The Conference as Village: Oceanic Sociality in Academic Spaces (Kabini Sanga & Martyn Reynolds)

In this post Kabini Sanga & Martyn Reynolds discuss ideas of the conference as village informed by Oceanic wisdom.

Image supplied by authors: Kastom haus tok stori, Honiara, Solomon Islands

What we mean depends on what we believe.

Take the word ‘village’. The origin is the Latin villaticum. It referred geographically to a farmstead and the surrounding collections of outbuildings. In England, a stereotypical village has (or used to have) a pub, a church and a post office and the houses of residents collected around a village green. In Aotearoa New Zealand, village is now used to indicate a small shopping area, usually featuring a convenience store and pharmacy. In wider Oceania, however, the term village is not exclusively geographical. It has other meanings.

As with most things in Oceania, the village is essentially a matter of relationships. For example, the Samoan village or nu’u is a complex social affair. According to Finau, a village includes sub-villages of men with no chiefly titles, of chiefs and orators, and of females. It’s a highly structured, well-organised affair. Elsewhere, a tourist walking along the main road of the Tongan island of ‘Eua may notice multiple village signs, seemingly too close together to represent separate places. These indicate various communities transferred by the Tongan government from the distant volcanic island of Niuafoʻou following an eruption in the 1940s. The signs refer to villages of people rather than buildings.

‘Conference’ comes from the Latin conferre. It means to bring together and to talk things over. However, what a conference looks and feels like is linked to deep assumptions about what matters in life (see previous Conference Inference post on visiting Thai academic spaces). Relational ontologies in Oceania encourage conference organisers to promote an outcome that is both village and conference. This means honouring the relational traditions of the village by deliberately creating a reciprocal and caring social conference structure. The Oceanic conference-as-village metaphor asks us to be inviting, acknowledge each other and be generous in the sharing of ourselves within the space of our interactions.

Oceanic ‘academic migrants’ are scholars who experience the complexities of shifting from their socio-cultural nexus and intellectual tradition to a new world of ideas, dominated by thinking from distant places. This is true in regional institutions such as the University of the South Pacific as well as in national universities. The Oceanic conference-as-village provides a return ‘home’ to a place where warm relationships are more valued than reputations, and where discussion is prioritised over content delivery. But what does a conference village look like in practice?

As elsewhere, villages in Oceania involve hierarchies. Gender in the Samoan context has already been mentioned. In Tongan society, royalty, nobility and commoners co-exist: a visit to certain villagers reveals variations in housing stock that tell a story. However, the Oceanic village is primarily a source of unity and identity rather than a system of exclusion. Inati, the village-organised food distribution system of Tokelau is a case in point. Everyone has a role, and everyone has a share. As metaphor which speaks of belonging, inati offers guidance in education, conferencing and beyond.

That all members of a village belong regardless of standing or contribution was reflected in the structure of the inaugural Leadership Pacific conference of 2018 in Suva, Fiji, supported by the University of the South Pacific and Victoria University of Wellington, and attended by over 60 – despite cancelled international flights. The event was timed to precede the Vaka Pasifiki Conference of that year and brought together leaders from Fijian villages, Fijian civil society members, students – both undergraduate and post-grads from Pacific Islands including Aotearoa New Zealand, and international academics and educators. Sessions run by academics sat cheek by jowl with those organised by village representatives. Some panels united community members, educators and academics. In others, regional academics responded to undergraduates. Many sessions were modelled on tok stori, a Melanesian orality that promotes discussion in safe spaces and assumes everybody is an expert in their own lives. Those with leadership responsibilities led by creating opportunities for others, not denying village hierarchies but crafting actions in pursuit of the common good.

Image supplied by authors: Post-LP and Vaka Pasifiki celebration, Suva, Fiji

Tok stori was an even more significant feature of the second LP conference, in Honiara, Solomon Islands, in 2020. This was an event supported by the Fellowship of Faithful Mentors NGO, Solomon Islands Ministry of Education and Human Development, the University of the South Pacific, Solomon Islands National University and Victoria University of Wellington, and organisational village in itself. Attendees numbered over 200 and included teachers and administrators from rural and urban schools, administrators, and travelling academics. Here, more than half the sessions followed tok stori format.

A tok stori approach asks us to realise that the way we understand conference time indicates our relationality. Do we use time to elevate presenters, seek a balance or use the start of a session to seed a longer discussion that truly honours those who attend? When we write papers that build on the conference space, how do we acknowledge and include the stories we hear in a tok stori? Does a tok stori ever end or will it iterate, evolve and reconnect through the warmth of relationships that stem from in the session? During tok stori in and around the many kastom haus of the Solomon Islands National University, it was easy to imagine the conference as a connected village collective (see feature tile image).

The conference-as-village can elevate the keynote to a deliberately relational event. During the 2019 DelaiNatabua Navuku seminar series, ‘A Talanoa with Oceanian Educators: Post-Colonial Education & Research in the Pacific Talanoa/Tok Stori’ at Natabua Campus of Fiji National University (FNU), a keynote-as-storied-discussion set the scene. This event, supported by the Oceania Comparative and International Education Society, Victoria University of Wellington and the FNU, began with central figures in the field holding a dialogue of stories for an audience of new, emerging and established Pacific scholars. In true village style, the chair of the session broke the fourth wall and linked the stage-centred stories to individuals present and to others known to the audience. Consequently, the narrative wove the experiences of old hands and new, living and late, and present and distant. In the village we are not individuals but relational selves. We laugh, eat, dance, think, talk, and sometimes drink kava together. We live in the gifts of our forebears and prepare for those yet to come.

Image supplied by authors: Local leadership prepares kava for visitors, Lautoka, Fiji

The sole African attendee at the DelaiNatabua Navuku seminar remarked: ‘I have never been to such a conference before!’ The challenge is to make his joyful surprise uncommon as we support others to embrace the relational potential of conferences. Who we invite, how we relate, and what we do with time tells us who we are. If we believe that relationships are paramount, the conference-as-village offers a way to bring academia back home, linking education and research to those we aspire to serve.

Kabini Sanga and Martyn Reynolds both work at Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington.

Kabini was born in the Solomon Islands, undertook graduate studies in Canadian universities and since 2000, has been a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. By vocation, Kabini is a mentor and fisherman. 
Martyn was born near London and is Anglo-Welsh. He taught in secondary education for many years including stints in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, England and Aotearoa New Zealand. He completed his PhD in Pasifika education through Victoria University of Wellington and is currently the Post Doc Pacific Education researcher there. He is also an independent educator, researcher and writer.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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