Monday, December 3, 2012

A Plantation on a Bicycle

The light padded in to the bure, creeping softly between the sleeping shadows, awakening them gently. Outside there was a scritching and cracking, as Papa straightened his bicycle in several places, and stretched it out between his short legs. On the front and the back of the bicycle were things to sell, short rubbery green stems, purple packed bunches of colour and wide leaves that flapped about like soft, old skin.

Papa bought wood from the money he made out of selling vegetables from the plantation.

The tiny squares of the mosquito netting formed a grid through which she could examine the preparations taking place, each little square containing a blurred block of crowded colour that shifted among the bouncing baskets being tethered to the handlebars. Her legs were fine boned, and tightly muscled, from the long walks uphill, twice a day, to the plantation. She stretched them out along the mat, the heat already softening the cooler ends of her sleeping mat, kneading them into a wheaty flatbread that dug into the creases at the back of her heels. Feet, flattened and spread against days and nights of long, hot roads, waved about at the end of her legs. They moved slowly, side to side, while her mind crawled out of sleep.

‘Galo’, she would hear, discreetly or thrown out into the open, and she would feel the brittle wash of watching whispers poke and prod at her heart. Luke would walk or cycle, solid legs pumping along the dirt road, past the spread of jungle grass that beached itself between houses, forming, from a distance, little English lawns. Stopping every now and again on his way back to the house, he would look out for old tyres, pieces of wood, anything that could find itself a new life in the hands of a new owner. His eyes were tweezered shut at the far corners, initially from birth, and then from a lifetime of blue light bouncing off ocean.

The road was straight, broad, and the houses wrapped around the pools of darkness afforded by the tall trees and thick grassy undergrowth keeping the foundations of the wooden houses cool. The overhead mountains smoothed themselves down between the trees and into the shadow of the houses, shadows which climbed into windows and poured itself into doorways. Every now and again, someone would materialise from the darkened doorways as if they had always been there, and they would watch. Sometimes if the front lawn was shallower, he would pass by, within speaking distance, of figures hung with floral print dresses, lazy necked t-shirts and sometimes, a pre-squashed jandal kicked over the end of a verandah. He would feel, loud and clear, the weirdness of his straight spikey hair, the confidence of approaching a piece of rubbish, the name, ‘Galo’ afforded him by walking the roads alone.

It is never an easy matter, to be ‘different’. When it comes to schooling, the development, implementation and evaluation of a national curriculum assumes, creates and defines, at every stage, a common culture, within which there is the acknowledgment of what difference and diversity can contribute to an overriding commonality. When considering culture and curriculum, and the meanings of these two terms, these are terms that are defined differently by different people, depending on who they are and where they come from. Tongan poet and researcher, Konai Thaman (1993, p.249)acknowledges also, “that concepts of culture and curriculum often have Western connotations that can be problematic in the contexts of the worldviews of most of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands.”

Simply speaking, the formal education system can be understood as a method for the transmission of culture, and the curriculum, as defined by Lawton,
“as a selection from the culture of a society, of aspects which are regarded as so valuable that their survival is not left to chance, but is entrusted to teachers for expert transmission to the young (Lawton, 1975, p. 9).”

Being different in the context of a national curriculum means that essentially, the values that underpin ‘a common curriculum’ – it’s development and implementation – aren’t quite as common as they are for the dominant culture. Finding or creating room for diversity within a common curriculum means that difference is defined against that dominant culture.

Within our diverse Pacific societies and cultures, how do we define difference amongst ourselves? Who gets to decide, for instance, that a Chinese man, raised in the Fijian language by the French missionaries, does or doesn’t have as much of a place as others, to determine what it is about his Fijian identity that should be part of what is passed on?

We have our own ways of including and excluding, that which is inside and outside of what we define to be ‘us’ and indeed, what we even mean by ‘us’. Of those that select aspects of our cultures that are to be passed on, in implementating a national curriculum, important questions must be asked. Who has the power to decide what commonalities and compromises we are seeking to make across New Zealand and Pacific cultures, and what commonalities are we are seeking amongst ourselves as Pacific Peoples? Just how are we defining these commonalities, whatever they are, and at what cost?

Lawton, D. (1975). Class, Culture and the Curriculum. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

Konai Helu Thaman (1993): Culture and the Curriculum in the South Pacific, Comparative Education, 29:3, 249-260

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.