen religion (see Tonkinson 1981).

The churches on Ambrym today are manifestations of communities; they make 'social wholes' appear not individual status. In the Niu I am ceremony specific work relations are eclipsed and the connections produced by the sharing of the food is focused upon. I will argue that this ceremonial shift has drained the male ceremonial energy. Men have lost interest in ceremonies such as the Niu Iam today.

Although the repertoire of these ceremonies has decreased, there are still arenas for male performance of greatness and achievement of personal glory. However, this is not achieved in the church, because there are no specific relations within the church that are emphasized. The priest or the elder in the church can never achieve the position of a big man as men in the traditional graded society, the mage, did. The priest and the elder only fill a rhetorical position. They speak in the church, but their roles do not for instance involve any control over amassed food, as did the role of the ceremonial performer in the mage or in other ceremonies. The priest and the elders in Ranon are not men of great reputation like men who have climbed the grades in the mage. Through the church one is not able to locus upon particular relations or particular persons. The ceremonial contexts outside of the church are generally talked about as kastom, and it is through kastom today on Ambrym that one can emphasize particular persons and relations.

The conflict I described between an elderly woman and her son's wife that in the end resulted in the wife leaving the village illustrates this point well. As the young wife herself said, her husband's mother was too strong. The old woman had to compensate for her act of driving the wife away, and she said to me that the only way she could do this was through kastom. She could not use the church as a framework for this event because the church has no means of objectifying or representing this particular relation. Through a kastom ceremony the old woman gave a pig, which she had bought from one of the few remaining kastom chiefs who still performs grade-taking ceremonies, to the girl's lather. One might say that kastom on Ambrym today provides for social reproduction in situations where 'cuts' in the network (Strathern 1996) have been created. The church cannot deal with such cuts in the network of the total social whole.

On Ambrym today, men dominate kastom, both in talk about kastom, as well as in kastom ceremonies still being performed. This does not imply that women are not involved in kastom, as my reference to the old women who had to compensate her son's wife through a kastom ceremony shows. Rather kastom provides for male objectification and the church makes female social wholes visible, but both men and women are participants in the church and performers of kastom. Men taking part in fundraising events take on female capacities just as women take on male capacities when they stage a compensation ceremony. It is the difference between two competing value regimes that is gendered, and the same gendered tension is found in analyses of Ambrym kinship, and in notions of place and mobility. It is a tension that perhaps is the driving dynamic of Ambrym sociality.


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Annelin Eriksen

University of Bergen
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Date:Mar 1, 2005
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