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Weekly Edition 051: Saturday 16th February 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Money - Part Five

"Hanging on the Vine called 'Money' "

Apologies to readers - this has been a busy week and there has been little time to write a column of the usual length. However, I would just like to relate to you three minor incidents related to ideas of and different forms of money from three different areas of the world to ponder.

'Stones and pigs: Eivissa and Vanuatu'

Regular readers of this column may be becoming slightly familiar with periodic references to the Republic of Vanuatu in the South-west Pacific, the incredibly complex archipelago where so far I have spent 17 years since 1973 pursuing anthropological themes. In my series of articles on the importance of pigs in traditional Eivissenc culture ('Ric com un Verga') I made periodic references to the traditional use of various forms of pigs amongst the cultures of Vanuatu as a form of traditional currency. The best known forms of these are male pigs with artificially elongated and curved tusks. A curved pigs tusk also appears on the modern currency of Vanuatu, a currency known as 'Vatu'. In many of the 113 languages of Vanuatu the term 'vatu' or related terms means 'stone'. Particular types of stones are of great importance in the traditional cultures there: some are endowed with spiritual power, some have powers put into them by human intervention, some encapsulate history, some represent sacrifice and blood - the list is almost endless. I have spoken at great length over the years with many Ibicenco friends about aspects of culture in Vanuatu: most are fascinated. One old Ibicenco friend, a shepherd in his late 70s, once asked me what was used as money in those far-away islands. I replied 'Pigs and Stones' (well, there are a lot more forms, but I was quickly comparing the old and the new) and we sat down on a hillside as I explained things as best as I could. I actually had a 100 Vatu  (equivalent to about US $1) coin in my pocket and showed it to him, also pointing out the curved pig's tusk on it. He turned it over and over slowly in the sunlight and then said " 'Stone', that is good: everything that is solid and made to last must be built on stone and of stone. Most of our modern things are not made to last". Thinking about the pig's tusk and pigs, he said " Well, we don't know about these tusks, but it is true that pigs are valuable, and look how some of the rich people today started off" (here I think he was actually referring to events occurring when he was young, or during his father's time, when adroit manipulation of the 'pig market' in neighbouring Mallorca enabled one well-known individual to begin an immense fortune). He chuckled and then went on to muse about the fact that nowadays on Eivissa/Ibiza people stole money, but in the old days 'they stole women and sometimes pigs'. At least the latter were useful.

'Having no Money can save your life'

In December 1997 I had been invited to go spend 6 months as Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Rather than waste money on rather pricey accommodation in central Manhattan, I found a charming, very good value accommodation in 'El Barrio' in the lower edges of Harlem. As any anthropologist arriving in new territory is wont to do, I thought it a good idea to scout out the territory and one night shortly after my arrival I set off to penetrate deeper into Harlem and by about 1am I was ready to cross over a road somewhere around the corner of Lexington and 125th Street, I think. Three young men suddenly appeared from under the shadows of a street light: one pulled out a knife and said, "Give us your money and your credit cards!" My mind was elsewhere and I absent-mindedly laughed a bit and replied "Ha, I'm an anthropologist so I have very little money and I'm really English so have never used a credit card in my life". I must admit they seemed a bit taken aback, but I had noticed that the one who had spoken had done so in slightly accented English as if he were originally a Spanish speaker. I then switched in to Spanish and said, "Hey, is this a mugging like on gringo TV? "One of the others then said how did I know Spanish? Well, I live on the island of Ibiza in Spain, I replied. Their eyes rolled and the third said "Waoo, hombre, sexo, drogas y 'rock'n'roll"! and then the conversation really started. I said Ibiza is not really like it is portrayed in the media and began to talk about pigs and gold chains and sheep and rural life. Well, I eventually ended up with them (at their invitation) in a back street bar (or whatever) where the conversation came to a deathly stop as I walked in with them. I was definitely the one with the lightest skin hue in the place. Not drinking any alcohol, I gratefully accepted their offer of a coffee, and ended up drinking several (at their expense). We had a fascinating conversation. They were Puerto Ricans - or at least their families had come from there several decades ago - and church-going Catholics. Good jobs were hard to come by and they had more important things to do. Their girlfriends were always asking them for presents and so they did a bit of petty mugging now and then to make ends meet. By 3am I said I would have to leave as I had to be at the Metropolitan Museum early that morning and so we said our cheerful farewells. Before going, though, they told me in the politest way possible that it might not really be all that safe for me to walk around these parts of town late at night ("Not all the people here are as respectable as we are") and one gave me a mobile phone number to call 'in case of emergency'. As I walked towards the exit others in the bar (who had seemingly all been listening to the conversation with extended ears) smiled and nodded, one even kindly opening the door whilst suggesting I take the 'quickest way back to where I was staying'. Just as I was going out one of the three laughingly shouted out to me " Well, the next time we try and ask a whitey for money, first we'll ask him if he is an anthropologist and then we'll ask if he's English! Tonight has not worked out as profitable as we had expected"! I laughed back, thanked them and headed for bed.

So the next time you are in Harlem and are approached in a possibly rather impolite way with a request for financial assistance, just tell them you're an English anthropologist. With a bit of luck, you might get some free coffee. I should point out though, that sometimes it is rather difficult to find good coffee in some areas of the US.

(One thing did puzzle me, though, when I thought about it much later: these Puerto Ricans were a little bit out of their territory as well. Harlem is rather interestingly divided into different territories and these gentlemen were also a bit outside of their normal turf, which is traditionally a bit further south. Maybe they were out scouting the territory as well).

'Hanging on the Vine called 'Money''

In September and October 2000 I was back in Vanuatu. An important photographic exhibition about the traditional life of the Nauvhal-speaking peoples from the hills in the interior of south-western Tanna Island (in southern Vanuatu) was coming up at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. The photographs were by the well-known (at least in the Pacific) American cultural photographer David Becker who has spent well over a decade photographing customary life amongst isolated Pacific island groups. He has done much important work in Vanuatu, particularly amongst the Nauvhal-speaking peoples on Tanna, who have retained an almost completely traditional lifestyle in spite of over 150 years of missionary activity on their island (which is, incidentally, almost exactly the same size as Eivissa/Ibiza). David had arranged for his friend Posen Arpetung from that area to come to California for the opening of the exhibition and had arrived in the capital of Vanuatu to co-ordinate Posen's exciting trip. Posen arrived from Tanna (Posen is the Vanuatu Cultural Centre's Fieldworker - or representative - for the peoples of his area) and the three of us went to drink kava (the traditional Vanuatu sacred drink) the day before they were due to leave. I suggested to Posen that he should try and not just look at the surface of things in America, he should try and look behind the fašade and see what it was really like. David could guide and interpret for him. I needn't have been so concerned - those brought up in the deep, ancient lifestyles of Vanuatu are often incredibly perceptive when faced with new things. I was still in the capital when Posen and David returned from California. A Tanna island chiefly association called Foanga ('sharpening stone') based in the capital and which looks after the welfare of people from one area of that island had invited Posen (and David) to come and speak to them about what America was like. The leader of Foanga, Chief Jacob Sam Kapere, head of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre's National Film and Sound Unit, is an incredibly perceptive analyzer of what is good and bad regarding input from the outside world.

I was there with the Foanga group as Posen entered the earthen meeting area and he sat on the ground in the traditional position indicating one of lower status speaking to elders. Posen gave his report: I am summarising and paraphrasing his words. "We have all heard of the island of America and we all think it is very rich. It is true it is big and it has much riches, but these riches are not for all and there are many people who have no land and many people who do not even have a house. Many are not happy. Everyone is supposed to work for money and that is the main activity. But many cannot work and sleep by the side of the road with a tin cup to collect money from people who pass by and put money in these cups. Some of these cups have a written paper beside them that says what the money is needed for. I counted many people like this (and he held up his note pad where he had made a mark for each such person he had seen - and the marks covered page after page). Americans place great value on money, they think it is the most important thing. Those with more money marry the youngest women. Americans have many things they call 'machines': these are supposed to make life easier and happier, so Americans work to buy these. When they buy one they have to work to buy another different one, but they do not get happier, they just work more to buy more 'machines'. (At this point Posen clutched a handful of grass and pulled it out by its roots) Americans are like this grass, they have pulled themselves out from the earth and they have lost contact with it, they float in the air. (Above Posen was a long thin rope strung across the meeting area, he called it a 'vine') They have torn themselves from the earth and hung themselves on this vine above me (and he made a motion to throw the clump of grass so that it hung bent over the 'vine'). Every American hangs on that vine. That vine is called 'money'. If that vine gets sick, then everyone hanging on that vine gets sick with it".

Which is just about the best analysis of our modern Euro-American economic system that I have come across in years!

Enough thoughts for the week. But I note this is rather longer than I planned.

Kirk W Huffman

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