Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

3rd July

For the inhabitants of Terry Pratchett's imaginary circular Discworld, the concepts of North, South, East and West did not apply. Instead, directions were described as 'rimwards' or 'hubwards', and 'turnwise' or 'counter-turnwise'.

The people of Pentecost Island did not traditionally think in terms of North, South, East and West either. Their world is shaped like a Toblerone bar: a jagged triangular prism about forty miles long, six miles wide, and half a mile high. Here the four directions are 'up', 'down', 'up the coast', and 'down the coast'. In the local mindset 'up the coast' is southwards and 'down the coast' northwards; I suffered a lot of confusion until somebody eventually explained this to me. If Pentecost islanders rather than Europeans had invented cartography, they would probably have portrayed the Earth with Antarctica on top and Britain languishing down under.

Whilst the characters in Terry Pratchett's fantasies go about their lives on the surface spinning disc, for the inhabitants of Pentecost life takes places on a slope. What is striking to visitors about the island's geography is not the fact that it is mountainous - a feature that it shares with thousands of other wild and beautiful places in the world - but the fact that the islanders build villages and roads with total disregard for the steepness of their landscape. Look at any two neighbouring villages on a map and you can bet that there will be a well-used footpath running directly between them, no matter how sheer and dangerous the intervening terrain is. A friend at Waterfall Village once took me gardening; the poor guy's garden turned out to be halfway up the mountain, at the end of a muddy trail that led up a rock face and through swamps and streams. (I never truly appreciated what it means to "lead someone up the garden path" until I came to Pentecost.) The high ridges above Ranwadi and Melsisi, which look from a distance like a precipitous wilderness, are in fact the site of several small villages. Bunlap, one highly traditional community in the south-east of the island, is built on ledges hacked out of a diagonal slope. I visited it in wet weather (one consequence of Pentecost's mountainousness is that it provokes damp ocean winds into dumping extraordinary amounts rain onto the island's eastern side) and found myself scrambling on all fours up muddy slopes just to get from house to house.

After a few months of living on Pentecost, a weird thing happened to me: my dreams became sloped. Previously, the landscapes in my dreams had either been nondescript flatland or rolling hills (the scenery of south-eastern England, where I grew up) or flattish land with mountains in the distance (the scenery of much of Scotland). On Pentecost, my mental imagery became three-dimensional in a way that it had never been before; now I frequently have dreams that involve going up and down steep hills. Often the scenery remains otherwise British, even if I am dreaming about people and situations I have known only in Vanuatu - I have never seen a palm tree or a coral reef in a dream - but the gradient of the island I am living on has insinuated itself deeply into my mind.

Westerners living in mountainous countries usually settle in flat, accessible spots - broad river valleys and coastal plains. On Pentecost, by contrast, the rivers have no chance to carve broad valleys on their short tumble from hilltop to ocean, and although there are a few strips of flat land along the coast, these were historically uninhabited. In traditional Pentecost villages, the only flat piece of land is the ceremonial ground, a brown clearing of compacted earth outside the nakamal that is used for dances and gatherings. Some of these are artificially levelled out of steep mountainsides, which must have been quite a job in the days when digging tools were made from sticks and stones. The ceremonial ground is known in the local languages as 'saa' or 'sara'; in Pidgin, which adds 'na' to the start of every indigenous word, it is a 'nasara'. When Europeans arrived on Pentecost and created flat places of their own, the locals referred to these using the same words that they used for their old ceremonial grounds. Nowadays, villagers use the word 'saa' to mean the school football field, and the airfield at the northern end of Pentecost is known as Sara Airport.

To foreign visitors, some aspects of the island's geography defy reason. When the Collège de Melsisi recently organised a fundraising afternoon, each student was told to go to his or her home village and bring back one piece of taro to be sold at the event. The kids dutifully trooped off into the mountains, and one of them invited Sara to go along. She came back after a seven-hour return hike into the centre of the island with tales of slipping and sliding down 45-degree slopes ("everybody fell down") and teetering along precipices above hundred foot drops ("we could have died") - all for the sake of one vegetable.

"Yet the people who live in that village do that trek all the time," she said. "Why?! I mean, you'd think they would be better off just taking the entire village and moving it down to the coast?"

In recent years an increasing number of islanders have indeed moved to the coast, where they have easier access to the goods that arrive on cargo ships. However, there are reasons why many continue to live in the mountains. The climate is cooler up on the slopes, and there is more land for growing crops up there. Vanuatu lies in an earthquake zone, and settlements by the sea are vulnerable to tsunamis. There isn't room for Pentecost's entire population on the coast (at least, not unless they learn to live like the Japanese, inhabiting high-rise blocks and feeding themselves by plundering the ocean). Above all, the people here have deep ancestral ties to their home villages. Few Westerners would fret that they were leaving their homeland if they moved to a new house three miles away, but on a Pacific island three miles is a long way.

In societies such as Pentecost's, each clan traditionally had its own patch of land, and the more treacherous and remote the patch, the easier it was to fend off unfriendly neighbours. Nobody in Vanuatu nowadays worries about being kidnapped and eaten by the guys from the next village, but they do still worry about the land on which they make their homes and gardens being appropriated by greedy outsiders.

During the colonial era, European planters and missionaries laid claim to the areas of land that they deemed useful or habitable. On islands like Pentecost these areas didn't add up to very much, but among people who depend on the land for their survival, the slightest suggestion of it being taken away from them inspires a powerful horror and resentment. Even today's normally-peaceful islanders deem it quite acceptable to take their bush knifes to somebody who tries to infringe upon their rights to their land.

At independence, the Vanuatu government therefore reinstated the prehistoric system of land ownership, drawing up a constitution which states that all rural land belongs forever to its customary owners: the villagers who have always lived and gardened there. Outsiders such as property developers and plantation owners are allowed to lease such land, but cannot buy it outright - they will always have to respect the local chiefs as their landlords.


Recently, foreigners have been experimenting with a potential new means of depriving Pacific islanders of their land: polluting the planet so as to raise its sea levels. Within the next few centuries a couple of countries in the region will probably be reduced to nothing more than scribbles on a nautical chart warning sailors of "submerged reefs". Vanuatu, fortunately, will not be one of them.

Friends back home occasionally ask if the South Pacific island I'm working on is going to disappear because of global warming. I laugh at the idea. In reality, Vanuatu is probably less vulnerable to the effects of climate change than any other coastal country. Its land rises just as high as Britain's, and given that Britain's highlands are fairly uninhabitable whilst Pentecost's support lush gardens and thriving populations, I know which island I would rather be on in the even of a Great Flood. Even the sort of apocalyptic rise in sea level that would occur if every ice sheet on Earth melted and ran into the oceans would deprive islands like Pentecost of only a few percent of their land area, and displace only a minority of their people.

The coastline near Melsisi
An island safe from global warming?

True, a large rise in sea level would wreck Port Vila and Luganville, decapitating Vanuatu's infrastructure and wiping out most of its official economy. A bunch of Australians would lose their holiday homes, a few offshore banks and dubious Internet companies would lose their headquarters, and a lot of urban ni-Vanuatu would have to abandon their sunglasses and stereos and return to their home villages. Rural islands would have to function without central government, police, or communications with the outside world. However, since they get by with a minimum of these things anyway, life there might not change very much. Chiefs, elders and Jesus would continue to do their job of maintaining peace and order, much as they do now, and it could conceivably be a long time before the islands descended back into savagery.

While the rest of civilisation collapsed in chaos, old men on Pentecost would sit quietly in their shady huts in the forest, surrounded by flowers and birdsong. Smoking their home-grown tobacco and drinking their kava, they would murmur to their grandchildren that they had always known that building villages in the mountains was the right thing to do.


6th July

It was a cold winter night on Pentecost. With the thermometer dropping to 20°C (68°F), most of the islanders were huddled indoors, and the only other person down at the kava bar was the fifteen-year-old barkeeper.

"You no hear'em cold?" he asked me. (To people in Vanuatu, sensations such as cold and sadness and joy and nausea are not 'felt', they are 'heard'.)

The temperature right now is hotter than the average British summer day, I said. The barkeeper shivered.

We sat in silence for a while. A draft of air was blowing under the eaves of the thatched roof. It did actually feel cold.

"Ee got gorilla, 'long England," the boy asked, out of nowhere.



"No got."


"'Nah. All animal here, all-ee stop 'long zoo, no-more."

Is Zoo a region of England?, the barkeeper asked.

"No." I tried, in Pidgin English, to explain the concept. "Fence ee round'em animal." The boy seemed to understand.

"Oh, me want'em look elephant!" he said. "But me never look live one. Me look 'long book, no-more."

In Vanuatu there are no zoos. No elephant, hippopotamus or gorilla has ever set foot in the country.

"Ee got crocodile 'long England?"

"No. Ee cold too-much."

"You-fella ee look crocodile inside 'long zoo, no-more."

I have seen crocodiles in the wild, I told him. (Well, I've seen alligators and caimans, but I wasn't going to try and explain the difference.) Just not in England.

"You-fella who ee got chance b'long go long different country, you-fella ee lucky," the barkeeper said. "I-think by-and-by me never go long 'nother country."

Some ni-Vanuatu do get to travel abroad, I pointed out. Even if they can't afford the plane ticket by themselves, they are often sponsored to go overseas for work or training. (One bonus of living in an isolated little island country is that there are plenty of opportunities for this type of travel.) I've even met a few who've been to England.

"But me, me out 'long school 'long Class Six," the fifteen-year-old said. "Head b'long me ee no-good!" He laughed.

Don't put yourself down, I said.

"Some kind work 'long school, me savvy make'm good," he explained. "But reading with'em writing, me no savvy good."

It sounded to me like a case of dyslexia. Back home, the boy would have been given extra tuition and special allowances would have been made for him in exams. Here in Vanuatu, he was left to flunk out of school at the age of eleven (probably to the relief of his parents, who were no longer faced with the challenge of raising money for the boy's school fees).

"But ee all-right," the boy went on. "By-and-by me school back-again. By me school from mechanic." I'm going to train as a mechanic.

A good career choice, I agreed. There's plenty of money to be made as a mechanic on Pentecost. With trucks running on some of the world's most destructive roads (the fact that they can run for even a day without breaking down fills me with admiration for Toyota's engineers), plus an increasing assortment of crappy little electricity generators that the villagers power up on special occasions (most of the time they can't afford the petrol) and don't always maintain properly, anyone on the island with a reputation as a good mechanic will never be short of work. At Ranwadi, the school mechanic spends not only all day but also most evenings banging and welding in his tin garage. When I suggest that the guy works too hard, his friends rub their fingers and thumbs together and point out that he's being well rewarded for his efforts.

There was another silence.

"Man 'long DVD, man who ee work with'em crocodile, him ee dead, uh?"

"Steve Irwin?" Yes, he died last year.

"Him ee come 'long Vanuatu one time. Him ee come b'long catch'em crocodile."

Vanuatu's crocodile population presently stands at three: a band of lonely individuals who migrated down from the Solomon Islands and settled in the outlying island of Vanua Lava in the north of the country. A few years ago, one of these crocodiles ventured further south, and turned up on an island near Pentecost. This caused much concern, both to the crocodile's new neighbours, whose hordes of highly-edible children spent much of their time playing in rivers and the sea, and also to the people of Vanua Lava, who had grown attached to their crocodile and for some reason wanted it back. Steve Irwin was called in.

The barkeeper gave me a long and lively description of the Crocodile Hunter's encounter with the errant reptile, which ended with it being loaded onto an Air Vanuatu plane and flown back to Vanua Lava. (Live pigs may be banned on the inter-island planes nowadays, but apparently live crocodiles are welcome.)

After watching Steve Irwin wrestle down the crocodile, the boy told me, the awestruck villagers had asked him if there was any animal he couldn't overcome.

"'Ee got one', him ee say. All-ee call'em what...white great shark?"

"Great white shark."

"Ah yes."

Another long and complicated story in Pidgin English followed. It involved Steve, a great white shark, and an inadequate metal cage.

But it was a much smaller fish that eventually killed the great man, I said. "One stingray."

The boy nodded. "But 'long place here, stingray all-ee no kill'em man. All-ee help'em man."

I looked up, interested. Help them how?

"Booboo b'long me ee tell'em story here," the boy said. (I love the Pidgin word for grandparent.) "Time when one man ee drown, stingray ee save'm him." Just like a barbed version of Flipper the friendly dolphin. "Stingray ee come underneath 'long leg b'long man. Man ee stand-up 'long stingray. Stingray ee carry'em man ee go shore."

I had a nice image of Steve Irwin being carried up into Heaven, surfing on the back of a giant stingray.


16th July

In a traditional village, it was possible to live without money. You could survive on the vegetables grown in your garden and meat from the animals that you reared or hunted or hauled out of the sea, cooked over firewood that you gathered yourself, in a house built with materials that you cut from of the forest or dug out of the ground.

The few things you weren't able to make yourself could be obtained by simple trade. In medieval Europe, the baker could obtain new horseshoes from the ironmonger in exchange for loaves of bread, and the gardeners could obtain protection from the local baron and salvation from the local priest in exchange for tithes of food. However, as economies grew more complex, this kind of trade grew increasingly inconvenient - what if you needed a horseshoe but the blacksmith wasn't in the mood for a loaf of bread? Some societies solved this problem by developing written systems for keeping a tally of who was entitled to goods and services. This is the original reason why writing was developed. Unfortunately, these systems were (and are) vulnerable to forgery.

A better solution was to devise a system of physical tokens - some small, valuable item of agreed worth - signifying that the bearer had supplied something useful to somebody in the past and was entitled to something in return. Thus money was invented.

The type of token used varied widely. In ancient empires, the prized article was gold. In medieval England, the standard measure of value was a pound of sterling-quality silver, which could be cut up into silver pennies when smaller units were required. On Pentecost Island, it was pigs (and in particular the long, curved tusks of old boars) and intricately-dyed red mats that were prized. Eventually, all of these forms of money were replaced by standardised pieces of paper and base metal whose value was certified by governments and banks - and later, in some economies, by numbers on computer screens. However, modern currencies still bear traces of their origins: a "pound sterling" remains the standard unit of value in England, even though today's pound coins are neither made of sterling silver nor weigh a pound, and Vanuatu's coins and banknotes still bear (amongst other symbols) the emblem of a boar's tusk.

In modern cities, it is possible to go through life without doing anything for anybody else except what you're paid for, and without receiving anything from anybody else except what you pay for - an economically super-efficient yet rather soulless state of affairs.

In Western countries, the change from a traditional economy to a cash economy happened a long time ago. On Pentecost Island, the process is still very much under way. Local villagers divide their needs into two categories: the things they can get 'free' from the land (vegetables, meat, fish, nuts, bamboo, wood, leaves, stones, and water) and the things that must be paid for with money (such as tinned foods, rice, petrol, candles, soap, metal tools, cloth, nails, cement, and corrugated iron). The second category is expanding at the expense of the first.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, trading amongst the islanders was all about social climbing. A man could probably meet his basic needs entirely from his own garden, but would have to borrow money (in the form of pigs) to help him pay the bride-price for a new wife, or put on the lavish ceremony that would enable him to climb to the next rung of the social ladder. When his remaining assets (the pigs) multiplied, he would be able to pay back the lender, who might now need them for ceremonies of his own.

The arrival of foreigners introduced a new reason for trading: to obtain things that the islanders could not make for themselves. Originally it was believed that the goods brought by white people had been given to them by the gods, since in their world of sticks and stones and leaves the islanders could not see how men could make such things as metal for themselves. Various cargo cults sprang up with the aim of trying to persuade the gods to shower similar generosity upon the people of Vanuatu; one or two of these cults are still in existence. Today, the islanders can read in schoolbooks about metallurgy and manufacturing, but most still lack the resources to make metal or glass or plastic or DVD players for themselves. As a result, many of their wants and needs must now be met by buying goods from abroad.

The first thing that the villagers switched to buying, instead of making for themselves, was knives. Local stories recall that one of the earliest encounters between European sailors and Pentecost islanders ended with the natives stealing a sailor's knife and then running away into the bush, pursued by gunfire. The islanders recognised that the metal blade was greatly superior to their traditional stone tools, and for many years afterwards, this one stolen knife was passed around by the entire community, each person borrowing it whenever a particularly trick cutting job was required. Eventually, more Europeans arrived and the islanders learned to trade with them in order to obtain more of the precious tools. Thus ended the Stone Age on Pentecost.

Metal was not just useful for blades. It can also be used to make heatproof and waterproof containers, which revolutionised cooking. I was told by a colleague that when a student at Ranwadi was once asked to write an essay on how modern technology was changing the world, the technology he chose to focus on was the saucepan. Previously, cooking had meant roasting, or baking under hot stones; the ability to boil things opened up an entirely new form of cuisine. The taro that the islanders grow in their gardens is disgusting when boiled, but coast-dwellers with access to ships soon discovered a new food: rice. They began importing the starchy white grains by the sack full, and another paid-for item was added to the islanders' shopping baskets.

Flour and cooking oil also came on the ships, and the villagers developed a taste for greasy doughnuts - often twisted into the shape of a number 8 - which they would fry up using their new pans. Sugar arrived, to the delight of the island's ant population, and a few local women became skilled at baking cakes on open fires. Some even iced their cakes, having sussed out which varieties of tinned butter could be used to produce icing that didn't taste too strongly of industrial grease. Good cake remains a rarity of Pentecost, baked only on special occasions, but since the island has no dentists this is probably a good thing.

A few villagers built proper ovens, and began to bake loaves of bread with a delicious wood-smoked taste. (Fuel for cooking is one thing that is still largely gathered from the jungle, although foreigners like me - who are inexperienced at cooking anything other than marshmallows on wood fires, and can't even get marshmallows on Pentecost - rely on gas-powered stoves.) Local stores began selling margarine and jam for people to put on their bread, and those frequented by American Peace Corps volunteers did a lucrative trade in peanut butter.

Clothes were yet another import. In the days when it was acceptable to wander around with only your crotch covered, it was easy to fashion clothing using local materials, but it's hard to make a good Sunday dress that you can wear to church out of dried leaves. Missionaries and well-meaning foreigners organised shipments of second-hand clothes to be sent to Vanuatu. In the early days, these brought diseases that wiped out entire villages. Today they just bring incredibly bad taste.

Another thing the early missionaries helped to bring to the islands was light. Not just the spiritual kind, but also the practical kind that allows people to avoid walking into things after the sun goes down. Before the arrival of Western technology, the best sources of light on the island at night were burning coconut fronds, which flare like pine needles when put on a smouldering fire and can be carried as flaming torches on short journeys. However, coconut fronds burn down quickly, and slower-burning light sources such as smouldering logs and reeds were inevitably dim. As a result, people traditionally went to bed early on Pentecost, and were disinclined to wander about in the dark. (On an island populated by ghosts and spirits - and once upon a time by warring cannibals - staying indoors at night must have seemed a sensible idea anyway.)

Candles, kerosene lanterns and electric torches represent a huge improvement. However, for villagers who originally got all of their light for free, they also represent a huge expense. Recent increases in the price of kerosene have dimmed the island, as people turn down the wicks in their lanterns or switch to cheap candles instead. Once I came across a group of men sitting in their nakamal in pitch darkness, because none could spare even the 20 vatu (10 pence) needed to buy a candle.

Electric torches were once used sparingly on Pentecost, because batteries for them were expensive and short-lived. (The brands of battery sold in the local stores are not the type advertised by energised pink bunnies that keep on going and going and going, but the type made by generic companies with names like Wang Hua Industries who specialise in the low-cost manufacture of half-empty metal cylinders that happen to contain just enough electric charge to be sold and labelled as a battery.) Fortunately, torches have become cheaper to run in recent years, as fragile and power-hungry incandescent bulbs have been replaced with bright, efficient LED lights. (I played my own small part in introducing this particular change to Pentecost; see earlier diaries.) I wonder if the laboratory boffins who came up with the Light Emitting Diode ever imagined that their invention would be used to help impoverished jungle villagers avoid tripping over fallen logs on moonless South Pacific nights. In a couple of locations in Vanuatu, pioneering schemes have also been set up to provide the villagers with rechargeable batteries, charged using solar power.

The use of hard currency on rural islands like Pentecost remains limited - Port Vila, the country's capital, is home to 20% of Vanuatu's population but 90% of its money. However, as one item after another is added to the islanders shopping lists and disappears from the range of things that they make for themselves, the circulation of money is inexorably widening. Ironically, by far the biggest factor driving rural islanders into the cash economy is the one thing that Westerners generally do get free (or at least don't pay directly for): their children's education.

In the old days, when everyone on Pentecost did more-or-less the same job - gardening, building houses, trading pigs and looking after the children - youngsters could learn everything they needed to know from their parents and the village elders. Now, though, Pentecost's parents have begun to ask their children what they want to be when they grow up, and most of the answers require some degree of schooling. The dream of many is that a school-leaving certificate will be a ticket off the island, to a well-paid job and a better life in town, but even those children with no desire to leave their villages can benefit from going to school. Pentecost may have no real industries other than its gardens (and a small amount of tourism), but it still needs nurses, mechanics, storekeepers and churchmen - not to mention teachers who can pass on their knowledge to the next generation of dreamy children.

High school education is not free in Vanuatu. The Ministry of Education does find the money to employ a few schoolteachers, and overseas aid agencies do their bit to prop up the country's school system, but there remain big gaps in every school's budget. Books need to be bought, electricity generators need to be fuelled, and broken equipment needs to be replaced. With a finely-scattered population and no roads that a school bus could cope with, high schools in rural Vanuatu are invariably boarding schools, so the cost of food and housing must be added to the school's expenses. The only way that these expenses can be met is by charging fees to the parents who decide to make the necessary sacrifices and send their kids to school. At Ranwadi these fees are typically about £100 ($200) a term - an awful lot of money for subsistence gardeners who dig up vegetables for a living. Even jungle villagers who would otherwise live happily without money will have to sweat hard preparing sacks of kava and dried coconut and hauling them down to the beach to be sold onto ships if they wish to avoid forcing the same lifestyle upon their children. (Although if they live in the right part of the island, they might be able to earn an entire term's school fees in a few minutes by risking their necks bungee-jumping off towers in front of gawping tourists in the name of traditional culture.)

If you're going to have to earn money to pay for your children's education, you might as well earn a bit extra for yourself while you're at it, to spend on a new knife, or some candles, or maybe a portable CD player. Since you've been too busy with your cash crops to plant anything tasty in the garden, some of the spare money will also need to be spent on food at the local store. Do this kind of thing often enough, and the word 'subsistence' will drop from your lifestyle, and you'll have become a fully-functioning member of a modern capitalist society.

Sometimes shortages force the islanders to buy things that they would otherwise grow for themselves. The men on Pentecost who smoke (the women never do) prefer hand-rolled leaf tobacco to cigarettes, not only because the latter are expensive, but because everybody knows that cigarettes give you cancer. (The health campaigners forgot to add that the smoke from leaf tobacco contains the same lung-destroying chemicals.) Some grow the tobacco in their own gardens; others buy cheap sticks of it from stores who import it from gardeners on other islands. However, the villagers on Pentecost smoke more tobacco than they plant, and lately none has been coming on the inter-island ships. (Rumour has it that the Vanuatu police - whose periodic anti-marijuana campaigns give them a reason for existence on islands where crimes are rare and most are dealt with quite capably by the village chiefs - recently destroyed a large shipment due to fears that other smokeable leaves were being concealed amidst the tobacco.) A couple of weeks ago, the local men awoke to the realisation that there was no leaf tobacco left in any of the stores, and that they had smoked their gardens bare. Even old Chief Regis, who has long kept his chiefly friends and numerous other satisfied customers well supplied with fine tobacco, announced disconsolately that he had run out, and that his next crop would not be ready for harvesting until sometime around Christmas. The news sent desperate nicotine addicts scrambling to try and find the money to buy imported cigarettes.

Other drug habits are also moving into the cash economy. The drinking of kava on Pentecost is one of the most traditional of activities, originally done only by chiefs at important meetings, where the drug's stupefying effects would prevent them from getting angry with one another or taking rash decisions. Nowadays it is drunk by men of all ages on all occasions, but many of the other customs associated with kava-drinking remain. The nakamal where the men gather to drink is usually the most traditional building in a village, with a dirt floor and gnarled wooden posts holding up a low thatched roof. Some nakamals are not even held together with nails. The nakamal is the one place where you can still find stone tools being used - sharpened, hand-held grinding stones of a sort that our ancestors a million years ago would probably have recognised - although in some nakamals nowadays the job of mashing up kava roots is done instead by a ram (a section of plastic drainpipe in which the kava is pounded with a big stick), or by a metal meat-grinder. The mashed kava is strained through coconut fibre, and drunk out of a half coconut shell.

Money does not traditionally change hands in the nakamal. People dig up kava roots in their own gardens, and bring them down to prepare and drink themselves, or to share with friends and visitors. However, this situation is changing. Pentecost has acquired a small but growing professional class - schoolteachers, nurses, mechanics and priests - who enjoy kava and have money with which they would happily pay for it, but do not get the chance to grow it for themselves.

At Melsisi, where the school, hospital, and kava-tolerant Catholic church employ many such people, there are now several kava bars where drinkers without gardens of their own can go to buy an evening drink. Much of the atmosphere of the old nakamal remains in these places - most are dimly-lit and constructed of local materials, and the drink continues to be served in coconut shells (although some kava bars elsewhere in Vanuatu now use porcelain bowls instead). However, they are gradually acquiring more and more of the trappings of Western bars. Some barkeepers now have electricity generators and show videos to attract in the punters, and a couple even have names painted above the door. High on the hillside, behind the communal taps where local children wash, is the Sunset Kava Bar, whose flamboyant owner promises "only the finest quality kava". Down by the shore, the new Saltwater Kava Bar has a bedroom where customers who get too stoned to walk home can sleep for the price of two drinks. Most Melsisians continue to be regulars at a particular bar - the one run by their local community, or the one that is within easiest staggering distance of their house. Nevertheless, on an island where business strategy generally consists of opening your doors and hoping that enough of your friends, relatives and neighbours will come by to provide you with a good income - and shrugging your shoulders and doing nothing about it if they don't - even the slightest hints of branding and competition represent a major innovation.

Until recently, no other village nearby contained a high enough concentration of potential customers to support a kava bar. One opened a couple of years ago near Ranwadi to cater to the labourers who had come to work on the new school buildings, but when the building work had finished and the labourers went home the bar closed down. The local villagers didn't want to pay for kava when they could get it free from their gardens, and the majority of the teachers at Ranwadi belong to the abstemious Churches of Christ, which frowns on kava-drinking.

The villagers' cousins in Port Vila and Luganville did want to pay for kava, however. Vanuatu's two towns are home to growing numbers of affluent and kava-loving islanders dislocated from their gardens, who have fuelled a massive surge in demand for the narcotic root. Kava products have also found small but lucrative new markets abroad. Since good varieties of kava take four or five years to grow, supply has not kept up with demand, which has had an inevitable effect on the price. On Pentecost, where men have always planted a lot of kava, the islanders' long-standing drug habit provided them with a financial windfall. As the price of kava surged, villagers enthusiastically dug up their gardens and loaded sacks of roots onto ships bound for Port Vila. With a typical lack of forward planning, many failed to leave behind enough kava for themselves. (Others calculated, with a logic familiar to drug dealers everywhere, that there was no sense in getting hooked on their own product when there was so much money to be made selling it to other fools.)

A few months ago, the villagers around Ranwadi slowly woke up to the fact that there were now a lot of would-be kava drinkers about with empty gardens and money in their pockets.

The kava bar near Ranwadi reopened, and did a steady business, and I no longer have to walk four miles in the dark to Melsisi whenever I want to go for an evening drink without impinging on the villagers' hospitality. Villagers in their nakamals began holding 'kava nights', at which someone who still had roots to spare would prepare an entire poubelle full of the stuff, and sell it to customers. (People on Pentecost use the French word to describe the huge containers from which kava is served on special occasions; drinking out of a poubelle sounds much nicer than drinking out of a dustbin.) Some kava nights were held by individuals to earn money for their children's school fees; others were held to raise money for other good causes. At big kava nights, entertainment was laid on, in the form of a video player rigged up to an electricity generator, or very occasionally a live string band. While children watched the videos or listened to the music, their mothers (and a few teetotal fathers) sold leaf-wrapped bundles of food for the kava-drinkers to take home for dinner. (Kava, unlike alcohol, is best drunk before food.) With lots of people eating together, it was often worthwhile to butcher a pig or a bullock for the occasion, giving people a rare chance to dine on good fresh meat. What had previously been a subdued male-only ritual evolved into a night out for all the family.

The spread of kava nights was made possible by another new introduction: plastic bottles. In Western countries, empty containers are a mountainous nuisance, something to be crushed by the dozen into the recycling bin, but in the days when people bought hardly any packaged foods they were hard to come by. That is now changing. By filling up an old plastic bottle and carrying it back to drink at their local nakamal, people can now attend kava nights in faraway villages without worrying about the long drunken walk home. The availability of cheap electric torches has been another factor encouraging people to venture further from home on their nights out, as has a decline in the belief in ghosts.

Thanks to the recent arrival of new trucks on Pentecost's roads, many people don't have to walk home at all. Travelling the main coastal road you might now be passed by two or three vehicles every hour, which sounds like a miniscule amount of traffic but does in fact represent a huge increase over the amount a few years ago. And now that the Ministry of Public Works has belatedly begun a programme to repair some of the most treacherous stretches of the road (for example, laying stones to smooth out some of the nastier river crossings), those trucks will be able run for longer before they fall to pieces. The concept of designated drivers has yet to catch on here, and it's probably only a matter of time before some kava-intoxicated driver is woken from his slumbers by the jolt of his truck colliding head-on with a large tree. However, given the lethargic and ponderous way in which kava drinkers do things (driving included), this will hopefully be a very slow accident, and with any luck it won't hurt anybody except the tree.

Truck passing Captain Cook's Rock, South Pentecost
The modernisation of Pentecost Island

Society on Pentecost is changing, and as at any such time, there are plenty of people convinced that the change is for the worse. Not only are there predictable moans coming from local old-timers, but numerous outsiders from different corners of the world have added their voices of concern. Most of these are people whose own societies successfully underwent the same changes centuries ago and wouldn't dream of turning the clock back, yet still they lament the sight of the islanders abandoning their happy traditional economy (the one based on nice things like pigs rather than evil things like money) and being lured down the path of capitalist folly. They observe that in countries where people have to pay for their daily needs, those without cash are at risk of hunger and homelessness, whilst in Vanuatu's traditional village societies every single person is provided for.

Such people have a point, but not a very good one. Nobody begs or sleeps rough on Pentecost because the islanders have strong families and communities that look after those in need, and plenty of land on which to live and grow crops. There are legitimate reasons for people to worry about Pentecost's future: the breakdown of old communities under the influence of Western ideals, the growing inequality between those who relax in coastal villages doing well-paid jobs and those who scrape gardens in the mountains, the risk of an expanding tourist industry exacerbating the previous two problems, the pressure that will ultimately be put on the land by a swelling population, and (in the shorter term) the prospect of the kava price collapsing now that so many islanders are devoting their efforts to growing the drug rather than growing food. However, money is to a large extent a symptom of the island's problems rather than a cause.

In any case, it's not true to say that nobody in traditional Pentecost society went hungry. Although the island is not haunted by the sort of starvation seen in crueller Third World countries, malnourishment does exist here, attested to by the grossly rounded bellies of protein-deficient children fed on little but taro for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The children who suffer worst from this, it should be noted, are the ones living in those happy, traditional villages where people grow food in their gardens in the happy, traditional way. By contrast, those whose parents got sucked into the cash economy get small helpings of store-bought tinned meat with their vegetables, and small spoonfuls of nutrient-enriched Nestlé milk powder (spot the irony) stirred into their morning tea.

Money also buys such children medicines, schoolbooks, and a small measure of protection against life's many hazards. Picture a traditional village in which a cyclone has devastated the gardens and blown down the wooden houses. Now picture a village in which the inhabitants sat securely in houses made of imported cement eating imported rice and tinned meat while the storm raged, and decide for yourself whether capitalism causes hunger and homelessness.

In any case, the development of a cash economy on Vanuatu's islands is Progress; it cannot be stopped. Unless one of the parties in Vanuatu's government happens to be plotting a Communist revolution (which is unlikely, since the country's well-salaried politicians rather enjoy the fruits of capitalism), the islanders' new way of doing business will be with them for a long time to come.


31st July

During the two years that I went to high school in the Scottish Highlands, I felt sorry for my classmates who played sports. Not only were they obliged to spend long hours outdoors in the region's icy dishwasher of a climate, but living in such a sparsely-populated area made inter-school games a great hardship. Travelling to an away game against even a 'neighbouring' school meant many hours jammed into a minibus, driven (according to my friends' probably-exaggerated stories) by half-crazed sports coaches who casually mowed down sheep and deer as they careered along single-track mountain roads.

The eleven high schools in Vanuatu's Penama Province - which comprises Pentecost and the neighbouring islands of Maewo and Ambae - are closer together than those in the Scottish Highlands. However, for them, inter-school sport presents an even greater challenge. Maewo's high school is the only one on its island, and getting between the various high schools on Pentecost and Ambae involves braving dirt roads that not even the most roadkill-hungry Highland sports coach would try and drive a minibus on. Flying teams from island to island would be unaffordable, and although Penama's three islands are not far apart, getting between them on Vanuatu's meandering cargo ships can involve journeys of a day or more - the equivalent of Gairloch High School's celebrated hockey team having to sail to Denmark.

Nevertheless, the islands are home to some talented athletes and players, and sport is one of the few areas in which local youths can show genuine achievement. Pentecost will never produce an Albert Einstein or a Bill Gates (nor would other parts of the world if potential Einsteins and Gateses had to overcome the educational hurdles that children here face), but it's not inconceivable that it might one day produce a global sports star. One Ranwadi student has already been to Australia to run in a Pacific-wide athletics tournament - a big deal on an island where most people see foreign travel as an impossible dream - and another local athlete is currently training in New Zealand.

A few years ago, a group of headmasters keen to nurture this sort of talent set up the Penama Inter-Secondary School Sports Association (PISSA), and proposed that a week should be set aside from the school year during which competitors from their various schools could come together for a big sports tournament. The idea of spending a week watching football rather than working in the classroom met with little resistance from the province's teachers, and the PISSA Games were established.

Sport in Vanuatu, like in most poor countries, revolves around football (soccer). This is the universal game, one that you can play anywhere, provided you can lay your hands on some sort of ball (for village children having a kickabout, an unripe orange will suffice) and a couple of random objects to serve as goalposts (coconut stumps do nicely). Basketball hoops and tennis rackets, by contrast, do not exist in nature. It is no coincidence that the main countries in which soccer is not a big deal - the USA, Australia, New Zealand - are rich countries that invest heavily in sports.

Most schools in Vanuatu do have a pair of basketball hoops - although American volunteers lament that the islanders "don't truly understand the game" - so 'bass-kett' (as the locals say it) is also included the PISSA Games. It is, after all, the best sport in which to strut about looking cool. Netball, basketball's uncool relative, is also played, but only by the girls.

Unlike on other Pacific islands, rugby has never caught on here: ni-Vanuatu are not built like Maoris or Samoans. Nor has cricket, possibly because large fields are few and far between on mountainous islands. Any attempt to play cricket here would turn into an exercise in retrieving well-hit balls from the surrounding jungle. Tennis and hockey, which are among the most expensive of ball games in terms of equipment, are not played either. This is a shame, because with all the experience that islanders have at precision-wielding of knives and axes in their gardens, they would probably do very well if armed with a racket or a hockey stick. A handful of schools do, however, have table tennis (ping pong) tables.

Petanque (boules) is played enthusiastically by the French-influenced schools in Vanuatu. This is one of the few events in which they can beat their more sports-minded Anglophone opponents, who have barely heard of petanque and sometimes don't even show up to the matches.

Volleyball is played, and this year 'beach volleyball' was also included in the PISSA programme, although it was not going to be played on the beach. (Vanuatu lacks the golden expanses of sand found along the coast of California - its shorelines tend to be steep and narrow, and most are strewn with stones, coral, coconuts and driftwood.)

The remaining sports contested at the PISSA Games are variants of the islanders' beloved football. There is handball (whose exact rules I have never bothered figuring out but whose basic principle is fairly self-explanatory), and futsal (a form of indoor football that the ni-Vanuatu play outdoors).

This year, it was the turn of the Collège de Melsisi to host the Games. Melsisi is a small school, and at the start of the year their sports facilities consisted of a rutted football field, used mainly by the local cows, and a couple of run-down basketball courts on the small triangle of flat land by the mouth of the river. They needed to be improved.

After filling in a lot of forms, Sara the Peace Corps girl sent out letters to her friends and relatives back in the United States, pointing out that spare dollars were worth a lot more in a Third World village than languishing in a US bank account and that contributions to Peace Corps projects were fully tax-deductible. Four thousand dollars later, men in their kava bars were nodding happily and murmuring about what an asset Sara was to their village.

"She's also put a lot of her time and effort into helping people here," I added.

"Yes," they agreed, and went back to talking about the money.

Sacks of cement were ordered, and construction began on a third basketball court, overseen by teams of local villagers. Basketball hoops and volleyball nets were ordered. A beach volleyball court was dug out and filled with sand brought by boat from Ranwadi (apparently we have the sandiest beach in the area), and a petanque area was prepared. Running tracks were painted onto the sports field using what looked like old engine oil.

The cows huddled nervously in one corner of the field, wondering what was going on.

The principal of the Collège de Melsisi asked me to look up the dimensions of a table tennis table, and ordered his school handyman to make one. The handyman had better things to do, and plans were announced to scrap table tennis from the programme. The schools with good table tennis players wailed, and promised to bring tables with them to ensure that the game was played.

Some of the money was spent on lighting, and a bank of fluorescent tubes was rigged up alongside the basketball courts. An open-walled hut was built at one side of the field to serve as a grandstand and a headquarters for those organising the games. An aid agency agreed to supply medals and trophies for the winners, in return for being allowed the opportunity to come and give health talks to the assembled students.

"To be a good sportsman, leave with free marijuana, alcohol, tobacco and kava," said a well-meaning but unfortunately-worded banner.

Local people geared themselves up for the arrival of a thousand or so students, teachers and spectators. Several families constructed food stalls - shacks of wood and corrugated iron, walled with palm leaves - under the coconut trees between the sports field and the river, or perched on the hillside above the field. The menu was the same at nearly every one: rice and chicken, flavoured with a little dollop of a tasty gravy-like mixture.

Electricity was wired into the stalls - making these little shacks better-equipped than most proper Vanuatu kitchens - and some entertained their customers with music and videos. Lights around the field flickered on and off as the school's electricity generator struggled to cope with the load.

The cows disappeared. A few days later, as I made my way down to a pool in the river for a wash (Melsisi's water supply had faltered under the demand of a thousand extra people and several of the village taps were running dry), I discovered the herd hiding amongst the coconut trees in the valley upstream from the sports field, looking thoroughly unhappy.

Stall at the PISSA Games
A food stall with a view

Melsisi's established kava bars, and the two or three huts that occasionally serve as restaurants, also prepared themselves for a week of good business. Some arranged live string bands to entertain their guests. One tried to organise a barbecue steak night, but the bullock that was destined to be barbecued disliked the idea, and after a long chase the chef gave up and put chicken on the menu instead.

Students from the schools on Ambae and Maewo islands crowded onto a badly-overloaded cargo ship bound for Pentecost. Those from northern Pentecost came by boat too - it would have been a long and uncomfortable journey on the island's roads. Ranwadi's students walked the four miles (6 km) to Melsisi, with the school truck bringing their luggage. Students staked out places to sleep on classroom floors - boys and girls in separate classrooms, obviously - and I found a mat and sleeping bag waiting for me on the floor of Sara's house. A visiting Peace Corps volunteer from Maewo had already laid claim to Sara's spare bed.

The one thing that could still spoil everybody's plans was the weather. On the eve of the games, things did not look good. I caught a lift to Melsisi on the back of a truck, and arrived in heavy rain, soaked and shivering. The village's roads had already turned to sticky mud, and crowds of people were tip-toeing around, trying to avoid the slimiest patches. Some called out greetings, but through the rain and darkness I could barely make out who they were. I escaped from the confusion, squelched my way up to Sara's house, stripped off as many of my wet clothes as I decently could, and sat down in a puddle of water.

A delegation of school governors from the Collège de Melsisi had already been sent up the mountain to complain to the sorcerer who controls the weather.

"Your games don't start until tomorrow," the old man reportedly pointed out to them. "Tomorrow there will be fine weather."

The sorcerer kept his promise. The next day, the sun was shining. Crowds of people gathered around the soggy field, perched on rocks and coconut stumps, to watch the opening ceremony. Proceedings began, two hours behind schedule, and competitors from nine schools paraded onto the field in their school uniforms. (One of Penama's eleven schools, in typical Vanuatu fashion, had failed to get a squad organised for the games this year, whilst another, in equally typical Vanuatu fashion, had simply failed to show up.) The students marched like lines of computerised lemmings. I had the urge to click on one or two of them and watch them stop, count to five, put their fingers in their ears and explode into pixels.

PISSA Games opening parade
Students on parade

The students from the school on Maewo wore faded blue shirts, with faded grey skirts and shorts. Evidently these were dull, quiet, hard-working students. Half of the girls would probably become nuns. Ranwadi's students looked a little livelier, but still respectable - boys in white shirts and black shorts, girls in pale blue blouses and dark blue skirts. Some of the Ambae schools combined bright white shirts with strong blue skirts and shorts. These high-contrast kids were clearly tearaways. Or perhaps I shouldn't be judging schoolchildren by the colour of their uniforms.

Children beat slit drums, and a group of visiting dignitaries was formally welcomed. Leading them was none other than the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Ham Lini - a Pentecost islander himself, and the brother of Father Walter Lini, who originally led the tiny nation to independence. (I hope that nobody will consider it a great insult to Vanuatu democracy - or to American democracy, for that matter - if I point out what a remarkable coincidence it is that, out of the thousands of eligible people, the one most suited to running the country just happened to be a close relative of one of his predecessors.) Accompanying Lini was the local Member of Parliament, Charlot Salwai - known as Sarlo to his constituents, who can't pronounce 'sh' sounds. In one of the frequent reshuffles by which Ham Lini manages to stay on top of his fractious government, Sarlo had recently been appointed as Minister for Education, and back on his home island he was now being treated with great honour. The Honourable Prime Minister and the Honourable Minister for Education were accompanied by a crowd of lesser dignitaries, including the school principals, the chairman of PISSA, the Provincial Education Officer, and local chiefs.

The Vanuatu flag was raised, and the crowd stood up respectfully while the national anthem was sung. Several of the assembled VIPs gave speeches, most of which were devoted to welcoming and thanking the other dignitaries who had come. During this, I had time to reflect that if every speaker at an event thanks every other speaker, and is also thanked by the master of ceremonies, the total number of thank-yous is equal to the square of number of speakers. Six speakers equals 36 thank-yous. Eight speakers will give 64 thank-yous. If there are ten speakers, then a hundred thank-yous must be said. That much thanking takes a long time. And that doesn't even include the many words of thanks given to people who weren't giving speeches, such as the poor students assembled in lines in the sun in front of the podium. I lost count of how many speeches there actually were: Sara, in helping to draw up the schedule for the day, had tried bravely to keep the number down to three or four, but Sara's colleagues kept sneaking additional speakers into the programme.

The new basketball court was formally opened, and the local priest blessed it with what I assumed was holy water. The court, paid for by Sara's fundraising efforts, was due to be opened by an "honoured representative from Peace Corps", but no such person showed up, so Sara cut the ribbon herself, standing in front of the crowd in her pink island dress and rubber reef shoes. Sara was not, however, deemed a sufficiently Important Person to be invited to the 'refreshments' (I passed the principal of the Collège de Melsisi carrying a heavy box that made an alcoholic chinking sound) laid on for the VIPs after the ceremony.

The Prime Minister's speech came last. He began by telling his audience that what he saw before him was "a failure". This was not an insult, it was explained to me afterwards, but was merely an exhortation to the people to work harder to make their country a better place. The rest of the speech was filled with words about the importance of respect and "obedience" (I can only imagine what the newspapers would say if Tony Blair or Gordon Brown ever used that word), and a reminder that we all owe everything to Father God, which won applause from the audience. Most people on Pentecost don't get the chance to hear the Prime Minister on the radio or read his words in the newspapers, and this was one the biggest crowds that would assemble on the island this year. Ham Lini did not waste the opportunity to show to all these good, traditional rural voters that he is a good, traditional guy.


The first proper day of the PISSA Games was devoted to athletics. Students were divided into two age groups - Juniors (Years 7 to 10) and Seniors (Years 11, 12 and 13). Schools with exceptionally gifted junior students tried to run them in senior races. Some juniors (students who had probably missed years of schooling because their families had difficulty paying the school fees) looked as if they were about nineteen anyway.

Mr Agasten, the Ranwadi sports master, had drawn up a programme of events for the day and dusted off his starting gun, which left him partially deaf for the rest of the week. Other people were assigned to time runners and count laps. Some weren't sure which runners they were supposed to be watching, and some lost count. Sara sat at a table trying to scribble down names and times while nine sports masters stood and argued in Pidgin English about which student had come in which position.

The sports masters were an interesting collection of characters. One looked as if he should have been behind the wheel of a truck in the American Midwest, and one looked like the evil sea captain from Pirates of the Caribbean. One looked like a French footballer, whilst another looked like a French hairdresser. One resembled a gorilla. Mostly they were an amiable bunch, however, and they showed a great willingness to work together towards the common goal of ensuring that the day's events had finished by the time the kava bars opened.

Sara collecting athletics results
"Remind me who came in first place"

On the second day of competition, the team games began. Sara and I drew up an enormous timetable that attempted to fit together the 60 football matches, 60 basketball matches, 60 volleyball matches, 60 beach volleyball matches, 60 petanque matches, 60 table tennis matches, 60 handball matches, 30 futsal matches and 30 netball matches that were due to be played, in such a way that no student would need to be in two places at once, and no two teams would be trying to use the same pitch at the same time. Individualised daily copies of the schedule were handed out, listing exactly where each team needed to be at each time, and the sports masters were warned that if they didn't stick to the schedule in a particular event, it would mess up the programme of events elsewhere.

Being Pacific islanders, they didn't stick to the schedule. However, the dozens of carefully drawn-up timetables blowing around the sports field did go some way towards turning potential chaos into mere disorganisation. At the end of each day, the sports masters got together to reconcile the intended schedule for the day with what had actually happened, and tried to work out how all the games that had got missed out could be fitted in later. New timetables were hashed out, and rehashed. After a while, I gave up trying to type up new timetables on the computer, and simply let the sports masters work it out amongst themselves.

A public address system had been set up, and announcements were put out in Pidgin English telling people and teams where they needed to be. In between announcements, the loudspeakers played a random assortment of music, which ranged from Enya to Jingle Bells. Listening to the latter on a sunny July day on a tropical island produces the kind of disconnection between experience and reality that can usually be achieved only with drugs.

Nobody had planned out who was supposed to overseeing the various games, but volunteers were soon found. Mr Jay, one of the local truck drivers, discovered a talent as a handball referee. The bursar of one of the Ambae schools, who happened to be a former volleyball star, helped Sara look after the beach volleyball tournaments (and did an excellent job until the day he discovered a store selling Tusker beer). One of Ranwadi's new gap girls, after a short briefing on what petanque was, spent the rest of the week umpiring the game.

The teacher from the Collège de Melsisi who was asked to look after the table tennis tournament wanted to be down on the field watching the football instead, and lied that the school had lost all its table tennis balls. Table tennis was quietly dropped from the programme.

Only for the all-important football games had anybody made an effort to organise a qualified referee - a huge, dark, sinister man. He looked familiar.

"Who's the referee?" I asked.

"He was our postmaster when you were here back in 2001," I was told. "He was the guy who used to steal our mail."

On the penultimate day of the games, the referee walked away, complaining that he wasn't being sufficiently well paid. Nobody else, as far as I could gather, was being paid at all.

The Principal of Ranwadi, a passionate sports fan, sat intently beside the football field whenever his school was playing, absorbed in the game, muttering to nobody in particular.

"Yes. Yes, yes, yes. No. No, no. Yes, yes - no. No, no. No, no. No! No - yes. Yes, yes, yes. YES!!"

The Principal of the Collège de Melsisi, having worked hard to prepare for the games, decided he'd earned himself the week off, and spent most of the time relaxing at his house. His major contribution to the proceedings - aside from drinking with the Prime Minister - was to go down to the school office where poor Sara was frantically photocopying score sheets and timetables, and tell her not to waste paper.


Teams in the different sports played against one another in round-robin tournaments, and schools were ranked according to the number of points they had won. Having volunteered to do the scorekeeping, I drew up a big spreadsheet that would add up the results and distil them together, according to an agreed formula, to reveal which school was the best overall. I spent much of the week sitting in Sara's house, trying to make sense of the various muddy and tattered score sheets that I'd been handed by the referees and type the results into the computer.

In sports such as football and netball, I was to give 3 points for a win, 2 points for a draw, and 1 point for a team that lost but did make the effort to get a team together and play. In events like volleyball and petanque, where a draw is impossible, it was 2 points for a win and 1 point for a loss. Opinion differed as to whether or not it was possible for a basketball game to end in a draw. The two Americans were adamant that it couldn't, but nobody else could see why not.

"What should I do if two teams get the same number of points?" I asked the sports masters on the first day.

"Rank them by goal average," came the reply.

What is goal average? A quick search on the Internet revealed that it's a slightly-flawed measure of a team's performance that was abandoned in English and international football in the late 1960s. (Basically you divide the number of goals scored by the number of goals conceded, instead of subtracting the numbers.) Since goal average was one of the few things the sports masters seemed to agree on, I didn't argue.

The senior boys' football competition - the event that people cared most about - was a close-run thing. Ranwadi and their main rivals, St Patrick's College, emerged joint leaders with 10 points each. Ranwadi had scored five goals and conceded two; St Patrick's had scored four goals and conceded one. Had the teams been ranked under the system used by most modern football leagues, Ranwadi would have been on top, equalling St Patrick's on goal difference and beating them on goals scored. However, under the outdated goal average system that the sports masters had recommended, it was 2.5 to Ranwadi and 4 to St Patrick's College. Our boys came in second.

That mattered. When I got the computer to add together the overall results for the PISSA Games, St Patrick's were ahead of Ranwadi in the senior category by a single point. If it hadn't been for the football result, it would have been the other way around.

I scanned the results desperately, looking for errors, anything that might have led to Ranwadi winning fewer points than they deserved. I found a couple of scores that had been incorrectly entered, but nothing that made a difference to the final result. Had the points been added up properly, I wondered. Computers can't miscalculate, but they can be incorrectly programmed. The PISSA scoring system, originally devised by Ranwadi's scientifically-minded Mr Noel, was designed on paper to be fair and straightforward, but in real life it had acquired complexities and ambiguities. Scanning through the spreadsheets, I spotted two or three semi-legitimate, defensible adjustments that didn't favour our school in any obvious way, but would have the overall effect of shifting an extra point or two into Ranwadi's column.

In general, people in Vanuatu are not mathematically-minded. My students will happily tell me that there are three hundred metres in three centimetres, and if a mis-pressed digit on a pocket calculator led them to conclude that two and two made five, many of them would accept it without question. My contract with the country's Ministry of Education states that I am employed for a period of two years beginning in January 2007 and finishing in December 2007. However, like most un-mathematical people, the islanders are adept at adding up two particular things: money and sports results. Even a subtle manipulation of the scoring of the games might well be noticed, and if anybody suspected that I'd tipped the tables in my own school's favour there would be hell to pay. Besides, it simply wouldn't have been fair. As the scorekeeper I had to be impartial, and if the computer had told me that Ranwadi was the number one school then I certainly wouldn't have been scrambling to recalculate the figures.

Reluctantly, I left the spreadsheet as it was.


The final day of the PISSA Games coincided with Vanuatu Independence Day.

History has passed quickly in Vanuatu. Like most Third World countries, the young republic has a child-heavy population (at twenty-four, I am older than the average ni-Vanuatu), and the majority of today's islanders were not alive on 30th July, 1980, when Britain and France finally brought to an end their chaotic attempt at joint government in the former New Hebrides. This is perhaps just as well: you might expect the ni-Vanuatu who do remember the days of colonial rule to be bitter towards their former masters. British and French settlers appropriated much of the territory's best land and held onto it for a century, treating the islanders like foreigners in their own country. They usurped traditional hierarchies, trampled on local customs, and presided over the collapse of the native population. They imported a petty thousand-year-old rivalry between two nations on the other side of the world, infecting the islanders with it, so that twenty-seven years after Vanuatu government officially ceased to be a tussle between the British and the French, you can still see the fault lines between these two factions in the country's politics.

Yet Britain and France also gave their ill-gotten territory schools, hospitals, roads, airports, wharves, and churches. The two powers brought at least a semblance of law and order to the archipelago, and ended the rape and pillage committed by an earlier generation of European visitors: traders who sold the islanders into near-slavery on Queensland sugar plantations, or sold them to their cannibal enemies as meat, and in the process had unscrupulously filled the islands with guns, germs and steel (to borrow a phrase from Jared Diamond's excellent book about why people from Europe colonised places like Vanuatu and not the other way round). They also ended most of the rape and pillage committed by the islanders against one another. In place of tribal warfare, the British and French bequeathed Vanuatu a legacy of freedom, democracy and national unity, even if the colonists did not apply any of these principles very well at the time. Before the Europeans left, Vanuatu may not have been an independent country, but before they arrived, it was not a country at all.

Older ni-Vanuatu today look back on their former British and French rulers in much the way that adults look back on their former schoolteachers. At the time they were overbearing and resented, but many years on it is possible to respect them for the job that they did, and appreciate the ways in which their teaching helped turn their pupils into better people. Looking back on all the teachers who once shouted at me and punished me, the teachers I swore at and whose lessons I disrupted, I cannot think of a single one towards whom I have any ill feeling today. In fact, if I met them in the street I would probably be pleased to see them. And I'd like to think that most of them feel the same towards me.

In a similar way, the people of Vanuatu today are nothing but welcoming and courteous towards the British and French whose ancestors once oppressed them. A couple of them have even expressed gratitude to me for "all the things that your country taught us". Nor are the ni-Vanuatu unique in this respect. I cannot remember encountering anti-British sentiment in any of the dozen or so former British colonies that I have visited (with the slight exception of Ireland, which arguably wasn't a colony). In Fiji, the people who asked where I came from smiled sentimentally at the answer and said "ah, mother country". In Malaysia, the businessman who leaned over to start a conversation with me at a street café told me that the British were decent people, not "dirty bastards" like a dozen other nationalities he listed. In Belize, I met British soldiers who are still made welcome in their former territory (having a bunch of friendly Brits doing military training in your jungles helps encourage jealous neighbours to stay on their own side of the border). In Singapore, the 19th-century figure who originally claimed the island in the name of the British still has plazas and hotels named after him.

The Scots still resent the English, of course - "we are colonised by wankers", said Ewan McGregor's character in Trainspotting - but they are the exception that proves the rule: Scotland has never been a colony. In fact, enterprising Scots were responsible for the existence of large parts of the British Empire, and profited handsomely from it. Several of the Europeans who feature in Vanuatu's history were Scottish. Based on my experience elsewhere in the world, if the English really had colonised Scotland then the Scots would probably respect us for it.

In the interminably long speech that kicked off the Vanuatu Independence Day celebrations in Melsisi, there was little about shaking off the yoke of colonial oppression. Instead, there was a lot about the need to work hard towards a better future for the young country. In his own speech a week earlier, the Prime Minister had quoted a line from the national anthem:

"You-me savvy plenty work ee stap 'long all island b'long you-me." We know there is plenty of work still to be done on our islands.

When the Independence Day speech was over and the flag had been raised, the final sports matches were played. That evening, students gathered in the rain for the handing out of the trophies. I had managed to get hold of a box of feux d'artifice (people in Melsisi refer to unfamiliar foreign things by their French names rather than their English ones), which I let off from the hillside above the sports ground. It wasn't much of a firework display: they were small garden fireworks, and I hadn't been able set them up in advance in case they got wet, so there were long pauses as I slid about on the hillside removing each firework from its waterproof bag and trying to find a soft patch of ground to poke it into. However, most of the children watching had never seen fireworks before, and the crowd went wild.

I didn't enjoy the moment when the final result of the PISSA Games was announced. Ranwadi's students had trained hard this year and were desperate to come first, but in both Junior and Senior categories they had to settle for second place. The announcer read out the final scores, beginning with ninth place, then eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth, and third. When it was revealed that Ranwadi was number two, I suspected that the outbreak of cheering was not coming from our own students.

I felt even worse than the students did, knowing by following a flawed scoring system had deprived my team of a trophy that was probably rightfully theirs.

My colleagues were quick to spot the dubious football result that had cost Ranwadi its prize.

"You should have ranked them by goal difference," they told me. (The sports masters had all been very clear that they wanted goal average.) "They may have said goal average, but they meant goal difference." (Sports masters ought to know what they're talking about when it comes to their favourite sport.) "Goal average is an outdated way of doing things." (If I questioned every local practice that strikes me as outdated, I'd make myself very unpopular.) "This would never have happened if you had used the proper system." (It was pure chance that the system disadvantaged Ranwadi - the scores could just as easily have been the other way round.) "We should have been consulted about what scoring system to use." (Ranwadi's teachers were too busy praying with the students to attend the daily meetings with the other sports masters and coaches.) And so on.

The matter was soon forgiven and forgotten, but I was left with the unpleasant knowledge that a thing that mattered more to some of my friends, colleagues and students than anything else in the school year - winning the PISSA Games - had been needlessly lost to them as a direct result of something that I had done.

"There's a saying in my village," said old Ezekiel the school mechanic, often a source of gentlemanly wisdom. "If you kill a pig, you can't eat its head in your own nakamal."

I wasn't sure that I understood.


<< June 2007 diary · August 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007