A strong social code
Custom is a real way of life, a social relationships code such as exists everywhere throughout the world. It is more or less complex, depending on the circumstances. Custom gatherings mark the highlights of Kanak social life (the new yams festival, marriage, birth or bereavement). On such occasions, long speeches are made. Genealogies and their histories are recited. Gifts are exchanged.
To make a custom offering is to establish a special and unique relationship with an individual or group of individuals at a specific time. Each acknowledges the other. The words exchanged are supported by gifts, the most important of which are traditionally Kanak shell money, which represents the clan ancestor and the sacred yams.
The custom offering recognises the hierarchies of the chefferie or chiefdom, its structures separated by rights and a management similar to local government.
In the tribes, there is an order, a power to be respected. Thus permission needs to be requested from the grande chefferie, the high chiefdom, to gain access to the sea, the mountains or to travel on the tribe’s land.
This fundamental and essential act is carried out by those responsible for the tourist bodies. Once this act has been accepted, they can then sell their services to the tourists. So when you arrive in the tribal village, the main permissions have already been given. The high chief will have divided the gifts up according to the hierarchy and organisation of the tribe.
The custom welcome ceremony
Outside Noumea, Kanak culture is part of daily life and it is usual, when you arrive in a tribal village, to go to the petit chef, the village chief, or the high chief (if he is available) and make him a gift which increases in size depending on your requests (a 1000F note folded up in a manou, a length of coloured fabric). This is what is called here “faire la coutume”, making a custom offering.
Just as you would never go empty-handed to someone’s place in your country, respect for the Kanak people is shown by this very widespread custom that you must be aware of. In exchange, you will be warmly welcomed and this offering will be returned to you a hundredfold, by allowing you to taste the region’s specialities and fruits and inviting you to share a unique moment of discovery. Respect for custom can also be shown through the ban on entering certain taboo places without prior permission from the clan or tribal chiefs. Before visiting these places, you will sometimes have to make a verbal request or ritual act in a custom ceremony, during which words of welcome are pronounced following an exchange of gifts. Do not hesitate to ask for information from Kanaks whom you meet; they will explain the meaning of these symbolic acts to you and will show you the procedure to be followed.
The custom offering
What should you do?
The custom offering is a sign of thoughtfulness that is carried out in the greatest simplicity.
When you are invited to a friend’s place, you take a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers or a gift. In the tribe, it’s the same thing, and to establish a relationship with your hosts, you offer a manou (a length of fabric that you will easily find in the bush shops or souvenir stands), a 500 or 1 000 franc note, rice or food (especially if you are going to a tribal village that is a long way from shops), or even a souvenir from your country of origin.
More than the article, it is the act and the words that count. Those pronounced by the Kanaks (if they accept your custom gift) will show you that from now on you are their guest, and they will protect you.
Take care then not to interrupt them. Then it is your turn, and you humbly express your delight to be welcomed, and thank your hosts for this sharing. Their way of listening to you and showing you respect is often to lower their eyes. Don’t be surprised by this.
Download the brochure “The custom offering”