Reimagining Regionalism in the South Pacific
Today we explore the meaning of regionalism in the South Pacific. With me is Seu’ula Johansson-Fua who uses the concept of Wansolwara to think about creating a regionalism from within the “sea of islands” that is the South Pacific.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua is the director of the institute of education at the University of the South Pacific. Her new article is Wansolwara: Sustainable Development, Education and Regional Collaboration in Oceania, which was published in the Comparative Education Review.
Citation: Johansson-Fua, Seu’ula, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 296, podcast audio, October 10, 2022.https://freshedpodcast.com/johansson-fua/
Will Brehm 0:03
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, welcome to FreshEd.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 1:14
Malo. ‘Oku ou kole ke u fakatapu ki he ‘afio ‘a e ‘Otua ‘I hotau ha’oha’onga. Ka pehe foki ki he Tu’I ‘o Tonga. Ka e fakatapu ki he sola mo e vulangi kotoa ‘oku tau kau ‘I he talanoa ‘o e ‘aho ni. Thank you for having me today.
Will Brehm 1:30
Can I ask you what you just said there?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 1:32
I paid recognition to God who is, in our belief, the Almighty. And I also paid respects of my king, who is the HAU, which is the crown of the land that I am in. And I’ve also paid respect to all those who are listening in to our conversation today.
Will Brehm 1:48
How nice. And I guess that’s a good segue into where are you sitting right now? Where are you speaking to me from?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 1:55
Thank you, Will. I’m in the Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny group of islands in the South Pacific. And it’s a real pleasure to be able to talk to you.
Will Brehm 2:03
It is! We’re pretty much across the world from each other. It’s really, really nice to be able to connect. I guess, to start to think about the Pacific and some of the new work that you’ve done in this new article. You bring up this notion of I think it’s pronounced “Wansolwara”. What does this term mean to you?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 2:22
Wansolwara is a Solomon pidgin language term that means one salt water. It’s their reference to the ocean. And this is important from a Solomon Islands perspective because it was created as a way that they could communicate across the different ethnicities and different languages that are in Solomon Islands. And I find this an important metaphor because it speaks to our people trying to co-construct a new way, co-construct a new word. And it’s their way of demonstrating a willingness to be as one. A desire to work together and finding a way to do that. So, in Solomon Islands, there are many different languages, but the Solomon Islands pidgin language is the language where they can communicate across different ethnic groups and I find that the wansolwara is a starting point to think about oneness, and coming together from a Pacific perspective, in this case, from a Solomon Islands perspective.
Will Brehm 2:28
So, in a way, this oneness can be seen beyond just the Solomon Islands and actually encompass the vast geography of the Pacific Islands that you’re sort of speaking of. And in a sense, I think you called it a worldview.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 3:41
That’s right. So, it’s really trying to come back to what is a common identity for Pacific people, and our one common identity is our shared ocean space. And that would always be the starting point in trying to decolonize and trying to rethink about coming together. So, we come back to the ocean. And wansolwara, in my thinking, is a continuance of the kind of thinking that ‘Epeli Hau’ofa brought to the writing of the sea of islands back in the 1980s, which, to me was the very first time that a Pacific scholar tried to demonstrate an alternative way of looking at the Pacific. Not a small little group of islands but a sea of islands. So, turning the way you think about it. So, wansolwara is continuing on the same line of thinking. And that’s also reflective of the new thinking in the region, about the blue Pacific Ocean. Again, coming back to our ocean identity. That we have this shared space, shared responsibility. And so, in my thinking about a Pacific world view, is to come back to that place and come back to that shared space. We begin from the shared space to define the rest of it. Is that how we see the world and you interact with the world.
Will Brehm 5:01
I really love that idea; the flipping it from islands in a sea to a sea of islands. How many islands roughly are we talking about when we sort of think of this region of the Pacific.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 5:13
I think I need to study that again. Tonga alone, which is considered medium-sized, we have over 170 little islands for us alone. And we’re a population of 100,000. And if you look at Kiribati on the map, Kiribati spans, actually across several time zones from Tarawa all the way to Christmas Island on the east side. So, if you look at the map of the Pacific, you will see those sea of islands. And if we flip it that way to come back to our way of thinking about it, it changes the picture. In fact, in our science of our navigation, in our way of thinking, we don’t travel to the island, the island comes to us in that sense. So, our whole worldview is still connected to the ocean and our islands. The islands almost seen as resting place for us before we continue our journey.
Will Brehm 6:01
Quite amazing. Going back to this notion of wansolwara and oneness, you mentioned that this is also the name of what students call their newspaper at the university where you work, which is the University of South Pacific. So, are students sort of drawing on this notion of oneness as well? Like, why did the students select this word to describe their newspaper?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 6:27
So, students have been using the wansolwara term for decades. So, any student who has gone through USP would have known about the wansolwara term long before I used it. So, it’s been there for decades. The University of the South Pacific is only one of two regional institutions in the world and it’s really unique as a melting pot. As a place to socialize students, socialize young people into this identity that we call Pacific, right? We have to understand that the Pacific identity is created, and how do we create that for multiple different cultures. So, the university is that place where we have students from all over the region that comes in and using the wansolwara. I think it portrays their desire to recognize their diversity, that they may be coming from different languages and backgrounds but through the ocean -again, coming back to the ocean – that’s the one thing we have in common that we will start from. And always finding that one common place is a place where we start a conversation about collaboration, about coordination but we must find that one place that we are familiar with, that we can connect to one another and through the ocean is our place where we can connect with one another.
Will Brehm 7:37
How does it work on a practical level? Because it’s such a massive geography of islands and there are so many different languages being spoken, so many different cultures, how do the buildings work? Are there buildings in multiple countries and multiple islands? And what language is used? What is it like for you on your day-to-day experience? Like what is it like to work at the University of South Pacific?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 8:01
I think it’s a very unique place. We have 14 campuses spread across 12 countries. So, our larger campus is the one located in Suva that will house a couple of thousand. And then you have our smaller campuses as Niue or Tokelau with fewer students. So, getting that whole mechanic machinery to work and tune every day of 14 campuses spread across different time zones, spread across different languages, and spread across different currency. And that’s also a very interesting part, is the different currencies that are being traded to pay for student fees and in all of them. So, you will have that on our handbook. How much would it be for you to pay in American dollars if you’re a USP student in Marshall Islands? And how much would it be for you to pay in Australian currency if you’re a student In Tuvalu or Tongan pa’anga. And so, it’s quite complex in that sense of its mechanics and also complex in time zones and getting to be able to ensure the same quality service reaches across multiple contexts. And that, I suppose, is one of our continuing challenges, is: how do we continually improve access to a diverse region? And how do we maintain relevance? And that is really key, is how do we maintain relevancy for the bigger members? And how do we maintain relevancy for the smaller island states who are also equal members of all of the 12 countries of the university? So, it’s a regional good that is owned by all these 12 countries and the ministers all sit in council to decide and make decisions on the universities?
Will Brehm 9:46
I mean, the challenges I would imagine are really quite enormous. I’m just thinking of my own experience in one university in London and how sort of challenging it can be when you have maybe a new campus being built in another part of the city. You’re talking 14 campuses, 12 countries, multiple languages, multiple currencies, multiple ministers of education sitting on a council. I guess we would call it a public university but public being a regional public. I can see the challenges, but I guess there must be so many great opportunities because of the way it is structured as well.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 10:20
Absolutely. I have been a regional civil servant for 18 years. And it has been a real privilege for me to be in this space because in those experiences, I’ve learned more than I could have ever learned from any books or readings, or whatever else forms of learning. And that, to me, is the biggest gain for me personally. And for anyone who works as a regional civil servant, is the learning. You learn so much about all these different places and contexts and how they interact with the world and how they interact with one another and trying to reach their own aspirations. I think the second thing about working in this space is the honor of the relationship that you encounter that you sustain over a lifetime through these relationships. And because relationships are so critical to Pacific people’s worldview, I have been most honored to know people and learn from people of various standing at government level and at community level. And that’s the wonderful part about being in a very complex space, is the opportunity to learn and enjoy these wonderful relationships across a diverse region.
Will Brehm 11:34
You said earlier that you sort of have to – I’ll use the word struggle, but in a good sense – struggle to maintain relevance for all the different types of people, all the different types of students that go through the university. How do you do that? What does that actually look like?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 11:49
The struggle to be relevant has a lot of factors influencing that. One is the level of funding that comes in to allow products that are relevant. And that’s a different conversation to have with development partners, donors, and the university itself, because it still comes back to resources that will allow you to be relevant to all 12. It still comes back to that. On a technical level, it’s also finding the capacity to be able to make those translations relevant, to make a course relevant to Niue to make a program relevant to Nauru. It’s having that capacity to make those translations and do the research that’s necessary to do that. And sometimes the literature is not there. So, you have to go out and do the research to find the information. So, all of that takes capacity, it takes resources. From a more philosophical level on trying to be relevant is whether you have the clarity of mind on who you are, and clarity of identity. And that’s why I think wansolwara is a starting point to come back to our ocean space and start from there, and to be able to make it relevant to everyone else is to always come back to our shared space and start from there. So, the struggle or the challenges of making it relevant and continually relevant as we make progress, or as we change over time is a challenge on many levels. So, it’s not just philosophically trying to be clear in your head, who you are, and how do you relate to the other person on the other side of the ocean, it’s also about funding and resources to enable a range of products to be relevant to others and finding the capacity and building our own capacity to make those translations available across them. And it’s ongoing. And I think that’s what university should be; continue to be always open to making it better. How could we be more relevant as our member countries own aspirations shift over time.
Will Brehm 13:49
It’s so fascinating that university and the people that it brings together, and just this notion of it being a collective good. I just really love that idea. It makes me wonder, to what extent do you think wansolwara and the University of South Pacific and some of this notion of regional identity building around it, to what extent does it intersect with notions of decolonization, which is becoming quite a zeitgeist, I’ll say, in the higher education space worldwide, particularly in Europe and in the USA at this point. But I just wonder from your perspective at the University of South Pacific and some of these ideas that you’ve been talking about, do they connect to decolonization in your mind?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 14:33
I think for those who have journeyed with us, or who have journeyed in the old order of regionalism would probably see this as decolonization. And yes, to some extent, it is decolonization, but I’d like to see it as reclaiming my own identity and reclaiming my own authenticity, and affirming Pacific people’s worldviews. So, the wansolwara is really an opportunity or an invitation to reconsider how we’ve always looked at regional identity. Let’s reconsider maybe that we can look within ourselves and within our existing cultures and structures, that there is something there that speaks to our oneness, that speaks to our desire to be a collective. And that’s where wansolwara comes in. I have seen several attempts to push regional, to make it more Pacific. But what if we stopped pushing the old order to make it more Pacific? Let’s start from within and see what’s already there. That is already Pacific, in this sense wansolwara in the sense of Solomon Islands, and bring that up, and how could we think about it that way, about our desire for oneness. Because behind every ideology – and wansolwara, I could say is an ideology, regionalism is an ideology – behind those ideologies are structures. There are structures that try and promote certain values and assumptions and thinking about the future. So, we may change the name in regionalism, but the underlining structures and the values and assumptions that underline them I think, are still not as relevant to who we are as a people in what it is that we’re doing. What this is an opportunity for us is to open up that conversation. And I say in the paper that wansolwara is also a dialogic space. A space for many conversations and learning. And dialogic conversations and learning is important for us as Pacific people because that’s how we create knowledge. Our knowledge is created in the collective rather than the individual. And that’s why having conversations Talanoa in a Polynesian term comes with its own values about sharing, understanding, sharing experiences, and from there co-create a new way of understanding or knowledge base. So, that, I think, is what the paper is trying to push towards opening up to another conversation about regional identity faced from within rather than from outside.
Will Brehm 17:12
By way of comparison, you mentioned this notion of the old way of thinking about regionalism, what is that old way? How would you describe it from the idea of regionalism -I guess, it’s imposed on the South Pacific. What did that look like and who is doing that?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 17:28
We looked back at the history of regionalism in this part of the world, in the Pacific. We’ve got three institutions. That’s the University of the South Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, and also SPC which is the [Secretary for Pacific Communities. Those seem to be the three main regional institutions. All of them were created post independence around the 1960s and then in the 1970s. And in all of them we see the membership of it reflect on the Pacific countries but also former colonial administration was who are there. How it’s practiced out on an everyday, I’ve been in this space for quite some time, and you could see the flow of power, the flow of resources, and the way the strategies for communication in the last 10 to 15 years have almost always come from one direction. This seems to be an epicenter and then you disseminate to the rest of the outer islands or the region. And the flow of power, the flow of resources seems to still reflect that. And that’s what I think is the old order. That knowledge seems to be coming from one place; that power seems to be held in one particular place. In thinking about the wansolwara: what if the power was coming from several different places? Not just one country but different countries are bringing in their knowledge. What if resources were to come from different places as well, not just traditionally, from a development partner, or donor or one particular place. What if resources were coming from different directions. So, it’s trying to think about oneness and coming from, in my thinking, a more shared sense of power, resources, and knowledge, that all are equally has value to contribute, because the challenges that we face today in the region, and climate change and sea level rising, not one person has a solution. That’s the bottom line. So, we all have to recognize that all of us have something to contribute of value and equal to bring in and that’s the invitation from wansolwara is, what if we think about it this way because every one of us has something to bring to the table.
Will Brehm 19:43
Before we turn to climate change and issues around how we might think of climate change from that wansolwara worldview, what you’re articulating here, the difference between the old regionalism and then this regionalism from within and saying in that you can actually create structures that are very, very different. What would those governing structures of such a regionalism even begin to look like? I would imagine there could be many different ways but from within the Pacific, what might we think about as a regional governance structure?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 20:18
I think that in my paper, I can only offer examples of what are traditional governance structures that are already in place and are still in use that they continue to be relevant today. And I provide them from a Polynesian perspective. I also say that in Micronesia, and Kiribati, they also have traditional structures of governance that they have. And I think that’s the importance of looking to the context to inform us of how we might do this. On one level, I’m pointing out that in each of these countries, we have our own traditional governance structures. There are those that we can pull from for example. At a second level is an invitation to have more conversations, have more research, find out what it is that has worked for all of us. Drawn from our existing cultures and values systems that have sustained us for millennia. And perhaps there, we could find something more relevant to who we are and make us come alive. Not bring in something that we don’t really understand what it is, and how do we move it around to fix it? That’s what I’m providing examples of what is already there? Could we have more conversations? And again, that’s what I asked for is more dialogue. And how could we strengthen our relationship and that’s important also, in a Pacific context is our relationship. And through the relationship, through a relational base or a dialogic base, we can come together to begin to formulate what we all agree or what we all think is our future together; is our future in oneness. Rather than some culture dominating another in how it might look like but really an invitation to have those conversations to strengthen our relationship. And we’ve seen the challenge to our relationship during COVID when our borders closed for the last three years, and our regional meetings were through Zoom, which for all effectiveness, but so much of this for us is the conversations during lunch or the conversations at morning tea because those relationships are so important to work. And if you look closely to the region, we have examples of challenges to regionalism in the last three years, and we couldn’t come together to talk about it and try and resolve it and re-connect those relationships.
Will Brehm 22:29
Are those restrictions still present or has travel resumed?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 22:33
We’re opening up more of us in the South. I know of yesterday that we had to delay one of our classes up at At FSM (the Federated States of Micronesia), in Chuuk state because there’s a community outbreak. So, we’re still in different phases at the moment but most of us in the Southern Pacific are opening.
Will Brehm 22:49
It’s really interesting. I didn’t think about how it might impact sort of -I guess a collective good would be very much impacted by COVID. What sort of conversations, what sort of dialogue is taking place about climate change?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 23:03
We’ve previously had a meeting of our foreign leaders a few months ago. And of course, climate change still continues to be our pressing priority. I’m not going to speak about all the challenges in that because that’s just too big. But I think there are already conversations about adaptation. And we have been talking about adaptation for quite some time because we’ve seen the impact of it a lot earlier than most parts of the world, I suppose. So, adaptation is a key conversation for us and resilience. Resilience on different levels and infrastructure levels. But most importantly, for us, resilience in terms of culture, resilience in terms of our faith, and resilience in terms of our well-being. That has come to light with recent events that we’ve had. So, a lot more conversations on adaptation and resilience. Education policy frameworks, education plans that are being developed around the region now are trying to address this and how do we build stronger schools, safer schools? How do we deal with mental health for our children? And how do we strengthen resilience of our teachers? So, all of those are coming in already into policy framework and also to strategic plans that I’m aware of around the region?
Will Brehm 24:16
Is your university sort of also engaged in some of these frameworks and some of this sort of dialogue?
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 24:23
That’s absolutely right. So, we have different institutes in the university and depending on our areas of expertise, we engage in that. We have another institute in Suva that works closely on climate change. Our institute because we deal mainly in education, we deal from an education perspective supporting education developments, curriculums, frameworks on how do we strengthen resilience and adaptation. So, from whichever part of the university we’re at, we’re putting in our contribution from our own fields around the university.
Will Brehm 24:56
So, in a way, it sounds like a lot of the conversation is this sort of notion of wansolwara. There’s many different conversations happening around climate change, many different areas of expertise coming out of the region itself to try and figure out how to adapt and be resilient. It’s quite amazing in a way. Is there any conversation about the ideas that are coming out of these different spaces as potentially sort of being valuable to other parts of the world? Because, you know, climate change is happening everywhere. And these conversations are certainly happening in multiple forms and fora. But there’s certain forms that are getting more attention. There’s certain “solutions” that are being pushed by some of these more powerful actors. And I just wonder, to what extent are some of these ideas that are coming out of the Pacific that you’re talking about can influence other parts of the globe.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 25:52
I’m thinking on two levels. One is the desire and the recognition that this is bigger than any one of us can handle single. And that’s why regionalism and the idea of being together is still very important for us. In fact, it’s much more important for us today than it ever was, is that we know that on our own, we cannot fight this along. But together, because we share the responsibility for guarding the ocean, it’s all of us. And so, we must be able to work together. We must be able to collaborate and coordinate together. So, that oneness, that collaboration, is so important to try and address these challenges. At another level is the Indigenous knowledge that we have. And we are very, very fortunate that in all of our cultures, we still remember those Indigenous Knowledge Systems. In fact, we still practice a lot of those Indigenous Knowledge Systems. And those Indigenous Knowledge Systems have sustained us. Sustained us during lockdown, sustained us during COVID. Because we still know how to farm the land, we still know how to fish, we still know how to read the weather pattern, and we still know how to share with your neighbor. And that sharing is so important because we’re in it together. So, our knowledge system now is re-recognizing its importance of seeing the subsistent lifestyle, and that has sustained us. So, those are the two messages that I’ll probably offer. Not knowing what it’s like for other contexts and their different contexts. But we’ve found our traditional knowledge system is enabling us to survive for COVID and through this inflation when everything is so expensive. We go back to the land and go back to the ocean.
Will Brehm 27:32
Well, Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Really a pleasure to talk and learn from you today.
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua 27:39
Thank you very much for having me today, Will. Malo.
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