Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

1 February

From Perth, I crossed Australia on an overnight plane (the ticket was cheap since it was Australia Day and nobody else wanted to spend the evening sober at an airport), from which another flight took me to Vanuatu. Australia being a ludicrously vast country, the domestic flight was longer than the international one.

Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, passed in a blur of ceiling fans, cold drinks and Australian tourists. Two days later I boarded a Twin Otter, under the control of an adventurous young pilot whose manoeuvres were probably well within the plane's limits but were more than most airlines would subject their passengers to, and returned to Pentecost.

What a beautiful island, I thought, perching on the back of the school truck as a flowery breeze matted my hair. And this time I'll be here for a whole year. What a scary prospect. I'm here for the whole year.

"Well, I'm back."

January is typically the rainiest month of the year on Pentecost, and having endured a month of heavy rain during last year's 'dry season', I was apprehensive about what the real wet season would be like.

It was dry.

The rivers sparkled low in their gulleys, the dead leaves were crispy, and the mud paths leading to the villages were cracked and firm. On Pentecost, it seemed, even the seasons ran on 'island time'. Or perhaps the men with magic leaves who control the weather had decided to do things differently this year.

At Ranwadi School, my house looked as if it had been abandoned for years. Not only were there cobwebs, but insects had eaten a worrying hole in the bathroom wall, and judging by the state of my posters the critters had also developed a taste for Blu-tack. Something far larger than an insect had scuttled around, knocking things off the shelves. The ants, fortunately, had moved out, and so had most of the cockroaches. Insecticidal spray drove out the last few.

Outside, the garden was in a sorry state. The fertility of Pentecost's crops is matched only by that of its "rubbish grass" - the pidgin term for weeds. Some of the rubbish grass that had sprouted from the garden path was a metre in height, and my poor pumpkin patch could have featured on a poster entitled "Wild grasslands of the South Pacific". The rubbish grass would have taken over my vegetable patch too, if the ginger plants hadn't got there first. I vowed to pull them up and bake a big batch of gingerbread at the earliest opportunity.

It was probably our fault, I realised afterwards, that the weeds had done so well: Hugh and I had been sloshing nutrients extensively onto the garden at the end of last year during the time that our septic tank was out of action. I mentally added to my list of Things To Beware Of When In The Tropics. Be careful where you piss; you never know what you might be fertilising.

My house at Ranwadi
Back in the old house at Ranwadi

I had expected our old house to be given to the new gap volunteers, with me once again placed with Neil the New Zealander in 'International House' - Ranwadi's home for white bachelors with nowhere else to go. However, since the Principal was unsure whether the perennially-blocked bathroom drains at the volunteers' house could cope with the demand inflicted on them by four girls, the new volunteers had been installed in apartments beside the girls' dormitories instead, and I had the old house to myself - at least until somebody had a chance to work on the plumbing. This being Vanuatu, that probably wasn't going to get done anytime soon.


At sunset, I followed the familiar path through the forest to the nakamal (the men's meeting hut) in the local village. Nobody had brought along any kava roots that evening, so instead of drinking we sat outside chatting and gazing at the moon. After the villagers had discussed the day's gardening, and questioned me about what people ate during the British winter when the ground was too icy to dig up vegetables, the conversation turned to my favourite topic: the supernatural.

A while ago, I was told, there had been a robbery at a nearby village store. The thief had stolen a magic leaf from Ambrym Island, used it to make himself invisible, walked unseen past the shopkeeper, grabbed a bundle of cash, then turned into a fruit bat and flown out of the window.

I tutted and shook my head, which I judged to be the appropriate response.

"Ee got full-up devil 'long place here," one of the villagers told me. This place is full of evil spirits.

I glanced at the bushes surrounding the nakamal.

"Man ee no savvy look'em devil," the man told me.

"How now you savvy devil here, suppose you no look'em?" I asked. How do you know they exist if you can't see them?

"Suppose one man ee come sick, you savvy, devil ee make'm him ee sick." Evil spirits cause illness.

This was a bit medieval for my liking. I simply nodded.

"Ee got devil 'long England?" the man asked.

Britain has lots of ghost stories, I said. But to most people they are just stories. I gave one example:

"Close-up 'long village b'long mama b'long me, 'long East b'long England, ee got one story..." I began. Telling Melanesian islanders about spiritual goings-on in East Anglia was like telling New Yorkers about tall buildings in Milton Keynes, but I carried on.

"Story here ee talk-about one devil b'long dog. One time, dog here ee come inside 'long church house. Him ee big-one all-same one bullock, him ee black, more fire ee come-out 'long eye b'long him."

One tempestuous Sunday, many centuries ago, the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh were visited by the apparation of a hound from hell. The creature was black, he was as tall as a bullock, and his eyes blazed with fire.

"Everyone who dog here ee touch'em, all-ee burn. All-ee come dead."

The villagers listened with interest. They were used to stories like this, but not coming from white people.

England is full of myths like the Black Dog of Bungay. In a modern country of suburbs and brick houses and yellow street lighting and jerky television monsters (some of them inspired by the old folk legends), it is hard to take the stories seriously. However, sitting under the thatched eaves of a shadowy, unlit wooden hut on the fringes of the forest, I could see why people once found such legends creepy.

In the darkness nearby, a big, black horse was breathing noisily. Where had that horse come from? I wondered. I was fairly sure it didn't belong to any of the men outside the nakamal.

I finished my tale like a true ghost story:

"Some ee tell'em say, story b'long dog here, him ee no true. But 'long door b'long church, all-ee look'em place where finger blong dog ee scratch'em wood. 'Long place here, wood ee been burn."

Some dismissed the dog as a myth. But when they looked at the door of the church, they found claw marks burned into the wood.


6 February

"The South Pacific is the only place in the world where 'Man Buys Pick-Up Truck' would be a major news headline," I wrote recently.

I added, jokingly, "except perhaps East Anglia".

With no major cities, no legendary sports teams, and no political bodies larger than the ones that decide what colour the park benches will be painted, the rural counties of eastern England are not a bountiful source of news. When I meet fellow emigrants from the region, we often chuckle fondly at the memory of Anglia News and BBC Look East, whose bulletins are padded extensively with the sort of amazing story in which a brave cat narrowly saves its kittens from an unfortunate end by cleverly jumping up and pressing the stop button on the tumble drier.

Even in such a sleepy region as East Anglia, Upper Holton - the Suffolk hamlet where my mother grew up and where my uncle and cousins still run the family farm - is not the sort of place you would expect to feature in the local news. Still less would you expect anything of national significance to happen there. And if you had told me a week ago that an event in Upper Holton would make the news in the South Pacific, I would have laughed.

"I hear on Radio New Zealand that bird flu has reached England," Mr Neil the New Zealander told me as we sat down in the chapel for the Monday morning assembly.

I grunted with half-interest. Not needing to care too much about events like this is one of the luxuries of living on a dot in the ocean.

"Apparently an outbreak has happened at a turkey farm in Lowestoft," he went on.

"My uncle lives next door to a turkey farm a few miles from Lowestoft," I said. "I hope it doesn't spread there."

Later than day I hooked up my laptop to the frayed telephone wire in the school office and I checked my e-mail.

"Don't know if news of this has reached you yet..." began my mum's message. She had sent me an e-mail like that once before - on September 11th, 2001.

The outbreak of bird flu wasn't in Lowestoft itself, it turned out, but in a village a few miles away. On the turkey farm next door to my uncle's farm, to be precise.

Rings of protection zones had been set up around Upper Holton, the health officials had cordoned off the village, and government vets had begun a mass slaughter of turkeys, whose carcasses were being treated like radioactive waste. My uncle, the worried local resident, had been interviewed on Anglia News (which, having little else to report, had presumably devoted a week's worth of bulletins to the story).

At least the village where my mother grew up now has a claim to fame.

Down at the nakamal, I told my drinking buddies that in my uncle's village there was "big trouble from one new kind sick b'long fowl". Most were uninterested - they had never heard of bird flu. The image of government officials turning up at someone's farm and massacring all of his poultry did, however, cause a frisson of horror.

Vanuatu is usually one of the last places in the world to suffer the arrival of new diseases. A century ago, its population was decimated (in the modern sense of the word, not the Latin sense) when the coming of Europeans unleashed a Pandora's Box of germs that the islanders' immune systems had never encountered before - diseases that had done their worst elsewhere in the world centuries earlier. AIDS has only been here since 2002, and if you had mentioned it to the islanders during the 1980s when Western fear of the virus was at is height, they might well have shown the same indifference that they have now towards bird flu.

In Vanuatu, poultry wanders freely around the villages, and infests the school. You can't look out of the window at Ranwadi without seeing a chicken. Occasionally they wander into the Dining Hall, judging by the white mess which nobody bothers to clean up. In addition to their 'fowl', the islanders on Pentecost will enthusiastically eat any wild bird that they can knock off its perch with a catapult or an air gun. Pigeons are a popular target. Protein-hungry children armed with sticks and stones are particularly enterprising in supplementing their diets, and for some of them no songbird is too small to be worth roasting. I sincerely hope that bird flu is a long time in coming.


9 February

The school year at Ranwadi got off to a predictably gradual start. Several days into the new term, many students were still waiting for ships and planes to bring them to school, and others weren't even sure which school they were supposed to attend. The Principal was still haggling with his counterparts in other schools and with the ever-unrealistic Ministry of Education over how many new students to accept.

"The Ministry wants us to take an extra twenty-five new Year 11s," he announced, halfway through the first week. Timetables were hastily redrawn, and extra classes were created.

Naughty students who had been told that they weren't welcome back at Ranwadi were traded with other schools. I laughed at the thought of headteachers all trying to pass on undesirable students to one another, like low-value playing cards.

"Those students might prosper in a new environment," the Principal claimed.

The junior classes settled into their work without much fuss, but sorting out the senior classes (the Year 11s and Year 12s) was trickier. These students, who are studying towards their Pacific Senior Secondary Certificates (the local equivalent of A-levels), take varying combinations of subjects, and many of them were newly arrived at Ranwadi after transferring from other schools.

Mr Neil and I did our best to get them organised. We split the new Year 11s arbitrarily into two classes, A and B - an act of casual randomness that will determine the poor kids' social lives for the next two years - and asked them to choose which subjects to study. Mr Neil then went around each class to check if the students who had actually turned up to a particular subject bore any resemblance to those on his list. Sometimes they didn't. Names were ticked, crossed out and amended.

Meanwhile, the Principal made increasingly desperate phone calls and faxes to the Ministry of Education, telling them that the school needed more teachers to help cope with all of the new students. There was little that the Ministry could do. In many of the most important subjects, such as Maths and Science, there is a critical shortage of teachers throughout Vanuatu.

Finding enough teachers is always a struggle at Ranwadi (this is one reason why the school is so willing to accept overseas volunteers and asks so few questions about their qualifications), but this year the staffing situation is particularly bad. Some of last year's teachers have left and haven't been replaced, and one or two new teachers who were supposed to be posted to Ranwadi have been sent elsewhere instead. One teacher has been suspended by the Ministry after allegedly pushing a student down the stairs. The school's Geography teacher and one of its English teachers are still making their way back after the holidays; in the meantime their classes sit unoccupied. Both the Agriculture teachers were taken ill after eating a poisonous fish, and one has yet to return to work.

Admittedly, one reason for the staff shortages is that most of the teachers here spend fewer hours per week in the classroom than their Western counterparts. I have one of the fullest timetables, and nearly half of my periods are free. This is partly because of tropical languor (it's hard to work when it's 35°C and you have no air-conditioning), but also because teachers are required to do a lot of other duties around the school. Ranwadi is not merely a boarding school, it is a community whose members are liable to be called upon to do all kinds of odd jobs at odd hours of the day or night in order to keep the place running. A lot of tasks for which a city school could rely on hired companies or the local council - taking away and incinerating the rubbish, for example, or plugging leaks in the water supply when the taps stop running (as happened last week) - have to be dealt with by the school's ever-resourceful staff. (The more menial chores are given to the students, of course, but it's still up to the staff to make sure that they get done.) Teachers here do not go home at the end of the day, and some of them barely leave the premises during the entire three-month school term.


A fortnight into the term, new students were continuing to arrive, and in spite of Mr Neil's efforts there were still no class registers, nor even a definite idea of how many students were in the school. It occurred to me that we could clang the fire bell - a big, red-painted metal cylinder outside the staffroom - to force the students to line up and be counted. However, since there has been no fire drill within recent memory (the teachers contemplated having one last year but decided it would be too much of a nuisance), and people are used to the handyman making loud noises around the school, the alarm would probably have been ignored.

Even in cases where students had given us their names, there were questions. Some of the new names were strangely spelled (Lavander, Trevar, Niel), and when typing them into the computer Neil and I were unsure whether or not to 'correct' them. Were these legitimate local spellings, we wondered, or were they simply examples of people (of whom there are plenty in Vanuatu) who cannot consistently spell their own names?

Matters were complicated by the fact that the islanders traditionally put their family name before their Christian name, in contrast to the Western style. The students had been instructed to put their family name last when submitting their names to the school, but some hadn't listened, leaving us uncertain which were the students' first names and which were their surnames.

In some parts of Vanuatu, surnames are a recent introduction. Down in the villages, official notices on the doors of nakamals remind people that for the purposes of government records they are required to have a surname. If your family does not have a name yet, the notices tell the villagers, you should choose one now.

Here on Central Pentecost, surnames of a sort did exist before bureaucracy imposed them. All boys are traditionally given the surname of either Bule or Tabi (or some variant of these), whilst girls are either Mabon or Matan. The daughter of a Bule is a Mabon, and the daughter of a Tabi is a Matan. Among men, the names alternate between generations, so that the son of a Bule is a Tabi, and the son of a Tabi is a Bule. A Bule is only permitted to marry a Mabon, whilst a Tabi can only marry a Matan. Through the ages, a great deal of heartache has been suffered by islanders who happened to fall in love with someone of the wrong surname. (Gay marriages are also out of the question, presumably.)

The ostensible purpose of this naming system is to prevent men from marrying their sisters. In practice, this is unnecessary, since brothers and sisters never want to marry and their parents have no interest in forcing them. The true reason for such genealogical systems, according to some anthropologists, is to prevent marriages between parallel cousins. ('Parallel cousins' are the children of two brothers or the children of two sisters, as opposed to the children of a brother and a sister, who are 'cross cousins'.) When parallel cousins marry, wealth and power are kept within the family, and parents who allowed such marriages would forgo the opportunity to forge useful alliances with other families.

Visiting white men are placed into either the Bule or the Tabi clan, usually being given the name of the first local person who feels brotherly towards them. Sometimes their names, like those of the islanders, are adorned with suffixes. My own 'custom name' is Tabisini, which roughly translates as Mr Kava. The villagers insist that this is a respectable name and not a comment on my drinking habits. Hugh, my former housemate at Ranwadi, was known to the villagers as Buledam - Mr Yam.

"I think this means you can marry my sister," I told him, when his new name was announced.


15 February

"My father told me a story about some men from his village who ate a man," said the old man sitting next to me at the nakamal one evening. (This time I'll translate the conversation properly and spare you the Pidgin English.)

"They roasted him on the fire in the middle of the nakamal, with pieces of taro."

I thought of the ceremonies I'd been to on Pentecost. The whole village gathering hungrily around the fire, heaving away the hot cooking stones with callipers made from a split tree trunk, unwrapping the boulder-like lumps of taro from the charred leaves in which they had been baked, carving stringy grey meat from long yellow bones... nowadays the meat was pork or beef, but it didn't take too much imagination to turn the scene into a cannibal feast.

"Afterwards, they gave one of his arms to a respected local chief. But the arm wasn't properly done. The strings in it were still tough. When the chief bit into the arm, his teeth caught one of the strings, and the hand turned and punched him in the face. The poor old chief thought that the arm had come alive again!"

This was fascinating stuff. I wondered why it had never occurred to me to ask the villagers about cannibal stories before.

"Our fathers ate white men too," the old man continued. "When the first missionary came ashore at Banmatmat, south of here, they captured him and tied him to a tree. The men danced around him and chanted. The missionary had his arms crossed, and he was holding his Bible against his chest, and praying."

This was such a perfect cartoon image that I would have questioned whether it was genuine, were it not for the fact that the old man telling the story had probably never watched a cartoon in his life.

"The chief came with a club, the kind they used for killing pigs. He cracked the missionary on the head with the club, and killed him."

"And then they ate him?"

The old man nodded, with a hint of embarrassment.

Today, Banmatmat is the site of the local Bible College. Whatever you think of the missionaries, you have to admire their perseverance.

"Things only changed after people from Pentecost went away to cut sugar cane in Queensland," the old man explained. "Some of them came back and brought the Gospel with them."

I already knew this part of the story. One of those returned labourers was Mr Willie Tabimamkan, whose concrete grave and memorial now sits at the corner of the Ranwadi sports field (where it provides a useful stand for spectators trying to get a better view during matches). Mr Tabimamkan, arriving back on Pentecost in 1902, founded a school where he taught people that Jesus had told them to love their fellow men rather than clubbing and roasting them. That school evolved into the place where I now work.

Willie Tabimamkan's grave at Ranwadi
"We're all Christians now":
The great-grandchildren of Willie Tabimamkan's converts gather around his grave

"Tabimamkan was one of them," the old man said. "There was another who landed further north, at Bwatnapne. He built a church there, made out of wood and bamboo, just like this nakamal. Every Sunday he prayed there, but nobody came. Nobody else wanted to hear about Jesus. So he prayed there on his own. Every Sunday."

"In the end he had an idea. He arranged a pig-killing ceremony, and people came to give offerings to the local chief. Some people brought many pigs. The guests lined up, one by one, and presented their pigs to the chief.

"The man who built the church went last. He had brought no pigs at all. Instead, he handed the chief a Bible.

"'What I am giving you is worth more than any number of pigs,' he told the chief. 'This is the word of God.'"

"How did the chief react?"

"That I don't know," the old man said. "But we're all Christians now."


Valentine's Day passed without a heart-shaped card, pink teddy bear, red rose, fluffy bunny rabbit, or sickly shop window display in sight. At times like this I'm glad to be on a distant island. In fact, this may have been my second best Valentine's Day ever. The best being the one I spent in the middle of the desert.

At Melsisi, I tried with difficulty to explain the concept of Valentine's Day to my drinking buddies down at the kava shack under the mango tree. They claimed never to have heard of the occasion, even after I did my best to pronounce "Saint Valentine" with a French accent. They grasped the fact that February 14th is a significant date in the Western calendar, but getting across the idea of what people are supposed to do on that day was tricky. In Pentecost society, to announce that you fancied someone would, depending on the circumstances, be interpreted either as a grievous offence or as a marriage proposal.

I think some of my companions were left under the impression that Brits on Valentine's Day must do what the ni-Vanuatu do on almost any special occasion: take the day off, roast a pig and hold a football tournament.

On my way home from the kava bar, I stopped at Sara's for a candlelit dinner. Not a romantic occasion, of course, but a consequence of the fact that the electricity generator at the Collège de Melsisi had been switched off early that evening. It's hard to imagine anything less romantic than two people crouching on a concrete floor, sweating in the humidity, while one of them picks at cold leftovers on a plastic plate and the other frets about lesson planning and pulls bloodsucking parasites off a smelly, snoozing dog.


22 February

Owning a successful family business, a house with electric lights and a land rover in the driveway is an unlikely reason for losing your seat in parliament. Yet that, apparently, was the fate that befell Jonas of Waterfall Village in the last election.

"He isn't a man of the people," said the voters, looking enviously at his house and store, which sit neatly beside the main road and are surrounded by a fenced lawn - unlike the other buildings at Waterfall, which are sited haphazardly on the scruffy grass beneath the coconut trees. At night, a small generator fires up and the big house hums with electric lighting, whilst the kava drinkers in the nakamal next door shuffle about by candlelight apologising for the fact that they haven't lit the lantern and moaning about the price of kerosene in Jonas's store. (The cost of fuel was hardly Jonas's fault, but why blame the global oil market when you can take out your frustration on the local politician?)

Having been voted out of office, Jonas was free to concentrate on his business as the local shopkeeper, taxi driver, tour guide, and general entrepreneur. (I last encountered him at the waterfall, where he was showing around a German tourist and a couple of visiting tax inspectors and pointing out how the rock formations between the sheets of water look like genitals.) Jonas's latest investment was a new printer and fax machine, which he had brought back from a recent trip to Australia. One afternoon, he called me in to his house to help set up the machine.

"You-fella 'long Scotland ee lucky," said Jonas, sweating. "Long Scotland ee no hot too-much."

I wondered how long Jonas would need to spend outdoors in Scotland in February to alter his opinion that its inhabitants are "lucky" with their climate. About three minutes, I reckoned.

Nonetheless, even as a thermophile and a refugee from a colder climate, I had to agree with Jonas: summer on Pentecost is unpleasant. Nearly every day since I returned to the island has been uncomfortably hot.

This does not mean, of course, that every day has been the same: there are many different kinds of hot weather on a South Pacific island. There is the blinding nuclear heat of the mid-morning sun, which sears every surface with gold and infuses the ocean with chemical blue. There is the savage heat of midday, which lays you low like a fever. There is the misty heat of a calm afternoon, when the sky fills with a luminous haze and the water resembles molten nickel. There is the immense, moving heat of a windy day, when the air surges with the vast energy of the tropics. And there is the heavy, sticky heat of the night.

Occasionally something dark will come across the landscape, and there will be a ghastly draining of heat from the air. Then a rain shower will descend like a demon, shaking the trees, rattling the roof metal and slamming at the windows and doors. After a few minutes, though, the apparition will pass, and the heat will come flooding back.

Human beings, as a species, are in fact exceptionally well adapted to cope with hot climates. With bare skin, copious sweat glands, and an upright posture (which minimises the body area exposed to the midday sun), our ancestors once strode under the African sun in temperatures that sent other mammals limping towards the shade. By sweating all over their bodies - and thus expending their excess heat energy on flinging water molecules into the air - they were able to keep their bodies at a comfortable temperature. On the dry, windy savannah, this method of cooling worked well. On Pentecost, unfortunately, it does not.

The first problem is humidity. Out on the Pacific, the force of the sun wrenches water from the surface of the ocean by the tonne, filling the wind with moisture. The island's luxuriant vegetation contributes, drawing up liquid and pumping it relentlessly into the air through every pore of every leaf. Air will absorb a lot of water when hot, but nevertheless there comes a point where saturation is reached, and the atmosphere can hold no more. When this happens, sweat ceases to evaporate, and instead clings to the skin in a salty slick.

Pentecost coastline
Summer on Pentecost: steamy and hot

The second problem is lack of ventilation. In traditionally-built stick-and-bamboo huts, cool breezes - "fresh wind", as the local describe it - flow freely through the walls and provide natural air-conditioning. However, since wood and bamboo rot rapidly in the damp heat and are liable to blow away in cyclones, such houses need to be rebuilt on a regular basis. In addition, the holes and cracks that let in fresh wind also let in malarial mosquitoes. When concrete and metal came along, it is therefore unsurprising that the islanders who could afford these new materials adopted them enthusiastically. The fact that these are the same materials that ovens are made of, and that the tropical sun would provide a powerful source of heat for their inadvertently-constructed ovens, escaped the builders' attention. The Three Little Pigs may have saved their third house from being blown down by building it out of bricks rather than sticks, but if they and the Big Bad Wolf had lived in a tropical climate and couldn't afford to run air-conditioners then the poor pigs would have roasted inside.

The biggest problem of all is clothing. Of the many unnecessary and dubious things that foreigners introduced to Vanuatu - guns, brown rats, influenza, tinned luncheon meat, the French language, papaya trees, David Beckham posters, offshore banking, the Chinese, polythene, whisky, the mile-a-minute vine, monosodium glutamate, Justin Timberlake songs, souvenir shops, television - Western clothes must rank as one of the worst. Even when the air is not insufferably humid, it is hard for sweat to evaporate if it's trapped against your skin by layers of fabric.

Pentecost's traditional inhabitants realised this, and dressed appropriately for their climate, covering only their genitals (the only part of the male body, incidentally, that lacks sweat glands). This left sweat free to evaporate from their skin, or at the very least trickle away unimpeded.

Fashions changed dramatically when Europeans turned up. The newcomers wore clothes not just out of habit - in their chilly native climates, clothes were a survival necessity - but because their white skin could not cope with the Melanesian sun and their immune systems could not tolerate the ravages of the mosquitoes. In spite of these weaknesses, the white people never doubted for a second that they were superior to the natives, and since white people wore clothes, it followed that wearing clothes was the right thing to do. For evidence, as if evidence was needed, they pointed to their Holy Book (whose authors, it should be noted, were lucky enough not to live in a humid climate). Conceal thy nakedness, it said. As far as the missionaries were concerned, grass skirts and penis wrappers were not up to the job.

The missionaries, for the most part, were lonely, single men. Finding themselves isolated on islands full of bare-breasted, grass-skirted women - and fearful that too many lustful thoughts and sinful temptations would lead them to Hell - it is hardly surprising that one of their first acts was to force the local ladies into the frumpiest, most unattractive clothing they could find. The missionaries even convinced themselves that they were doing this for the islanders' own good, overlooking the fact that the locals had managed to go half-naked in front of one another for thousands of years without descending into orgies of carnal sin.

Men, too, were told that in order to be considered civilised they would need to put shirts on (perhaps they too inspired un-Biblical thoughts among one or two of the more repressed missionaries), although they got off much more lightly than women under the new clothing regime. Here at Ranwadi, professionalism demands that I put on a shirt in the classroom, but at my house I have long since overcome my reluctance to answer the door to visitors while wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts. Nobody would mind if I dressed like that down at the nakamal, either, although there I usually keep my T-shirt on for fear of standing out like a luminous ghost in a dark brown hut full of dark brown men.

Shirts and dresses, unlike grass skirts and penis wrappers, cannot be woven from leaves hacked out of the jungle. Fortunately, thanks to the capriciousness of Western fashions and the industriousness of Asian manufacturers, there is always a supply of outdated, second-hand or surplus clothes that can be shipped to Pentecost and sold at prices the islanders can just about afford. These clothes are then worn until they disintegrate, or until the holes in them become so large that what is left resembles a Miss World ribbon. In the hands of people who spend their days hacking gardens out of the jungle, and then wash their clothes by soaking them in corrosive Third World detergents and battering them against rocks in the river, this rarely takes long. Around Ranwadi, you can tell the villagers apart from the teachers by the holes and stains in their clothes.

The positive side of all this is that virtually nobody on Pentecost is tormented by a need to be well dressed. When it comes to fashion, anarchy reigns. I recently came across a respectable (and non-English-speaking) middle-aged man in a pink top with "Bad Girl" written across it in sensuous white lettering. A ragged and discoloured T-shirt is quite acceptable attire for a high chief, or for the best man at a wedding party. Only in church do people make any real attempt to dress decently, and even here there is pragmatism. If the only unstained shirt you have is a fake Uruguayan football top, and the only clean trousers are striped pyjama bottoms, those will have to do.

(A slight exception to the local fashionlessness is the girls at Ranwadi, who put on trendy Billabong and Quicksilver T-shirts when not in school uniform - young people everywhere are conscious about their appearance in front of their friends - although these T-shirts are mostly outdated designs from several years ago, or are cheap fakes. When they go home to their parents' villages, where they have no need to impress anybody, the students quickly revert to their old, ragged clothes. I do much the same.)

Vanuatu gets the clothes that nobody else wants, although naturally they only arrive here years after they became unfashionable in the rest of the world. When I first visited in 2001, Pentecost was full of Princess Diana T-shirts. Most of these have now disintegrated, but they still turn up occasionally. Titanic movie T-shirts, from the same era, are also disappearing. New unfashions will soon arrive to replace them.


<< January 2007 diary · March 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007