Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: October 19th, 2020

Article Discussed: Kraemer, D. (2020). Planting Roots, Making Place: Urban Autochthony in Port Vila Vanuatu. Oceania, 90(1), 40-54.

Lucas Watt

Ethnic identities in Vanuatu are highly embedded in ancestrally significant places. It is through ancestral place that Ni-vans can connect to their wantok, the present and past social relationships it embodies, as well as the “ways of being” (kastom) that it facilitates. It is well represented in the literature that rural migrants that come to live in the city can continue to connect to ancestral place by replicating it in the urban context. There are many examples where collective and cohesive ethnic groups move to an urban center such as Port Vila, and form a village consisting of only their islands members. The village of Maat is a perfect example where migrants from the island of Ambrym can live in the city as well as engage with the replicative version of ancestral place that allows them to retain their traditional identities.

Urban villages like Maat however are not the only urban form of living that rural-urban migrants find themselves in. As Kraemer (2020) highlights, the community of Freswota is much different to a village like Maat, as it is a “mixed island community” consisting of a numerous number of different islanders. Freswota is also made up of migrants who are more disconnected from ancestral “place”, especially second-generation youth who have never visited their home rural islands. Young men in particular are branded as having “no place” which leaves their identity ambiguous. They are referred to be “floating”, or having no roots, as they have been disconnected from the social relationships and traditional principles, embodied in “place”.

Despite this floating status, Kraemer (2020) argues that the idea of exploring morality embedded in place is such an enduring concept foundational to life in Vanuatu, that these young men are committed to infusing place with traditional morality, even without the necessary reference points to their ancestral home islands. The most striking example of this was the naming of streets in Freswota based on which groups of peoples could be found on each street. In effect, these young men were involved in a project of “planting roots” in the city in absence of having rural roots.  


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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