United Church Women’s Fellowship in Ranongga, Solomon Islands

Fellowship and Citizenship as Models of National Community: United Church Women’s Fellowship in Ranongga, Solomon Islands

McDougall, Debra


From humble beginnings in the 1960s, the United Church Women’s Fellowship (UCWF) is now viewed as one of the most effective organizations on the island of Ranongga (Western Province, Solomon Islands). This essay considers reasons for the success of women’s fellowship in Ranongga, focusing on the distinctive position of women in gendered local and translocal forms of social organization. Far from being isolated from the outside world, Ranonggan women have long been engaged in drawing outsiders into local communities. I explore this theme in narratives of Christian conversion and of the beginning of women’s fellowship; I also consider the practices of local and national women’s fellowship groups that work to constitute unified communities out of diverse groups of people. My discussion of Ranonggan women’s fellowship illustrates local dynamics of community-making that do not map easily on to dominant models of nation-states and ethnic groups. I ask whether the UCWF provides an alternative model for thinking about larger-scale political formations, particularly in the Solomons. This question is especially relevant considering the significant contribution that women’s Christian organizations have made in efforts to reconstitute a national community in the context of the ongoing political crisis in Solomon Islands.


In recent years, violence has become a primary means to ensure privileges within Solomon Islands. Beginning in late 1998, militants from the island of Guadalcanal began attacking groups of people from the island of Malaita who, since World War II and especially since independence in 1978, had settled in Guadalcanal around the capital city Honiara. The attacks eventually resulted in the evacuation to their home islands of approximately twenty thousand settlers. Although quickly dubbed ‘ethnic tension’, the conflict emerged less from primordial animosity between Malaitans and Guadalcanal people, who had peacefully coexisted for generations, and more from the interplay of government corruption and criminal activities with the resentment felt by many Guadalcanal people at land alienation and their unequal opportunities within a post-colonial economy (Kabutaulaka 2000). On 5 June 2000, a Malaitan militia united with a faction of the Solomon Islands police force to take over the national armoury, depose the constitutionally elected government, and take the Prime Minister hostage.

In the tense days following the coup, many Solomon Islanders attempted to find a nonviolent solution to the national crisis. Rather than asserting the prerogatives of opposed ‘ethnic’ groups, they called on Malaitan and Guadalcanal militants to recognize their shared Christian faith and citizenship in the Solomon Islands. Particularly important in this movement was a group of Honiara women from various church and secular organizations who formed ‘Women for Peace’ (Pollard, this issue). Speaking as ‘mothers of the nation’ in radio broadcasts and newspaper articles, Women for Peace pleaded for an end to the fighting. They crossed road-blocks on the edges of town to hold prayer meetings with militants on battlefields, during which they implored them to remember their own mothers and sisters and to see one another as brothers. These actions inspired a temporary reconciliation and members of the opposed militias embraced and shed tears. Women for Peace orchestrated exchanges of store-bought goods for garden produce between Malaitan women living in town and Guadalcanal women living outside. They visited official representatives of both the Guadalcanal and Malaita militias to call for a peaceful and a democratic resolution of the crisis (Fugui 2001; Liloqula and Pollard 2000; Pollard 2000).’

In the days, weeks, and months following the coup, everyone from militia spokesmen to High Commissioners lamented the fact that women had not been involved earlier in peacemaking efforts in Guadalcanal. A New Zealand representative, for example, even suggested that if his government decided to send in troops they would align themselves with organizations like ‘churches and women’s groups’ (Solomon Star, 27 June 2000). In the Solomons and throughout the Pacific Islands, there are good reasons why outside agents might want to mobilize Christian organizations, and particularly women’s Christian organizations, for their own purposes. Not only is a church the centre of nearly every village community in Solomon Islands but churches also link local communities in island-wide, provincial, national, and regional networks. As Bronwen Douglas has argued, women’s groups in Melanesia ‘articulate the local with wider spheres in contexts where the state is locally absent or invisible’ (2000:6). Yet, women’s groups and church groups are not primarily institutions of governance – their primary goals have little to do with either formal government politics or planning development projects.2

The project of harnessing local institutions and actors to meet external agenda is not new but what has changed is the kind of local institutions thought relevant to governance. After the second World War, British colonial officials attempted to transform indigenous political arrangements into instruments of colonial government: they designated chiefs as headmen and encouraged efforts to codify ‘custom’ as law. In recent years, international agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) have tended to turn away from quintessentially political, public, and male-dominated institutions to apparently non-political, domestic, or religious institutions in which women figure significantly. One thing has not changed, however: local actors may harness outside institutions for purposes often counter to the aims of colonial, postcolonial, or global agents of government. In this paper, I focus on moments of appropriation in which Solomon Islands women and men use translocal institutional forms – whether a colonial Christian mission or a United Nations (UN) protocol for human rights – for their own local projects of community-making.

My main purpose is to understand the vision of community that was being articulated by the Honiara women in June 2000. It is a vision of community grounded in the ideology and practice of Christian fellowship. In the Solomons, fellowship brings diverse people together for common interests which include but are not limited to worship. To place this distinctive vision of community in a particular ethnographic and historical context, I consider one women’s fellowship grouping: the United Church Women’s Fellowship (UCWF) in Ranongga Island,3 a small island on the far western edge of the New Georgia group in the Western Province of Solomon Islands (see Map 4).4 Two characteristics of community in Ranongga are particularly noteworthy. First, it has an overtly performative quality: we might say that community is the explicit goal, not the ground of politics. second, it is expansive and inclusive: Ranonggans place a high value on drawing outsiders into productive relationships. This second characteristic has been noted elsewhere in other Melanesian islands where local processes of social reproduction are explicitly oriented toward forging larger networks of exchange and interaction (see Munn 1992 and other studies of kula in the Massim region of Papua New Guinea). Europeans, Australians, and Americans working in the Solomons tend to equate villages with communities and there is a deeply-rooted scholarly tendency to oppose individualistic modern Westerners to communalist traditional Melanesians (Douglas 2002:8-9, 25-6). However, Ranonggans themselves think that community is very difficult to achieve. Bringing individuals together for collective projects is the explicit goal of much rhetoric and action – without such work it is thought that people just ‘follow their own thoughts’. Collectivity thus is an ideal that must be periodically reenacted. As I shall demonstrate, the Ranongga UCWF has been particularly effective in this endeavour. The success derives in part from certain long-standing cultural patterns: women have always been important in drawing outsiders into local groups. Furthermore, the bureaucratic organization of women’s fellowship has offered new opportunities for Ranonggan women to engage in productive interactions with others from the larger region, nation, and even internationally.

This distinctive model of community does not map easily on to those that ground the theories of national citizenship which emerged in the era of European decolonization and continue to define the way that scholars and policy-makers think of nation-states and ethnic groups. John Kelly and Martha Kaplan (2001:1-29) have recently highlighted the importance of World War Two as a turning point from a world of empires to a world where nation-states are the only thinkable sub-global political units: ‘Decolonization was an entry, with considerable baggage, into a new world order with its own delimiting determinations for civil and political practices, its own rigid protocols for delimiting the scope and realm of collected political will’ (2001:5). The contemporary delimitations and protocols of UN-era nation-states forbid violent assertions of political will like those of the Guadalcanal and Malaitan militants. Yet they may also leave little room for the kind of community that is enacted through fellowship in Christian Solomon Islands societies.

Notions of citizenship, ethnicity, and nation-statehood pre-suppose communities which are imagined as bounded units that, in an ideal world, would map neatly on to delimited territories. The problem is to map a particular group adequately on to a territory or ensure that communities are represented within a larger national or international polity. In contrast, a community grounded in fellowship is dynamic and unbounded. Though in practice the scope of such a community is limited – e.g., a village women’s fellowship in Solomon Islands will bring together people of only one locality and mirror denominational splits in Solomons Christianity – its efficacy depends on the possibility that the entire world is One people’ under God. Furthermore, the overt and public goal of fellowship is the making of community by bringing together people with different origins, interests, and identities. The articulation of the boundaries between different people within the community receives little attention – at least in public – lest this undermine the tenuous achievement of unity. The incongruence between these international and local models of community suggests that harnessing women’s Christian groups for purposes of peacemaking, government, or development may be problematic in ways not recognized by the governments, agencies, and NGOs that are now so anxious to harness the effectiveness of such groups for new purposes.


The impetus for Christian missionization came from European outsiders but in Ranongga its implementation has been a largely local project. Although kastom, ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’ in Pijin, is often considered congruent with Christian moral principles, most Ranonggans and other Christian Solomon Islanders view conversion as a transition from darkness to light and from war to peace (cf. White 1991). Worship of a universal deity implied a radically different form of polity. It was no longer one limited by genealogical relationship, coresidence, and shared veneration of emplaced ancestors but one that, as Ian Hogbin put it in 1958, provided a basis ‘for broadening the concept of brotherhood until it embraces not only the inhabitants of neighbouring settlements but also strangers’ (Hogbin 1958:182 quoted in Barker 1990:16). Incorporating strangers was an important focus of social life even in pre-Christian Ranongga but in the new world order of Christianity peace and love became public virtues as countervailing principles of warfare and conflict were suppressed. Local histories suggest that women had a particularly important part in ushering in this new world order and have a distinctive place within it today.

In 1893 a British Protectorate government was proclaimed over the Solomon Islands and one of its first goals was to end large-scale inter-island warfare in the western Solomons. In 1902 Reverend John Goldie established the first Methodist mission station in Roviana lagoon in New Georgia. (In 1968 the Methodist Mission joined the United Church of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands which in 1998 became the United Church of Solomon Islands.) In 1914 Pastor George Jones set up the first Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) mission in nearby Marovo lagoon. Ranongga was on the periphery of this early colonial activity: throughout the colonial period, the nearest European missionaries were stationed in neighbouring Vella Lavella.

The first permanent missions were established in Ranongga by Solomon Islanders and other Pacific islanders with varying degrees of outside imposition.5 In LaIe village, at the southeastern end of Ranongga, Christianity arrived uninvited in 1914 when Goldie sent first a Guadalcanal man and later a Tongan man and his family to set up a Methodist station. People of LaIe told me (with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment) that their grandparents had objected to the missionary presence because they dirtied seaside shrines by defecating in the ocean. In Pienuna, a village on the northeast coast of Ranongga, a young local man, James Paleo, boarded a mission ship by accident in 1914 (thinking it was a trader’s ship) and spent two years at the Methodist Mission school in Roviana. When he returned to Pienuna in 1916, he faced the resistance of old priests but overcame their opposition with the support of a senior woman. In both LaIe and Pienuna, the senior men – presumably those with most invested in the old ritual system – resisted Christianity. In contrast, several years later in 1920 in Modo, a village on the northwest coast of Ranongga, the chief actively sought out Adventist missionaries. He organized a voyage to Vella Lavella in the style of great war raids but instead of returning with captives or heads he brought back two Solomon Islands pastors. This chief sought out Adventists because they taught people to read and sing in English, a foreign language that was used by powerful Europeans, instead of Roviana, the more familiar lingua franca used by the Methodist mission.6

European missionaries were quick to acknowledge that local men were indispensable in the work of the Solomons missions but they mentioned local women only as loyal wives of these mission ‘boys’.7 Local histories, in contrast, accord women an important and distinctive part in Christian conversion. As part of a 2001 church anniversary celebration, people of Pienuna re-enacted James Paleo’s arrival at Pienuna. When the mission ship arrived, male priests were carrying out divination at a seaside shrine. An old woman, Takavoja, quickly went to the beach and recognized Paleo as her long-lost ‘child’. Takavoja was a woman of the land-owning matrilineage of Pienuna: her brother was chief – later he would be replaced by her son and finally her grandson (her daughter’s son). As Takavoja welcomed Paleo ashore, the priests threatened him with their battle-axes and told him to leave. Takavoja turned to them and cried:

I am telling you, if I say ‘no’, then it is no! You cannot send him away! This is our child, Paleo, and I am giving my permission on this day. He went away and he has returned with these seeds to plant here: the word of God.

The priests conceded, saying that Takavoja was to blame if it turned out badly. Paleo’s Roviana companions put down a cross and a candle and departed leaving Paleo behind with Bible in hand. People thus credit Takavoja as well as Paleo with planting the ‘seeds’ of the gospel in Pienuna.

In practice, Christianity offered new kinds of opportunities both for local collective action and for making productive connections with the outside world. With the end of warfare and with the encouragement of the missions and the colonial government, people throughout the Solomons moved from small, scattered hamlets in the interior of the large islands to large conglomerate villages on the coast (cf. Hviding 1996:98-9; Keesing 1967). The young western Solomons men who went to mission schools entered into friendships and cooperative relationships with people from across the district; those who had lived at Goldie’s Methodist mission learned how to manage copra plantations as commercial enterprises. Mission education also led to opportunities for employment in the colonial government service and within the mission. Even aside from these practical benefits, Christianity allowed people to imagine that they were part of a universal polity, notwithstanding denominational differences, because they were united with strangers throughout the world who all worshipped a single God. Particular geographic and social relationships were (in theory) immaterial. The conversion stories I heard did not suggest that the old spirits were false but that the Christian God was more powerful and the fact that a large number of people throughout the world worshipped God was taken as both cause and evidence of this transcendent power.

The impetus to draw in foreign others was present in the western Solomons before Christianity. Before pacification, extensive networks of trade, alliance, and warfare ranged over hundreds of kilometres (Hviding 1996:85-115). In contrast to the extra-local associations made possible by Christianity, however, these older forms of inter-island relations were grounded in localized power relationships between people and place. In Ranongga, matrilineages (butubutu) are associated with territories: in some cases, the matrilineage is thought to have originated on its territory and in other cases the matrilineage purchased or was given the territory by the autochthonous lineage. Long-distance alliance and adoption of foreign captives were also important forms of interaction with foreigners. As Michael Scott (2001) has argued for Arosi in Makira in the southeastern Solomons, land mediates relations of identity and difference between autochthons and outsiders. Ontologically-given relationships between a lineage and its territory must be continually re-instantiated through productive interaction with other lineages, especially through exogamous marriage and coresidence on lineage land. In both Arosi and Ranongga, the lineages of the land must draw diverse Other people’ to live together on matrilineage land; at the same time, however, the lineage must also maintain its own distinct identity and relationship to the land.

In pre-Christian Ranongga, women and men operated differently to articulate the relationships between a local group and foreign others. In 1908 the anthropologist A.M. Hocart witnessed the return of a Simbo war party with a captive whom they had purchased from Choiseul. The Simbo women gathered on the beach, rushed up to greet the returning canoe, and quickly took possession of the young captive. The boy was led aside and a senior woman performed a number of rituals over him that seemed to introduce him to the local spirits so that they would recognize him and not harm him (Hocart 1931:312-15). Historical narratives I heard in Ranongga corroborate Hocart’s description. When Ranonggan war parties returned with captives, women often claimed them as their adopted children and thereby prevented warriors from killing them as sacrificial victims (McDougall 2000). By taking heads and captives on war raids, men violently asserted the power and priority of the local group over distant enemies. By welcoming foreign captives, women downplayed the distinction between foreign other and local self.

In the Pienuna conversion story, Takavoja greeted Paleo when he arrived at the shore in a manner similar to the way in which her contemporaries in Simbo greeted the returning young warriors. Like those warriors, Paleo was returning with something foreign that was of value: Christianity, represented by the cross and Bible and a seed that was planted. But he had also, in his long absence and conversion, become something of foreigner himself. Takavoja protected Paleo from dangerous male violence, asserting that he was her ‘child’ and allowing him to live in and hold the first church services in her house. Like the Simbo women, Takavoja played an important part in incorporating foreign elements into local social life.8

The end of warfare and the acceptance of Christianity changed the balance between the incorporation of outsiders and the maintenance of local privilege and power with corresponding implications for gender relationships. By declaring that all people are children of the same God and brothers and sisters in Christ, Christianity (in theory) obviates the need to determine who is and who is not a member of one’s group. In contemporary Christian Ranongga, the articulation of division and difference continues covertly in disputes over land rights (cf. Scott 2000) but the aggressive assertion of the power of local kin groups no longer has a public outlet in Christian Ranongga: public virtues now emphasize only one side of the dialectic of unity and difference. Women have always been important in drawing in foreign others and this probably became more marked with the disappearance of warfare. There are other reasons why women had an important place in this new Christian polity. Foremost in my interlocutors’ minds was the fact that Christianity allowed women to access spiritual power directly through prayer, without needing male priests to propitiate ancestors on their behalf. They also said that they no longer lived in fear of foreign attacks. Because God was stronger than local spirits, women were less afraid of moving around, transgressing boundaries, and falling ill because they had encountered a sacred and dangerous site on the landscape. I often heard that women embodied the virtues of Christianity better than men primarily because they have a heightened capacity for love. ‘Love’ (vari-roqu, RECIP. ‘think’) means mutual regard, sympathy, care, compassion, and mercy.9 It is most powerfully instantiated by the generous sharing of food. Expressions of love are expected between kin but it is considered exceptional – and a distinctly Christian virtue – to extend this love to strangers or ‘different people’.

The relationship between women and Christian love was most clearly articulated during a 1999 Easter Bible study that I attended in Pienuna. The study question asked, ‘Why did a woman (Mary Magdalene) first witness the resurrection of Jesus, instead of one of his male disciples? Some participants explained that the mourning women in Bethlehem could not forget their grief and could not leave the grave of Jesus. Others argued that although women are naturally weaker than men, their love empowered them so that they did not flee from persecution like Jesus’ male disciples did. Several participants related the Biblical story to their own experiences at funerals. At any death, they said, male kin of the deceased will enter, wail for a few minutes, and then go outside to talk, smoke, and chew betel nut. Women, in contrast, stay inside with the corpse. They brush flies away and endure the smell of decomposing flesh; the primary female mourners wail and keen until they are hoarse and weak with exhaustion.

This discussion reveals what might be called a long-standing gendered division of emotional labour in Ranongga whereby women are primarily responsible for the visible and public acts of love that affirm existing kin relationships and forge new ones. Women prepare food, the quintessential sign of nurture, to feed their families and visiting strangers. They mourn at funerals where wailing indexes love for and connection to the deceased. They are responsible for caring for ‘different people’, whether guests during a church rally or war captives of old. It is, therefore, not surprising that even though men have always had more authority within the church, women are often thought to have a stronger affinity to the moral values of the new Christian world order – a world defined by love for rather than fear of’different people’.


By the time of my fieldwork, the UCWF was considered a model for local projects of community-making. During a quarterly meeting of the Ranongga circuit United Church in 1998, the male pastor from Pienuna held up women’s fellowship as a model community organization:

The UCWF is strong … they have structure in their movement….We say, the UCWF is strong, they are strong, but why? They climb with something to help them climb, but we have no ladder to climb – The youth have no ladder, men’s fellowship has no ladder.”

The pastor’s comment suggests that women’s fellowship provided a model of organization that could be emulated by other community organizations and, perhaps, by the church as a whole. His comment is worth pausing over: only a few years ago, many men had considered the UCWF a waste of time. Leaders of the UCWF told me that the organization was formerly known as the qurupu pavu ghoboro, ‘group [that makes you] tired for no good reason’. Christine Dureau, who worked in nearby Simbo in the early 1990s, has written of women’s struggles against their husbands who thought that the UCWF was an optional leisure activity, not an essential Christian obligation (1993:26-7). By the late 1990s in Ranongga, individual men (and women, for that matter) grumbled in private about the time and energy required by the women’s group but public opinion no longer judged the UCWF a waste of time. The previous section focused on the relation of women to new ideals of Christianity: here I turn to the institutional structures of the UCWF that provided a ‘ladder’ that other community organizations were thought to lack.

The 1962 founding of the (then) Methodist Women’s Fellowship (MWF) (it became UCWF with the change of church organization in 1968) is an event celebrated annually. Narratives about the coming of the MWF echo narratives about the arrival of Christianity. Like James Paleo, the MWF founder Joyce Dunateko Panakera went away from Pienuna and returned with new knowledge, new techniques, and the colonially-constituted authority to begin a new kind of social institution. Dunateko was the Ranongga delegate to a Methodist Mission sponsored-workshop on women’s clubs. Upon her return, Dunateko’s work was approved by one of the important women of the landholding lineage in Pienuna, Mary Atunauru, the daughter of Takavoja who had adopted Paleo and Christianity in 1916. But Dunateko’s situation reflected the changes in the western Solomons in the half century since missionization. She was a trained nurse and was the first female mid-wife in the Pienuna clinic. She was from Marovo but had came to Ranongga as the second wife of Simion Panakera, a coast watcher for the United States Army in Marovo lagoon during World War II.

The 2000 anniversary of women’s fellowship was a particularly important occasion. Over the previous year, the Ranongga circuit UCWF with the help of Dunateko’s children had raised money and purchased at a cost of more than AUS$1000 an engraved marble plaque which was embedded in a three-metre high cement monument. Several hundred women gathered at Pienuna for three days to witness the unveiling of the monument. The event was actually smaller than planned because of a death in a neighbouring village on the first day of the celebration and because rough seas prevented the representatives of the United Church in Gizo from attending. Attendees celebrated the event with special worship services and Bible studies. Each local group that attended had composed special songs and dramas celebrating the coming of the MWF.

These dramas indicated what UCWF members today value about the organization. The Pienuna group re-enacted the struggles of women against their husbands and their attempts to convince them that women’s fellowship would enable them better to lead Christian families. At one point, a reluctant husband tried to prevent his wife from attending the meeting that Dunateko had announced: ‘You’ve got children to care for, I don’t know why you’re bothering to go. I suppose there is going to be nothing to eat later’. Another drama, presented by women from the village of Koqu, illustrated another barrier to women’s participation in fellowship: their own shyness. In this skit, Dunateko arrived at Koqu and summoned the women from their daily work to select officers (a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer) for their new group. The women demurred, saying that they did not know how to read or count and they did not know the Bible until finally some of the younger women were persuaded to take up the offices.

Women’s fellowship offered new opportunities for collective sociality. Douglas (2002:3-6) has made this point with reference to nineteenth-century sewing circles in Vanuatu: women defied their husbands to join the groups because they valued the chance to socialize with other women. In Ranongga, women frequently told me that before the advent of women’s fellowship, women did not share skills or ideas with one another. In the past, they said, women were not even permitted to leave their hamlet without permission of their husbands. These are, of course, highly selective accounts which de-emphasize the numerous opportunities for socializing with other women that existed prior to women’s fellowship. It is true, however, that women were excluded from much public ritual – not only in preChristian times but also in the early days of the church. Several of my oldest interlocutors said that women were excluded from the first church services, an aspect of early Christianity seemingly forgotten by second- and third- generation Christians. Women’s fellowship allowed women to come together more frequently and on a larger scale than they had been able to in the past – and in public, ritually-important settings.

Women’s fellowship in Ranongga had its origins in cooperation between the British colonial government and a New Zealand-administered Methodist mission. Programs like these colonial women’s clubs aimed to teach women to be good wives and mothers – part of a larger colonial effort to reorganize family life around nuclear family models (see essays in Jolly and Macintyre 1989; Dureau 1998). Dunateko’s autobiographical account emphasizes that women’s fellowship was important because it allowed women to help their husbands raise a Christian family in which husbands were the heads (Dunateko Panakera n.d.). Dunateko is remembered as someone who balanced her work in the church, her work as a nurse, and her work in the family. I often heard about how much food was always available at their hamlet; she even starched and ironed her family’s clothing every Sunday for church. Like the initial conversion to Christianity, however, the actual implementation of women’s fellowship in Ranongga followed a distinctly local project. Models of European domesticity were something that Ranonggan women sought to emulate: they were not forced on them from the outside. Thus, home economics was – and is – an important aspect of women’s fellowship but the MWF also taught women how to work within a European-style bureaucracy: they learned to make budgets, count money, keep minutes, set agendas, and vote on officers. These were skills that had been available only to men during the first decades of missionization.

Fellowship has also given Ranonggan women an opportunity to channel individual earnings publicly into communal projects. Raising funds has always been a main goal of the fellowship organization: the first generation of women’s fellowship members told me how they carefully saved ‘shillings’ for their MWF dues. By the time of my fieldwork, women had much more access to and control over cash. Through most of the twentieth century, copra production was the only major source of income in rural villages and the money from copra was controlled by men. In the late 1980s, however, as Gizo became an important commercial centre, Ranonggan women began to sell garden produce in the town market. Some of the first women to begin marketing told me that the skills they learned in UCWF allowed them to handle money and organize marketing trips. Today, women are primarily responsible for organizing marketing expeditions and they also control the cash earned, using it for household goods and expenses like school fees. They also tend to spend a greater percentage of the cash under their control on church and community activities than do men (Membup and Macintyre 2000:26).

Money is crucial for many of the activities of the UCWF. Rallies require store bought food, canoe rental, money for petrol, and kerosene for lamps. Groups also undertake projects that involve major expenses, such as Dunateko’s memorial, the construction of meeting halls out of permanent materials, and the purchase of canoes and outboard motors. Officers of the UCWF do request money from government representatives and urban relatives, but, as Pollard (this issue) demonstrates with respect to community women’s groups in Solomon Islands as a whole, the Ranongga UCWF is in the main economically self-sufficient.

Successful fundraising in Ranongga follows a distinct pattern where communal unity is enacted by the division and juxtaposition of people into distinct groups. The most common way of raising money during my fieldwork was through local markets, selling produce or cooked food. In intra-village fundraising, the four sections that comprise each local UCWF group (Education, Devotion, Recreation, and Service) would often compete against one another to gather the most produce or raise the most money. In preparation for important events like the 2000 UCWF Anniversary, competition between sections was stretched over months with each section sponsoring its own separate activities. For section- or circuit-wide UCWF fundraising, local village groups would compete against one another. Besides marketing, singing competitions were sometimes held to raise money. Groups would prepare songs and perform them while the audience put small change in a collection box in front of the performers. The structure of the event pitted singers against the audience but, because the money collected indexed both the skill of the performers and the generosity of the audience, everyone involved had an interest in generating as much money as possible.

A similar pattern of division and unity marks the most distinctive UCWF fundraising activity – an annual basket exchange that occurs at the end of every UCWF calendar year. In the 1998 annual basket exchange, partners (called baere, ‘friend’, or kale, ‘side’) exchanged woven baskets packed with puddings, fish, and root crops, as well as storebought goods like packets of noodles, biscuits, and bars of soap. The baskets weighed more than 20 kg and were beautifully decorated with flowers and betel nut (see Plate 3). During the exchange, many women clowned around by dragging their baskets around the clearing as though they were so full of food that they could barely manage to carry them. In the 1999 exchange, partners exchanged commodities: one pair exchanged a cooking pot for a kettle, another traded a backpack for a backpack, and another exchanged SI$200 cash (about AUS$67). Both years, exchange partners embraced and danced together as they approached the treasurer to pay their annual dues (SI$10/AU$3.30). By exchanging gifts, women begin to constitute lasting friendships because they remember and think fondly of those who gave them gifts. There are hints of affinity in the terms used for these partnerships: baere is also romantic partner and kale is a term for spouse.

A failed community fundraising event sheds some light on why the UCWF exchanges are so successful. In 1999, the Pienuna church-building committee required each adult in the village to contribute SI$25 (AU$8.30) to the building fund. Only a few people complied with this demand. As I sat watching the desultory ceremony that was held to collect the money, my companion complained that the event did not show ‘the willingness of people’s hearts’ – it would have been much better, she suggested, if everyone had exchanged baskets instead of simply putting down money. The building committee seemed to learn from its mistake. In 2000, it organized a large-scale exchange, in which every household in Pienuna was assigned a partner household with which it exchanged baskets of food before contributing SI$50 (AU$16.70) to the church building fund. There was a competitive aspect to the exchange as partner families struggled to give as good a basket as they received. Several families from the neighbouring village of Obobulu joined in the exchange to support the Pienuna church and these outsiders upped the ante, as it were. In addition to baskets of food, they added 20 kg bags of rice and flour, gargantuan corms of taro, and yards of cloth to their presentation. This group arrived after the event was underway: in the middle of a rain storm, they approached Pienuna by canoe with the cloth gifts waving as a flag and the giant taro held up as a kind of mast head. In total, the event raised nearly SI$3,000 (AU$1,000) for the church.

If raising money was the single goal of fundraising, such endeavours must be judged extremely inefficient. And yet, they achieve something that a more efficient, tax-like collection of fees does not. Exchange and fundraising events make visible and public the transformation of cash acquired by individual engagement in a market economy into a source of community potency (cf. Brison 1999; Sexton 1986). The huge amount of effort poured into preparing for basket exchanges and the exuberance displayed at such events demonstrate the ‘willingness of people’s hearts’. The events bring people together, albeit temporarily, and allow them to feel part of a larger whole. Contextually defined ‘different people’ -whether exchange partners, other UCWF groups, visiting village groups, or people of another church – are drawn into productive interactions in ways that raise money but also allow people to feel part of a dynamic community. One might plausibly argue that this is not distinctive to Ranongga or Solomons Islands: fundraising in the United States, for example, also constitutes a sense of community among participants. It seems unlikely, however, that such events would be judged according to whether they revealed the ‘willingness of people’s hearts’. Even if the function of fundraising is the same in the Solomons and the United States, it is important to take seriously the meaning that people attribute to their actions.

We are still left with the question of why women are more successful at both these economic and symbolic transformations of value. By the late 1990s, most Solomon Islanders were far less optimistic about the possibility that they would be able to engage productively in a wider national and international order than they might have been in the decades following World War II. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the independent government had cut services while ‘development’, mainly in the form of logging, had failed to benefit rural communities.

The particular position of women in this dismal postcolonial economy can be seen in parodies that older women perform at fundraising events and community celebrations like Christmas and New Year. Some men and younger women also engage in clowning but the most outrageous parodies are performed by mature women with adolescent or adult children. They disrupt planned activities with a kind of gyrating, hip-thrusting dance that might have been provocative if it were not parodie. The women engage in bodily actions iconic of maleness, such as mock battles with props like buckets and sticks for shield and sword. They also parody ‘disco’ or kastom dances, which are practised and performed in earnest by groups of young men. In the most common parody, women fashion themselves after masta Uu, male ‘rascals’ – the urban youth who have gathered in increasing numbers in Honiara. They swagger around in blue jeans and T-shirts, donning baseball caps and sunglasses as they smoke cigarettes and pretend to guzzle from empty beer bottles. In addition to parodying men, women often imitate foreigners (including Australian tourists and myself as an anthropologist), complete with props for a camera, video recorder, and tape recorder. Particularly hilarious parodies combine these themes. One Christmas, two Pienuna women acted out a boxing match between fighters from New Guinea and later a larger group of women gave a mock concert by an overseas reggae band (see Plate 4).

The parodies allow people to laugh at inversions of social personae: woman as man and ‘local’ person as worldly foreigner. They also poke fun at otherwise disturbing inversions of positive value transformations that are necessary for the continued viability of the community. Here the parody of the rascal seems particularly important. Everyone hopes that at least one of their children (ideally a boy because people want at least one daughter to stay home and nurse them through old age) will go to a regional or national high school and obtain a good education. He would then get well-paid work in Gizo, Honiara, or overseas and send money home to those who nurtured him and paid his school fees. But in Solomon Islands today, there are few good jobs for people with education. Many young men can find only menial and abysmally-paid labour that requires no education. The women’s parodies highlight the way that many young men in town embrace the styles from overseas and spend their money on beer, cigarettes, and clothes. Rascals consume but do not produce; they represent a negative value transformation – the work put into nurturing them provides no return (cf. Munn 1992). The problem is not limited to young unmarried men: many of the most important male leaders in the church had themselves worked at town jobs with good pay but were fired because of drinking. The parodies, then, indicate a kind of ambivalence about positive and negative relationships with outsiders, foreign ways, and capitalist forms of value. What gives the parody of the women its force and explains why men do not engage in such burlesques is the historical fact that women have largely been excluded from these forms of engagement.


On a local level, the UCWF has been successfully emulated: the fundraising activities carried out by the UCWF have, for example, been generalized to other community organizations. In this section, I consider what kind of model the UCWF provides for larger-scale political formations. In the 1960s, women’s fellowship emerged as a cooperative endeavour of the churches and the branches of colonial government concerned with women’s issues (pers. comm., Matina Uliu, 23 June 2000). The national UCWF still receives some funding from the Women and Development Division and has been an important link between local women and national and international organizations. The UCWF is structured according to principles of representative democracy: members elect local officers, who then elect officers for the section, circuit, and national assemblies. When preparing for higher-level meetings, officers at each level consult with their constituencies. These local groups contribute money and food that their officers must take to meetings. The UCWF differs from other forms of Western-style bureaucracy in the Solomons because it is economically self-sufficient and participatory (see Pollard, this issue).

Two weeks after the June 2000 militia takeover of the government in Honiara, a national assembly meeting of the UCWF was held in Gizo, the capital of Western Province. Like other UCWF gatherings I had witnessed, this meeting was an admirable display of endurance and dedication on the part of the participants. The rally brought together 125 delegates as representatives of their circuits as well as a dozen or so wives of church ministers. For a week, the streets of Gizo were filled with these women in their distinctive purple uniforms. Members of the Gizo circuit UCWF hosted the visitors and the different local groups took turns providing food, songs, and dances for the evening meal of the delegates. Each afternoon, a different delegation from the meeting conducted a lunchtime prayer service in the public town market (see Plate 5). With scarcely a moment’s rest between activities, the women participated in church services, Bible studies, business meetings, budget planning sessions, and discussion of social issues. Late every night, the women returned to their rest houses to work on the preparation of dramas and songs for the next day. They often went to sleep well past midnight only to wake before dawn to attend a morning prayer service. The UCWF assembly meeting was a hierarchically-organized structure of corporate groups cross-cut at every level by personal connections between women. The delegates to the Gizo meeting were organized according to circuit: each circuit’s delegates stayed in the same rest houses and moved together as a group from one activity to another. These circuit groups also had collective responsibility for part of the program that they worked on during the week. The meeting was also organized according to region, each composed of several circuit groups. In the opening ceremony, each regional group marched into the church with its own purple banner and over the course of the week, each region led one evening church service. This articulation of divisions between the groups parallels the articulation of separate groups that occurred in the local fundraising events that I discussed above. At the same time, these circuit and regional groups were linked by connections unrelated to bureaucratic structure. At the meeting, women saw sisters and cousins who had married and moved to another part of the region; women who had married men from elsewhere in the Solomons could visit their in-laws. Even aside from ties of kinship and marriage, the UCWF provides a situation where women from different villages or islands become close friends through their shared work and by being partners in exchanges. This combination of highly-structured corporate groups with a dense network of personal ties across the groups led participants to feel themselves as part of a larger whole.

In addition to worship, Bible study, administrative meetings, and budget meetings, an important aspect of this assembly meeting was a daily discussion and evening plenary session about human rights issues. The topics were raised because the national UCWF officers had attended a pan-Pacific meeting the previous year that concentrated on women and human rights. The issues included old age, sexual and domestic violence, human rights for girls and women, the environment, and sexually transmitted infections including HIVAIDS. The connection to global organizations was important to participants in the UCWF assembly meeting but the way they interpreted this standard human rights agenda indicates that the organization was not simply a conduit for transmitting a global moral agenda. That UN-inspired agenda was intended primarily to protect the rights of individuals and ensure equal opportunities. The UCWF participants, however, focused on what constituted proper behaviour in situations in which women and men have differential obligations and responsibilities, not equal rights.

Much of what was said during these discussions directly opposed many central tenets of Western feminism. When the small group that I had joined discussed a resolution about equal rights to education and employment and freedom from sexual harassment, we ended up focusing on how to prevent girls from engaging in sexual activities and how to incorporate kastom rules for female behaviour into church activities. During another afternoon session concerning domestic and sexual violence, some participants suggested that a man was justified in hitting his wife if she had committed adultery, incited his jealousy by leaving the house without his permission, or even ‘talked too much’ (i.e., acted insubordinately). In that evening’s plenary session, the theme of domestic and sexual violence was quickly displaced by another issue: how to stop young women from wearing trousers. At least some of the participants viewed trouser-wearing as a serious affront to neo-traditional Christian morality and thought that it was an invitation to sexual assault by men (cf. Membup and Macintyre 2000:25). Later in the week, Jully Makini, a well-known writer and community activist, spoke about women’s rights. She emphasized the freedom to express oneself through dress and speech and the right to an education. After her speech, however, a minister’s wife argued that educated women were likely to fall into loose lifestyles and prostitution and so discussion quickly turned from freedom of expression for women to the control of female sexuality.

This tendency to blame women for their own predicaments, whether prostitution or being a victim of male violence, is common among men in Papua New Guinea, according to Macintyre (1998:223). Still, it is somewhat surprising that some women in the UCWF assembly meeting thought that the problem of women’s rights might be solved by carefully restricting the movement, expression, and social activities of younger women – rather than, say, attempting to change men’s attitudes and behaviour. Such a solution, I should note, was not accepted by all participants at the meetings and has even less appeal for younger women, few of whom were present at the event. Yet, the fact that such a solution was even entertained indicates that participants did not see the problem in the same light as those formulating the resolutions. In other words, they did not see the restriction of women’s choice and freedom as a problem in itself but only in so far as it disrupted what they considered proper social and sexual relationships (see Stritecky 2001:152-56). This does not mean that the women were not concerned about violence against women and other social problems. In the discussion of domestic violence, for example, women talked about their obligation as church leaders to intervene and shared practical advice about how such intervention would be most effective. They emphasized the need to act firmly but not rashly, to enlist the help of male leaders, and to placate angry husbands. The goal in such intervention was not figured as the abstract one of protecting the rights of women but as the practical one of helping to solve the family dispute, a strategy that would, in the end, protect women from male violence.

Other discussions that took place during the assembly meetings seem more amenable to a feminist or human rights agenda. In discussing the rights of the elderly, the women might be seen as having espoused a customary and Christian communalism that was opposed to selfish Western capitalism. The growing neglect of elderly people in rural communities was something the women were already concerned about: the UN resolution on rights for the elderly thus struck a chord of recognition. They talked about how increased migration and especially movement to urban areas destabilized extended families and made it more difficult for people to care for their aged relatives. Participants expressed special abhorrence for the European practice of allowing elderly people to live alone in nursing homes. But the disjuncture between the women’s values and those embedded in resolutions about human rights became obvious when the coordinator summed up the plenary session by encouraging everyone to grant old people the freedom to achieve ‘self-fulfilment’ to enjoy their ‘privacy, which is the source of life’. This was exactly what participants feared – that old people would be left alone and cut off from the sustaining nurturance of extended family and community.

In urban settings, ‘Western’ moral frameworks (like human rights or feminism) are depicted as irrelevant or even contradictory to Christianity and kastom which emphasizes the need for women to respect men as the head of the family rather than be equal and independent. Yet as Jolene Stritecky has argued with respect to Honiara (2001:145-90; cf. Jolly 1996), such dichotomies are overdrawn. Not only has kastom in urban settings changed so that it may not help create respectful and harmonious social relations between women and men, but ‘Western’ agendas like women’s rights are refigured as they are implemented by Solomon Islanders through local institutions like churches. In any case, women participating in the Gizo rally did not highlight the opposition between Western values and Christianized tradition. The majority of these women live in rural communities, have little formal education, and, unlike many better-educated Solomon Islanders, are relatively uncritical of colonialism. They were thus quick to declare that human rights and women’s rights were important although the way they actually talked about social problems had rather little resemblance to global discourses about human rights.

I suggest that what was compelling for these rural women was not the substantive meaning of human rights but the way that discussing these issues connected them to a broader international community. This parallels the way that Christianity has also offered a connection to a global community of believers (cf. Robbins 1998; Malkki 1994). It is yet to be seen whether the newer, secular gospels coming from the West – not only human rights, but other moral agendas like environmentalism, democracy, sustainable development – will prove as promising to Solomon Islands men and women as Christianity has.


Women in Ranongga have a distinctive part in incorporating outsiders into local groups: even pre-colonially, they had a special authority to adopt foreigners, intervene on their behalf, and ensure that local spirits and men would not treat them as enemies. In a Christian world, divisions between people based on differential relationships to land have been forced underground and undifferentiated unity is the publicly-articulated ideal in Ranongga and through much of Solomon Islands. This has opened new possibilities for women’s political agency, evident not only in the story of Christian conversion in Pienuna but also in the everyday platitudes about women’s disposition to love more than men do. When divisions between people of the place and foreigners resurface – as they have most strikingly in Guadalcanal but also in less dramatic ways throughout the rural Solomons – women are structurally well-positioned to intervene in the name of a Christian polity that encompasses and makes irrelevant existing divisions between social groups (cf. Merlan and Rumsey 1991). This is a possibility that the women in Honiara took advantage of when they bravely intervened in the crisis of 2000.

The UCWF has enabled Ranonggan women to engage in a larger regional, national, and even international world: not only have women participated in UCWF activities but they have tapped into a regional economy and channelled money from this engagement back into the organization and community at large. It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that the Ranongga UCWF will remain as effective as it has been in recent years. Older UCWF members often complained that the organization today was concerned only with raising money and participating in distant rallies, workshops, and meetings. There is now too little emphasis on sharing domestic skills and taking care of people in the village. Many of the current UCWF leaders said that women today care only about earning money for their own families and are no longer willing to put their effort into community activities like the UCWF. Their complaints echo those of male pastors who frequently lamented the failure of individuals to work on community projects. Though such complaints may overemphasize the communalism of earlier generations, they do indicate that women’s groups are not insulated from the social dynamics that affect the larger community.

I conclude by reconsidering the way that women continue to intervene in the ongoing national crisis. Nearly two years after the June 2000 coup, a chronic lack of law and order has replaced the organized hostilities between Malaitan and Guadalcanal militias. Neither the prayerful interventions of women nor the signing of a peace agreement has ended violence or convinced young men to turn over their modern weapons (Hegarty 2001; Macintyre 2000). In the months following the peace agreement and until the elections in December 2001, women’s groups played a less visible role in public affairs – this, at least, is my impression from on-line news sources. It has only been in 2002, with a new surge of violence and disorder, that women are re-appearing in the national media as they lead marches for peace. In the meantime, women’s groups seem to have been co-opted, in part, by a ‘civil society’ movement that is forming in the Solomons.

The civil society movement bears little resemblance to civil society as conceptualized in Western political theory: rather than the nexus of interconnected organizations and forums in a public sphere, civil society in Solomons consists of named collective groups (e.g., ‘the Civil Society Group’ and ‘Gizo Civil Society’). These groups have scheduled meetings and a regular membership composed of people affiliated with NGOs, churches, and anyone else who regularly attends meetings. What is striking about these ‘civil societies’ is the overtly oppositional stances they take in relation to government – a circumstance that has led government supporters to state that these ‘civil societies’ have no right to voice their opposition because they have not been constitutionally elected.12 It seems that civil society in Solomons Islands acts as an Opposition might in a Parliamentary system where party membership is more stable than it is in the Solomons. My point is that this new opposition between state and civil society is significantly different from the vision articulated by Honiara women in June 2000. It is a form of politics more congruent with the institutions and practices of liberal democracy than the vision of radical Christian unity.

What lessons could be taken for those who would see women as ‘resources’ to be used for peacemaking (Wood and Charlesworth 2000), development, or other such projects on a global or national agenda? The interaction between women’s fellowship groups and the civil society groups – as well as the integration of notions of rights into discussions of social problems at the UCWF meetings – show that mutual accommodation between different principles and visions of polity could be productive for all involved. Clearly, however, institutional structures that have not worked with men in charge are unlikely to work any better by simply including women. Such a strategy might only place more burdens on women who already are responsible for a disproportionate share of family and community work. Perhaps the question ought not to be whether women can be used as resources or how women’s organizations can be harnessed for purposes of good governance. A better approach might take women’s organizations as models to be emulated in new efforts to draw diverse people together for collective action and common purposes.


I am deeply indebted to people of Ranongga, especially the women of the Ranongga UCWF, residents of Pienuna village, UCWF leaders in Gizo, and several male church leaders. I thank Jully Makini and Matina Uliu in Gizo for helping me think about the intersection of Christianity and feminism in Solomons Islands. My fieldwork in Ranongga was supported by an International Dissertation Research Grant from the United States Social Science Research Council and a Small Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. I thank the Solomon Islands and Western Province governments for permission to carry out research. An early version of this paper was presented at a seminar at the Australian National University jointly sponsored by the Gender Relations Project and the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project, where it benefited from comments by Bronwen Douglas, Margaret Jolly, Ruth Saovana-Spriggs, and Joses Tuhunuku and from discussions with Charlie Panakera. I also thank Kungjin Cho, Bronwen Douglas, Mark Edele, Simon Foale, liana Gershon, Jessica Jerome, and Kathleen Lowrey for comments on various drafts.


1. see also Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) reports ‘Women demand peace’, 13 June 2000; ‘Nori on women’, 13 June 2000; ‘Honiara women shed tears for peace’, 14 June 2000; ‘Companies praise women’s group’, 15 June 2000 (Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation 2000).

2. However, Pollard and Scheyvens (this issue) describe how some national church women’s organizations in Solomon Islands have recently broadened their agendas beyond ‘traditional’ women’s concerns to address issues of female political participation, ecomonic development, and human rights.

3. I retain the official government spelling for the name of the island, using ‘ngg’ for the voiced velar stop. Other place names and vernacular terms are written with a modified version of an orthography now being used in a United Church Bible translation: ‘q’ for the voiced velar stop, ‘ng’ for the velar nasal, and ‘gh’ for the voiced velar fricative (the latter is taken from Seventh-day Adventist Church orthography). All voiced stops are prenasalized in Ranonggan languages (thus ‘b’ sounds like ‘mb’, ‘d’ like ‘nd’, ‘q’ like ‘nq’, etc.).

5. Narratives of the coming of Christianity are commonly shared knowledge in Ranongga but my account

draws particularly on interviews with John Wesley Paleo of Pienuna (5 May 2000), Manasa Resana of Kudu (12 Sep. 2001), Moses Tukebei and others of LaIe (24-6 Jan. 2001), Apusae Bei (27 Sep. 1999) and elders of Mondo village (22 July 2000).

6. Hviding ( 1996:119) reports an identical motive for embracing Adventism in Marovo.

7. Especially revealing are numerous reports by A.A. Bensley, a Methodist missionary stationed at Vella LavelIa in the 1920s and 1930s, in Open Door, a New Zealand Methodist Mission periodical housed in the Auckland Methodist Connexional Archive.

8. Rutherford (1998) highlights how women (as sisters) in Biak, West Papua, are crucial in incorporating foreign things of value, including Christianity.

9. Barker (1993) argues that a similar concept, ‘amity’, is central in the Christianity of the Maisin people of Oro Province, Papua New Guinea.

10. This scriptural point is cited as a charter for women’s role in the church in the constitution of the United Church of the Solomon Islands (Bishop Havea, pers. comm.).

11. Dixon Paleo, 16 December 1998, my translation. Italicized words were in English in original.

12. The objections of members of the Sogavare government were reported on SIBC, 15 March, 30 March, 12 April, 7 April 2001. A recent press release from Gizo Civil Society, 6 March 2002, rebuts a letter to the editor of the Solomon Star that questioned the validity of the organization.


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Debra McDougall

University of Chicago

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