Pala Molisa: we need to rebuild the links between the peoples of the Pacific

Pala Molisa, PhD. Photo: Victoria University

Ni-Vanuatu scholar Pala Molisa, PhD. Photo: Victoria University

Pala Molisa was born in Vanuatu, but did most of his schooling in New Zealand. He’s now a lecturer at Victoria University’s Business School, with a PhD in accounting. Not your usual, yawn-inducing kind of accounting, but the kind that gets him called an “activist accountant”. Here he talks to Dale Husband of e-tangata about why Māori and other Pasifika people need to reconnect “the threads of whakapapa [geneaology, ancestry] that colonisation has broken” — and unite to tackle the big social and ecological challenges of our time.


[Ed: translations of Māori words used follow in brackets; the Māori words themselves link to a Māori dictionary]

Kia ora [hello], Pala. Now, as you know, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu caused quite a stir some months ago, here on e-tangata, when he took aim at the failure of our schools to teach Pacific and New Zealand history. So there’s a lot of us who don’t know much about Vanuatu other than that it’s a group of islands west of Fiji and was known for many years as the New Hebrides. Also, perhaps, that it’s independent and has a population of not much more than 200,000 [Ed: current population is 284,000]. But few of us would be aware that, for a good many years, there’ve been young people from Vanuatu, even pre-independence, coming over here for high school. 

Yes. I was part of that pattern. In fact, so was my mother (Grace) who came from Aoba — or Ambae as it’s now spelled. She came over to Auckland to Queen Victoria School. She was village-born, could speak four of the more than 100 indigenous languages in Vanuatu — and was steeped in our oral, spiritual and cultural traditions. And Dad (Sela), who came from Espiritu Santo, the biggest of the islands, was also village-born and village-raised.

But many of my generation who got sent to white schools, like here in New Zealand, didn’t grow up in the village. We grew up in town. We’re part of the urbanisation that separates you from your cultural roots. So, many of us, from my generation on, started losing our indigenous languages, even though we used to go back to the village in the summer holidays.

My sister and brother and I mostly grew up in town, in Port Vila, where Mum and Dad were part of the independence struggles that kicked out the British and the French in 1980 — and they were also part of the leadership core who took over the first government.

Earlier, under the British administrative colonial government, Mum and Dad were sent overseas to universities to train to be the indigenous administrators of that colonial government. The only problem was that they went over to university in Suva, and they ended up being taught by people like Albert Wendt who introduced them to the thinking of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and other leading thinkers who were part of the global decolonisation movement. So they got caught up in the international decolonisation movement that eventually swept through the Pacific in the 1970s and 80s.

That’s our background. We were townies back home. But then we came over to New Zealand for our white man’s education. I went down to Nelson Boys. Amazing school. Loved it. But it didn’t help to overcome the cultural disconnection — not just because they don’t teach Pacific history but also because they don’t help students understand colonisation and capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy. That’s how education becomes part of the process of colonisation. Or neo-colonisation.

Back home, it’s the indigenous peoples who’re in government, but there’s still cultural assimilation where you’ve got a lot of young people who don’t know their own language. Ashamed of their culture. Don’t know their own culture. Looking to European modernisation as the way out. And seeing indigenous culture as a thing to leave behind.

Where do you fit in, in the family?

I’m the middle one. The oldest is my sister, Viran Molisa-Trief. She came over to Nelson Girls’ College, and then came back to New Zealand to do a double degree in tourism and law. After that, she went home and worked for the State Law office where she’s been Solicitor-General in Port Vila for the last three years. But she’s now gone on unpaid leave to manage a number of aid-funded NGO projects in Vanuatu.

Then there’s my little brother, Vatumaraga Molisa. He went down to Nelson Boys’ as well. He studied environmental management, in Fiji. He’s been back home for the last few years, working at the Ministry of Lands.

As a whānau [family member], how proud are you that you’re the offspring of those who fought for and eventually achieved independence for your land?

I’m hugely proud of that legacy and of being part of that whakapapa. That was an amazing achievement when Vanuatu became independent in 1980. But we still face pressures as a people, as a country, trying to develop in a way that aligns with our indigenous values, our spiritual values. And those pressures don’t go away after you achieve independence.

We used to suffer under direct domination, so achieving independence was important. But colonisation doesn’t need direct colonial rule. It can survive through economic and cultural domination.

In some ways, though, Vanuatu has broken free from the shackles of colonisation, whereas Māori are still living with them. How do you feel now towards the British and the French — those who colonised your land, and compromised and marginalised your people for so long?

Well, the British and French gave us the Westminster system and the rule of law that the Vanuatu government uses to run its affairs. But, on the other hand, they also colonised us. And we continue to suffer from the violence, not just of the British and French, but the violence of a global capitalist system that’s dominated by the US and other western industrialised states.

Just think about climate change, for instance. The major polluters are historically from the western industrialised states — and from China and others trying to catch up now. But it’s the Pacific peoples who’ll bear the brunt. We’ll be the first hit and the worst hit. And we’re going to lose a number of islands. Whole islands are going to be destroyed. Like Kiribati. President Tong has already arranged with Fiji to move the people from Kiribati, once the seas come along and swamp them.

We have so many other communities likely to be displaced. And that’s only climate change. We can also talk about the destruction caused by the economic arrangements between the Pacific Island communities and these economically dominant countries operating in the region.

Still, it’s definitely preferable to be running your own country politically. There’s no question about that. But a major gap or silence in Vanuatu’s own pan-Pacific indigenous discussions at the moment, is a focus on the struggles of our indigenous brothers and sisters. Like tangata whenua [indigenous people] here in Aotearoa [New Zealand]. The Kanaks of New Caledonia. Tahiti. And Hawai‘i.

That pan-Pacific concern started fading once our Pacific Island countries achieved independence. And I think that’s something we need to reclaim. We need to put the struggles of all our Pacific people back on our agenda.

The one struggle Vanuatu hasn’t shied away from, or given up on, is the West Papuan struggle. So I’m really proud of that. But, if it’s true that “Vanuatu will never be free as long as West Papua is not free”, it’s equally true that Ni-Vanuatu will never be free as long as Māori are not free.

We often have this false impression or view that, because Māori are a part of a settler state which is modern and western, things aren’t too bad for them. But that’s hugely misleading.

I’m sure many people tautoko [support] what you’re saying. Kotahitanga [solidarity] among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific is a goal we can and should all work towards. But now I wonder if you might outline who has helped shape your thinking on issues like that.

I can’t give you a short answer. There’s so many. But first and foremost would be my mum. It took me a while to appreciate the depth of her insights and wisdom. Not just in social and political analysis. But in her understanding of our indigenous cultures. Our indigenous struggles. So I have to put Mum up there.

And, early on, there were people from the Black civil rights struggle. Like Malcolm X. I read a lot of him when I was young. And Martin Luther King, of course. In fact, one of my earliest memories is a picture book about Martin and Malcolm X, and about how they were killed. I don’t think I really took much in back then, but I can still recall the pictures. That was the kind of political education I had, because of Mum.

But I always operated on the principle that, if you want to understand an injustice, you need to read the people who’re at the bottom. If you want to understand colonisation, the best people to go to are the indigenous writers and intellectuals, the black writers and intellectuals.

If you want to understand gender inequality — and, if you want to understand male supremacy, you’ve got to read radical feminists. Indigenous radical feminists.

If you want to understand capitalism, you have to read Marxist literature. You have to read Karl Marx. One of the great things after the global financial crisis of 2008, was that people started reading Marx again. And the contradictions of this capitalist system started to become more transparent.

I’ve got a long list, Dale. But I’d have to say that some of the best stuff I’ve read comes from our indigenous thinkers. People like Maria Bargh, Teresia Teaiwa, Alice Te Punga Somerville and Ani Mikaere. Whoa! What a woman. What a warrior. There’s Haunani-Kay Trask from Hawai‘I, who was Mum’s generation. Selina Tusitala Marsh and Brendan Hokowhitu as well.

Then there’s Moana Jackson, who I consider a giant. Not just in te ao Māori [the Māori world]. And not just in our indigenous justice traditions. But in social justice movements globally.

Kia ora brother. You’ve mentioned some beautiful people — including some Māori. And that raises the question of what contact you’ve had with our tangata whenua. I assume that there weren’t a whole lot at Nelson Boys’.

Some of my earliest memories as a kid were going to conferences and protest marches that Mum and Dad, especially Mum, used to organise. And we’d be hosting activists from Hawai‘i, Aotearoa, New Caledonia and Australia. Then, coming over here to Nelson Boys’, all of us Pacific boys gravitated towards one another because there weren’t all that many of us brownies — and we formed this really tight bond.

And we did the same with our Māori brothers. I always rolled with Māori and other Pasifika boys because that’s what Mum taught us — that we were related, we were whanaunga [kin]. In my first year, as a third former, I jumped into kapa haka [Māori cultural performance]. Went up to the regionals. And so those were my initial experiences with te ao Māori. But, being down in Nelson, it wasn’t like being in South Auckland. Or even Porirua.

Back in the 1970s, when waves of Pasifika people were arriving, there was an unease among Māori. But I get the feeling that’s given way to a bit more understanding of our shared genetic and cultural heritage. How do you read the attitudes now?

I think your instincts are right. I think we’re in the midst of a pan-Pacific renaissance. We’re seeing evidence of our Māori and other Pasifika people reforging ancient alliances. Reconnecting some of the threads of whakapapa that colonisation has broken. And that’s been pushed because of all the social and ecological crises that we’re facing.

But, if you look back to Mum and Dad’s generation, there was already a sense of shared belonging grounded in oral histories of our whakapapa links. And then within Ngā Tama Toa and the Polynesian Panthers. Also, I think about when Mum came over to Queen Vic, the Māori girls school in Auckland. She picked up reo Māori [Māori language] really quickly because it was so similar to her own language. Then there’s Māori and Rarotongan, where the etymology is the same. Even my Dad’s reo from Espiritu Santo, where the language is a bit more different, there are still similarities to Māori.

Many people are starting to awaken to the links and some are recognising that the only way to effectively resist colonisation and to decolonise is to look at the relationships that colonisation broke — and tried to destroy and suppress. And that resistance can come by reclaiming our languages — and by teaching Pacific history in our schools, as Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has been insisting.

Can we turn now to gender issues? I know that’s a topic where you’ve thought deeply and argued strongly. What do you make of the widespread, probably universal, situation where women suffer from many entrenched disadvantages?

If you want to understand patterns of social inequality or patterns of ecological destruction, you have to look at the underlying systems of power that we live in. Ecological destruction doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of the fact that we live under a global capitalist system that is premised on infinite growth.

And that’s based on exploiting labour and exploiting the natural world. That’s why you need a welfare state so you can redistribute that wealth in order to counteract the inequality that the system produces. Same thing with ecological degradation. As soon as you commodify the natural world, you rob it of its intrinsic value, which is spiritual value. Then it’s wide open to be exploited until it collapses.

It’s the same thing with trying to understand gender disparities. Most people have a good idea of the stats now: that one in three women are battered or sexually abused by their partner. That’s globally. And that’s no accident.

The pay gap is no accident, either. It’s because this global capitalist system is a male supremacist system. And it’s actively maintained to keep women poor. When you keep women poor, you can make them more sexually available. To keep women sexually available to men, you have to make them materially and economically dependent on men.

That’s why, under the old Victorian laws, women were classified as male property — as legal chattel that men owned. Again, that’s a way of institutionalising the inequality so the man can play artist, activist or leader in the wider world while the woman stays home and brings up his kids.

You also have to look at cultural institutions like the massive pornography and prostitution industries that sexualise and eroticise that gender inequality between men and women — teaching our boys that you can treat a woman just as a sexual object. And because that inequality is eroticised, it’s hard to even recognise the abuse that comes up.

That helps explain why we’ve got a rape culture where a woman is hardly ever believed and isn’t able to come forward when she’s abused by men, who are the overwhelming perpetrators of abuse. So I think it’s something we have to confront.

More and more we’re seeing criticisms of capitalism and the way it has produced a greed-based society. And we’ve been seeing criticisms of colonisation. But no one really wants to touch the male supremacist character of colonisation and capitalism, because then we’re going to start getting into uncomfortable territory where men don’t really like to go. Like their own use of pornography. Their own misogyny. And their own personal and intimate lives.

Thank you for your kōrero [conversation]— and for your interesting kaupapa [ideas]. But before you go, I wonder if you’d point to any particular moves that we should be making to strengthen the links between Māori and your people from Vanuatu.

One big challenge that Pacific peoples face is how to rebuild our connections with Māori. And I’m talking about Pacific peoples right here in Aotearoa. (I can’t talk about Vanuatu because I’m here in Wellington.) I think that one of the most important things we can do to lift up all our communities is to rebuild our connections with Māori — and to make the struggles for tino rangatiratanga [self-determination] more central to our everyday lives.

Māori and Pacific peoples share not just a whakapapa but also a common political situation. We’re both right at the bottom of the white supremacist, socio-economic hierarchies that we live in. The present system incarcerates Māori most of all. It’s nearly all brownies in there.

Our decrepit schooling system commits soul murder against our rangatahi [younger generation], our young boys and girls, by not recognising their talents — and by testing them rather than creating spaces of learning.

These are things that Māori and Pacific people can unite around. And no one fights harder for Aotearoa than Māori. Just look at the recent protests about the river pollution crisis. Māori are leading that mahi [work]— and Pacific people need to support Māori in that.

And also we can unite in dealing with the violence against our women and girls. There’s endemic violence against them. We’d make progress with all these issues by uniting. As we should over the life-threatening climate changes we’re all facing.

I believe our indigenous cultural traditions hold many of the answers. Like how to live on a piece of land over a long period of time. And how to build healthy relationships with surrounding peoples and with the wider natural community.

The indigenous people of the Pacific hold the key to solving the great social and ecological problems we face in the Pacific. But, to do that, we need to rebuild our relationships with other Pacific communities. And for us, as Pacific people in Aotearoa, rebuilding our connections with Māori has to be a priority.

XIX Commonwealth Games-2010 Delhi: Weight Lifter Molisa Pala Basil Mera of Vanuatu during weight lifting 85kg category at Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium, October 8, 2010.

Not just strengthening links between indigenous peoples of the Pacific: Pala Molisa in action as a weightlifter at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India


Pala Molisa was born in Vanuatu and educated at Nelson Boys’ High and Victoria University. He has a PhD in Accounting and currently lectures at Victoria University’s School of Accounting and Commercial Law. His research interests looks into the role that accounting plays in exacerbating the social injustices and pattern of ecological destruction produced by the current economic system — for example, endemic male violence, race-based and class-based inequalities, and the climate crises, particularly as they are playing out in Aotearoa and the Pacific region. He is currently actively involved in the anti-TPPA and Free West Papua movements. 

Pala has also represented Vanuatu in weightlifting, including at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.


This article originally appeared in e-tangata and is republished here with permission.