Akanisi Kedrayate

In the South Pacific, sometimes it is assumed that education only started with the advent of schools introduced by the missionaries. However, there was a great deal of organised education occurring in the traditional societies of the Pacific before the arrival of the missionaries from the West. Akanisi Kedrayate reports on her personal experience. She is Head of the Department of Education and Psychology, School of Humanities, University of the South Pacific, and another article by her appeared in issue No. 58 of “Adult Education and Development”.

Learning in Traditional Societies in the South Pacific: A Personal Reflection

“Every society in the world has a culture which is transmitted from generation to generation through education. Education is the humanisation of people in society. Whether it is referred to as socialisation or enculturation, indigenous education or traditional, education is education. And as a human process, it is part and parcel of every human society.” (J. Ocitti, 1994)


Learning in Traditional Societies

In traditional societies in the South Pacific everyone in the community learned. Learning was an important process as it ensured continuity and sustainability of life. Whatever was learned in these traditional societies was very much related to their way of life, the resources they had and how these were used to meet needs of the family, the extended family and the community. The practical application of skills and knowledge was very important. Learning was very much functional in the sense that what one learned was put into practice; otherwise the skill was lost.

People learned through either informal, non-formal or formal education.

Informal Education

In these societies, substantial amounts of knowledge were learned and skills acquired through informal education. Informal education is usually regarded as spontaneous learning by individuals as they interact with their social and physical environment in their process of everyday living. It is open to all members of the community _ children, young people and adults. It is truly a lifelong process of learning. For the purpose of this article, informal education is non-organised, unsystematic and sometimes even unintentional worthwhile learning that accounts for the great bulk of a person‘s total lifetime learning.

Through informal education, children used to learn the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for everyday survival and living from their parents and elders. Everyone was expected to know the values, customs, rules and social norms of living: social relations, lineage, how to behave and the environment. Preparation of individuals for the roles that they would play in the family, community and society was crucial. Males learned the skills of fishing or farming, and females learned how to cook and look after the home. Most of the learning was done through observation and imitation.

Socialisation is an important process which helps the individual, who is assumed to be ignorant of the social environment, to learn the social knowledge and social skills needed to be accepted and integrated into the society. Through socialisation everyone can access “common knowledge and skills” required for survival and sustained social relationships. However, “closed knowledge and skills” can only be passed down within the clan. In Fiji, for example, the knowledge and skills for canoe building are specific to the clan which builds canoes. Only in special cases may knowledge belonging to one clan be passed to an outsider after that person has proved loyalty and commitment. For example, a (male) person from outside who marries into a clan may be allowed to learn the skill of canoe building. Secrecy and protection of knowledge and skills are related to control, power and wealth. To have knowledge is to have power, and when you have power you can control others. When the knowledge and skills are put into practice, it is a source of wealth. For example, the women of my clan are skilled in weaving a special basket called “sova”. These special baskets are also used in exchange for beautiful mats made by clans from coastal or island communities. Also when special visitors come to the community these baskets are presented to them as gifts in exchange for food or gifts they may bring. In modern times these baskets are sold in markets and handicraft centres to generate income for our community.

Women who marry into our clan are never taught the skills to weave these baskets until they have proved their loyalty and commitment to the clan. I remember when I was young, I confronted my mother as to why an aunt was not taught the skills of weaving. I was told that she was a “vulagi” (an outsider) and if my uncle died she would return to her village. If she was taught the skill she would take the knowledge and skill to her clan and we would lose our source of wealth. At that time I did not quite understand what she meant. I thought it was very unfair and mean that the aunt was being left out while the local women (members of the clan) met and wove baskets. But now I can appreciate and understand what my mother meant then.

Learning Gender Roles

Learning of specific knowledge and skills is also related to the sexual division of labour. Each gender learns the knowledge and skills appropriate to its roles. For example, males learn how to farm, fish and hunt, while females learn domestic skills.

However, parents and elders at times purposefully teach their children certain skills. I recall when I was growing up at the age of 12, I was taught some skills in farming and fishing. I often participated in fishing expeditions with my father and male cousins. This was often unacceptable in the community. My father showed me how to dig yams: “When you dig yams this is where and how you do it.” I was told why I had to do it the way I was taught. Even though males only were supposed to learn the skills of farming and harvesting crops, I was allowed to learn these skills because I did not have a brother. I was the youngest in a family of three girls. Whether my father had wished I was a male when I was born, I never asked him.

My mother also taught me how to cook certain foods and the importance of using special leaves for wrapping up food. She taught me how to behave as a girl and a woman, what I should and should not do, who I should and should not communicate with. It must be admitted that I was often in conflict with the teachings of my mother because I was always questioning her why I was not allowed to do certain activities considered suitable only for boys. For example, I questioned her why I could not climb coconut trees. I was never provided a straight answer. All this learning was conducted at home or in the community.

Non-Formal Education

A lot of learning in the community consisted of short, organised programmes, usually punctuated by practice of what was being learned. One prominent feature of this was that it was geared to meeting the needs of specific groups. In most cases, these short education programmes were organised on request on a voluntary basis for individuals or groups with specific learning needs who had the time for such learning. This learning was organised, worthwhile and geared to a particular target group, and therefore, for our purposes, non-formal.

I recall that when I was growing up, some young women from the community wanted to learn how to weave mats. This was organised and the learning process took place in my home with my mother and paternal aunt as the teachers. Although some of them had been taught by their mothers, two of them had lost the skill because of lack of practice. The oldest woman (the aunt) in the group admonished them for not knowing how to weave, as it was expected that every woman should know the skill. Then she demonstrated while the two women observed. After observation they were told to weave. The teaching and learning process took three days, and at the end of it the women had mastered the skill of weaving. The test was that they were required to weave a mat each.

The teaching of traditional dances, which was highly organised and ritualistic, was another form of non-formal education. The teacher had specialised knowledge and skill, which had been passed down from parent to child. The participants were deliberately taught the skills of body movement and of observing the ritual that went with it. The participants followed the instructions carefully, and the test was the final performance to the chief and the other members of the community.

Adults and children also learned from traditional ceremonies and family or clan gatherings. I remember when I was young there were clan meetings held at our home. My uncle, the leader of the clan, presided and directed the discussions. There was often exchange of ideas and views on issues concerning the welfare of the clan. I used to learn a lot of things from these clan meetings although I was never allowed to speak.


Formal Education

If we regard formal education as structured, organised with special teachers, then it was certainly undertaken in traditional communities in the South Pacific before the advent of schooling.

Some highly organised learning, with special instructions given by elders, was provided for the young as well as for adults. Special buildings were also put up where teaching was given. In traditional communities in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries, the initiation rites for young people when they reached puberty were organised formally. During this period the male youths were placed in a special building away from the village with knowledgeable and experienced elders. They were given instructions and training, and circumcised as a preparation for adulthood. The initiates went through certain ordeals to test their courage and adulthood.

In some of the small island states of the Pacific it was the women who were initiated. In Tuvalu a female teacher related that during puberty she and other young girls in the community were put in a hut and given only water and coconuts to eat. By undergoing this process it was assumed that they would acquire the strength and endurance to face difficult situations in their future roles as mothers. In that society, if there is famine, the husband and children are to be fed first and the mother eats whatever is left.

If learning is about continuity and sustaining of life then we can assume that it is happening all the time in the community in traditional societies among all groups: the young, adults and the elderly. However, much of this traditional learning has been devalued by the emphasis on modern education.

A Personal Reflection – as a General Conclusion

I cannot disassociate myself from my past and ignore the important values and norms that have shaped my life. I am what I am today because of my past. And yet, at times in my modern mind I am in a dilemma as to which part of my education has changed me the most. Is it my community education or the Western education? On the one hand, I want to say that the past is no longer relevant to the modern world of science and technology. But then, on refection, no matter how much the modern world has to offer, I find myself escaping to my community quite often to recapitulate the positive teachings and values I have lost through modern education.