PORT VILA, Vanuatu (The Independent, November 19) – The planned future of the young visionary and idealist, Ralph Regenvanu was given a tremendous boost Friday by his research colleagues of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS) when he was awarded a custom title. He is leaving the Cultural Centre to study law and they had organised a farewell custom naming and pig-killing. The same day, however, his plans suffered a setback when Scholarships refused the honours graduate a scholarship.

It is a long time since we have had a charismatic leader emerge from the crowd. Ralph Regenvanu was confirmed as such in a moving ceremony Friday at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS). Regenvanu was given a custom title meaning the guardian of the tabu nakamal and bringer of peace.

The award is no small achievement.

The Independent sought to establish why everything in which the director of VKS became involved was successful, and the basis of his leadership. His colleagues all echoed the same four words "eloquence", "vision", "focus" and "tenacity".

Certainly he is a man of academic achievement which helped considerably where eloquence is concerned. Regenvanu admitted that being a child of two cultures (his father is from Malekula and his mother was born Australian) helped significantly:

"The work of cultural heritage in Vanuatu is very much negotiating between traditional cultures and western culture and trying to see where they fit together and where they don't, and what opportunities there are for advancing the interests of local cultures.

"Another advantage I've had is a good education that is very critical of what development is about. Having lived in Australia for a long time (ten years) I was able to see the downside of development. I'm not easily seduced by development. I also know it's a matter of how you take what you take and leave what you leave."

Ralph Regenvanu's education after Brisbane Grammar was at the Australian National University, Canberra where he gained a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours in development studies, majoring in anthropology.

He drafted the Vanuatu Cultural Research Policy which became operational in 1994, having previously been engaged on documenting cultural sites on a number of Vanuatu islands. The research policy document has become a regional model in the Pacific.

Ralph Regenvanu on this policy: "There was not enough documentation of Vanuatu's oral tradition. Not enough field workers. Not enough people able to do it. We therefore had to use researchers and tell them what was needed of them. How do you get them to come and do it your way? Nothing was going to happen unless there was a policy document. This was the Vanuatu Cultural Research Policy."

Other Melanesian countries tried to set up such policies, but failed. Vanuatu's policy has since become a model for the region. Regenvanu paid a tribute to the work of David Roe, Jack Keitadi, Jacob Kapere and Kirk Huffman. Ralph was, however, the prime mover and oversaw the lifting of the tabu on foreign researchers and the development of the field worker system which is hailed as unique by anthropologists. Regenvanu also played key roles in the new museum project eleven years ago, and the accompanying exhibition which brought many pieces back from a number of museums in other countries.

The Independent asked the VKS director about his interest in youth and music, and this is where his "vision" and "focus" are particularly obvious.

Regenvanu: "It was the realisation that the majority of Vanuatu's population is under 25 which brought me to youth. If culture's going to be relevant to these people you've got to do things that appeal to them and to which they can connect. I was always a musician, in bands in Australia and here. It was a personal passion."

He was a founder of the Fest'Napuan international music festival every year in Port Vila.

There was also the urban youth film of "Kilim Taem", made entirely by the VKS with all the story-boarding done by the young people who identified with the issues.

In 2000 Ralph initiated the Juvenile Justice Project, an attempt to bring customary law into the state law system when dealing with juvenile offenders. He admits it has not yet been successful:

"The judiciary is still working on it. The aim was to bring customary law into the state law system when dealing with juvenile offenders. We brought it up. Others should have. We wanted to step in and say 'this has to be done', and actually do it. The whole customary law subject is something the judiciary should have been dealing with from straight after Independence under the aegis of the Constitution. That never happened. We could never reconcile the concerns of chiefs with those of women. That's definitely going to be the biggest issue that comes up as regards customary law. On islands like Tanna, for example, women cannot represent themselves. They can't stand up in the nakamal and talk on behalf of themselves."

The Independent asked if Regenvanu's intention to study law would have anything to do with completing this effort to bring the two legal systems together.

RR: "The reason I'm getting into law is because I'm the crusader type. I want more bullets for my gun when it comes to advocacy on the big issues. You can advocate all you want but having that law background is so crucial; to be able to definitively say things without actually going to a lawyer and talk about chiefs in cases and even represent cases.

We’ve got the English system where law is made by case law. I want to be able to make case law, and to set precedents.

"I do like to see things to completion. I’m very conscious of unreliability. To me that’s the worst character trait. If I can’t do something I will tell those involved I can’t. I learned some valuable advice from my father – a very good tip he gave me. If someone’s doing something good and it will reflect well, on you, just encourage them." Ralph Regenvanu continued

The eloquent, focused visionary was now showing his tenacity.

The obvious final question from The Indy: Are you able to be seduced by a political career?

"Yes, I am. Politics is all about compromise, and I’m not really a compromiser. Anything I do, I’m not doing it for the money. I think that’s important. But for graduates coming up, I think it’s very important to have some sort of national interest. I’m a very strong nationalist. Very concerned about Vanuatu."

Ralph Regenvanu was greatly honoured by fellow Malakulans and the men fieldworkers in a ceremony at the Cultural Centre, Friday afternoon. It was then he was awarded the custom title Libehkamel Tah Tomat – guardian of the tabu nakamal and bringer of peace.

The ceremony was an expression of thanks as Regenvanu leaves the VKS, and it was organised by the fieldworkers. Ralph took part in dances, especially Fes Naloan, and was given his title by Jif Metais of Malakula. A pig proved not all that easy to kill.

He was intending to take up legal studies, but denied a scholarship on Friday and now may well become the organiser of the Year of the Custom Economy. Whatever he does, he will do it well.

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