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Tell it as it is?

18 February, 2010

I would like to stimulate anthropological research into indigenous autobiographies after I read the following book:

Peter Kenilorea, Tell It As It Is: Autobiography of Rt. Hon. Sir Peter Kenilorea, KBE, PC, Solomon Islands’ First Prime Minister. Edited by Clive Moore. Taipei: Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, Research Center for Humanities & Social Sciences, Academia Sinica, 2008. xxxvi + 516 pp. ISBN 978-986-01-4497-0 (Cloth).

Intensely rational, Peter Kenilorea, a Solomon Islander born in Takataka village, South Malaita in 1943, describes his native country coming of age in postcolonial times with the intent of straightening misunderstandings about its political trajectory, as the title shouts out. This autobiography yields a dense, absorbing account of near-paradise boyhood in Are-Are culture, romanticized discipline at King George VI School in Honiara, mind boggling experiences while studying at the Teachers’ College in New Zealand, an impressive career serving the nation and God, and nurturing a Christian family.

In 1976, at the age of 33, Kenilorea became Chief Minister of the Solomon Islands and in that position he was instrumental in the negotiation process that led to the country’s independence from Britain. Next he became Prime Minister of Solomon Islands until 1981, and again from 1984 to 1986. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1988 to 1989 and from 1990 to 1993. Following the civil strife between nationalist militant organizations (the Malaita Eagle Force and the Guadalcanal’s Isatabu Freedom Movement), Kenilorea played a crucial role (together with Paul Tavua) in the peace talks, as Chairman of the Peace Monitoring Council and as a trusted and respected politician. He intervened critically during the post-conflict era colored by the presence of an Australia-lead Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. He tried to keep a balance between upholding sovereignty and allowing RAMSI to restore law and order. In the Seventh Parliament, which sat from 2001 to 2005, he was Speaker of Parliament. In mid-June 2004, he became second after Nathaniel Waena during the Parliament voting for Governor-General.

Sir Peter Kenilorea is an archaic Pacific leader and in many respects an exemplar. He never went for big money and brought up a large family only on his salary, with never a taint of corruption. He is also an old-school leader who consistently and with a sense of justice feels very strongly about the National Constitution. Using the related and perhaps most appropriated forum for addressing Government abuse he often brought the Government before court. Trying to rescue the nation he was also reminding others of the content and importance of the Constitution that he helped design and was instrumental in introducing.

The book is rich in auto-ethnographic observations that allow for a measure of self-examination on the part of foreign researchers (in particular political scientists but also ethnographers) who are willing to listen to local theorizing of cultural change and social and political developments. Regularly disclosing references to his Christian belief and relating observations of change in his country to biblical passages to give credit to insights and lessons learned, Tell It As It Is alerts Solomon Islands watchers that it does not make sense to imagine its state by neglecting local traditions including Christian belief. At the same time, Kenilorea is also clearly a world citizen and as such able to rationalize his observations with a kind of Western scholarliness that is often humbling.

The book is beautifully published in Taiwan with lash funding from its Ambassador who came to the rescue after a long hunt for a publisher. Chen Shui-bian, the first President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to visit Solomon Islands (in 2005), wrote a foreword in which he stresses a far-fetched shared Austronesian heritage, cultural background and blood ties between the Taiwan and Solomon Islands. The book was launched as part of the celebrations for the thirtieth anniversary of Solomon Islands independence on July 7 2008. Reflecting the politics of Taiwan in the Pacific, Hon. Wang Jin-Pying, Speaker of the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China, attended the event and two thousand copies were handed over as a gift to the nation to mark the 30th anniversary of independence.

In an interview with the national daily, Solomon Star, on the day of the launch, Kenilorea said that party politics in his country is still not strong enough and that there is lack of leadership to unite Solomon Islanders. Recalling the recent conflict, he reflected on how poor leadership allows the country to fragment and fall into apostasy. ‘Political languages that are used are inclusive and tend to fall in favor of a certain region’, he said. At a tone similar to the one in the book, he told the people of Solomon Islands that it has been an honor to him to bring the nation this far and see it grow over the years. Despite problems that have affected the country over the years, he believes that Solomon Islands can still move on, but only with good leadership.

There are many more of these kind of autobiographies out there. To the best of my knowledge no anthropologist has ever dedicated her or his skills and methods to systematically analyze them both as a genre in itself and as they open illuminating windows into local/global worlds. Anyone interested in doing a PhD along these lines?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 February, 2010 3:24 am

    As a grad student I wrote a paper on this book, but I don’t think it occurred to me to approach it as an ethnographic text… Sure was interesting, though.

  2. 19 February, 2010 1:22 pm

    Thanks for your comment Adam. I browsed through your paper but I couldn’t find a reference to the book I mentioned. Perhaps you provided the wrong link? I am certainly interested in what you think of Tell It As It Is

  3. 19 February, 2010 3:32 pm

    Oh, right – no. I wrote a paper on that book I linked to. I haven’t read Tell It As It Is, I just remember trying to think through some similar issues about “native” ethnography and what a non-native anthropologist might be able to say about it.

  4. 19 February, 2010 5:43 pm

    I see, sorry I did not get that earlier. I’d be interested to read your paper on that book. The book itself certainly qualifies for the kind of research that I have in mind. Thanks for sharing it with us

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