In November, 1993, Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, printed an opinion piece written by a CUSO cooperant who had returned to Canada from two years as an information officer with the Vanuatu Department of Agriculture. His article discussed broadcast television in the context of its recent introduction to Vanuatu, his new perspective on it upon his return to North America, and its role as an instrument of cultural invasion from the USA to Canada and from the West to Vanuatu. A major theme was that television was new to Vanuatu, and it would hasten the spoilage of an idyllic part of the world.
I wrote the following essay (never published) with another view of the introduction of broadcast television, as opposed to videotaped television, to Vanuatu.
Rob Ferguson's recent piece (Paradise lost, or on sale now?, Facts & Arguments, 17 November, 1993) is a valid account of the interaction between television, his Vanuatu experience, and life back in Canada. Nevertheless, the effect of television on Vanuatu is more complex than that implied and is worthy of a closer examination on its own. The television viewing experience of ni-Vanuatu (indigenous Melanesian citizens who make up the vast majority of Vanuatu's population) is completely different than that of Canadians. Learning about and from this difference is important for Canadians, as it pertains to our efforts to interact with developing nations such as Vanuatu and assist them to cope with the new world in which they find themselves.
It is extremely difficult for Canadians to understand Vanuatu, an archipelago located between Fiji and Australia and formerly known as the New Hebrides. Culturally, it is about as far removed from Canada as is possible. Before extensive western contact began about a century ago, ni-Vanuatu lived in a stone-age subsistence agriculture economy in a culture where the most prized source of knowledge was one's ancestors. Animism, the knowledge that inanimate objects have supernatural capabilities and human-like motivations, underlaid ni-Vanuatu interaction with the environment. Obtaining food and shelter in the tropical environment took only a fraction of one's time, allowing the development of a mosaic of separate, complex cultures well adapted to their original environment. These realities remain the foundation of the lives of the 85% of ni-Vanuatu who remain in their ancestral villages.
My family found expatriate life in Vanuatu, both as rural CUSO co-operants and later as urban fully-funded advisers, pleasant. I would not, however, describe ni-Vanuatu life as "idyllic". The arrival of the West shattered many long-cherished community assumptions, damaging the social fabric. An incredible level of social competition, set against a backdrop of magic forces that are often hostile and controlled by one's enemies, existed before western contact and continues to the present. Vanuatu's distinction of having the world's highest concentration of languages (110 for 150,000 people) is due to the pervasion of very small loyalty groups that mutually regard each other as hostile and unreasonable; cannibalism faded out only in this century. Ancient traditional cultures and their attendant patterns of thought do not become westernized in a few decades, despite the addition of Christianity to the mix of cultural values. Ni-Vanuatu life remains stressful and interaction with the West frustrating and bewildering.
How has the introduction of television affected Vanuatu and its relationship with the West? Ni-Vanuatu are actually quite familiar with television, as it was introduced in the early '80s when VCRs became widely available. Although there was no broadcast television in Vanuatu until August, 1992 and only a few private TV satellite dishes for the previous year, most ni-Vanuatu have long since seen western videotaped movies and other material. When I left the capital of Port Vila in late 1992, its 20,000 inhabitants (7/8 ni-Vanuatu) supported at least 3 English and 2 French videotape rental shops, and even the rural island of Malekula had two video rental businesses when I lived there in 1987-89.
VCR-television-generator packages were common favour-currying "development" donations from High Commissions and Embassies to rural villages until about 1988, and remain popular "pork-barrel" gifts from politicians. Television-VCR ownership became the hallmark of the minority of ni-Vanuatu who were successfully involved with the money economy long before broadcast TV was initiated in 1992. Besides patronizing the movie theaters that existed before video became prevalent (one lone French cinema survives), many ni-Vanuatu have had quite a bit of contact with other western electronic media. Several western countries beam short-wave services to Vanuatu, and English and French short-wave news is rebroadcast daily on Radio Vanuatu, which also includes many international stories in its Bislama (the Pidgin English-French lingua franca) newscasts.
Despite the nation's familiarity with video, the arrival of broadcast television was Big News in Vanuatu. As a development planner advising the central government, I was surprised by the self-congratulatory attitude of the new government, officials of which burst with pride when speaking to me of this contribution to Vanuatu's development. My Canadian values had led me to believe the introduction of yet more western popular culture was unimportant compared with economic development and the provision of clean water, rudimentary toilets, and adult education to the rural majority, who live as subsistence gardeners in bamboo huts thatched with Sago palm fronds.
The implementation of the television transmitter project itself illustrated Vanuatu's difficulties in dealing with the West. France offered the transmitter as a token of its support for the newly-elected Francophone government. It was also a pointed reminder that the former Anglophone government had received little foreign aid from France for several years, and that the major Anglophone aid donors would not give Vanuatu such a plum. In keeping with Vanuatu's relationship with most of its aid donors, a combination of government acquiescence and donor self-interest kept the donor firmly in control of the project's planning and implementation. In the rush to get television on the air as soon as possible, the advice of the Telecommunication Department's technical adviser was ignored, and Vanuatu gratefully accepted a system that had higher maintenance costs and lower technical quality than other similarly-priced systems. It was also incompatible with widely-available camcorders that would allow simple and inexpensive production of local programming on the outlying islands for broadcast in Port Vila. Like all projects considered truly important, the project was approved and its implementation decreed by the national Council of Ministers without advice from anyone knowledgeable in the field; funds for operating costs were expected to come from a vague plan of selling a TV antenna importation monopoly to a non-Melanesian business. As with many relationships with the West, very little control was grasped by ni-Vanuatu.
Expectations ran wild; even one very high official whom I respected assured me that this mini-transmitter was only the first of many that would deliver television signals to everyone on Vanuatu's far-flung and mountainous islands. No matter that few rural ni-Vanuatu can hope to afford a TV and that rural electricity is generally available only in the form of flashlight batteries immediately after an infrequent visit by a copra-trading vessel. The Government was disappointed when an Australian private broadcasting company failed to match Radio France International's gift of free programming; the New Zealand state broadcaster came through in the end, and aid-dependency was preserved.
What are television's long-term specific effects on Vanuatu? There is a big difference between television in Vanuatu and in Canada. Vanuatu television, both taped and broadcast, contains no commercials aside from a few included on tapes of Australian broadcast television - no attempt is made to sell anything to ni-Vanuatu. In Vanuatu, television's main effects come from its portrayal of alien events and values and the absence of a western perspective in the minds of the audience. Television probably ranks with the multitude of competing Christian denominations as the main source of information on the West for ni-Vanuatu.
It is true that fictional television dramas are frequently considered to be documentaries; I had several conversations with ni-Vanuatu who thought that people are actually being shot when Hollywood movies are made. I am sure that many young ni-Vanuatu men are convinced that Sylvester Stallone won the Vietnam War, as they witnessed in the all-time Vanuatu video hit, Rambo II. Also similar to Rob Ferguson's experience, one of my co-workers once insisted to me that the island of Malekula's 1987 drought was caused by the earth moving ten miles closer to the sun, as he had read, likely in an imported American supermarket tabloid (ni-Vanuatu minds are as enquiring as ours).
Interestingly, though, ni-Vanuatu are not overly credulous within their own society. They are very familiar with oral misinformation and can be extremely skeptical of the words and actions of other ni-Vanuatu and indeed, of the recommendations of expatriate advisers such as myself. Nevertheless, when exposed to information generated by a western society operating on completely alien assumptions and motivations, ni-Vanuatu can and do draw conclusions that are inappropriate and, based on these conclusions can make decisions and take actions that are more in the West's interest than Vanuatu's. Western carpetbaggers who (in the words of one) "Smile, pat 'em on the ass, and tell them what they want to hear", aid donors who are as concerned with their military and economic position in the South Pacific as Vanuatu's welfare, and westerners intent on securing their own place in heaven have all used this phenomenon to their profit and Vanuatu's disadvantage.
In Vanuatu, broadcast television, besides being a drain on scarce development and operating resources, is a powerful source of alien information. From video tapes, ni-Vanuatu have learned that all westerners are rich (even by western standards), are all openly promiscuous, and shoot each other incessantly with bullets that go exactly were we want them to. (A security forces' member who took this concept to heart unintentionally wounded a tourist in December, 1988 when he didn't anticipate the upward rise of the M-16 burst he fired at her tires as she inadvertently drove through a roadblock.) My most dismaying memory of television in Vanuatu comes from the Sunday evening I walked past a bamboo-walled rural Community Chapel. Through the door, I saw the congregation, dressed in their Sunday-best second-hand clothes from North American thrift shop donations, sitting on rough benches watching a video of an American televangelist in his thousand-dollar suit pounding his message into a well-dressed audience in a grandiose studio. I also read brochures which had been mailed to rural ni-Vanuatu by an Oklahoma preacher soliciting donations for the construction of a new studio for the broadcast of more of these messages to the world.
Less dramatic, but having greater effect, has been the siren song of western television and video dramas, inducing ni-Vanuatu to aspire to material goods and a lifestyle that are alien to and unsustainable by Vanuatu. This encourages the urban drift, which is robbing Vanuatu of its economic base of subsistence gardening. Other consequences are corruption by politicians who fear losing the westernized urban good life if they lose office, a national acquiescence to western influence, and the destruction of traditional social systems and controls.
Has a South Seas paradise been spoiled by television? I don't think whatever paradise there was has been spoiled specifically by television, but it surely is another powerful force of the western juggernaut that is inevitably changing Vanuatu, and not always to the advantage of its people.
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©Stan Combs, 1995.