Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

3 August 2006

On Tuesday afternoon, a scene from my own past was re-enacted when a group of pale teenagers extricated themselves stiffly from a tiny plane and took in the sight and smell of Pentecost Island for the first time.

There were few people around to welcome them. The Principal is away at the PISSA Games, and the Deputy Principal had gone home to his village (leaving me wondering who, if anyone, was now running the school). Even the school truck driver was planning a trip away, down to South Pentecost, but I was assured that he would return via the airfield and collect the new GAP volunteers.

Landing in a strange place for the first time is always vaguely frightening, but in an exciting way, like a fairground ride or a romantic date. (Maybe it's because the former make me sick and the latter never come my way that I travel, to compensate.) Landing in a very remote strange place expecting to be greeted by someone yet finding yourself alone is also frightening, but in a much less exhilarating way. I therefore put on my sunhat and sandals and set off for the airfield.

It was a hot afternoon, and most of the inquisitive villagers who would normally have interrupted my long walk ("You go where? 'Long airport? Ooh, long way too-much!") were away taking a siesta, so I arrived in plenty of time to meet the three gappers.

Hugh, the South Australian volunteer I am now living with, made a slightly dubious first impression by stepping off the plane with long hair and a guitar, but seems a straightforward and amicable guy. (Don't get me wrong, I have friends with long hair and guitars, but they aren't friends I would share a house with for several months.) The two girls were both from Melbourne. Dani looked as if she could have auditioned for Neighbours; whilst Nat looked like the kind of girl you would expect to see behind the desk at a library.

The school truck duly arrived and took us to Ranwadi. Students waved and shouted hello to the newcomers as we passed the sports fields on our way up to the school.

The three spent much of the next day being shown around by Miss Kate and I, and asking anxious questions about life at the school and what they would be expected to do. At the end of it all they looked as if they had been driven to dementia by an overload of information. Fortunately the week's holiday gives the three teenagers a chance to settle in for a while before classes begin, and adjust to the fact that they are now no longer students but teachers - at a difficult, disorganised and deeply foreign school.


8 August

Prior to the new gap volunteers' arrival, I left Noel and Neil and moved into the new house that I would be sharing with Hugh. Our new place is part of a cluster of staff houses at the rear of the school grounds, simple semi-detached buildings with brightly-painted wooded walls built on concrete bases and sheltered from the drumming rain by corrugated metal roofs. The houses are separated by grassy lawns, and surrounded by small shrubberies and vegetable patches. Two slender little trees laden with unripe papaya stand outside our front door, and a vine growing beside the house bears mysteriously-shaped pumpkins. (The Deputy Principal, who teaches Agriculture, showed me how to pollinate the vine's giant yellow flowers, to ensure that the pumpkins develop.) Overshadowing the house next door is a gigantic mango tree, whose branches are currently burning with yellow blossom.

It is said that an Englishman's home is his castle. If you could stand a typical English house - a stocky brick building of two or three storeys - next to one of Ranwadi's breezy wooden bungalows, you would see how true that is. Unlike in English (or Scottish) communities where people conceal themselves indoors, insulated against the cold and against suspicious neighbours, in Vanuatu domestic lives are very much on display. Children play freely amongst the houses, women sit on their doorsteps rinsing their laundry whilst chatting to the neighbours, people wander to and fro carrying food or water or furniture or rubbish from place to place, and passers-by shout messages through the open windows without needing or bothering to knock at the doors. Privacy and silence are rare, but here these seem like unnecessary Western obsessions: it is nice to be surrounded by the pleasant babble of daily human existence.

Although the houses have proper kitchens with gas stoves and running water, our neighbours do much of their cooking the traditional way, over small fires in outdoor 'bush kitchens' (tin shacks behind the houses). The ancient smell of wood smoke drifts amongst the houses, occasionally combined with more noxious modern fumes from plastic rubbish being burned.

Chickens wander the lawns, dodging the rocks thrown at them by irate householders who try in vain to keep the noisy, destructive birds away from their gardens. At night, while the chickens roost in silence, the job of noise-making falls to the cats. The family of little tabby kittens that Jeffrey bought when I lived next door to him in 2001 have grown up and had kittens of their own, and the school now has quite a population. Hopefully they eat the rats, although in a fight between one of the timid little cats and a large, desperate rodent, I wouldn't necessarily bet on the cat.

The cracks in the walls of our house seem to be too small to let in the rats, but they do let in cockroaches in enormous numbers. In the past I have never been particularly bothered by cockroaches, but after a few nights of sitting at the table after lights-out feeling the big, creepy insects running across my toes, and waking the next morning to find natty little holes nibbled in my precious food supplies, I'd had enough. I found three cans of fumigating spray, gave one to our next door neighbour (I didn't want the place to be immediately re-invaded by the roaches next door), and detonated the other two in the middle of the house.

Science fiction writers sometimes predict a future in which the human race will choke itself to death in a poisonous cloud, leaving the cockroaches to take over. The scene that I saw when I returned to the house a few hours after releasing the spray was precisely the opposite. The place resembled an abandoned battlefield. Big brown insects, dead or dying, lay strewn across every floor, tabletop and windowsill in the building. It was hard to believe that one little house could support such a population of vermin. I borrowed a broom and swept all the cockroaches out of the door, but the insecticide had obviously lingered, because every few hours a new harvest of brown corpses would appear, sprouting like seedlings from the concrete floor.


For the next few days, sweeping out the dead cockroaches became a daily chore. To help with the task I asked for a new broom, which the students manufactured by tying together a bundle of thin twigs cut from the bush. I used my hands to pluck the insects out from behind the glass louvres of the windows. Some weren't as dead as they looked, and would revive and run up my arm when I picked them up. Few escaped, however. The cockroaches, groggy from the after-effects of the poison spray, were easily knocked to the ground and dispatched by the heels of my sandals, to live eternally in some great nuclear wasteland in the sky.


After several weeks of dry weather, rain returned to Pentecost. The first few showers had little effect on the parched island, but as the rainfall became more incessant, the landscape began to resume its wet-season colours. The grass turned from pale yellow to green, the dappled jungle turned dark and sodden, and the road surfaces became a palette of muddy browns. The rest of the scenery turned grey.

For the new gap volunteers and the few students and teachers lingering at Ranwadi, it was miserable weather. Fortunately, whilst the school languished in gloomy somnolence, elsewhere on the island lively ceremonies were taking place. A man from Ranmawot, a big village a couple of miles down the coast from Ranwadi, was preparing to marry a woman from Vansemakul, a village a couple of miles in the other direction. The marriage was still a week away, but in both villages pre-wedding parties were taking place, which involved the usual combination of feasting, singing, socialising, and (for the men) copious consumption of kava.

The new gap volunteers and I were invited along to the parties by some of the drinkers at Vanwoki, who were cousins of the young people getting married. (Pentecost is an island of large families and small populations, and some of the party-goers were related - not too closely, I hoped - to both the bride and the groom.) Following dubious Bislama directions given to me by the villagers, we found our way to Vansemakul - which, to my slight surprise, was in exactly the location that the Vanwokians had described it - and were pointed in the direction of the nakamal. Like all nakamals on Pentecost, it was a simply-constructed hut with a bare dirt floor and a thatched ceiling that sloped all the way down to the ground, but this one was an enormous building, with room inside for the entire village. At one end of the nakamal, women were laying out bowls of rice, stew and laplap. At the other end, rows of men were seated on wooden stools with grinding stones in their hands, preparing kava on an industrial scale. On the grass outside, groups of pigs, dogs, chickens and people were milling about sociably, each species largely ignoring the others.

It was unlike any party I had been to before, but I did what I would have done at any other party: introducing myself and my companions to the many strangers while looking about nervously for someone familiar. Some of the Vanwokians were there, and motioned to us to sit beside them on a rickety wooden bench under the eaves of the nakamal. They introduced me to the local MP, a big, bearded man clasping a shiny little digital camera that he had brought from Port Vila.

When lunch was ready, everybody got up helped themselves from the buffet. There weren't enough plates to go around, but some guests used giant leaves as a substitute.

After lunch there was business to be done. Guests lined up to present wedding gifts to the bride-to-be: an assortment of useful household items, much like the wedding presents requested by Western couples, although (in accordance with the level of Vanuatu's economy) much less expensive. Many people gave a plate or a bowl; others left mats or baskets that they had made themselves. I had brought along a decorated wooden tray, which I'd found on sale in an obscure village store in Melsisi.

Groups of people arrived with piles of traditional mats, woven from thin brown leaf strips and dyed with red patterns. Such mats are a form of currency on Pentecost, and change hands during any ceremony at which debts are being paid. When you consider the effort that must go into making them - some of the intricately-woven mats were as large as bed sheets - it is hardly surprising that they are regarded as items of value. On this occasion, the red mats were being given to the aunties and uncles of the bride to be.

"Why the aunts and uncles?", I wondered.

The aunts and uncles will need to help out the newlyweds, one of the old men from Vanwoki explained. They might be called upon to teach the new couple the ways of married life, provide shoulders to cry on when they fight with one another, and help to look after the children. The aunts and uncles were being paid with red mats to reward them for all these services. It made sense.

Whilst the proud aunties folded away their mats, the men began to do what men do at parties all over the world: get drunk. The gap volunteers sensibly made their excuses and left.

For the next hour or so, the floor of the nakamal was abuzz with activity, as the names of guests were shouted out, each one followed by the now-familiar phrase "mam sini" - "your kava". My own name was shouted with alarming frequency, and after the seventh or eighth shell-full my head was spinning.

"Te mis!", I shouted back. ("Enough!")

The men laughed, and the kava kept on coming.

The nakamal gradually quietened, as men drifted away or became progressively more stoned. Having eventually convinced my drinking buddies that I'd had enough, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting under the eaves of the nakamal (daylight is oppressive after too much kava), talking dazedly to a group of local children in a fragmentary mixture of English, French, Bislama and the local language. The children had probably never heard a foreigner attempting to pronounce their native language before, and they laughed as I recited the numbers from one to ten ("bwaleh, karu, katsil, kavet, kalim, lapwaleh, laviru, laptsil, lapet, sangwul").

The children then taught me the numbers beyond ten, which proved to be long and awkward ("sangwul vepnan bwaleh, sangwul vepnan karu, sangwul vep nan katsil..."). The numbers beyond twenty were even worse ("ngawul karu vepnan bwaleh, ngawul karu vepnan karu..."). I had already noticed that the villagers often use English words when giving large numbers; now I understand why.

I began to wonder what language my Maths students think in when doing sums in their heads. If it's the cumbersome native one, it could explain a few things.


The celebration was repeated the next day at Ranmawot, where it was the turn of the groom's aunts and uncles to receive their red mats. A bullock had been slaughtered to provide food for the assembled guests (at one point I banged my head on one of the animal's disembodied feet, which were dangling from the ceiling of the nakamal), and once again there was kava by the bucketful.

Here, the nakamal was smaller, and instead of crouching indoors many of the guests relaxed on palm leaves under trees outside. Rather than being relentlessly being plied with kava, the men were left to get up and help themselves to shell-fulls when they wanted one, which suited me fine, since I was still recovering from the previous day's drinking. Unfortunately, the others misinterpreted my reluctance to drink as politeness, and hastened to reassure me that I could get up and take as much kava as I wanted. I realised that I would cause offence if I didn't swig down a few shells of the muddy liquid. Fortunately, there was plenty of food to wash away the taste of the drink. Bits of bullock and hot roasted taro were extricated from the fire, and a portion was wrapped up in leaves for each guest.

As the afternoon faded, I thanked the partygoers for their hospitality and wandered back to Ranwadi. It felt like the end of a great weekend of celebrations, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't a weekend. There is no need here for parties to be confined to Saturdays: few of the islanders have jobs that need to be done on particular days of the week. Planting vegetables, picking fruit, and repairing houses could wait until another day.


10 August

On Monday evening, as I sat fiddling with Ranwadi's temperamental staffroom computer, the floor began to judder, causing the computer to wobble on its desk. I turned to the teacher behind me to ask him to stop shaking the floor, but realised as I did so that the floor was solid concrete, and that everything else in the world was juddering too.

"Earthquake," said the teacher nonchalantly.

In Vanuatu, which sits precariously on the edge of the great Pacific tectonic plate, wobbles of the ground are fairly common. This was a minor one, and had no effect other than to cause people to look up with mild excitement, the sort that Brits experience on the rare occasions when they see snow falling outside.

I mentally ticked off "Earthquake" on my list of Interesting Things I'd Like To Experience Sometime In My Life, and returned to fixing the computer.


There were several more small earthquakes during the night, and at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning the government issued a tsunami warning. Of Vanuatu's many natural hazards, tsunamis are one of the rarest yet possibly the most frightening; seven years ago one destroyed a village on Pentecost.

At Ranwadi, which didn't receive the warning until midday, many of the students (who were still waiting for lessons to resume) spent the morning on the beach. When the warning finally came and the students were ordered to stay away from the sea, some of them sat in groups on the grassy banks outside the school - safely uphill - watching the grey ocean excitedly in the hope of spotting a giant wave. By this time, however, the danger had probably passed.

I realised with mild horror that all of the people travelling back to Pentecost from the PISSA Games - Ranwadi's Principal, several of its teachers, and a hundred and twenty of its students, as well as many students and teachers from other schools (including Sara) - were on the deck of a small, overloaded cargo ship somewhere out the ocean at the time of the tsunami warning. I was reassured that a ship in the middle of the ocean has little to fear from a tsunami - it is only when they reach land that the waves build to devastating proportions. However, Vanuatu's cargo ships cling closely to perilous coastlines along much of their routes.

No deadly waves appeared, and the ship unloaded its passengers safely on Waterfall beach that evening. It took the tired, seasick students and teachers a day or two to recover from their trip, and it wasn't until Thursday morning that Ranwadi returned to 'normality'. By this time nearly a fortnight of lessons had been missed.


14 August

Last Friday morning, my Year 13 Biology students finally reassembled in the science laboratory. Predictably, my advice that they needed to take work away and do it while at the PISSA Games had been ignored. As a result that the students now have five weeks' worth of work to cover in just a fortnight, prior to a compulsory mid-semester test on a date set by the exam board. When I pointed this out to the students, they reacted with their usual awkward, half-comprehending silence.

During the course of the week, I had managed to gather together the materials for the week's practical session, an investigation of enzymes. However, I had then received an e-mail from the exam board informing me that the practical work on enzymes was not part of the course this year, even though it is included in this year's edition of the Laboratory Manual from which we have been working. I would have known that if I had been following the weekly Work Plan for the semester, the course co-ordinator reminded me.

I hadn't been following the Work Plan, firstly because my students had now missed three weeks of the semester, which would have thrown any attempt to follow the plan into disarray, and secondly because for the first couple of weeks of the semester Ranwadi's copy of the Work Plan had been drifting unclaimed on a ship somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. (The exam board in Fiji had dispatched a set of Year 13 resources to the school at the start of the semester, but nobody from Ranwadi had been down at the beach to collect the package when it arrived on the weekly cargo ship, so the ship had taken it away again.) When the box containing the documents finally reached Ranwadi, it sat in the school office for a fortnight before the teacher to whom it was addressed got around to opening it.

I contemplated writing an irritated e-mail back to the course co-ordinator explaining the difficulties of running a senior-level biology course on an island like Pentecost, but realised it would achieve nothing apart from highlighting the school's incompetence. Instead, I wearily turned the page in my Laboratory Manual and prepared for the next practical session.

This session was on the topic of leaves and photosynthesis, and fortunately the materials were relatively easy to obtain. The grounds of Ranwadi College are draped with exotic leaves in every size, shape and colour that a science teacher could wish for. Among the cobwebby glass bottles in the laboratory I found the solvents necessary for extracting chlorophyll from the leaves, although none of the empty bottles or tubes into which we decanted the powerful-smelling liquids had lids that fitted.

"Just try not to breathe," I told the students. Fortunately, unshuttable and half-broken windows ensured that the lab - like every other room in Ranwadi - was well-ventilated.

For peeling layers off the leaf surfaces so that they could be examined under a microscope, I already had a bottle of nail polish. This is the kind of thing that doesn't turn up often on Pentecost, so when I'd spied a bottle in the village store at Ranmawot, I'd bought it, knowing that it would be useful sooner or later in the science lab. The girls in the class were quick to spot that the pale blue colour of the nail polish matched their school uniforms, and were thrilled when I gave them permission to paint their nails while waiting for the polish on the leaves to dry. Vanuatu's teenagers don't get to play with make-up very often.

The theory work involved in this section of the course, which the students now have to cram in preparation for their mid-semester test, was less thrilling. The chemical reactions of photosynthesis, which the students were expected to learn, constitute one of the gnarliest and most difficult topics in all of biology. (I run over it in my head on occasions when I desperately need to distract my mind: the thought of ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate being converted into 3-phosphoglyeric acid which is in turn converted into glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate, and so on and so on, has kept me from crying at funerals and from thinking about what's lurking in the bushes when walking alone at night.) The Year 13 course, working from a university-level textbook, covers the material in terrifying depth. Even with the help of diagrams, passages like this make you lose the will to study biology...

"Both photosystems absorb light energy, and excited electrons pass from the reaction-centre chlorophylls (P680 and P700) to the primary electron acceptors. In turn, each primary acceptor is oxidised as it donates high-energy electrons to the first electron carrier of an electron transport chain."
(From Biology: Concepts and Connections, 4th Edition, by Campbell, Reece, Mitchell & Taylor.)

You can only image the difficulty faced by the students at Ranwadi, for whom English is very much a foreign language, in trying to interpret whole chapters of this type of material. Most of them don't even try.

I spent an afternoon preparing a handout for the students in which I attempted to summarise the most important aspects of the process in a form that I hoped they would understand. My notes will probably only confuse them further.

Photosynthesis is just one of the topics that the students have to get to grips within the next two weeks. They must also understand plants' physiology, growth, nutrient requirements, life cycles, reproductive processes and hormones. In addition, they must remember what I tried to teach them a fortnight ago about biochemistry, enzymes, cells, thermodynamics and respiration.

Of course, in all of these topics, it is assumed that the Year 13s will be building on previous knowledge. Unfortunately, the information that students cram into their heads in preparation for an exam escapes rapidly afterwards if it is not continuously wedged in with further learning and practice. After asking a few questions in class it was evident that the Year 13s, returning to school after a succession of long holidays, had forgotten much of what they previously learned about biology (if, indeed, they had ever learned it). Recovering that knowledge will be a difficult task.


For the local couple whose pre-wedding parties I had been invited to the previous week, Friday was the big day. After a service in Melsisi's splendid Catholic church, the wedding guests made their way to the groom's village, Ranmawot, where the lucky man had prepared a house for himself and his new wife, and an enormous celebration had been organised to welcome the newlyweds. The village was filling up with well-wishers: groups of people from north and south were shuffling along the coast in the direction of Ranmawot, while others were winding their way down from the mountains. Pick-up trucks made their way back and forth along the sandy road, laden with partygoers, pigs and ceremonial mats.

I set off for Ranmawot after school, and along the road I caught up with the villagers from Vanwoki who had invited me along. We arrived early and 'spelled' (rested) for a few minutes on a beach below the village, where large boulders created natural seating and overhanging tree provided shade (and amusement for the young boys, who attempted to knock the seed pods off the tree with well-aimed stones).

When the celebration was ready, we made our way up to the nakamal, where there was much cheerful greeting and hand-shaking. Kava had been prepared in vast quantities, and coconut shells of the narcotic liquid were being served out of large dustbins. Later in the afternoon, when the bins had been drained, some locals were sent to dig up more kava roots, and fresh gallons of the stuff were prepared. (At a Western wedding party, I reflected, the hosts don't have the option of going to pick, squeeze and ferment more grapes if the wine runs low.)

Pentecost is a small island, and nearly everybody at the large gathering found a large number of friends and acquaintances there. I was the only foreigner in their midst, but by now my name and face are fairly well known on Pentecost (at least a dozen people came up to me to ask if I had any tiny torches left), and I was accepted and welcomed as just another friend-of-a-friend.

The majority of the party-goers spoke amongst themselves in Central Pentecost Language (the same language spoken at Vanwoki and Melsisi), although a few visitors from villages beyond Ranmawot spoke different vernaculars. (The area around Ranmawot is a linguistic hotchpotch even by Vanuatu standards: no less than four distinct native languages are spoken within an area of a few square miles.) Conversations among people with different native languages, including me, took place in Bislama.

Ranmawot has an Anglophone primary school, and a reasonable number of the villagers there must know at least the basics of English, but only one person attempted to speak to me in the language: a bearded old gentleman who sat down beside me in the nakamal and began asking the usual questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Vanuatu. He paused for a second before each phrase, translating it slowly in his head. To my shock, I found myself doing the same. My thoughts were coming out in Bislama, and it took a conscious effort to speak in my mother tongue! Pondering the psychological implications of this, I pulled myself together, and after a few sentences my brain was once again outputting in its normal language.

When all of the guests had arrived, it was time for the marriage to be paid for. Fourteen pigs - ranging from enormous, blubbery porkers to pointy little piglets - had been lined up on the grass outside the nakamal, each one tied to a stake by a rope looped around its front trotter. The pigs shuffled lazily in their positions, some grunting and butting their neighbours jerkily, while others grubbed up the grass. (If they had been creatures in a TV documentary about extinct wildlife, I would have said that they were badly animated.) The pigs were a gift from the groom to the bride's family. A local chief made a short speech, the names of the lucky relatives who were to receive the animals were read out, and each recipient walked over to collect and admire his new pig.

"Fourteen pigs - is that what a woman is worth here?" I wondered. However, the giving of gifts went both ways. Next to the pigs was a row of ceremonial red mats, which were given by the bride's family and distributed to relatives of the groom. With this exchange of valuables - pigs in return for red mats - the two families had cemented their new relationship.

As darkness fell, there came a cacophony of deep, rumbling bangs: the sound of rocks being flung against rock. It sounded unnerving like the noise made by a volcanic eruption (such things come to mind easily in Vanuatu), and I looked up fearfully. Fortunately, the banging noises merely heralded the start of dinner.

Forget white tablecloths and multi-tiered wedding cakes: the dinner here was straight out of The Flintstones. Boulder-like lumps of taro, and dinosaur-sized drumsticks from the five bullocks that had been slaughtered for the occasion, had been slowly baked in pits over smouldering embers covered by hot stones. Every village was assigned to its own pit. The banging noise came from the cooking stones being flung aside as guests from each village gathered hungrily around their pit to extract the food. No plates or cutlery were necessary: all the guests had brought small baskets which they filled with lumps of beef and taro, wrapped in banana-like laplap leaves. Having collected their dinner, they found comfortable places to sit - under a tree, or on the grassy bank behind the nakamal - and ate using their fingers. My own basket was filled generously with food from the Vanwokians' pit, although like most of the men, I saved it until after the kava-drinking had finished. (The effect of kava, unlike that of alcohol, is worse if the drug is mixed with food.)

After dinner a string band began to play, and many of the guests prepared to 'dance daylight' - party until dawn. Others said their goodbyes and began to leave.

It was a very pleasant, easy-going party. Nobody was rowdily drunk (except for two isolated youths who had got hold of a bottle of Vanuatu rum and staggered around being politely ignored by the rest of the guests), nobody was flashing cameras (not wishing to be a gawking tourist, I'd left my own at the school), and nobody was the least bit dressed up.

As the evening wore on, a carpet of dried palm fronds was spread across the dirt floor of the nakamal and soft woven mats were laid on top, so that tired partygoers and those feeling the effects of the kava could lie down (and, if they wished, sleep for the night). The mats were made in the traditional Pentecost style, long and thin with hairy, tasselled edges. I finally discovered the reason for this curious design: it allows a resting person to fold the mat over himself like a sleeping bag, the tassels down the sides meshing with one another to keep out the draught.

I was tempted to spend the night there, but doubted I would get much sleep, so I waited until moonrise and walked back to Ranwadi. Giant fruit bats were sweeping back and forth across the silvered road. It was long after lights-out when I returned to the school, but quite a few people were still awake, standing outside chatting in the moonlight or sitting indoors with candles and paraffin lanterns.

I found the gappers seated around the dining table by lamplight, spooning homemade bread-and-butter pudding out of a baking tray and speculating about why it tasted funny. It transpired that they had forgotten to add the butter.

The next morning, as I was hauling a shell of coral shingle up from the beach to repair the garden path, a pick-up truck came past. Perched on the sides of the truck was a large group of young men - the bride's cousins, still energised after their night of partying, returning to their home village. They whooped and called out to me as the truck swerved passed along the winding road. Reclining at their feet were four or five large, hairy pigs.

What fate held in store for the pigs, I didn't know. Perhaps they would be traded with another family to help another man win his bride, perhaps they would help an aspiring young chief climb the social ladder, or perhaps they would be killed and feasted upon during some forthcoming celebration. Like supporting characters in a soap opera, the pigs would have a role to play in the next great drama of Pentecost life, whatever it might be.


25 August

For the first time in over a month, a relatively uninterrupted week of teaching went by at Ranwadi. There were a few minor disruptions - the Principal went to visit a school in the Banks Islands in the north of Vanuatu and was trapped there by an out-of-season hurricane, and a group of students from the south Pentecost went away to pay tribute to a local man who had just died as a result of injuries sustained during 'land diving' (the local tradition that inspired bungee jumping). However, for most people at Ranwadi it was a solid, wholesome week of education, and I had the unusual experience of walking into classrooms and finding students behind nearly every desk.

The next week was a different story. Classes were cancelled on Monday; instead, the students and teachers spent the day preparing a big feast, partly to celebrate Children's Day (which should have been celebrated a month ago, but was postponed by the school in a rare effort to minimise disruption), and partly to honour the sporting students who had recently returned from the PISSA Games (in which Ranwadi came a close second).

The dining hall was decorated for the occasion using the prettiest and cheapest materials available - leaves and flowers from the bushes outside - and by the evening the room looked more like a jungle than the jungle itself did. The celebration was carried out in the usual Vanuatu way: long speeches were made, a string band played, God was dutifully praised, and the weary partygoers finally dug into the food. The students and teachers preparing the feast had worked hard: a bullock had been slaughtered and hacked into ten thousand pieces to make delicious stews, several chickens had gone into the cooking pot, mountains of rice and taro had been boiled, a literal truckload of lettuces had arrived from some distant garden, and a giant Children's Day cake had been baked. All had been spread out on a green tablecloth of palm leaves, decorated with candles burning in green candle-holders made from pieces of papaya. (Since I loathe papaya - a fruit whose one merit is that it tastes more-or-less the same when mouldy as when fresh - I was delighted to see that someone had found a use for the stuff that didn't involve eating it.)

Decorating the Dining Hall
Students decorating the Dining Hall for the end-of-term party

The gap volunteers and I, who know little about how to cook island-style (and aren't very good cooks even in our home countries) had been assigned the infallibly-simple task of preparing juice to accompany the food. Six litres of the sickly fruit cordial were taken from the school shop and diluted in clean plastic dustbins, before being served from the tin kettles that the students normally use at breakfast. Ranwadi College is very good at making use of the limited equipment available.

It was now the final week of term, and after the party was over, the students were stuck in a holiday mood from which nothing could rescue them. At a staff meeting, at which we were told that classes would continue as normal until Wednesday, I laughed and promised to give everyone in the room a free keyring torch if all my students actually turned up to their Wednesday afternoon lesson.

My colleagues never got their torches. On Tuesday afternoon, a ship came past, and some of the students packed to leave. The rest wandered merrily around the school with no intention of going to their classes. (They couldn't entirely be blamed for this, since several of their teachers had no intention of going to classes either.)

"What's going on?" I asked. "Are we on holiday now?"

The Principal shrugged, and accepted the inevitable. Term-time was over.


Among the villagers the craze for "small-small torches" continues unabated. Young men want them to show off to their friends, doting parents buy them for their children, and elderly chiefs have been bulk-buying them to trade with other villages. Since I'm the only person around here with the means or know-how to shop on eBay (except for Sara at Melsisi, who has so far been too busy flogging wind-up torches to branch out into the keyring torch business), all these people have come knocking at my door.

Being put in a situation in which I had utter control over the supply of a scarce product, I was forced to play at being an economist (economics being the science of how to distribute limited resources). I thought for a while about how to handle the situation, and then posted a big notice in front of the school announcing my decisions:

"1. Price b'long one torch ee go on-top catch'em 250 vatu. By-and-by me use'm profit b'long pay'em new equipment b'long school."

With demand vastly exceeding supply, I would do the economically-sensible thing and raise the price. At the new price many customers still considered the torches cheap, but even if the price hike didn't throttle the demand, it would at least enable me to raise much-needed funds for the school.

"2. One man ee savvy pay'em one or two torch no-more. Suppose all friend b'long you ee want'em, all-ee must ask'em me one-one."

It is a sad illustration of human greed that when people are told that an item is in short supply and liable to run out, they respond not by ordering less but by ordering more. Many had been requesting the torches in fives and tens. To ensure that as few people as possible missed out, I resolved not to sell more than two to any individual. If their friends and cousins all wanted torches, they would have to come and see me individually.

Both of these announcements were accepted by the locals with surprisingly few complaints. Supply shortages are a continuous feature of life on Pentecost, and people understood my position. They also seemed to appreciate the fact that I was trying to be fair and to help the school rather than profiteering from the situation.

However, my third rule caused a lot of consternation in obvious quarters:

"3. Me no sell'em torch 'long any student. You-fella ee got electric light 'long place here."

Not only do the students have electric lights at Ranwadi, they also have far better things to spend their limited pocket money on: nutritious food, new schoolbooks, mosquito nets for their dormitories. Besides, I couldn't get enough small torches for everyone at the school, and if I sold torches to some students but not to others, the cries of unfairness would be unstoppable.

Of course, trying to explain to teenagers that they ought to spend their money on nutritious food or mosquito nets so that they don't get ill, rather than on the latest fashionable accessory, was a futile task. Students came to me with various inventive reasons why I should break my rule and sell them torches. None were convincing, although out of sheer amusement I almost gave a torch to the Year 9 girl who told me that she needed one because there were devils in the girls' bathrooms.

Unfortunately, the higher price and limited supply of the torches have only increased people's desire to own one. I've seen photos of local chiefs wearing curved boars' tusks (a highly-valued item in traditional Vanuatu society) around their necks on pieces of string as symbols of their status; a few villagers have now started wearing my torches in a similar style.


It isn't just my torches that I'm becoming known for on Pentecost. A colleague returning from a trip to the north of the island told me that stories are now going round there about a crazy, tall white guy who walked from Ranwadi to Sara Airfield in a day.


With nothing that needed to be done at Ranwadi, I wandered up to Melsisi to visit the bank, and ended up staying for a night and a day in the village. The bank couldn't change my traveller's cheques at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, because that involved phoning an office in Vila that was already closed (there are no computers at the Melsisi bank). Come back at 8.30 the next morning, suggested the bank teller. That was no problem; I had the rest of the week to spare.

At the Collège de Melsisi, Sara was still busy teaching classes and showing around her retired father, who had come to Vanuatu for a month's holiday. I met the two of them on the sports field, where Sara was handing out World Cup posters that her dad had brought (from Port Vila, not from the soccer-oblivious USA) to delighted students.

Later that evening, while Sara busied herself with grading her students for their end-of-term reports, I took her father out for a drink. The man was apprehensive about the idea of a visit to the kava bar, but agreed to have half a shell of the narcotic drink. He downed his shell manfully, and stayed for another. And another.

"Wow, I can really feel my tongue and my lips going numb," he said.

The locals may not have understood every word, but they picked up the key ones, and laughed. More drinkers arrived and shook his hand, and more shells of kava were offered. (Sara's father tried to pay for the drinks, but his money was refused.)

"I like this place," Sara's father told me. "It looks like this is the spot to hang out in the evenings."

"Yeah, it's the local version of a pub," I said (adding, just in case, "Do you have pubs in America?").

Sara's father began chatting to the other drinkers in that loud, flamboyant way of which only Americans are capable - making no allowances, of course, for the fact that the listeners might not be fluent in his language, yet somehow being (mostly) understood.

"Looking at Sara and Andrew, I think it's great," he said. "These two young people dreamed about something the two of them wanted to do, and now they're doing it together."

Conscious that his words were open to misinterpretation, I offered a hasty Bislama translation.

Two or three of Sara's teaching colleagues arrived, and began conversations with her father in fluent English. (I'd never realised that any of the regulars at the kava bar could speak English - the locals schools are Francophone - although it occurred to me that I had never actually tried speaking English to them.)

The other drinkers, as if in defiance at the use of the language, tried to start a conversation with me in French.

"Je parle seule un peu français!" I protested.

I didn't 'comprend' a single word of the reply.

"Me no hear'em savvy," I told them: I don't understand. We resumed talking Bislama.

"Him ee got how-much year?" one villager asked, pointing at Sara's father. I passed on the question.

"I'm sixty-one," he responded. Whistles of surprise went around. It transpired that he was the oldest person in the bar. Sara's dad looked surprised at being regarded as such an old man, until I quietly pointed out to him that only a few years ago Vanuatu's average life expetancy had been estimated at precisely sixty-one.

More shells of kava were poured, and Sara's dad accepted them enthusiastically. By now he was becoming noticeably stoned.

"These rocks on the ground are amazing," he told the barman, staring at the floor, which was covered with ordinarily-looking shingle from the beach.

Most visitors to Pentecost can only manage two or three shells of kava on their first night out. I've developed a reasonable tolerance to the stuff, but nonetheless I usually stop at five or six. Sara's dad kept on going.

After a seventh shell, he eventually suggested that we should leave, not because he'd had enough kava but merely because he was hungry. We staggered back up the hill to Sara's house. She reacted in the same slightly-amused, slightly-horrified way you'd expect from somebody seeing their normally-respectable sixty-one year-old father high on drugs.

We ate dinner cross-legged on the floor (Sara's house has no dining table) and Sara's father went to bed, while I crashed for the night on a mat. The next day, all three of us were up at dawn feeling none the worse for wear. We went to the market to buy vegetables, I revisited the bank, and I spent the rest of the morning trying to network the five temperamental computers in the office at the Collège de Melsisi (a tricky task, since some were configured in French). The Collège is luxuriously equipped compared with Ranwadi, where the staff have the use of just two ageing computers. I don't know if I set up the network properly, because somebody switched off the electricity generator just as Sara and I were testing it.

It was early afternoon by the time I walked back to Ranwadi. A few straggling students were still wandering the college, but most had already left. The holidays had definitely begun.


<< July 2006 diary · September 2006 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific

Useful phrases in Abma (Central Pentecost language)


© Andrew Gray, 2006