Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

10 November

"Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Bash her in!"

- Lord of the Flies

Sunday was Graduation Day for the Year 10, Year 12 and Year 13 students at Ranwadi College. (Some of the Year 10s and 12s will be back next year, but others will leave in search of work, or continue their education elsewhere.) None of the students have actually sat their exams yet, let alone passed them, but the school chose to have the graduation ceremony beforehand so that the students can leave as soon as their exams are over.

"Students who hang around after their exams are over will only cause trouble."

In the run-up to Graduation Day, the students were hard at work with their brooms and bush knives, sweeping and scrubbing the school buildings and hacking its riotous greenery into a respectable state. Some of the vegetation was brought indoors to decorate the chapel and the dining hall for the occasion; the rest was burned. The warm air was filled with the rumble of the lawn mower and the smell of bonfires.

Outside the chapel, the junior students constructed a beautiful walkway of flowers, the kind of thing you might see at a Hollywood wedding. Wooden posts were driven into the ground along either side of the walkway (accidentally shattering the water pipe leading to the Principal's house), pairs of palm leaves were bent between the posts to form archways, and each spike of every leaf was tipped with a pink frangipani flower. (Despite their bare and stunted look, frangipani trees somehow find the energy to produce a remarkable daily bloom, shedding flowers the way a large dog sheds hair - but smelling far nicer.)

A graduation lunch was prepared and Miss Katie and her Year 12 class prepared themselves a special end-of-year dinner. The lunch was much like the students' regular meals, except that small helpings of beef stew and pieces of fresh lettuce were served alongside the starchy rice and taro.

On Friday morning, I saw two Year 12 boys walk past the house carrying small, squealing pigs. Out of curiosity, I followed.

Boys with their pigs
Year 12 boys with their dinner

The pigs were taken to the back of the school kitchen and deposited there on a grey mound of ash and dirt, their trotters tied using nearby vines. On this mound of death - a sort of porcine Calvary - many pigs and other edible beasts had been condemned to death. Before slaughtering their pigs, the boys asked the cooks to boil a pan of water so that the carcasses could be cleaned. While we waited for the water to boil, the boys chatted to me about life in England.

"How wide is the tunnel under the sea between England and France?", one of them wanted to know. The two main tunnels are each about as wide as that kitchen, I explained, pointing at the smoking tin building behind us.

"What is the Queen like?", asked another. I admittedly that I'd never her personally (unlike some Pentecost Islanders, who still remember the occasion in the 1970s when Her Majesty came to see what was then still part of her Empire, and one unfortunate native died in the process of trying to entertain the great visitor). However, from what I've heard, the Queen has done a good job in the fifty-four years that she has now been on the throne. She isn't quite Britain's longest-serving monarch yet, but she is probably the longest-lasting ruler that Vanuatu will ever have, having been its joint Head of State (together with a succession of French presidents) for 28 years prior to the colony's independence.

"Does fruit grow in England?" the boys wanted to know. Yes, I said, but not the same kinds of fruit that you get in Vanuatu, and not in such abundance. In Vanuatu, it's rare to be able to look outside and not lay eyes on something succulent and edible. From where I was sitting on the mound behind the kitchen, I could see papaya, citrus, mangoes, bananas, breadfruit and coconuts all growing on the trees. English countryside is not like that, I told the boys, and apart from the occasional nut or berry Scotland is a woody wasteland. A fine place for a bear or a squirrel, but a miserable habitat for a tall, sweet-toothed ape such as Homo sapiens.

When the shout came from the kitchen, "Water ee boil finish!", the boys set to work on their pigs. One was castrated before being killed, in the belief that this would improve the flavour of the meat. The poor animal's squealing rose a tone as the knife went in and the raw pink lumps were flung aside.

"Have you ever cut off a pig's balls before?" they asked me.

I admitted that I hadn't.

"Didn't you learn to do this in Agriculture class?"

Agriculture is not part of the curriculum in Britain, I explained. They boys were shocked.

"Why not?"

"Most people in Britain don't grow their food in gardens," I explained.

"They work in tertiary industries instead," expounded one boy, who'd clearly been paying attention in Economics class.

"If schoolboys in Britain did this," I added, gesturing towards the trussed-up, bleeding pig, "they would probably get arrested for cruelty."

The traditional way to dispatch a pig in Vanuatu is to batter it over the head. Depending on the size of the pig and the accuracy of the executioner's aim, this can either be a quick and humane or a bloody and horrible way to die. The Year 12 boys, who had no club handy, decided to try other methods.

One pig they sat on, holding its nose and mouth closed until it suffocated. I'll spare you the details of what they did to the other, but suffice it to say that it involved a sharp knife and a lot of blood and wasn't particularly pleasant, nor particularly quick. It was hard to tell at what point the pig lost consciousness (if indeed pigs have consciousness), since its body continued to jerk long after death, but I hope it didn't take long.

Wrongly believing that the boys knew what they were doing, and not wishing to appear a squeamish foreigner, I stood silently and tried not to grimace during the slaughter. Six months away from the cosseted rich world, where meat is just another product from a factory, has desensitised me to such brutality. Afterwards, however, I remained enough of a Brit to regret the fact that I had said nothing. I should have intervened; I should have objected to the castration (surely it only helps the flavour of the meat if you do it a long time before killing the animal?) and to the method of slaughter. I should have urged the boys to put the poor animal more speedily out of its misery.


Graduation weekend coincided with a visit to the school by a group of 'crusaders' - a travelling Christian group who had come from Port Vila to help bring the school closer to God. For the first couple of days of their visit crusaders visited staff houses and chanted long prayers. We're used to the sound of praying and singing by now - our neighbours at Ranwadi make Ned Flanders seem like Satan - but after a particularly loud evening of crusading next door, on a day when I had gone to bed tired and early, I began to think some very un-Christian thoughts.

Late one evening, the crusaders marched around the school in the dark shouting out praise to the Lord. (Less enlightened people were instructed to stay indoors.) As they marched, the light of God shone upon them, and the shadows could be seen physically running away into the distance. (I quote an eyewitness account given to me later by one of my fellow teachers.) Thus was Ranwadi College delivered from evil.

Over the weekend itself, the visitors organised lively spiritual sessions for the students in the chapel. Watching through the window it looked like good fun, with lots of singing and jumping and clapping and twirling and touching. (Boys and girls, of course, were segregated to opposite sides of the room.) These sessions went on late into the night. By Monday morning, my 9B Maths class was so exhausted that half of them were asleep in their dormitories and half of the remainder were asleep at their desks. Not wishing to try and teach a lesson to a half-conscious class, I made no attempt to wake them up.


With Graduation Day falling on 5th November - Bonfire Night in Britain - it seemed the perfect time for a firework party. Real fireworks proved impossible to find in Vanuatu, but in Vila I had bought some decorative toy fireworks and some sparklers, and on the night of the students' graduation I planned a small bonfire party on the beach.

"Is that OK with everyone?" I had asked at a staff meeting.

"Some of the students will be praying with the crusaders in the chapel that evening," I was told.

"Until what time?"


"Oh. How about Saturday evening then?"

"The crusaders are praying that evening too."

"Let's make it Friday then."

My colleagues shook their heads.

"OK, well, the students who want to join the crusade can go to the chapel, and those who want to worship the devil with fire and brimstone can come down to the beach with me."

Not all of the teachers realised that I was joking.

"Could you tell us more about the meaning of this festival of yours?" the Principal asked cautiously.

I hastily explained that Bonfire Night commemorates the attempt by terrorists to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder on 5th November 1605, and that there is nothing Satanic about the occasion. (Although when you come to think about it, it is a weird excuse for a festival. I wonder if Americans in four centuries' time will gather on the evening of September 11th to eat hot dogs and throw burning paper aeroplanes at effigies of Osama bin Laden.)

Still, the staff didn't like the idea of giving students a choice between praying and partying. Maybe they didn't trust enough of them to make the right choice.

"So is there ANY time I can light a bonfire without interfering with the Lord's work?" I asked.

The evening of Monday, 6th November, was settled upon.


On the morning of Graduation Day, students, teachers, local chiefs, and the few parents who lived within walking distance gathered outside the chapel in their finest (which, in Vanuatu, meant their floweriest) clothes. I wore long trousers (my only pair) and a blue Hawaiian shirt decorated with a hibiscus-flower pattern.

The ceremony opened with a familiar chorus:

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see."

It was an appropriate choice of hymn. The writer of Amazing Grace, John Newton, was a former slave trader who reformed his ways after discovering God. The founder of Ranwadi was a former indentured labourer - the South Pacific equivalent of a slave - who returned to his home island, after years on a Queensland sugar plantation, eager to spread the good news he had discovered about a man named Jesus Christ.

"'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fear relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed."

Listening to the hymn, I thought of my own home island. John Newton's words were written in Olney, Buckinghamshire - a mile from where I grew up - and set to a tune from Scotland, my adopted homeland. I pictured Newton in Olney's cold stone church, and wondered if he ever imagined that his words would be sung on a bright tropical morning two hundred years later, ten thousand miles away, on an island that had yet to be discovered at the time the words were written.

"Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home."

After a short communion ceremony (it was Sunday, after all) there were prizes to be given and speeches to be made. The Minister of Agriculture had been invited as the guest speaker, but failed to come because the local airfield was waterlogged after a month of rain. His absence was a blessing insofar as it helped to keep the proceedings short: this year's guests were kept seated on the chapel's narrow wooden benches for a mere three and half hours. Previous graduation ceremonies have lasted for five or six.

The Principal used his speech to reflect on the school's achievements. Principals always do. However, Ranwadi's success is genuinely worth reflecting on: it is about more than the usual litany of sporting prizes and academic awards (though there have been plenty of those). It is about the development of Pentecost Island, the struggle by villagers who dig up roots and scrape coconuts for a living to provide their children with a real education - the kind of education that will allow them to pursue the same dreams as their counterparts overseas. Ranwadi has come a long way towards achieving that goal.

Life in Vanuatu is vulnerable. A cyclone might destroy your crops. A fire might destroy your house. Fluctuations in the world market for tropical fruit might destroy your livelihood. Illness might destroy your health. But, as successive headteachers have known, a good education is something that can never be taken away from you.

Ranwadi was founded as a primary school, teaching young boys (and later girls) how to read, write, and worship God. In the early 1970s, as the islanders' educational standard improved, the place evolved into a high school. Originally, secondary schools in Vanuatu provided education only from Year 7 to Year 9, but in 1985 the government added a tenth year to the national curriculum. By the 1990s many were graduating from Year 10 with excellent results, and seeking further education. However, at that time only a couple of institutions in Vanuatu offered schooling beyond Year 10, and too few of Ranwadi's graduates were able to find places there. The problem was solved by establishing Year 11 and Year 12 classes at Ranwadi. Later, as students' aspirations increased further, a Year 13 class was added.

Adding extra years to the students' education was a tremendous challenge. New classrooms and dormitories had to be built and furnished, new teachers had to be recruited, and new books and resources had to be found. The school, of course, had no spare money for any of these things. The Principal was undeterred. With the help of churches, youth groups, and overseas aid agencies, the challenges were met.

"There is nothing we have ever dreamed of that has not come true," the Principal told his audience.

An outsider might attribute Ranwadi's achievements to the hard work and vision of the people who run the school. But people here are in no doubt as to the real reason for the school's success.

"There is one thing that I believe makes Ranwadi unique," said the Head Boy in his own speech, "and that is our faith in God. This is a place where Jesus is number one."

I wondered to what extent the school's prayers really were responsible for its achievements.

"Obey the Lord your God and all these blessings will be yours."

I remain an atheist. However, studies have shown that those who happen to consider themselves lucky (or, presumably, blessed by God) behave subconsciously in a way that does increase their chance of good fortune. What was originally a groundless belief becomes self-fulfilling. And what could be better for your self-confidence than believing that you have the support of the greatest power in the Universe?

"I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength."

Ranwadi's latest challenge is the most ambitious yet. Although the exam results of its students are among the best in the country (beaten only by those from Malapoa and Matevulu, Vanuatu's two big urban schools), it remains immensely difficult for school leavers from islands such as Pentecost to progress to further education. There is only one real university in the South Pacific, plus a few specialist colleges, and places at these are limited and expensive.

Seeing this problem, the Principal came up with a stunning solution: if students find it difficult to get a college education elsewhere, then they should be offered one at Ranwadi. With this in mind, he is currently liaising with overseas universities in the hope of setting up a distance learning programme under which students based at Ranwadi can study for college-level diplomas. This idea is still at a very early stage, and will face many hurdles. However, the Principal, driven by the conviction that he is helping to fulfil God's plan for Ranwadi, believes it can succeed.

"Never, never, never, never give up trying."

Those were the Principal's final words to his departing students.

Graduation Day walkway at Ranwadi
The Graduation Day walkway

After the ceremony, the graduating students lined up along the walkway of flowers to shake hands with each of their teachers and fellow pupils as they filed out of the chapel, one by one. The line of students then doubled in on itself so that the graduates could shake hands with one another. At a rough calculation, fifty thousand handshakes were performed.

Although their graduation was meant to be a joyful ceremony, the assembled students all looked thoroughly miserable. Some were crying.

"I don't remember being unhappy on the day I finished school," said Hugh.

These students were not merely saying goodbye to their school, though; they were saying goodbye to their friends.

In fact, Ranwadi's graduates will probably be no worse at staying in touch than their British or Australian counterparts - Vanuatu is a small and sociable country. However, at Western schools it easier for students to leave under the illusion that they will remain friends. By the time they look back and realise how few of their former classmates they remain in contact with, they have moved on and no longer care. For Ranwadi's graduates, there is no such illusion. As they depart to their separate villages and separate islands, without the benefit of e-mail or mobile phones or social networking web sites, it is a sad and sudden farewell.

The students leaving Ranwadi also face a dim and uncertain future. In Port Vila and Luganville, Vanuatu's overgrown little towns, too many ambitious young people are congregating in search of too few jobs. That is the downside of the educational improvements that schools such as Ranwadi have strived for. Just as many British university students spend years learning the finer subtleties of human knowledge only to find themselves in shops and call centres doing jobs that human beings are paid to do only because it's cheaper than building a robot, many of Vanuatu's high school leavers will find themselves growing vegetables in jungle villages where they may never need to read or write again. Just as British arts graduates are statistically less well-off than those who never went to university at all, some ni-Vanuatu families who make sacrifices in order to send their children to school end up poorer than those who never bothered.

Back in 2001, I shocked my then-housemate Slick by suggesting that it would be better if fewer of Vanuatu's young people went to school. Five years on, I am more positive. In addition to the disappointments, I have heard a few stories of success. One local man got a lowly job in airport maintenance after leaving school, but rose to become the chief pilot for an international airline. Another Pentecost islander, Father Walter Lini, was the national figurehead who led his country to independence. It is my hope - no, my prediction - that the within the current students' lifetimes, an ex-pupil of Ranwadi will become Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

I thought of the Principal's parents, who toiled on a coconut plantation to raise the money needed to send their son to Ranwadi. Could they have predicted that scarcely more than a decade later, their little boy would end up running his former school?

Many of Ranwadi's pupils will never need the knowledge they acquired at school. However, a few of them will put it to spectacularly good use, and you can't necessarily predict which few it will be. The success of those few lucky students is what makes the whole effort worthwhile.


"You got your small fire all right."

- Lord of the Flies again

The next day at sunset, Hugh and I went down to the beach. With the students' help we lit a bonfire (with lines of coconut palms shedding flammable detritus there is always plenty to burn on a tropical beach), and decorated the surrounding rocks with crudely-made lanterns of burning paraffin.

A rumour had spread that there was going to be a big firework display, and I worried that the students would be disappointed when they discovered that all I had was a few sparklers and toy fireworks.

I needn't have worried. Sparklers, the students discovered, actually make quite good fireworks if you throw them high in the air. The sparklers were poor-quality Chinese ones that I had bought in Port Vila (Vanuatu's remoteness and high import duties make it uneconomical for stores to import anything but the cheapest brands of goods), and as they flew through the air they shed burning phosphor in a dangerous but rather beautiful way.

Crowds of students whooped and screamed with delight as they watched the fizzling sparklers arc through the night sky. The students who couldn't get their hands on sparklers flung burning sticks and coconut fronds in the air instead. Some boys began to hurl flaming logs from the top of a nearby cliff, from which - fortunately - they landed on a patch of empty waste ground.

Aware that most of the students had never seen fireworks before and knew little of firework safety, I had been careful to explain to them that it was dangerous to point a sparkler in someone's face. However, it had never occurred to me to tell the students not to throw them. In the excitement of the occasion, my warnings of "Be careful!" were ignored. All I could do was stand and shout "Look out!" as flaming projectiles descended towards the crowds of spectators. The screaming and cheering got louder. The scene looked more like a Nordic fire festival or a May Day riot than like a firework party. At least the kids were having fun, I tried to tell myself, and nobody was in danger of serious injury. Minor skin burns are nothing to be troubled about on Pentecost (where children play with fire from a young age), and if one of the flaming objects headed towards someone's eyes, they would see it coming and duck out of the way.

As far as I know, nobody burned themselves. A couple of students got cut and bruised as they scrambled to dodge the flying sticks and sparklers and then scrambled to pick them up and throw them in the air again afterwards, but they didn't seem to regret the experience.

This being Pentecost, none of the teachers who witnessed the event questioned its safety. They merely congratulated me on providing the students with such a good evening's entertainment. Perhaps they assumed that all firework displays are supposed to look like this.


After nearly a month of rain, the sky cleared, and the blueness flooded back into the landscape like a hot liquid. Even in the tropics, where there is no real winter, the first days of summer are a beautiful time. Although life in the classroom became hotter and more tiring the ever, after the day's lessons were over the island was a place of supreme happiness, as students and teachers dispersed into the shady green landscape like a flock of playful birds.

Down by the sea, boys and girls paddled in water as clear as an aquarium, or lay like brown mermaids on the rippled rocks. Further out, their friends were splashing and diving on the reef. In the forest, groups of friends sat under trees sucking the juice from sticky golden mangoes, or munching on the sweet white sorbet scooped out of germinating coconuts. At the tip of the peninsula below the school, people stood invigorated by the Pacific breeze and the constellations of light that sparkled off the ocean. To the south a succession of bays and headlands stretched away in diminishing shades of green.

In the shady valley at the base of the nearby waterfall, where golden buttresses of rock and lush curtains of forest towered overhead, schoolboys frolicked in the bubbling river. Far above, the waterfall tumbled out of the blue sky like a fountain from heaven. Where the white columns of water met the valley floor, they created showers and Jacuzzis, sparkling chasms and fizzy pools. The boys tumbled and dived through this adventure-playground landscape with as much joy and finesse as the swiftlets that darted for insects overhead. In this Disneyland jungle, exams and schoolwork were blissfully forgotten.

Swimming pool near Waterfall
One of many turbulent local swimming pools

Among some of the students, this carefree spirit went too far. My Year 13 Biology class sat their final exam (which they claimed, worryingly, to have found "easy") and promptly left school, completely ignoring the fact that in many cases they had not yet handed in all of their practical reports. In other subjects, too, the Year 13s had simply left without finishing their work.

Upon discovering that the students had gone, all I could do was despair at their utter, mind-blowing stupidity. The practical sessions are a compulsory part of the course, and students who fail to complete the required number will automatically fail. The students had been told this (some would never have bothered turning up to the practicals if I hadn't repeatedly reminded them that the sessions were mandatory), and they knew that there was coursework remaining to be handed in. Earlier that week I had written on their classroom blackboard exactly which pieces of work I was still waiting for, and from whom. Completing the necessary work would have taken half a day, at most. In their insular laziness and their eagerness to escape from school, the students had risked throwing away an entire semester of effort.

I don't know whether the students will be allowed to pass the course or not. Technically they did attend the required practical sessions; they just don't have any gradable work to show for it. Would I be justified in awarding marks even in the absence of written reports, I wondered? Or should I enter the results for those components as zero? Should I try to persuade the exam board to award them the certificate, or did the stupid, stupid kids deserve to fail? In the end I simply e-mailed the exam board in Fiji and explained what had happened; it's up to them to decide how harshly to treat the students. I wash my hands of them.


16 November

Things dry quickly under a tropical sun, and within a few days of the rainy weather coming to end, Pentecost was parched. The mud on the roads was baked into cracked brown paving, and wispy varieties of grass that had sprung up during the rain turned into yellow hay.

On the pumpkin vine outside our house, the broad green leaves drooped like crepe paper. I was sad to see the plant suffer. Hugh and I have spent a lot of time looking after the pumpkin vine since moving into the house: nourishing it with kitchen scraps (which rot down rapidly into fertiliser in the warm conditions), squashing the orange beetles that suck its sap, pollinating the big yellow flowers, and discouraging the lawnmower from encroaching on its patch by the use of strategically-placed rocks. According to the Deputy Principal, an Agriculture teacher, ours is the only pumpkin vine around the school that bears both male and female flowers, and thus the only one that can easily be induced to bear fruit. The plant has provided us and our neighbours not only with pumpkins but also with juicy young shoots and leaves that make an tasty addition to curries and stir-fries. Not wishing to preside over the death of Ranwadi's only hermaphrodite pumpkin, I watered it daily. However, in the grilling climate it took about ten buckets a day just to keep the poor, temperate plant alive.

The temperature had been steadily rising for weeks, and when it reached the high thirties (the nineties Fahrenheit) we began to really feel the heat. With no electric fans, no air-conditioning and no chilled drinks, we were forced to resort to the method of cooling that our ape-like ancestors invented a million years ago when they first lost their fur: we sweated. And when that wasn't enough, we jumped in the local river.

Sadly, in more recent times somebody less sensible than those ancient apes has come up with rules of etiquette demanding that schoolteachers put on some sort of shirt or T-shirt in addition to a pair of shorts when trying to look respectable in front of a class. This made sweating an uncomfortable nuisance. Nor was it practical to teach a class in the river, although I contemplated trying. Lessons were sultry and stifling as a result. I took bottles of water to class and passed them around, but it made little difference. Some of the students decided that it was too hot to work and spent the day asleep in their dormitories. After I began chasing boys out of their dormitories, they took to snoozing under the trees instead. It was probably cooler there anyway.

The students who did come to class sat lethargically at their desks using their books to waft at the sticky air. I stood at the blackboard trying to remain dignified and enthusiastic in spite of the fact that I was drenched and panting. When I leaned over to answer the students' questions, I did my best not to drip sweat onto their books.

Outside, the world was an oven. The sun blazed on the tin roofs of the classrooms, and empty petrol drums clanged as they expanded in the warmth. A searing haze rose over the ocean, and the fronds of the palm trees were crisp and motionless. Walking between the buildings at midday involved wading through layers of heavy heat, across shadeless spaces drenched in radiation. The blue sky was a bath of hot vapour, scalding the pink flesh of any European who tried to bathe under it. I wondered if the Australian volunteers at Londua were still 'sunbaking' from 12 to 2 every day. They would certainly be nicely bronzed by now - assuming their skin hadn't shrivelled and fallen off already. I pictured the girls on their black rocks, sizzling like lumps of tender meat.

They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. However, on Pentecost even the mad dogs know better. As the only Englishman on the island I followed their example, staying indoors during the middle of the day and venturing outside only when the sun had descended to a more familiar level in the sky.


With the hot weather, the local airfield dried out and reopened. Mail began to arrive again, in its usual chancy and unpredictable way. Most of the parcels and letters that our friends and relatives had posted over the past few weeks were nowhere to be seen, but the first plane did bring the students another bunch of begging letters from multi-millionaire evangelist Benny Hinn. I felt that I could have made a moral case for quietly stealing and burning the lot, but in the end I merely scrawled a note on the outside of each one:

"Remember Matthew 24:24-26".

Unfortunately, the plane's most important delivery - the box of final exam papers for the Year 12 students - failed to arrive. The plane that was supposed to bring it had come via an unusually circuitous route, flying from Vila to Santo to Ambae, then returning to Santo to pick up more cargo before flying back to Ambae and on to north and south Pentecost. At each stop, boxes and bags and bundles would have been thrown hastily on and off the plane, sometimes being unloaded and then reloaded again as the crew struggled to fit everything in to the Twin Otters' cupboard-like storage spaces, while an Air Vanuatu employee would have stood with a clipboard trying to sort all of the cargo in the five minutes before the plane was due to take off again. Under such circumstances it would have been easy for an item to be unloaded in the wrong place. Phone calls were made to Vila and Santo and Ambae and north Pentecost, trying to trace the whereabouts of the exam papers.

Nobody had seen them. The manifest - the scrap of paper supposedly showing what is and isn't on the plane - indicated that the box of exam papers had been mistakenly unloaded at Sara, Pentecost's northern airfield, but the person on the phone at Sara denied all knowledge of them. Perhaps the entry on the manifest had been ticked by mistake. More enquiries were made.

Maybe the box of exam papers had been unloaded at Sara and taken somewhere by truck. Could it have been delivered by mistake to the college at Melsisi?

"If you're going to Melsisi this weekend, could have a look for them?" the Principal asked me. Actually I had been planning a quiet weekend at the school, catching up with some marking. However, after other colleagues asked me the same question I got the hint, put on my hat and a thick layer of sunscreen, and trekked to Melsisi. It was now Sunday, the school truck driver appeared to have taken the weekend off, Melsisi's phones weren't working, and nobody else was going to bother with the seven mile return walk.

I explained the problem to the Principal of the Collège de Melsisi, and together we searched through the piles of exam papers there to see if there were any that had been delivered to the wrong school by mistake. There were, but the papers in question belonged to another school. Ranwadi's remained lost.

Meanwhile, Year 12 students elsewhere in Vanuatu had already sat their exams. To prevent any possibility of cheating, the teachers at Ranwadi unplugged the school's two public telephones, depriving the students (and the people from several neighbouring villages who use the schools payphones) of contact with the outside world.

In the school office, Monday morning brought more desperate phone calls. By now, so many calls had been made that the school was running out of telecards, and still the missing consignment was nowhere to be found. Senior teachers vented their frustration at senior officials from Air Vanuatu, but neither could make the box reappear. Perhaps a truck driver took it by mistake and was then embarrassed to admit that he had it, speculated the Principal. Perhaps it was stolen by someone from North Pentecost who was jealous of the school's success, mused the villagers.

By the time the school had accepted that the exam papers were lost and a new batch had been dispatched by the exam board in Fiji, the anxious Year 12s had seen the start of their final exams delayed by over a week, and were beginning to wonder if they would sit them at all. You can just imagine the wailing and whinging and angry letters to The Guardian that would ensue if a group of A-level students at an English private school were put through a similar ordeal.

The delay meant that the Year 12s would be sitting their exams at the same time as the Year 10s - which doesn't usually happen - and to overcome the resulting shortage of suitable examination rooms, junior students were evicted from their classrooms. Although alternative rooms were found for them, the students exploited the resulting confusion and began to skip classes in droves. Some hid in the bushes outside their classrooms when the teacher approached, while others relaxed openly under the trees, confident that nobody would bother sending them to lessons. Some wandered out of the school and raided local gardens, prompting angry complaints from the villagers. On my way to class one morning I came across a group of boys standing around a bonfire.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Don't worry, we're only burning rubbish."

"I meant, why aren't you in class?"

They shrugged. The students knew that even if I bothered to put their names down for detention, nobody was likely to get around to enforcing the punishment between now and the end of the year. In any case, the committee responsible for enforcing school discipline has been suspended by the Principal, following a letter of protest from a group of students who believed that the committee was biased in favour of students from Ambae Island and against those from Pentecost. The complaint arose from an incident in which two Pentecost boys had been threatened with expulsion whilst an Ambae boy accused of a similar crime had got off more lightly. The accusation of bias was unfair: the truth was that the Pentecost boys had simply been stupid enough to get caught red-handed whilst the Ambae boy had not. However, the students who made the complaint were really angry, and a headmaster charged with maintaining order among three hundred ill-disciplined, machete-wielding teenagers on an island with no real police cannot afford to dismiss his students' concerns too lightly.

Knowing that their teachers are no longer in a position to force them to work, many students have apparently decided that they have done enough learning for one year. In some subjects, the year's work has genuinely been finished, but in others there is still a long way to go. My 9B Maths class, who were months behind in their work when I inherited them from their previous teacher, have worked hard and caught up dramatically, overtaking the professionally-taught 9A Maths class (which gave me quiet satisfaction), but they are still nowhere near the end of the year's course. If they all stayed until the official end of term (which is still more than three weeks away), they might have a chance of finishing at least the main topics, but I know that they won't. Their lessons have now become a salvage operation, with me frantically picking out the most essential bits from the remaining topics and trying to teach them to the conscientious students who have continued coming to lessons, not knowing how long I have left before the entire class disappears.


17 November

"Do you believe in magic?" Albion the Agriculture teacher asked me one evening.

We were relaxing in between shells of kava, sitting on stools made of tree stumps and gazing absent-mindedly at the shadows cast by the lantern onto the thatched roof and dark wooden beams. It was a quiet night down at the nakamal, and we could hear the scuffling of villagers and animals outside.

I shook my head. "No, I don't."

I knew that this was the wrong answer - I was making myself look like a dumb outsider, a Muggle - but I had to be honest.

"Here on Pentecost, we have magic."

I made a non-committal noise, and waited for Albion to continue.

"There are many different kinds of magic leaf growing on Pentecost. There are leaves that you can use to make it rain, for example."

I nodded and grunted. It's hard to convey to someone, especially when neither of you are speaking your native language (most of this conversation took place in Bislama), that you respect their beliefs yet find them completely absurd.

"Suppose you are working outside in your garden, and the sun is too strong," said Albion. "You can get a leaf, and perform a ceremony, and the sun will go away."

"Does that really work?"

"Oh yes. When you use this leaf, you can watch the clouds coming to cover up the sun."

"Maybe the clouds would have come anyway. It could just have been chance that the magic worked."

"But when you use magic it happens fast. One minute there is sunshine, the next minute the sky is completely covered with cloud."

That happens in western Scotland a lot, I thought. Until now it had never occurred to me that it was anything other than the result of wet oceanic winds condensing against mountains - much like on Pentecost - but I suppose magic spells could be a contributing factor. I resolved that when I got home to Scotland I would hunt down the sorcerers responsible and have them burned at the stake.

"There are other kinds of leaf that can make the sun shine," he went on.

Now that would be a species worth introducing to Scotland.

"There are plenty of people on Pentecost who can control the weather," said Albion. (Those people have a lot to answer for lately, I thought.) "But in your part of the world, you don't have anything like that? White men can't control the weather?"

"No, we don't do anything like that," I told him. True, there have been a few experiments in which white people have seeded rain clouds by spraying chemicals from aeroplanes. And thanks to the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the gas-guzzlers of the American South have discovered a recent talent for bringing hurricanes down upon themselves. But it takes a lot more than rubbing a magic leaf.

Through the doorway of the nakamal we caught glimpses of a torch beam flicking through branches: a young man with a catapult was trying to knock fruit bats out of the mango tree. Attacking the giant bats is a popular pastime in Vanuatu. This is partly because they destroy the villagers' fruit and partly because they are a tasty source of meat, but also, I suspect, because shooting at flying targets is good fun. I once spent an evening down in the village watching the local Member of Parliament take cracks at the fruit bats with his air gun while his friends pointed torches into the trees. On that occasion the bats all took fright and escaped, but the MP did succeed in bringing down a snoozing pigeon.

"There are other kinds of leaf that allow you to fly," Albion told me. "There is a special kind of wild kava leaf that you spread on the ground, and when you lie on these leaves and close your eyes you will fly through the air. When you open your eyes you might be in a completely different place." He grinned. "Children on Pentecost have fun with that kind of magic."

Children with strong friends and strong imaginations, perhaps.

"These leaves can lift adults, too," said Albion, as if guessing what I was thinking. "You know how small kava leaves are?" (The ones I had seen were about the size of a man's hand - we weren't talking flying carpets here.) "They're only small, yet they can lift a grown person into the air. That's real magic."

I continued to nod.

"You think I'm crazy, don't you?" Albion said. "You're thinking, 'Who is this crazy ni-Vanuatu person talking about magic?'"

"I don't think you're crazy," I reassured him. "Once upon a time, my ancestors believed in magic, too. But white people nowadays have lost their belief. Because of science, I suppose."

Albion shook his head sadly.

"There are some places in Vanuatu where the same thing has happened. On Efaté Island, around Port Vila, the people have forgotten all their magic."

That didn't surprise me. I couldn't picture anybody who lived within commuting distance of Vanuatu's gritty, urbanised capital believing in magic.

"In some other parts of the world there are sorcerers who use leaves and then believe that they can fly," I said. "But the magic is all in their heads. There are drugs in the plants that make them think they are flying. In reality they are not."

"In your culture, magic women fly on brooms, don't they?"

"Only in stories," I said. I tried to give Albion the scientific explanation of how those stories arose. "Before flying, the women would rub their brooms with magic leaves - leaves containing drugs. They would then put the broom between their legs, the drugs would be taken into the body through the soft skin down there" - I explained what I meant with the help of some fairly crude Bislama words introduced into the language by European sailors - "and that let them believe that they could fly."

"That's not how it is on Pentecost. Here, people really do fly."

Psychedelic drugs did seem an unlikely explanation for the islanders' magic. Although the persistent connection between sorcery and exotic leaves is suspicious, in the majority of cases it seems that the leaves are not actually consumed, so it is hard to see how the sorcerers could be tripping on drugs at the time they perform their miracles. Besides, I have never heard of any plant that grows on Pentecost having mind-altering properties (other than kava, whose sedating effects have never made me inclined to fly). On the occasions when I have tried asking the islanders about local hallucinogens (surely those glow-in-the-dark mushrooms must do something funky to your brain?), they appeared not to be familiar with the concept.

"On Pentecost we also have nakaemas," Albion went on. "People who can turn themselves into animals."

I remembered the incident a month ago when the Year 7 girls at Ranwadi had woken up one night to find a mysterious boy in their dormitory. The incensed girls had tried to corner the boy, but he had somehow got away, and it was whispered afterwards that he must have turned himself into a rat in order to escape from the building.

"Some people can turn themselves into dogs," said Albion. Occasionally I see a strange dog walking past at night, and I think to myself, 'That's a man!'."

I'd encountered shifty-looking dogs wandering Pentecost at night too. Up until now I had assumed that they were ordinary dogs that came out in the middle of the night simply so that they could raid people's dustbins without fear of being chased and stoned.

"If you have an enemy, sometimes he will turn himself into a dog and stalk up to your house at night, so that he can attack you."

That was uncomfortably close to the notion of a werewolf. Maybe I would take the main road home, I thought, instead of my usual shortcut through the dark gulley in the forest behind the school. Rationally I don't believe for a moment that the locals are capable of turning themselves at night into malevolent beasts, but imagination is a hideous thing.

"Sometimes friends from my village will turn themselves into fruit bats, and fly down to Ranwadi at night to visit me," Albion went on.

Becoming a fruit bat struck me as a risky thing to do in Vanuatu. I wondered if any of Albion's flying friends had ever been shot at by the villagers.

"They come and look down at me from the tree above my house," he continued. "They will say to me later, 'You were doing such-and-such that night.' I ask them, 'How did you know that?'. They will say, 'We were up in that tree, watching you.'."

There was no way that people from Albion's village could have sneaked to Ranwadi at night in human form - it was much too far away. Perhaps Albion had predictable habits, and his friends had vivid dreams.

"White people don't do anything like that?" he asked.

"In our culture we have stories of nakaemas, too," I said. "But nowadays they are just stories."

"Like Dracula?"


Albion got up to take a drink of kava, swallowed a shell-full of the noxious drink and then wandered outside, spitting. His place was taken by John the school handyman, a villainous-looking character with a chiselled black beard and a liking for gold jewellery.

"Some kinds of magic are fun," John said. "But there is also black magic. If you have an enemy, he can kill you without ever touching you."

His words hung in the yellow, smoky air.

"Suppose I wanted to harm you," he went on. There was a look in John's pointy eyes that made me uncomfortable. "I would come up to your house in the middle of the night and hide outside. You would wake up and want to piss. You have a toilet inside your house, but you wouldn't use it. Instead you would go outside, into the bushes. You wouldn't see me in the dark, but I would see you. I could put a spell on you. The next day you would get sick. If you went to a doctor, the doctor would say there was nothing wrong with you. But the sickness would get worse and worse. Doctors couldn't cure you. The only cure would be to find a person who could give you a different leaf, a leaf that would take away the curse."

This was sinister stuff.

"On Ambrym Island there is a lot of black magic," John continued.

I had heard this before - my students had warned me not to go there.

"Once there was a man on Ambrym who shot a man on Pentecost with a bow and arrow," said John. "He stood on Ambrym, and fired his arrow, and it killed a man standing on Pentecost."

The two islands are several miles apart.

"He did that using black magic?" I asked.

"Uh huh."

"What had the Pentecost man done to deserve that?"

"He had put a curse on somebody from Ambrym."

That figured. Magical feuds are a common problem in parts of Vanuatu; I had read in a newspaper of one case of tit-for-tat sorcery whose perpetrators had actually been taken to court (where the accusations were treated with complete seriousness). On other occasions, exchanges of malicious magic have spiralled into earthly violence. Whether or not sorcery has been directly responsible for any deaths in Vanuatu, it has certainly been indirectly responsible for a few, when the angry families of curse victims have sought revenge on the alleged sorcerer.

"There is also a kind of kava that can kill people," said John.

I can believe that, I said. There's nothing supernatural about a poisonous plant.

"But you don't die by drinking this kava. The person doing the black magic drinks it. As he drinks he performs a curse, and the victim dies. The victim could be far, far away. Somebody drinking here in this nakamal could kill you even if you were at home in Scotland."

I must avoid making enemies while I'm on Pentecost.

"There are good things that you can do with magic, too," said John, perhaps feeling that the atmosphere in the nakamal had become dark enough. "There is also love magic. You can use magic leaves to get a woman to fall in love with you."

There was something about the way John said 'you' that gave me the impression he wasn't talking in the abstract. As far as people on Pentecost are concerned, being of marriageable age and still single means that I must need urgent help in finding a woman. (Perhaps, like some of my long-suffering relatives, they secretly worry that I'm gay.) The school Principal, ever-resourceful in coming up with solutions to his staffing shortages, muses openly about how nice it would be if I went home and married a woman who's a qualified teacher, and brought her back with me to Ranwadi. The villagers, meanwhile, tell me suggestive stories about previous white expatriates who have married Pentecost women.

The islanders often talk about finding a wife in the same way that my posh friends in Edinburgh talk about finding a new outfit. (Even the price involved is similar.) However, when I tell them that Western courtship is not a mere matter of identifying a suitable woman and negotiating with her father as to how many pigs she's worth - in my country, a woman has to fall in love with you before you can marry - they insist that the same is true on Pentecost. Which is presumably where the magic leaves come in.

"There is a kind of magic involving a torch light," John told me. "You take the bulb out of the torch and rub it in the ash from a magic leaf that has been burned. Then you put the bulb back in the torch. It doesn't give light any more, but when you point it at someone, they will follow you."

This struck me as an interesting combination of ancient beliefs and modern technology. I wondered if it would work with the little LED keyring lights that I'd been selling. Maybe that was why the local men were so desperate to get their hands on them.

"Originally, this kind of magic was used for stealing," John explained. "You point the torch at another man's pig, and it follows you away to a place where you can roast it. But nowadays men use it on women."

I laughed, visualising a hopeful young man with a torch striding out of a village like the Pied Piper, followed by a procession of mesmerised pigs and women. I doubted that the women involved would find it funny, though. At least it was more original than spiking someone's drink with Rohypnol.

A spot of light in the doorway heralded Albion's reappearance in the nakamal. He walked over to his basket, which was hanging from the rafters, and fished out a little plastic bag of leaf tobacco, with which he began rolling a cigarette.

"Near my village there is a magic pool," he said. "If you went down to that pool and threw a certain leaf in the water, you could never leave Pentecost."

"What do you mean, I could never leave?"

"You would buy a ticket, and the plane would come, but you would not get on it. You would realise that you wanted to stay."

Albion strode over to the embers of the fire, picked out a glowing stick, and lit his cigarette.

"Every time you wanted to leave," he went on, "you would change your mind. Maybe you would get down to the airfield, maybe you would even be at the door of the plane, but you could never get on board. Always you would choose to stay behind."

I resolved to stay away from that pool.

"But you still don't believe in magic?"

"No, I don't."

John was indignant. "Why not?"

"If I saw magic with my own eyes I would believe it", I said. "But so far I have never seen anything in the world that science cannot explain. I have never seen any evidence for magic."

"Oh, there is evidence."

I didn't doubt that. A man casts a rain-making spell and the sky clouds over; clearly the magic has worked. A person with many enemies dies suddenly; obviously this is the result of a malevolent curse. And if a piece of magic happens not to do its job, there are plenty of excuses. The ritual was wrongly performed, the would-be sorcerer lacked sufficient faith in the spirits, or somebody was performing a counter-curse. It is not in human nature to attribute things to chance. Only scientists demand freaky things like repeatability and statistical significance when considering the evidence for a phenomenon, and even scientists try their best to make their statistics show that something purposeful and non-random is going on in the world.

"There is one man from this village," said Albion, "who can get to Melsisi in just one or two minutes. Sometimes he turns himself into a dolphin, and swims along the coast. Or, if he chooses, he can fly."

I gave a sceptical look. It takes me an hour to walk to Melsisi, and that's if I am in an extreme hurry. Even if I was lucky enough to catch a lift on a passing truck, it would be a fifteen-minute ride.

"We once tested this", Albion explained. "One day we asked this man to go to the bank in Melsisi. We gave him a signed transaction slip, and told him to withdraw money from one of our accounts. While we were waiting, we cooked some rice."

Albion paused.

"Ten minutes later, the man was back, with the money from the account. The rice had not even finished cooking yet, and he was back."

He whistled.

"Rice doesn't take a long time to cook."

He emphasised this last part, perhaps aware that if it weren't for the rice in the story, I would put it down to the Melanesians' inability to judge the passing of time. It had never occurred to me before that anybody could use a pot of rice as a clock.

Albion continued: "When the man got back, we said, 'Wow, that was quick!'."

"'No', the man said, 'it was slow. I had to wait in a queue at the bank.'"

Albion shook his head and made the clicking noise that ni-Vanuatu make when they are seriously impressed.

"You couldn't get to Melsisi and back that quickly if you didn't have magic," he concluded.

"Yes, but..."

Possible explanations for the bank story came into my head, but I kept them to myself. I didn't want to accuse anybody of lying or question their judgement.

Seeing that I remained unconvinced, John tried a different approach.

"You believe in God, don't you?"

He thought he'd got me on that one. How could I be a Christian (in Vanuatu it's assumed that you're a Christian) and yet refuse to accept that there were supernatural forces in the world?

"About God..." I hesitated. Telling a ni-Vanuatu that I didn't believe in the existence of God would be like telling a Northern Irish person that I didn't believe in the existence of terrorists. "About God, I'm not sure."

"You're not sure," John repeated slowly. This wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. "People like you don't believe there are any spirits in the world?"

"Some white people believe in spirits," I said. "Lots of them claim to have seen ghosts." My companions looked blank. "Spirits of the dead, phantoms..." I wasn't sure of the Bislama word. "They believe that after a person dies, their spirit sometimes stays in a place, and that occasionally you can see or hear the spirit of that person, even after they are dead."

"Oh yes, we have spirits like that here too. We call them devil b'long man. So you believe in these?"

"Personally, I don't," I said. "But many of my friends do."

There are plenty of other examples of Western belief in the supernatural, I realised. Visitors to Scotland still seek a monster in a chilly loch whose ecosystem could not possibly support it, while North American enthusiasts cling to the fantasy that an unknown ape could have wandered their forests for centuries and never once been caught in the sights of a gun. People in Western countries pass on chain letters for fear that they will bring down curses upon themselves if they don't, and it is a brave person who will walk under a ladder on Friday the thirteenth. People attend churches and synagogues to hear about miracles beyond human understanding, and attach spiritual significance to the most inanimate of objects (not even atheists wish to have their ashes flushed down the toilet after they die). They read in magazines that their fortunes are determined by the position of dots in the sky, and pay the owners of glass spheres to give unearthly revelations about the future. They claim that the pattern of ground-up leaves in a mug of hot drink can reveal their fate, maintain that finding a fourth leaf on a small grassland plant will bring good luck, and then deride Pacific islanders for believing in magic leaves.

Maybe white people do have a sense of magic after all.

Sadly, there remain sceptical ones amongst us, myself included, whose belief in magic has been utterly and irrevocably lost. We are forced instead to amuse ourselves with synthetic recreations of magic: conjuring tricks, computer game sprites, cinematic effects, mind-altering mushrooms, theme park rides, and children's books about teenage wizardry. Sitting in a glowing hut on a starry night in the forest, these struck me as poor substitutes for the real thing.


27 November

"And on the mere the wailing died away."

- Morte d'Arthur

At Ranwadi, school breaks up for the holidays in the manner of a disintegrating piece of machinery. Components wriggle themselves loose, screws snap out of place, parts drop off one by one, and despite half-hearted attempts at repair it is not long before the entire system stutters to a halt.

Once the final-year students had completed their exams, there was nothing for them to do except wait for the ship home. They had finished school now, and as far as they were concerned there was no longer any need to follow school rules. The school disagreed.

Lists of guilty names were written on the staffroom whiteboard. Some students had been stealing; some had been causing trouble in the villages; some had been drinking. A few had resumed their 'boy-girl relationships'. One unfortunate boy had his name written on the board after "being chased down the creek by Dingo".

"Surely the dog is the one who's done wrong?" I thought.

It turned out that the boy involved had been sniffing around the girls' dormitories at the time Dingo was set on him.

"He's a good dog," said Agasten the sports master, Dingo's proud owner. "He doesn't bite people. He just grabs them by their clothes."

At a Monday morning assembly the Deputy Principal announced that all those on the whiteboard had an hour to gather their belongings and leave the school. Some weren't ready to leave yet. They disappeared into the forest, hid there during the day, and sneaked back into their dormitories after nightfall.

The Dining Hall became gradually emptier. The students, no longer willing to line up at their benches for bland rice and soupy water, found other sources of food. Local gardens were raided. One villager complained that his pig had been stolen. The atmosphere on the island moved a shade closer to Lord of the Flies.

One teacher, frustrated with the school's seeming inability to discipline its students, took matters into his own hands. A student was taken to the mission hospital at Melsisi with broken ribs; the teacher claimed that he fell. The Principal reminded his staff that corporal punishment was against the law.

The junior students, who couldn't bear to be stuck in their classrooms revising for their end-of-year exams while their older schoolmates were running riot outside, began to join in the fun. For them the school year wasn't scheduled to end for another fortnight, but many teachers had come to the end of the year's work and stopped teaching. In the subjects where there was work to be finished, it became more difficult than ever to get students to come to classes. Seeing that time was running out, I told my own classes that I would give them their end-of-year exams before the end of the week, and urged them not to leave before then.

As younger names appeared on the whiteboard alongside those of the school leavers, the Principal began to look increasingly morose. He pleaded with his students to behave themselves.

"Things are really going downhill here. I look around me and I see that everything we have worked for is being spoiled. Not by everyone, but by a few. Those few students are ruining all that we have worked and strived and prayed for. Ranwadi is going down."

If there is one thing that terrifies a headmaster more than losing control of his school, it is losing his school's good reputation. When his pleas and prayers went unanswered, the Principal made a drastic announcement.

"If your name appears on that whiteboard, you will be out of here, straight away. And you won't be coming next year. Even if this is not your final year, if your name is on that board, you are finished at Ranwadi."

Expulsion - the educational equivalent of capital punishment - is a threat that cannot normally be used lightly; such an extreme measure requires the approval of the school board. (In practice it rarely happens: parents can usually be persuaded to 'voluntarily withdraw' any child who is no longer welcome at Ranwadi, allowing both the school and the student to avoid the blemished record that would result from a formal expulsion.) Sending a student home early and refusing to let them back in next year, however, was within the Principal's power, and the students knew it.

The next day I was confronted in class by the surprising sight of students sitting at their desks, working. Whilst those whose exams had finished departed the school one by one, the rest resigned themselves to a final few days of studying.

A change in the weather helped. Sticky heat subsided into murky rain; the students no longer complained that they were "too hot to work", and hiding in the jungle was no fun when everything was wet and muddy. Many returned to class for want of anything better to do.

End-of-year tests were completed, class members were graded and ranked, and textbooks were collected and stored away. The Principal's mood brightened. With their work for the year legitimately finished, the junior students could begin to leave. Teachers, too, began to pack up their things and prepare to return to their villages for Christmas with their families.

For Mr Noel, now a pensioner, forty-two years in the teaching profession had come to an end. He spent his last morning at Ranwadi planting young palm trees, to give the students something to remember him by. I pictured the palms in a few decades time, dropping coconuts on the heads of the students who laze around under trees instead of coming to class. It will be a fitting tribute to the man who managed to spend nearly seven years on a tropical island without ever losing his determination to work hard or to make those around him do the same. In the South Pacific, where sleepiness drifts like a warm wind through the landscape, that is a remarkable achievement.

"In dry weather, I hope somebody will think of me and throw a bucket of water on those young palm trees," Noel told the students at assembly. "They need water to keep them healthy and strong."

"Mr Noel is like a palm tree," I added. "If the weather is dry on the day he leaves, make sure you water him to keep him healthy and strong."

Noel chuckled. The students stared blankly.

Students leaving Ranwadi
Mr Noel and his students say farewell to Pentecost

Three days later, Noel, Neil and a crowd of departing students piled onto a small motorboat in the rain. The sky was a sheet of grey, and vibrating droplets hammered the surface of the ocean. All along the beach, students and teachers huddled in small groups, waving their friends goodbye.

I waded out to the side of the boat, my umbrella keeping my head and shoulders dry while saltwater washed around my knees. Noel was perched on the metal rim of the boat, his nose protruding from the hood of an old-fashioned raincoat.

"You got your watering," I said.

"New Physics books need photocopying," he said, by way of a goodbye. "I left the paper and binders on your table."

More people hauled their belongings down the beach and piled onto the boat. The air was filled with farewells, and the slashing of water against canvas.

Some of the departing students would return next year. Others would not.

"Will you ever come back to Pentecost?" I asked one girl.

"I don't think so," she said.

Ni-Vanuatu are not rich enough for frivolous travel: they go places when they need to, and for the students whose education at Ranwadi had finished it was hard to think why they would ever need to return. For some, that rain-soaked shoreline would be the last place they ever set foot on Pentecost Island.

With a grinding of shingle, the boat was pushed off the beach. It turned and began to make its way out to the cargo ship waiting beyond the reef.

The students on the beach whooped and waved, and tossed palm leaves into the water. The students on the boat waved and whooped back. The rain spattered down. People clutched their umbrellas, gazed out to sea, and watched their friends diminishing in the distance.


<< October 2006 diary · December 2006 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2006