Sophie Laligant | Université de Tours, CITERES et Jordy Sio | Université de Tours – Silver, yams and qëmek in the Kanak small custom in continental France

Jordy Sio, who participates in this ethnographic study, both in French and in Jéou, is a Kanak from Lifu island. They both study the small custom (petite coutume).

The considered population is composed of young Kanak studying in several town of France on scholarships, thus with limited monetary means, but who nevertheless use money in supplement to oher goods in order to perform the small custom. This practice has to be contrasted to their representation of money, especially when it is exchanged from francs pacifiques into euros.

It thus the study of a paradox: that of a deviation from what is considered normal practice. The students proceed with customary acts and try to comply with the custom, even though the context is different. Notably, they use coined money in lieu of yams, despite the latter being considered essential. They thus juxtapose several rationality systems – as one may observe in New Caledonia proper.

How to understand the use of money instead of yams? See Jérôme Blanc on alternative means of payments. Can money perform as yams would? A priori no – see publication on Florès island and Bloch et Parry, Money and the morality of exchange. One of the students thus said: “to a kanak problem, a kanak solution”. And even though the equivalence is not perfect, money is used on the field which raises a question: is it equivalence or substitution that is sought? See Dupuy (quoted by Descola) on the notion of equivalence in material exchange and substitution in monetary exchange.

The money in question here is made of banknotes or coins, either in francs pacifiques (New Caledonia) or euros (France). The two currencies help to support ethnic borders as well as discursive distinctions (the “money of the French”). The traditional kanak money is made of bones, shells and hairs of bats (Maurice Reinhart, 1907), but not in Lifu, were yams and coined money dominate. Yam-money is swaddled as a newborn (in palms) which highlights its actual heteronomy with coined money.

The small custom is a traditional oral code that rules Kanak social relationships.

What does “poor” mean in this context? Many Kanak people leave their tribe for a few months or a few years to work or study, supported by relatives or the customary Senate, and in order to fight their marginalization. The Kanak average revenue is much lower to the French minimum wage and pluri-activity is more and more frequent strategy to increase revenues that also fuels a movement towards stable employment – notably as civil servants.

But these revenues remain to low to finance college studies in France, hence scholarships that come in two forms: Crous state scholarships (a monthly stipend plus a dwelling grant) and the supplementary “pil” (Provincial Islands scholarship). The amounts vary but are generally comprised between 500 and 700 euros – meaning that Kanak students generally live below the poverty line as it is defined in France.

This situation provokes a conflict between two conceptions of poverty, that of the French society (the dictionary defines poverty as material deprivation, lack of resources) does not work in a Kanak context were walth and poverty are mostly social and symbolic notions, linked to the webs of relationships, weddings, power… Also, in a Kanak context, the idea of poverty is mainly related to neglect (djewe katcho) and work comes in two distinct forms: work for money and customary work.

All Kanak students reach France with a “bag” containing all the things received in order not to forget the ancestors. In 1985, the independence movement leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou defined the custom as “the somewhat scornful name that non Kanaks give to what kanaks do”. Also, customs cannot be seen only as what is opposed to modernity, since it is also a way to cope with it while living in relation to the others and to the invisible world of ancestors. Last, the small custom is not a devalued version of the grand custom.

Money and yams are part of two aspects of the small custom:

  • When welcoming someone, for example s student receiving another is being offered a gift, i.e. something or money.
  • In case of a birth: there is a receiving clan and a giving clan, creating a large circulation of small banknotes during the customs 3 days.

Thus, students could buy and use yams to perform the small custom. But they do not know these yams they may find in markets and supermarkets and that do not come from New Caledonia. That is why they use money in lieu of yams, this same money that has no importance in the customary context. Which explains why the term “money” is never used. Besides, even if students say that the “price is free”, the amount is never very high. Accumulating money is unthinkable in a context where money can be put to other uses.


Hisashi Takagi – When yam functions as currency, is it transacted by weight ? Or accounted?

A.: There are many different kinds of yams: for goats or humans and the value change according to size and season.

Catherine Baroin – There is a similar use of money in Tanzania: for large sums, one will use money but give it the name of the traditional numeraire (a beef) in order to transmit the symbolic value, but very often with a string reduction in actual value, by pretending that these banknotes are actually a beef.

A.: In Lifu, the two systems are intertwined: riche people use rice and money, while the others use only yam-money.

Thibault Cardon – What about the interactions between Kanak and non-Kanak students?

A.: Kanak students perform the custom between themselves and in case of inter-ethnic marriage, not when they go to French homes. They also keep the custom to distinguish themselves from the colonial system.

Ismaël Moya – The existence of two monetary systems is quite commonplace. Even with only one money, different circuits can be operated. It is the classical problems of the spheres of circulation and of the exchange operations to move from one sphere to the other.

Jan Lucassen – How long have Kanaks people been exposed to money through indentured labour? What was the impact?

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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