Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

After my 2005 trip to Vanuatu, I returned to Britain with silly notions of embarking upon a serious career, and fell almost accidentally into the role of biology teacher at Basil Paterson College in Edinburgh. It was a decent job, but Scottish winters are dark and dull, and on a rainy Sunday in February I began making plans to fly south once again. As soon as I had completed my year's work at Basil Paterson College, I returned to the South Pacific...

1 June 2006

On the way to Vanuatu, I saw a lot of emptiness. After leaving London, the flight curved northwards over the grey Atlantic and the white-splotched wastelands of Greenland and Hudson Bay, then south-westwards across the open Canadian prairies, the barren contours of the Rocky Mountains, and finally the suburban desolation of greater Los Angeles. After a visit to the United States that legally lasted for about ten seconds - the time that it took for me to walk from the desk at which the immigration officer stamped my passport and issued my green slip to the desk behind it at which another official was waiting to take the slip away again and usher me into the transit lounge - I reboarded the flight to New Zealand. During the twelve-hour overnight crossing of the Pacific, I saw not a twinkling of land - only black ocean and the starlight reflected on the 747's wings.

I left Los Angeles on a Monday evening, crossed the International Date Line - erasing Tuesday 30th May 2006 forever from my life - and arrived in Auckland on a clear Wednesday morning. From there I was waved onto the flight to Vanuatu with little fuss, despite my grossly overweight luggage and lack of appropriate immigration documents. (The letter giving me permission to enter Vanuatu for six months was waiting for me in Vanuatu, a potential Catch-22 situation about which the officials were fortunately quite understanding.) After a further three hours of empty ocean, I landed in the little South Sea republic that I would once again be calling home.

As soon as the door of the plane was opened, I could smell that I was back in Vanuatu. The sickly scent of the tropics - the perfume of a million exotic flowers competing for the attention of a million exotic insects - wafted into the cabin. I stepped off the plane expecting to be hit by heat, yet found the temperature mild, although the air was dense and humid. Vanuatu is in the southern hemisphere, and this is the season referred to locally as the "time b'long cold-cold" - winter - although it is considerably warmer than the British summer that I left behind.

Port Vila has the same unusual atmosphere that I remember from my previous visits - a haphazard combination of national capital, plush seaside destination, and overgrown Third World village. Air-conditioned taxis and minibuses shuttle tanned Australians and New Zealanders between resorts, restaurants and cruise boats, while the rest of the town goes about its business in a laid-back tropical funk. At the market by the seafront, Melanesian women in floral dresses buy and sell exotic fruits and vegetables in palm-leaf baskets, while groups of young men loiter coolly against walls and trees. Scavenging mynah birds flit between roofs and branches, and geckoes hunt flies and moths across whitewashed walls. Along cracked suburban roadsides, where a tangle of trees and flowers attempt to reassert their ownership of the land, a modern clutter of billboards, gaudy sportswear and discarded rubbish sits amidst the fertile greenness of a South Pacific island.

Port Vila is warm, comfortable, friendly and civilised. Unlike most of Vanuatu, it has mains electricity, clean water, supermarkets, Internet access, public transport, good food, and a wide variety of amusements.

And I cannot wait to leave.

Not because I have a sadistic desire to seek out difficult and dangerous places (as some of my friends and family may think!), but because human beings have an unfortunate tendency to judge their well-being by comparison with those around them. It is actually easier to feel impoverished when you are in a clean and comfortable motel, surrounded by people living it up at champagne-soaked resorts, than it is in a muddy village where you have no electricity or clean water but everyone else is in the same position. (I can only imagine how much worse it must feel for the natives of the town, Third World citizens living alongside the most extravagant displays of Western wealth.) And it is easier to be lonely when surrounded by people. Port Vila is a place of holidaymaking friends and honeymooning couples. It is not a place to be alone.

There is also something very clichéd about Port Vila. The souvenir stalls, the duty free shops, the French restaurants, the watersports in the bay, the palmy beaches, the cocktails by the sea, the sunset cruises, the day tours and half-day tours, the beachside bungalows and whitewashed motels: these are the paraphernalia of any tropical tourist town, imported from a thousand other destinations with just enough modifications to convince visitors that they are experiencing something local. What little of traditional Vanuatu that remains in the town is either ignored by visitors, or is packaged and sold to them in tacky and overpriced form. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, sang Joni Mitchell. With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot. That sums up Port Vila.


14 June

The eight-seater vehicle that took me to Pentecost Island felt like a taxi. Only the deafening hack of the propellers reminded me that I was in an aeroplane. The sky around us and the ocean below blazed brilliantly: I had forgotten just how blue the South Pacific can be on a fine day. During the hour-long flight, I thought of the Second World War pilots - immortalised in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific - who had fought the Japanese on this vast blue battleground. Today there was no other plane in the sky. As we flew over Ambrym Island, Pentecost's southern neighbour, we could see a perfect plume of steam sticking up from the centre of one of its brown volcanic craters.

Seated behind the pilot, I watched as he made several unsuccessful attempts to get his GPS navigation system working. Fortunately he knew the way to Pentecost, and once the island was in sight, the airfield was unmissable: a rectangle of pale grass that stood out for miles from its dark leafy surroundings. Cowpats spattered up the sides of the plane as it landed and taxied along the airfield, towards the little concrete hut that serves as a terminal building. I pulled the door handle and jumped out - just as I would have done from a car - then ducked under the wings and walked around to the rear of the plane to retrieve my luggage. I hauled the heavy bags off the airfield (Air Vanuatu, perhaps atoning for past sins, had accepted without question my thirty-five kilograms of luggage onto a flight where the theoretical weight limit was ten), and looked around me. I was back on Pentecost.

Landing at Lonorore
The plane approaches Lonorore Airfield

Bathed beneath the blue sky, the island was even lusher and greener than I remembered it. Palm trees fringed the airfield, and exotic flowers dangled from the trees and bushes. I felt for a brief moment - before I became conscious of the heat and the flies and the staring of the locals who had assembled to meet the plane - how Adam and Eve might have felt if God had granted them a second opportunity to live in Paradise.

The school truck arrived at the airfield, with tanned white figures perched on the back: four gap girls (one of whom had finished her term on Pentecost and had come to catch the plane back to Port Vila), and Miss Kate, the cheerful elderly Australian volunteer whom I remembered from my previous visit. I was surprised and delighted to see that Kate had decided to spend another year on Pentecost.

Vanuatu is a difficult place to say goodbye to: it has a way of drawing people back.

An uncomfortable six-mile (11 km) journey in the back of the truck, along the rutted coastal track that serves as Pentecost's main road, took me to Ranwadi School, in its picturesque location on a green mountainside overlooking the ocean.

At the school I was given a room in the house of Noel and Neil, two elderly New Zealand teachers. Both Kiwis dived into the copy of the New Zealand Herald that I had brought from Auckland with exactly the same words: "I haven't even seen the new All Blacks line-up yet". Noel is a veteran of several years at Ranwadi (I knew him on my first visit, in 2001), during which time he has made ceaseless efforts to introduce order and efficiency to the running of the school. An intensely practical person, he has turned his hand to everything from electrical repair (at the time of my arrival the living room table was covered in broken watches that people had brought to Noel to fix) to prospecting for minerals (with the help of one of his chemistry students). Neil is a laid-back and affable gentleman, a good counterpart to Noel's relentlessness. Both have been extremely welcoming and have done their best to help me settle in. Their house is astonishingly well-equipped and well-stocked by Pentecost standards, with bright battery-powered LED lanterns for illumination at night and a gas-operated fridge stuffed with fresh produce imported from Port Vila.

"We live like kings," Noel told me proudly.

In fact, I found the entire school considerably better-developed than on my previous visits. Following the massive building programme funded by over a million dollars of Australian aid money, the classrooms, offices, library, dining hall and science labs have all been rebuilt or extended. Unfortunately, the builders left before all of the finishing touches could be put on the project: cyclone shutters have yet to be installed on the windows, new rainwater tanks have yet to be connected up with piping, and there are numerous other such jobs that the school handyman seems in no hurry to complete. Nonetheless, with all its smartly-painted new buildings, Ranwadi School had been transformed into possibly the most developed place on the entire island.

Except for one thing: the school had no electricity.

The generator that usually provides Ranwadi with electric lighting in the evenings - in addition to powering the TV, computer, photocopier, and various other pieces of equipment vital for the running of a modern school - had developed a mysterious fault, and the little backup generator was kaput beyond repair.

Fortunately, coping without things is a skill that Ranwadi's staff and students are well-practised at. Nothing here can be relied upon - food and fuel supplies frequently run low, water tanks run empty, and the telephone line has been cut off on several occasions. The lack of electricity was merely the latest of many such nuisances, and the school continued to function as best it could. The timetable was rearranged so that the day's activities - breakfast, lunch, dinner, lessons, study time, and assemblies in the chapel - fitted into the eleven hours of available daylight (unfortunately Vanuatu is sufficiently far south of the equator for June days to be noticeably shorter than at other times of year). At night a constellation of candles, torches, paraffin lamps and solar-charged lanterns appeared around the school, although few of these provided more than a dim glimmer in the night.

A couple of times, I instinctively reached for the light switch upon entering a darkened room, but I quickly got out of the habit.

So that chores and sports sessions could be fitted into the limited daylight hours, on a Wednesday afternoon the school devised a dangerous-sounding new activity: "sport with bush knives". The students were to turn up at the sports field with their eighteen-inch knives, and spend time clearing weeds in between games. The sight of crowds teenagers armed with giant blades is unnerving, until you realise that bush knives here are tools and not weapons. In fact, they are compulsory pieces of school equipment, and although gory accidents occur from time to time, I know of very few cases in which bush knives have been deliberately turned against another person.

During my first week back, the school was in the grip of a flu-like epidemic; at one point over a third of the students were absenting themselves from lessons on the grounds that they were "sick". (It is hard to know, of course, how many were genuine invalids: Ranwadi's students, like teenagers anywhere, seize upon any excuse to skip classes.) The principal gave a rousing speech in the chapel, inciting the audience to "cast out the sickness", although the students who needed the message most were bed-ridden in their dormitories at the time. The outbreak of illness, together with the fact that some students had yet to return from holidays even though it was officially the third week of term, left some classes virtually empty.

This term I am teaching Science to the Year 7 students (all thirty-five of them), and Physics to a much smaller group of Year 11 students. In some respects this a straightforward task: both classes have textbooks and work cards to study from, both are subjects that I've taught before at Ranwadi, and this year I actually have copies of the syllabuses (unlike on some previous occasions when I've been forced simply to take informed guesses at what the students were expected to learn). As before, the major challenge is to make the lessons interesting and involving, given that the equipment available is desperately limited, and that many of the younger students are either incapable of speaking a sentence in fluent English (which is a third or fourth language to them) or are too timid to do so. I would desperately like to be permitted to teach a lesson in Bislama (the local creole), but English is the only language permitted. This is justified on the grounds that a lucky few of the students will go on to university where they will need to be capable of studying in English. I try to make myself as intelligible as possible - talking in slow, simple sentences, mimicking the local habit of ar-tic-u-la-ting ev-e-ry vow-el clear-ly with-out stress-ing a-ny par-ti-cu-lar syl-la-ble, and consciously choosing English words and phrases that resemble Bislama. However, even with these allowances, I am pitifully aware that many of the students understand only a fraction of what I say to them.

The Year 7 Science class's first topic was "observing and describing animals", so I sent them outside with jars, and they returned to the classroom with an impressive collection of creepy-crawlies. The girls at the front of the classroom patiently drew and described their butterflies and grasshoppers, while the boys sat at the back idly torturing a giant spider. I asked them repeatedly to leave the spider alone, and was ignored. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, I strode to the back of the classroom, picked up the spider, and carried it to the door. Since it hadn't yet bitten any of the Year 7s, I hoped it was harmless, but it was nonetheless difficult to look calm and authoritative as I looked down and noticed the spider's prominent fangs. I threw it hastily outside and returned silently to the lesson.

When one of the gap teachers succumbed to the outbreak of illness, I volunteered to take over her Year 7 English class for the week. The students were reading Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr Fox", and I spent much of the lesson trying to explain the meanings of words that the students didn't understand. Some explanations were straightforward: "doughnuts", for example, I likened to the chewy fried "gato" that women from the local village sometimes sell out of woven baskets. Others words could be demonstrated theatrically: I explained "clanking" by banging an upended chair on the girders supporting the ceiling, "scrunching" using a handful of leaves scraped up outside the classroom door, and "shrieking" by making high-pitched noises (which the students enthusiastically copied). My demonstration of a "tremendous belch" amused the class greatly. When asked to define a "badger" I attempted to draw one on the board, but this was one task that my zoology degree hadn't prepared me for, and as a result there is now a class of ni-Vanuatu children who probably picture Europe being roamed at night by animals resembling deformed, flattened piglets.

Noel and Neil cutting bananas
Noel (left) and Neil (right) cutting bananas in the garden

Since the teaching has so far taken up relatively little of my time, I have been doing my best to help out around the school in other ways. I helped haul sacks of rice and drums of petrol up the beach, where they had been delivered by a passing cargo ship. I helped clear out the ditches that drain rainwater away from the schools' muddy paths. I helped Noel and Neil weed their garden (not a job for the arachnophobic) and harvest the bananas and pawpaws growing there. Subsequently I helped clean up the mess when I walked into the kitchen and found the stem of bananas, which we'd hung from the ceiling, dropping its fruits one by one onto the concrete floor. Bananas bruise easily, I discovered.

I helped tend to the sports field, which had been invaded by long grasses and prickly sensitive plants. The sensitive plants' ability to fold up instantly when touched protects them exquisitely against hungry insects, but provides little defence against a petrol-powered lawnmower. The sports field is in a stunning location, with the beach on its western side and a forested cliff leading up to the school to the north. On its south-eastern side is a high mountain ridge overgrown with trees, which have in turn been totally overgrown by a curtain of vines. Together these create an immense wall of pure green, five times as high as the palm trees. It is the kind of wall behind which prehistoric monsters might lurk (although in reality there is little beyond it except for a couple of small inland villages).

One evening, the school mechanic briefly succeeded in starting the school generator, and for two minutes the lights came on throughout the school. It was like being in a dream, wandering dazed around a scene that was familiar yet somehow unreal. I had never realised before how vivid and unnatural the colours inside a house are under electric lighting. I rushed to my room to see if the lights were on there too - they were. Then the generator began to overheat, and the power was turned off. It was as if I had been woken from the dream: I was back in my bedroom, in the dark, alone.

Standing on the beach and looking out across the ocean, there is a powerful sense of isolation, especially on misty days when Vanuatu's other islands are obscured from view, and Pentecost might be the only landmass in the universe. Normally, the only contact with the rest of the world is via the crackly phone line, the radio, and the three or four visits per week from planes and ships that bring people, post and supplies to the island. Many of the islanders have never even been to town.

Yet occasionally something happens in the outside world that is big enough to make an impact on Pentecost. Five years ago it was September 11th and its aftermath, when old villagers would ask me if I knew the latest news on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and on the Monday morning that British forces led the bombing of Afghanistan Noel gave me a memorable wake-up call: "Have you heard? Your country's at war."

This year, Vanuatu is fixated upon a happier (and, for the locals, even more important) event: the 2006 World Cup.

Ranwadi School prepared to receive pictures of the World Cup in the manner of NASA preparing to receive pictures of the moon landings. A television set was installed in the school dining hall, and wired up to a dish that could pick up Australian satellite TV. Then the satellite receiver stopped working. The card from the receiver was sent to Port Vila to be reconfigured, and returned just in time for the start of the Cup. By this point the school generator had failed, but a tiny portable generator was borrowed. To protect the TV against electrical surges, a spike suppressor was ordered (previous pieces of electrical equipment at Ranwadi have blown up after being run from small, unreliable generators), but the device was lost in the post. The school decided to risk running the TV without it. The final question was whether or not the matches would actually be shown on the channels that the school subscribed to. Nobody had any way of checking the Australian TV listings, but we hoped for the best. At 3 a.m. (Vanuatu time) on the night of the opening match, students and teachers gathered excitedly in the dining hall, and breathed a sigh of relief when live TV pictures from Germany appeared on the little screen.

As the only guy at Ranwadi whose national team is represented in the World Cup, I did my best to drum up support for England among the students. (Some of the senior boys responded with such riotous enthusiasm that for a moment I worried that I might have accidentally introduced English football hooliganism to Vanuatu.) I made a small England flag out of paper and cardboard, and the gap girls and I were in the front the front of the audience the following night to watch England's somewhat unimpressive win over Paraguay. Noel and Neil muttered that England had deserved to lose the match, and went back to the serious business of trying to pick up rugby results on Radio New Zealand.

While the school mechanic continued to tinker with the main generator, two new small generators were ordered, capable of running vital parts of the school such as the photocopier and the office computer, as well as the television during World Cup matches. The cargo ship that brought them arrived on a Sunday morning, at low tide. The ship sent out a flat-bottomed launch that came as close to the shore as it could before grounding on the reef; the crew were then faced with the task of hauling the heavy machines ashore across the meringue of slimy rock that had been half-exposed by the tide.

"We really need a jetty here," the Principal mused.

Hauling the new generator ashore
The new generator being hauled ashore

Later, the shiny new generators were hauled up the hill and one was plugged into the school office. A queue of teachers appeared with a month's worth of photocopying to be done, and e-mail access was resumed...


22 June

After several days of tinkering, the school mechanic succeeded in nursing the main electricity generator back to health, and life at Ranwadi returned unceremoniously to normal. The big generator now provides us with mains electricity from sunset until 9.30 every evening, whilst the small generators are used to run office equipment during the daytime, and for watching World Cup matches in the early hours of the morning.

In order to try and get the small generators in time for the World Cup, the school had made a deal with the people of Vanwoki, the local village. The villagers would donate money towards the new generators, in exchange for help with the construction of their new church. On a sweaty afternoon after classes, the students were therefore put to work, hauling sand from the beach up to the site of the church, using an assortment of buckets, baskets, cardboard boxes, old flour sacks, and whatever other containers they could find. As a teacher I wasn't required to do anything except 'supervise', but I decided to show solidarity with the students by hauling a couple of buckets myself. For an hour or so, lines of dejected-looking kids traipsed up and down the hill like lemmings, while staff members sat with clipboards ticking off names.

You have to admire the resourcefulness of a school that sells its students as slave labourers so that people can watch football on TV.

Leaving Ranwadi School and entering villages such as Vanwoki is like stepping back into a medieval era. Parts of Europe in the Middle Ages must have been comprised of similarly earthy villages, surrounded by gardens in which people grew their food, and forests from which they collected firewood and building materials. Houses were small and simple, with thatched roofs and bare floors. Most of the 'roads' connecting the villages were basic footpaths, although a few of the larger settlements were probably connected by wide, rutted highways. Dogs and chickens roamed freely around the villages, and pigs rooted amongst the trees. The church was at the centre of community life. Some local produce was sold at market in exchange for money that could be used to buy luxuries and manufactured goods, but this cash economy had only a limited role in people's lives.

Parts of Pentecost Island remain like that today.

Vanwoki is an attractive village, with its palm-thatched houses set in bright clearings amidst dark jungle vegetation. Until I took part in the sand-hauling, I had hardly seen the place by daylight; most of my visits to Vanwoki are in the evenings. After sunset, the men of the village gather to relax, tell stories, and drink kava out of half coconut shells. Kava, which is made from the ground-up roots of the 'intoxicating pepper plant' Piper methysticum, tastes like polluted mud and is loaded with soporific compounds that relax the mind but leave the body feeling dizzy and anaesthetised. It certainly isn't for love of the drink that I visit Vanwoki in the evenings, nor is it for the conversation (much of which in the native language, of which I know only two or three phrases, although my fellow drinkers sometimes chat to me in Bislama). It is simply for the atmosphere of the place, and for the chance to try and get to know the local people.

When I visited last year, the main drinking establishment was a Western-style kava bar beside the road at the entrance to the village. However, that kava bar has now closed, partly due to a decline in customers, as the workmen who had previously been helping construct the new school buildings have now returned to their home villages, and partly due to a shortage of supply, as much of the local kava crop has been sold and shipped away.

"Too-much kava ee go 'long Port Vila," lamented one of the village chiefs. (Note: I've deliberately Anglicised all of the Bislama quoted in this blog, for the benefit of the reader.)

Fortunately, most of the villagers have their own private patches of kava plants, which they still share in the traditional way down at the nakamal, a big communal hut at the centre of the village. They kindly welcome local schoolteachers, including me, into the nakamal too. In return for the kava, we bring along paraffin for the lantern that illuminates the nakamal, or nibbles to take away the taste of the kava. (Even seasoned kava drinkers are grateful for the opportunity to "wash'em mouth" after each shell-full.)

Vanwoki nakamal
The nakamal at Vanwoki

The nakamal at Vanwoki is constructed in very traditional style, with a triangular roof that reaches right down to the earthen floor, thatched with palm leaves and supported by wooden beams. Log stumps provide seating, and the smoke from a small fire in the centre of the hut helps to keep mosquitoes away. The rear of the nakamal at Vanwoki is stacked with cement and other building materials, in keeping with the nakamal's traditional role not just as a drinking den but as a general-purpose community building.


The quantities of kava being exported from Pentecost are a cause for comment not just among the local villagers, but also among officials in Port Vila. Earlier this week Ranwadi School was visited by two researchers from the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu, who gave talks on the country's economy, during which the word "problem" recurred many times. Vanuatu's economy is small, inefficient and vulnerable to natural disasters, its agricultural production appears to be declining, and its people are getting poorer on average since the country's population is increasing faster than its GDP.

At the end of a question-and-answer session with the assembled teachers, the economists had some questions of their own for the people of Pentecost. Why are coconuts in the local plantations being left to rot and germinate on the ground? Once upon a time people on Pentecost earned their living by collecting, shelling and roasting the coconuts to make copra (dried coconut flesh), which was sold for export. There is good money to be made from copra at the moment - the stuff is in great demand not just as a foodstuff but also as a potential source of alternative fuel oil - yet nobody is bothering to manufacture it. Various explanations were put forward: shipping is less reliable than it used to be, there are fewer driers for producing the copra, and more people have jobs that provide an alternative source of income. But the main reason for the decline in copra production seems to be that kava has replaced it as a cash crop. Making copra requires continuous hard work, whereas kava plants can simply be left in the ground for five years and then dug up and sold.

Pentecost islanders have thus joined the ranks of poor farmers around the world - along with cocaleros in South America and poppy-growers in Afghanistan - who have discovered that it's more profitable to grow narcotics than to grow food. People on Pentecost could produce both, of course, but why bother scraping coconuts when selling kava provides enough money for your needs? It may frustrate economists in Port Vila, who see nothing except the fall in production figures, but it's an understandable position.

And what about the cattle, the economists asked. Boatloads of them used to be shipped to Santo island to be turned into greasy tinned meat, but nowadays so few are sent that the abattoir only operates for half of the week. It appears that the reason for this is Pentecost's growing population. More people result in more weddings and funerals, and these ceremonies are usually accompanied by a feast at which a cow is slaughtered and eaten.

Sending Pentecost's cows away to the abattoir only to have them turned into a disgusting paste and sold back to the islanders in expensive tins always seemed to me like a stupid waste of good beef anyway.


Another visitor to the school this week was Vic Ryall, the Australian ex-headmaster who has recently been appointed as the local co-ordinator for GAP Activity Projects, the organisation that sent me to Vanuatu in 2001. He has taken on a challenging job. GAP's volunteer programme in Vanuatu has been beset by frightening occurrences, such as last year's volcanic eruption on Ambae Island, and at times there have been disastrous breakdowns in communication between schools in Vanuatu and GAP's offices in England and Australia.

It is very difficult for schools in remoter parts of Vanuatu to attract teachers (educated locals who have gone to college in Port Vila or abroad are understandably reluctant to return to their islands), with the result that eighteen year-old GAP volunteers are used not merely as helpers but as full-blown schoolteachers. This gives volunteers a real opportunity to make a positive difference during their placements, but also means that when things go wrong the consequences can be severe. At times GAP has been forced to abandon placements due to concerns over volunteers' safety, and schools have been left critically short of teachers as a result. In the short term, such issues are difficult to resolve, but Vic seems to be doing his best to improve the running of the GAP programme and ensure that problems don't arise in the future. I shared some of my own experiences as a past GAP volunteer with him, and offered to help out in any way I could.

Another person who deserves credit for maintaining the GAP programme in Vanuatu is Ranwadi's principal, Silas Buli - the only headmaster in the country who has consistently welcomed GAP volunteers to his school over the past eight years. Silas himself was put in a position of responsibility at a remarkably young age: he became principal of Ranwadi when only in his mid-twenties (at a time when the Vanuatu government was desperately seeking educated local people who could take over the senior jobs previously done by colonial expatriates). Twenty years on, the school is still thriving under Silas's leadership.

"None of the principals at other schools have lasted that long," he told me proudly.

Silas, in turn, has shown great faith in the eighteen year-old school-leavers sent to him by GAP, giving some of them the daunting responsibility of teaching advanced classes to students just as old as the volunteers themselves. Judging by their classes' exam results, they taught well.

In the year 2000, Silas was given the "once in a lifetime opportunity" to visit England, with the help of an organisation called British Friends of Vanuatu. There he went into schools, talked to other headteachers, and picked up fresh ideas about how to develop Ranwadi. (It is a pity that he never visited Gairloch High School, the establishment on the north-west coast of Scotland where I completed my own schooling. That place - a very good school surviving in a very isolated location - would have had a lot to teach and to learn from Ranwadi.) Silas also visited GAP's head office in Reading. His trip to England undoubtedly left him in a better position than most to appreciate the benefits of GAP's volunteer programme, both to the schools and to the volunteers.

My own brief GAP placement at Ranwadi made such an impression on me that five years on I jumped at the opportunity to abandon a comfortable life in Edinburgh and spend a large amount of my savings returning to work here as an unpaid volunteer. Multiply that impact by the number of GAP volunteers who have spent time at Ranwadi - over fifty so far - and you begin to realise the positive difference that Silas has made to young people's lives, not merely those of the local children who attend his school, but also those of young foreigners who have been given the opportunity to work here.


Last Sunday I made my way to Melsisi, four miles (6 km) up the coast, to watch an afternoon of traditional 'custom' dancing. (I could have got a ride there with some other teachers in the school truck, but opted to walk instead: an eight-mile round trip on foot is far more pleasant and less sore on the limbs than eight miles of being battered in the back of a truck on Pentecost's rough roads.) The dancing took place outside the church on what could be called the village green, although that conjures up an image of tidy homeliness that is completely inappropriate here: Melsisi is nothing like an English village. It is a ramshackle assortment of Third World buildings on a sun-baked hillside sloping down to the Pacific, infested with cows and with friendly schoolchildren who shout "hello" from roadsides, doorway trees and rooftops when they see a foreigner go past.

Custom dancing at Melsisi
Custom dancing at Melsisi

The custom dancing - like many things in Vanuatu - was simple, repetitious, chaotic, and went on for a very long time. However, the costumes were wonderful. Each of the dozen or so groups of dancers performing had its own theme: some wore woven mats, some were adorned with leaves, and some carried poles tipped with homemade models of objects ranging from chickens to aeroplanes. Some wore only loincloths and were coated from head to foot in reddish mud. The dancing was accompanied by chanting, and percussion was provided by slit drums, bamboo canes, and rattling bunches of nuts tied around the performers' ankles. Several hundred locals had gathered to watch the spectacle, and it was strange to see so many people together on Pentecost. I stayed until sunset, hoping to see the end of the dancing, but when I noticed an electric night being rigged up and realised that the event could continue way into the night, I decided it was time to leave. As I walked back to Ranwadi in the twilight, the villages surrounding Melsisi were eerily deserted.


As the shortest day of the year approached, the weather on Pentecost turned suitably wintry. It rained heavily, turning footpaths into slippery mud, and there were blustery winds that blew unimpeded through the school buildings (since the glass louvers in many windows are missing or jammed open), slamming doors and scattering piles of paper. On some mornings, the temperature dropped as low as 23°C (73°F). Of course, in England 23°C is the temperature of a warm summer's day; in Scotland it would constitute a heat wave. However, when there are damp draughts blowing through the windows, there is only cold water to wash in, warm clothing is unheard of, and you are acclimatised to tropical heat, 23°C feels positively icy.

June 21st itself was Noel's birthday. At sixty-five, he is now officially an old man (particularly by the standards of Vanuatu, where average life expectancies are low). At the end of the year he plans to retire and return to New Zealand so that he can spend more time with his grandchildren, although he already admits that he'll be back for "working holidays" at Ranwadi. As I said before, it's a difficult place to leave.

Sadly, the occasion was marred by an act of vandalism at Ranwadi. Late at night, somebody had gone around the school hacking at electric cables and cutting down a young palm tree that Noel had donated and planted outside the chapel as a memento of his time here. The boys of the school were called to assembly by the Deputy Principal and given an ultimatum: if the culprit was not turned in by the end of the day, the school would be forced to take drastic action. It would call upon the 'Brotherhood', a group of Anglican priests whose services Ranwadi has called on in the past, and ask them to pray for a curse to be brought down upon the perpetrator of the vandalism - whoever it might be.

"I don't want to have to do this," the Deputy Principal told the students, in solemn tones. He went on to outline what might happen once the curse was in place: the person might fail to succeed at school, he might never get a job, and he might die poor and lonely.

Being the victim of evil sorcery is a threat that people in Vanuatu take very seriously indeed, and the boy responsible for the vandalism - an ex-student with a grudge against the school - was soon named. He confessed to his crime, and the staff were immensely relieved that they could now deal with the matter by restrained, earthly means and wouldn't be forced to bring curses down upon anybody.


26 June

To a visitor stepping off a plane from temperate climates, midwinter on a tropical island would seem a laughable excuse for a season. However, the locals are beginning to feel the cold. Girls at Ranwadi stand outside their classrooms shivering in several layers of clothing, glowering at me when I tell them that back home in Scotland - where it's midsummer - it's currently several degrees colder. All the talk of "cold" makes me feel chilly, even when I glance at the thermometer and see that, by British standards, conditions are still balmy. Once or twice I was even persuaded to put on a second layer of clothing, but I quickly began to sweat and took it off again.

Some of the boys at the school came up with a way of relieving the hardship of washing in chilly water. On Saturday evening a group of them gathered outside their dormitory to sing and dance vigorously, while one strummed out a tune on a crude guitar and another played the drums on an upturned dustbin.

"We make sweat, then we swim," they told me.

In Vanuatu the word "swim" can refer to any action that involves a person somebody getting wet; in this case I assumed it meant "shower". However, it later transpired that the water supply was off throughout the school, so the boys had to go for an actual swim in the sea (or trek in the dark down to a tap at the far end of the sports field, which was still working) in order to wash.

Ranwadi's water supply comes from a stream that flows down the mountainside, via a series of tanks. Big new tanks were recently installed, but in a typical piece of Vanuatu engineering, the pipes connecting them together were made far too narrow; the result is that the higher tanks overflow whilst the lower ones sometimes run dry. Water shortages are particularly common on Saturday evenings, since this is the day when the students do their laundry.

The next day, as I was walking around the headland to the south of the school, I heard high-pitched squealing coming from the rocks below. I peered over, and saw a group of embarrassed-looking boys in their shorts, huddling in the sea spray.

"We're making a swim and we're very cold-cold," they explained.

On Friday afternoon I went with the GAP volunteers and a couple of their visiting friends and relatives for an even colder swim, below the impressive waterfall that tumbles over a cliff behind the aptly-named Waterfall Village, a mile to the south of Ranwadi. Few people visit the waterfall at this time of year - they prefer to swim in the sea, which is warmer - and the muddy track leading to it was tangled and overgrown. (Personally I like swimming at the waterfall, even in cold weather: it isn't salty, and isn't inhabited by sharks.) After marvelling at the pounding curtain of white spray, we lined up on a familiar precipice and jumped into the turquoise pool just downstream. The visitors were nervous, more frightened by the cold than by the long drop down to the water, but eventually plunged in.

Walking back under the palm trees, we came across groups of hungry students who were taking advantage of all the fallen coconuts that the villagers no longer bother to harvest. As coconuts germinate the liquid inside them turns into navara, a sweet, sorbet-like gel, which the students were scooping out and eating with their fingers, having cracked open the nuts by smashing them against nearby rocks.

The villagers didn't mind the students eating their unwanted coconuts, but eyebrows were raised by the sight of some of the schoolgirls wearing Western-style shorts. Local chiefs wrote a concerned letter to the Principal, who reminded the girls that they should dress modestly, covering their knees with long skirts, when visiting the villages.

The next day the GAP volunteers and I trekked up the coast to Melsisi. We were followed by Dingo, a perky black pooch belonging to one of the other teachers. Dingo was clearly in the mood for walkies, and couldn't believe his luck at having attached himself to a group of people who were going on a eight-mile round trip. We kept a nervous eye on the creature as he sniffed provocatively at passing horses, cattle, pigs, and people. Mostly he behaved himself, although at one point he got into a fight with two strange dogs, and then tried to hide behind me for protection. Fortunately his snarling attackers kept their distance. Later, he disappeared into the bushes and emerged with an entire pig's leg, which he attempted to carry with him. I can only hope that the leg wasn't attached to somebody's pig when Dingo found it.

At Melsisi we called on Sara, a Peace Corps volunteer from Oregon who was posted there six months ago and found herself not just the only white person for miles around, but virtually the only English speaker. (Coincidentally, the previous Peace Corps worker at Melsisi - whom I met briefly in 2001 - had the same name.)

The European planters and missionaries who first colonised Vanuatu were a mixture of English and French speakers, and as a result the country today is a patchwork of 'Anglophone' and 'Francophone' areas (although uneducated locals speak neither language, so business is done mainly in Bislama, the local creole). Whilst children at Ranwadi and the village schools to the south of it are taught English, in Melsisi and the surrounding area the language of education is French. Despite speaking no French herself, Sara was given the challenging job of teaching English at Melsisi's otherwise French-speaking college.

"How on earth do you cope?" I asked.

"I use a lot of Bislama," she said.

The group of us walked up Melsisi Gorge, accompanied by the inexhaustible Dingo, and Sara showed us a good swimming spot, at the base of a small waterfall with a narrow cave behind it. The water was cold, and I was the only one who dived in. Perhaps I haven't acclimatised fully to the tropics yet.

One of the GAP volunteers mentioned that this was the weekend of the annual fete in her home village, and we began reminiscing about English fetes: vegetable competitions, cake stalls, Morris dancing, raffles, coconut shies, and all the other quaint rural amusements.

"You guys actually live in villages?" Sara interrupted.

We hastily assured her that Britain is a modern, industrialised country with towns and cities and suburbs and motorways - nothing like Pentecost Island - but that, yes, some of us do still live in villages.


It must be sad to come from a country with no villages.


On Sunday evening, as I sat dusting cobwebs out of the inside of the staffroom computer, I found myself talking to an authoritative-looking man from Waterfall Village who had come to the school to see the Deputy Principal. The villager seemed strangely interested in Scotland and its politics.

"Scotland and England ee got same government?" he asked. I explained that the Scots now have a parliament and limited responsibility for their own affairs, but are still very much under the control of the UK government in London.

"Ee got one independence movement 'long Scotland yet?" he wanted to know. Scotland does have a nationalist party, I explained - my own grandfather is an active supporter of it - but it has never received a majority of the vote.

"You think say, 'long future, by-and-by Scotland ee come independent?"

"Me no savvy," I replied. I have no idea.

I then discovered the reason for the villager's interest in politics: he was formerly a Member of Parliament. I couldn't resist asking why he'd left office.

Politics in Vanuatu is unstable, he told me regretfully. The electorate are always changing their minds.


Some education ministry officials are visiting the school today, to ensure that we are taking good care of all the new buildings that AusAID paid for. At the weekend, the students were therefore put to work tidying the school. They trimmed the lawns and hedges with their long bush knives, swept the floors using crude brooms made from bundles of twigs, and gathered up and burned piles of rubbish, setting a couple of trees on fire in the process. People here seem so careless about where they light fires that it's a wonder the whole mountainside doesn't go up in smoke. Perhaps the dampness of the local climate prevents bushfires from spreading out of control.


Two of the GAP volunteers are due to leave Ranwadi this week, and thanks to a typical breakdown in communication with GAP's head office, their replacements will not arrive until the end of next month. To help compensate for the resulting shortage of teachers, I've taken on an extra class: 9B Maths.

Their outgoing teacher came to see me on the morning before my first Maths lesson, bearing a pile of unmarked work and the battered remnants of dozen textbooks in various stages of disintegration.

"The students have complete textbooks," she told me, "but the teachers' copies all have missing pages. You just have to leaf through them until you find one that has the page you want."

"Is there a book of answers?" I knew it was a silly question even before I'd asked. The GAP teacher shook her head.

After half an hour of ripping apart and rearranging the textbooks, I had assembled a complete copy with all of its pages present. I bound the tatty sheets together with Noel's heavy-duty stapler, wrote "Teacher's Copy" on the cover in thick black letters, and began pencilling in the answers.

When the students arrived for the lesson and saw a teacher they weren't expecting, some of them were overcome with shyness and uncertainty, and hid nervously behind the door.

"Come in," I shouted repeatedly at the empty doorway, and small groups of boys and girls shuffled into the room.

Fortunately, once the lesson was underway and I had explained that I was their new Maths teacher, the students relaxed and got on calmly with the exercises in their textbooks. When one encountered a difficult question, he or she would raise a finger shyly and whisper "'scuse" (the standard way of attracting a teacher's attention here), and I would do my best to help. These were relatively young students, and I was surprised at the high standard of some of their work. Perhaps the language barrier presents less of a problem in Maths than in other subjects.


30 June

A few years ago, a young American entrepreneur named Jeffrey Bowman was introduced by a friend from the South Pacific to a drink named kava. Despite its foul taste, he immediately saw the potential market his home country for a substance which has the relaxing effect of marijuana and can be drunk socially like alcohol but is legal at any age. He began importing kava products to sell by mail order, and in 2002, he successfully opened up the United States' first kava bar.

Realising that his American customers wouldn't tolerate the gritty texture and nauseating side-effects of poor-quality powdered kava, Jeffrey arranged to have supplies of fresh kava roots transported by air to the United States, and sourced them from the island reputed to produce the world's finest kava: Pentecost.

I came into contact with Jeffrey after he visited this web site, and upon hearing that he and two of his associates were planning a trip to Pentecost, I suggested that they should come and see Ranwadi.

"That would be a fun side trip," Jeffrey mused. "Go see a guy I found on the Internet because of his web site." And he came.

Visitors to Ranwadi have a tendency to be used as teachers, and Jeffrey and his colleagues were no exception. They arrived early on a Thursday afternoon, and found themselves an hour later in front of the Deputy Principal's Agriculture class, explaining the economics of the kava industry. Next, they were the guest speakers in the Principal's Social Science lesson. Fortunately, they relished the chance to share their experiences with the students.

"That's what we're here for, to help people out and talk to them about kava," they said.

After a bracing swim beneath the waterfall (and a debate about how its height compared with that of Niagara Falls), it was time for the serious business of kava-drinking. Many local villagers were keen to meet the Americans, and after some potent kava at Vanwoki (the quality of the local product met with Jeffrey's approval), our party shakily moved on to Waterfall Village. A cargo ship happened to be on its way that evening, and at Waterfall the large nakamal beside the shore was full of people who had gathered to drink kava and relax on palm-leaf mattresses while awaiting the ship.

Jeffrey and Ken in Waterfall nakamal
Jeffrey Bowman (left) and his associate Ken (right) after a few shells in the nakamal at Waterfall Village

Standing in the centre of the nakamal in khaki jungle clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, surrounded by natives crouching on the dirt floor in the lamplight, Jeffrey Bowman looked the perfect picture of the white missionary. His mission was an important one: the salvation of Vanuatu's kava industry.

"I've come here to tell the truth to the people of Vanuatu," he said, in careful English which was later translated into Bislama by one of his associates. The truth, as Jeffrey Bowman sees it, is that the kava industry is not thriving as much as people think. In fact, it is in danger of collapse. Bolstered by recent increases in kava exports, the Vanuatu Commodities Marketing Board (VCMB), which regulates Vanuatu's agricultural exports and sets recommended prices, has increased the price of kava steeply. Too steeply. There have been other expensive problems too: thefts of kava and money by traders in Port Vila, irascible behaviour by the Vanuatu authorities, and the increasing cost of shipping due to rising fuel prices. All of this means that Jeffrey and his colleagues can no longer supply Americans with kava products at a price they are willing to pay.

"If the price of kava does not come down, I will have to close my business at the end of the year," Jeffrey told the assembled audience. And his company is not the only one being hurt by the high prices, he claimed. Other foreign importers have already started to stop buying kava, because the business is simply not viable at the prices currently being charged. Rationally, kava sellers and the VCMB should have responded by lowering the price to a realistic level, but many people in Vanuatu have a woefully limited understanding of economic principles. (Having once tried to teach Economics at Ranwadi, I can testify to this myself.) By the time they realise the problem that exists, it may be too late.

"I am the main kava importer in the United States," Jeffrey told the villagers. And the United States is one of the biggest potential markets for the stuff, especially now that many other countries (including the UK) have banned or restricted kava imports because of fears over the drink's impact on health. Recent research suggests that these fears were unfounded, but the restrictions remain in place. ("Heck, I've drunk so much kava in the past five years, if it was dangerous I'd be dead by now," Jeffrey assured me.)

Jeffrey also gave the villagers some much-needed advice on which variety of kava to plant. There is only one kind that foreign customers like to drink, Jeffrey explained, yet some people in Vanuatu continue to grow undesirable varieties - including the notorious 'two-day kava' - in the hope of selling them for export. The fact that there is little demand for a variety of drink that leaves consumers feeling groggy for two days afterwards shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Jeffrey has a personal interest in getting his message across, of course: his company is losing money. Yet he also seems to care quite deeply about the islanders' welfare. People in Vanuatu have been kind and friendly to him ("there aren't many countries in the world that are still like this," he told me sadly), and Jeffrey, in turn, has treated them with generosity. He bought a $10,000 boat for the villagers in South Pentecost who supply him with kava, and he and his associates showed their gratitude for the brief hospitality they received at Ranwadi by leaving behind a bag full of educational supplies.

The villagers thanked Jeffrey for his advice. The next morning, he and his colleagues set off for Port Vila, determined to talk to senior figures there about the kava industry's problems. One advantage of doing business in a tiny republic like Vanuatu is that it is often possible for relatively ordinary people to deal directly with those who are running the country. I hope they listen.


The strangest moment of my evening with the Americans came when a villager at Vanwoki walked into the nakamal with a dead kingfisher, which he placed on the floor for everyone to admire.

Fascinated yet saddened at the sight of the iridescent little corpse, I asked where it had come from.

"One boy ee stone'm, 'long bush, close-up 'long place here," the villager told me excitedly.

It didn't look as if anyone was planning to eat the poor bird, and I decided not to ask why it had been stoned. I suspected there wasn't a reason.


Exotic wildlife is not the only thing at which the locals throw stones. One villager recently attempted to use the same method to deal with a hungry student from Ranwadi who was stealing fruit from his trees. Fortunately, on that occasion the stone missed.


July 2006 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific

Diary of my previous trip to Vanuatu (2005) - Jeffry Bowman's kava bar


© Andrew Gray, 2006