Monday, December 3, 2012

Boardwalk Kites

The main road in Levuka gives up on itself as it reaches the end of the salt bleached board walk. Foot steps change from clomping wooden echoes (fast echoes if a child is running along them with a plastic bag for a kite) into packed and stippled earth crunching as the space broadens into a dusty piazza and melts into the heat of the sun.

The path to the house starts some where amongst here, fielded, on one side, by the echoes of afternoon yaqona deep bowelled discussions in empty wooden rooms, the half filled presbytary. On the other side, lazy back alleys and trecherously wide storm culverts, cutting a shallow part tunnel up to the bottom of the hill. A stony path scores itself into the land, and takes a sharp turn upwards past disused outbuildings.

A lean little house, following this path, stopped for a rest on the hill, about fifty years ago, half way up, and stayed, settling in to the deep and fresh bowls of shadow dug by the mango and banana trees, dense and copious.

Depending on where you had come from, or whether you knew what you were looking for, the house could be referenced by the stepping stones of several other houses, across and up a bit from the flat roofed brickwork of the hospital, or by tracking the path up to squint at a small piece of blue between the patched black green leafy shadow. The house has three rooms under one tin roof: one for sleeping in, one for cooking in, one for living in and dying in.

This is my family’s house, a trusted and patched shelter and giverer of love and grief, built by my grandfather. The strength of its foundations and aesthetic originated in discarded scrapwood, pilfered from rubbish piles of freshly built bungalows for local political figureheads, and discarded for the salt and sun and roadside imagination to nourish for another use.

My family house could present itself as an example of what architectural historians have termed “the British tropical bungalow”, an “anonydyne phrase”, as Purser puts it (2003, 294) which skims over the fact that ‘tropical architecture’ was for people of alien cultures exercising colonial power. The question of who exactly is the alien culture and who exercises what kind of power, are fundamental questions which prompt any line of inquiry in considering marginalised community groups whatever the situation

Everything happens Somewhere is an attempt to respond to the impacts of the infrastructure and architecture (imaginative, political, ideological, social, historical) of main stream education systems, on marginalised groups, in our part of the world, focusing on exploring the experiences of extremely diverse groups of Pacific Peoples.

The construction of the family house was (and is) a long and painful process by which the people in my family negotiated identities and aesthetics which set them apart from and within alienated cultural and social groups at a time of poltical rage and chaos which passed largely unnoticed under the facade of non physically violent colonisation in Fiji.

In the article, ‘The View From the Verandah: Levuka Bungalows and the Transformation of Settler Identities in Later Colonialism’, Margaret Purser (2003, 294) explores how residential architecture and the cultural landscape in which it took shape in later-nineteenth-century Levuka became an arena for negotiating multiple sets of new identities. She states:

“An initially explicit racial and cultural division of Europeans and Fijians subsequently was overlaid by constantly shifting versions of who counted as settlers and indigenous people, insiders and outsiders, old timers and newcomers, and “proper” women and men. As such, the houses and the surrounding landscape provided both the setting and the medium for the kinds of power relations that held sway as descendant generations of former colonizers struggled to create a new, localized identity separate from both the indigenous people they sought to dominate, and the distant colonial power from which they drew their increasingly ambiguous authority.”

My grandfather’s collection of scrapwood in itself was an act of defiance and negotiation of the cross cultural boundaries of permissaible behaviour for a landless alien ‘half cast Chinaman’. It defied the traditional methods of placing oneself in and on the land within traditional Fijian culture - ’cemented’ for thousands of years through the Vola Ni Kawa Bula. It defied an imported British class system which dictated his movements in and between exclusive cultural and social groupings. By giving him the land to build on, this act reinforced his outsider status, and his dependence on a colonial culture for a legitimate means of survival, while at the same time, being unable to access material resources to develop his land, ’keeping him in his place’ by forcing him to gather scraps.

The making of a house, out of other people’s rubbish, something that nurtured the heart of a family – a house – was another transgression, a way of making a home in the heart of several cultures that were not his own. Shaping bits of wood into impractical scalloped patterns, and tacking these on to the tipping points of shelves and other furniture, looked directly into the eyes of the owner of cultural conventions of beauty - confronting the right to reproducing notions of what is beautiful and within that, what is valuable enough to exchange for the right to ’be’ amongst a foreign culture, amongst foreign people.

The act of learning happens somewhere, for culturally marginalised groups it happens somewhere not particularly conducive to effective learning most of the time. This ‘somewhere’ is physical, social, cultural, political, every which way that one is familiar with situating oneself at any point in time. In New Zealand, and throughout the ‘developing’ nations of the Pacific, it is commonplace ’knowledge’ that Pacific Peoples are positioned behind – educationally, health wise, economically and so on. Within our classrooms, children who are identified as being of a particular Pacific cultural grouping are shown up in the analysis of student achievement information, positioned and compared to how they are doing alongside their predominantly white peers. The way schools and classroom teachers are held to account for the effectiveness of their curriculum is underpinned by an accountability to the rightness, appropriateness, of the context of New Zealand Curriculum – the primary document which situates and contextualises the learning of Pacific children in New Zealand and in other countries throughout the Pacific which draw on the New Zealand education system for inspiration and pedadogical understandings.

My grandfather’s house situated my family then, and now, in and amongst and across diverse intersections of historical and political, social and cultural lines of existence. Understanding the significance of cultural context and how one situates oneself within that, is fundamental for approaching the question of how and where one can stand alongside a child, and support them to learn.

Yet, when is the interpretation of the New Zealand curriculum, the ideological fabric of our education system, called into question in considering its appropriateness for learning and development with those that don’t fit a predominantly white context? Instead it is mostly taken for granted as a self-justifying cutting edge and ground breaking document, and critique is aimed, not at the efficacy of the document itself, or the systems of interpretation in place in schools to twist and shape the curriculum into self-serving visions of educational success. Instead, most critical thought around situated learning is aimed at the effectiveness of the systems in place, to translate the euro centric values underpinning our curriculum, into other languages and other contexts, in effect, transplanting euro-centric values and beliefs without questioning or challenging the ethical grounds and necessity of doing so in the first place.

I think it’s about time we do.

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