Field research helps give voice to the ‘house-girls’ of Vanuatu

Margaret Critchlow admits it’s hard for her to take a vacation and leave her work at the office. Even when she retires to her home outside Victoria, BC, this summer after 24 years as a professor in York’s Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, she will continue working on her next book.

Margaret Critchlow and LeisaraRight: Critchlow shares some handwork with friend Leisara

Critchlow’s preferred office, as it is for most anthropologists, is in the field. So, whenever she travels, her curiosity about people and their sense of place gets the better of her and it isn’t long before the notepad comes out and the questions start to present themselves.

Her latest book, House Girls Remember: Domestic Workers in Vanuatu (University of Hawaii Press, 2007), continues her work on the peoples of the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, known as the colony of New Hebrides until independence in 1980. Critchlow has made nine trips to the chain of 80 islands, beginning in 1969 when she accompanied her then husband who was doing his doctoral research there.

“What appealed to me is the way the country was run,” says Critchlow, as she describes the joint English-French administration of Vanuatu. A project on customary land tenure helped confirm an interest in Vanuatu that she has maintained throughout her career. Her book Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu (Univeristy of British Columbia Press, 1987) was the first of many works she has written examining life in the islands. Her books and journal articles since then cover subjects such as housing and social relationships, prison life, post-colonial identities and colonial landscapes, governance and women’s experience of life in this unique place.

House-Girls Remember is the result of a weeklong workshop that Critchlow (formerly Rodman) and her colleagues, York grad Daniela Kraemer (BA Spec. Hons. ’00, MA ’03), Lissant Bolton, curator of Oceania at the British Museum, and Jean Tarisesi, coordinator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre’s Women’s Culture Program, organized in 2001. Working with the Women’s Culture Program, which Bolton and Tarisesei established in 1990, Critchlow et al. invited 21 of the project’s fieldworkers to each bring a “house-girl” – the name given to indigenous women house-servants working in the homes of former colonial administrators – to participate.

The house-girls shared their memories of working for the British and French civil servants who ran the New Hebrides from 1906 to 1980, in sessions that lasted five days and resulted in hundreds of taped interviews. The object of the exercise was to give a voice to the colonized peoples of the islands who are mostly silent in the records. “There’s not a lot of material to work with,” Critchlow explains. “This was a way of getting at the other side of the colonial experience. They knew all about it.”

Critchlow says it took time for the women to open up and describe their treatment, which included incidents of sexual abuse, just one of the results of the unequal power relationship between colonizer and the colonized. “A lot of them were young girls who had left their families and they were homesick and unhappy,” says Critchlow. But among the most poignant comments were descriptions of the effect the clash of cultures had on the women, such as being yelled at in public – a particular source of shame in Melanesian society that was completely misunderstood by their employers – which many of the women mentioned.

It was a long process to translate and edit the tapes, all of which were in the local language known as Bislama; and the book wasn’t published until 2007, some six years after Critchlow’s previous work, Houses Far from Home: British Colonial Space in the New Hebrides (University of Hawaii Press, 2001). House-Girls Remember was intended to be a school text that could help teachers explain the colonial period of the islands’ history. During the workshop, many of the women remarked on the importance of discovering their colonial past, a topic that was little discussed since independence. “There is more interest now in the colonial history,” says Critchlow.

The Women’s Cultural Program invited Critchlow back for a talk on the research and to present copies of the workshop material to the cultural centre’s archives. “It’s a goal of fieldwork these days to give the text back to the people you work with,” she explains.

Critchlow’s next book will be a study of Vanuatu’s settlers, a large number of whom are now prohibited by law from owning land, despite the fact that their families have lived on the islands since the 18th century. Land tenure in the country is restricted to people with four Melanesian grandparents, although long-term leases are common. This is just one of the many aspects of Vanuatuans’ sense of place that will keep Critchlow coming back to the islands for years to come.

More information on Margaret Critchlow is available on her department Web site.