Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: January 5th, 2021

Article Discussed: Daniela Kraemer, « Family relationships in town are brokbrok: Food sharing and “contribution” in Port Vila, Vanuatu », Journal de la Société des Océanistes [Online], 144-145

Lucas Watt

Kraemer (2017) article provides additional context to Kraemer’s (2020) work which explored the trend that urban youth in Vanuatu are increasingly “planting roots” in Port Vila in the context where establishing traditional connection to rural places of ancestral origin is not available.  “Planting roots” refers not to only calling Port Vila home, but an active creating of place and relationships by youth that reflects their adapted interpretation of Ni-Van tradition that is applicable to the urban context.

At the heart of Kraemer’s (2017) article is the notion that kinship relationships that are typically relied upon for assistance in rural locations are weakening in Port Vila. She argues that the increased financial demands of living the city, and high youth unemployment, creates inter-generational tensions that prevent the free-flowing exchange of resources between urban kin. Elder kin are less able to provide meals and accommodation to an often-large number of dependent youth due to financial pressures. Youth with limited formal education are less able to find employment in a job market where low skill jobs are diminishing. In such an environment of urban financial tension, any assistance elder kin give to youth dependents is increasingly based on the “contribution” youth make to the household. This “contribution” is highly calculated according to monetary or material value, as opposed to opaque notions of value typical in rural traditional exchange. Based on youth inability to “contribute” according in a financially calculable manner, they are becoming more excluded from household assistance in the urban environment. As a result, elder kin are increasingly protecting resources from being appropriated by youth to the extent that they are discouraged to spend time in the household. Resources such as money and food are also often hidden from youth.

Kraemer (2017) argues however that youth are more able to contribute to their youth “squads”. In their squads, youth can find informal employment in group projects such as car washing and marijuana selling activities. Through labour and informal income, they can “contribute” to their squad. Subsequently squad leaders provide food and assistance that would have otherwise been obtained from kin. In this move away from strict kinship-based assistance, squad members are starting to redefine kinship terminology by calling fellow members who offer mutual assistance according to kinship terms such as “brother” and “sister”.

It is evident in this example that in the urban context, traditional communal assistance through kinship networks is diminishing. There is not however a complete breakdown of the norms and ethos of traditional exchange. Youth who are “planting roots” in Port Vila rather find new social relationships in which this form of exchange can take place to get by in the harsh urban context.


  • 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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