Women standing strong, in Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

When three generations of women get together to write vivacious words about indigenous life, the energy that flows from each is a powerful force that smacks you right in the guts.

Charged with emotion, the words peel off layers of cultural influence on Vanuatu life: personal accounts of historical and contemporary events which deserve to be recognised by an innocent audience who has never thought to question these till now.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology, edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen, is a compilation of heartfelt writing that’s a first-of-its-kind edition.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

When three generations of women get together to write vivacious words about indigenous life, the energy that flows from each is a powerful force that smacks you right in the guts.

Charged with emotion, the words peel off layers of cultural influence on Vanuatu life: personal accounts of historical and contemporary events which deserve to be recognised by an innocent audience who has never thought to question these till now.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology, edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen, is a compilation of heartfelt writing that’s a first-of-its-kind edition.

What is it about Vanuatu that provoked the contributing poets into laying out their lives for all to see? Into revealing the essences and unspoken nuances of island life; into depicting the effects that sculpted their identity?

How did thirty-six female writers, spanning 65 years from youngest to oldest, find passion and bravery enough to share thoughts about what indigenous and colonial heritage means to them and others throughout Oceania?

Released in May 2021 after a series of delays (including the pandemic and Tropical Cyclone Harold), Sista, Stanap Strong! is a collection of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction which vocalises long-silenced ni-Vanuatu women and describes the actions that have shaped a nation.

That nation is a cluster of outrageously-beautiful islands. Two years ago, Vanuatu was ranked the happiest place in the world outside of the Americas, according to the World Economic Forum’s Happy Planet Index (BBC, 2020) when assessed against four criteria: wellbeing; longevity; how equally wellbeing and longevity are distributed; and ecological footprint.

Its achievements go well beyond happiness to include a societal focus on cultural enhancement, economic growth, internal development, and security.

In 2018, Port Vila (the capital of Vanuatu) received a ‘Global Green City’ award from the United Nations acknowledging the government’s ban on plastics effective from July of that year; and its commitments to improving infrastructure.

Also in 2018, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, anthropologist Ralph Regenvanu announced that the country would be the first to explore legal means to: “shift the costs of climate protection back onto the fossil fuel companies, the financial institutions and the governments that actively and knowingly created this existential threat to my country,” (The Guardian, 2018). Regenvanu is a leading figure in Vanuatu’s cultural world, primarily as a promoter of cultural knowledge preservation and sustainable development.

In 2020, the Australian government partnered with Vanuatu in developing the Pacific Fusion Centre to monitor security in the region, particularly in Port Vila. This arrangement allows Pacific decision-makers to respond to common security challenges such as climate change, illegal fishing, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and, most recently, TC Harold and Covid-19.

In 2021, The 300 Coconut Bag Project held its first production workshop to train and support unemployed youth and people with disability to engage in the local bag making industry. The project uses discarded plastic bags found on beaches to make reusable market bags that are strong enough to carry 300 coconuts over the course of a year.

The Vanuatu Tourism Office has just implemented a Free Fun Bus scheme to encourage locals to board the bus for free, travel to a tourism site and spend money to help these businesses continue to operate while Vanuatu’s borders remain closed due to the pandemic.

From a peripheral viewpoint, these recent-time initiatives seem excellent. So, perhaps to utterly understand the impetus behind the authors of Sista, Stanap Strong!, we need to delve more deeply into the culture and land of Vanuatu itself.

Lying northeast of New Caledonia, east of Australia, west of Fiji and south of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu is a tropical archipelago consisting of a Y-shaped chain of 83 islands, 13 of which are the most inhabited. The indigenous people of Vanuatu, a name which means ‘Land Eternal’ and alternatively ‘Our Land Forever’ or ‘Abiding Land’, are called Ni-Vanuatu (‘of Vanuatu’).

Ni-Vanuatu have lived in these islands for centuries and follow more than 110 distinctly different cultural traditions varying from island to island and often from district to district.

Over 100 native vernaculars still thrive there; all are Oceanic, and with 8,000 speakers of Duidui at West Ambae, 9,000 speakers of Uripiv at Northeast Malakula, and 7,000 speakers of Apma on central Pentecost Island, Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita (of only 270,000 people) in the world and is regarded as the most linguistically diverse country on Earth.

These languages have had the good fortune to thrive in a country that now embraces, rather than suppresses, indigenous identities. The Vanuatu government formally recognises indigenous languages in its charter and supports mother tongue language programming in elementary schools.

In addition, modern history has brought on new languages, including the country’s three official: English, French, and Bislama.

Bislama (bisla’ma), also known by its earlier French name Bichelamar is an English-based pidgin vernacular that stemmed from Vanuatu’s French colonisers and the creole language. Bislama arose during the 1880s when Vanuatu’s people were forced to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji. It now serves as a lingua franca spoken by almost everyone. The Bislama lyrics of Vanuatu’s national anthem ‘Yumi, Yumi, Yumi’ (We, We, We) were written and composed by François Vincent Ayssav and adopted by the citizens of Vanuatu to salute independence in 1980.

Vanuatu’s economy relies on the productivity of its land; forestry and horticulture are mainstay sources of income. Tourism (pre-Covid) is developing as a growth industry.

But even more than its beneficence as an economic resource, the people of Vanuatu revolve around their land culturally and spiritually; their relationship with it is paramount. Land is the physical embodiment of the metaphysical link with the past, and identification with a particular tract of land remains one of the fundamental concepts governing ni-Vanuatu culture.

Famous author James A. Michener stationed in Vanuatu during WWII; the beauty of this land inspired him to write his classic novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Today, Vanuatu’s islands are still renowned for their scenery; mountainous volcanoes, lush rainforest, lagoons, coastal terraces, coral reefs, and sandy beaches … all are stunning.

Such geographical charm, culture, and positive enterprise! Even so, Sista, Stanap Strong! has found a passionate, sympathetic, and willing audience to hear honest tales of feminine Vanuatu experience.

20-year-old student Kali Regenvanu adds this sentiment to her prose poem ‘A Letter to Vanuatu: Unkept promises’:

“Our national anthem states “yumi strong mo yumi fri / we are strong, and we are free” and yet we aren’t. Vanuatu, hold to your promise of fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.”

Her voice is just one of the 36 Sista, Stanap Strong! contributors who have an abiding love for their country and fathomless compassion for their fellow sisters. Sharon Wobur’s poem ‘A Strong Woman’ epitomises this connection. Some of her words are here:

“ … Believe that you can make it, believe that you have the skill, believe in yourself, the power and the truth is in your hands. Your voice may be small, but your heart is always big. Woman, you are special, you rock, you are beautiful, you are a strong supporter, you were born with a determination, a heightened passion. You give your destiny a name. Know that you are tougher than strong wars; know that you have the power to choose; know that you have a voice; know that you have a dream; know that you have a family; know that you have life; know that you are a mother; know that you are a sister; know that you are a strong woman. Woman, tell yourself, Yes, I am a strong woman.”

The book’s 2019 inspiration, an oral poetry event called Poetri Pawa (Poetry Power) was organised by Mikaela Nyman, Nancy Gaselona Palmer, and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen – all of whom have a deep connection to Vanuatu. Poetri Pawa was held in conjunction with International Women’s Day and offered a welcoming forum for these three women to read their poems and talk about their belief in the power of poetry.

They are part of a network of creative writers, including the likes of Bislama writer Helen Tamtam; self-published poet Telstar Jimmy; haiku-creator Jane Kanas; and Yasmine Bjornum, founder of Sista – Vanuatu’s first feminist online platform. It was this team who (as they hailed and supported each other across countries including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and New Zealand) felt that the time was right to collaborate.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology was born, and indeed, the instigators likened their roles to midwifery as they helped birth the medium that would highlight the challenges ni-Vanuatu women face as they navigate paths from girls to womanhood to wise old age. Of women having to stand strong in the face of cyclones, droughts, economic hardship, and family matters. Of women having to stand even stronger when facing discrimination at work, personal loss, misogyny, patriarchy, migration, violence, abuse, and illness.

Standing strong in the long shadows of cultural adversity represents Sista, Stanap Strong! quite literally. The translation of Sista, Stanap Strong from Bislama equates to Sister (woman), Stand Up Strong. The anthology celebrates women who speak up and stanap strong together, for their communities.

The book is a collaboration engendered by and paying homage to Vanuatu women’s rights activist Grace Mera Molisa (1946-2002), who achieved international notability as an outspoken poet.

Molisa was a ni-Vanuatu politician and campaigner for women’s equality in politics. The Australian newspaper described her as “a vanguard for Melanesian culture and a voice of the Vanuatuans, especially women”. The Australian also defined her poems as “a biting social commentary on life in patriarchal, post-colonial Vanuatu.”

Molisa’s contemporary Mildred Sope (born in 1950 in Ambae) was among the first indigenous writers published before independence. Like Molisa, Sope is a fierce advocate for women’s rights and established the political Vanua‘aku Party’s women’s wing.

Women like Mildred Sope and Grace Molisa refer repeatedly to the effects of colonisation on this cluster of 83 islands. European contact began with the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós (1606), followed by French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1768) and British captain James Cook (1774). Cook mapped the island group and named it the New Hebrides. By 1906, it was jointly administered by France and the U.K. before its name changed to Vanuatu on 30 July 1980: an independent republic to be led by the Vanua‘aku Party.

Grace Molisa’s daughter, Viran Molisa Trief, alumni of Victoria University (and the first ni-Vanuatu woman appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Vanuatu), writes the foreword for Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology. An excerpt:

“The art of a country, the literature of a country, are equally important to the fabric of its life and culture. I salute the writers in this collection for their talent and courage to put into written words their voices, and for sharing them with us. We are blessed. Our words make our life. The power of the written word – that part is a reflection of Mum’s impact. The future of our beloved Vanuatu is bright with the strength of Vanuatu creative writing evident in this anthology.”

The book doesn’t just engage with Vanuatu culture. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban is of Samoan heritage. She is also Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) at Victoria University and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award for her service as New Zealand’s first female Pasifika minister of parliament at the 2020 Women of Influence Awards. Dame Winnie spoke at the Wellington launch of Sista, Stanap Strong!, paying tribute and respectfully recognising this collective effort which will inspire “all our sisters across the Pacific” to be heard and healed.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology is helping create, as Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen highlighted in the book’s introduction: “a repository of texts that become sites for the contestation and articulations of a region – writing that would otherwise have gone unpublished – thereby turning ad hoc writing, over time, into a body of national literature and Pacific literature”.

In Sista, Stanap Strong!, Vanuatu’s culture has been both joyously celebrated and roundly rebuked. This – and other equally penetrating contemporary works – will create a voice for indigenous women who have been muted till now, in Vanuatu, in New Zealand, Australia, and across Pasifika.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology is published by Victoria University of Wellington Press and supported by Creative New Zealand. Cover design by Juliette Pita.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in