Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

8th June

After classes one afternoon, all the students at Ranwadi lined up in their classrooms to brandish knives at their teachers.

Fed up with students failing to do their chores because they lacked a knife or a broom, or lurking in the bushes outside the Dining Hall waiting for friends to pass food out of the windows because they lacked a plate and spoon, the Deputy Principal had ordered an Equipment Inspection. Teachers were to check that everyone in their classes had all of the seven items that students at Ranwadi are required to possess.

1. A bush knife

Students laid their rusty, eighteen-inch blades on the desk in front of me. Most looked as if they had been well used: trimming hedges around the school, hacking a path through the jungle for the new water pipeline, ploughing soil in the Agriculture gardens, carving on the bedposts in the dormitories. (The posts holding up some of the bunk beds are so deeply notched that I wouldn't want to be the person sleeping on top - or, for that matter, underneath.) I've even seen students using the giant knives to sharpen their pencils.

Everyone got their bush knives? I ticked the list. Show me your knife so I can see. Tick. Where's yours? Go and get it. Tick, tick, tick. OK, thank you. You can put them away now.

Students with bush knives
Well-equipped students

2. A small knife

Students came forward with an assortment of implements, ranging from pen knives to full-size chopping knives. Not exactly small, but I know the students are quite capable of buttering bread with them, so they'll do. Tick, tick, blank. Where's your small knife? Sheepish look. Cross. You need a small knife. Make sure you get one.

3. A broom

Students waved their brooms in the air. Bundles of long twigs plucked from coconut trees, tied loosely together at one end. Tick.

4. A plate

Students showed me their plates. Tick, tick, tick. Much as I suspected, nearly all the students do have plates. They only loiter outside the Dining Hall because they know they're supposed to eat indoors and they want to rebel against the rules.

5. A cup

Boys extricated cups awkwardly from the baggy pockets at the sides of their shorts. The girls had already laid them neatly on top of their plates, ready to inspect. A varied assortment, ranging from tall drinking tumblers to tin mugs. Tick, tick, tick.

6. A spoon

Cutlery was brandished. Tick, tick, tick. Does a fork count as a spoon? The students assured me that it did.

7. A Bible

Tick, tick, tick. All present and correct. These kids were good Christians. They may have been willing to go hungry or get punished for turning up to school without the other items, but they weren't prepared to risk going to Hell.

"What if we don't have the other pieces of equipment?" the students asked.

"You need to get them before next week," I said, passing on what the Deputy Principal had said. "There will be another inspection then."

Get them how? The students had no money to buy new equipment.

The Principal, always quick to spot an opportunity for the simultaneous stoning of multiple birds, came up with the answer.

"Students with missing pieces of equipment can work for them," he wrote on the notice board. "Carrying sand for the building of the Principal's new house."


15th June

Imagine dividing new pupils at a school into two groups, which they are to remain in until the day they graduate. Pupils and their parents have no say in which group they are put into, and changing groups is impossible. Both groups take the same lessons, but they are required to wear different uniforms and sit on different sides of the room. In their spare time, they must play different sports, use different facilities, and socialise in different parts of the school. Friendships between the two groups are forbidden: if a member of one group is caught touching or holding a private conversation with a member of the other group, both will be sentenced to two weeks of hauling rocks as a punishment. If their friendship proves lasting or intimate, the two pupils risk expulsion. Yet, in public at least, this state of apartheid is accepted quite happily by the school's pupils. Indeed, any attempt to make the two groups mix would be met with resistance and horror.

In private, needless to say, the situation is somewhat more nuanced. Teenage boys and teenage girls are attracted to one another in even the most straitened of traditional societies, and secret 'friending' between boys and girls does happen in Vanuatu schools. Since such friendships are not supposed to occur, and are definitely not supposed to be talked about, the students are never taught about how to conduct them responsibly.

Occasionally, of course, a mishap will occur, which leads to a lot of tut-tutting and causes one unfortunate ni-Vanuatu girl to begin her career of child-rearing and domestic drudgery at the age of fifteen rather than the age of twenty. (Abortion is so completely out-of-the-question that I don't even know what its legal status is in Vanuatu.) Such accidents are embarrassing, but there are always plenty of aunties on hand who can help the young mother look after her baby, and plenty of uncles who can hunt down the hapless father and force him down the aisle. For parents who worry about the risk of teenage pregnancies, the traditional solution is not to promote safe sex, but to redouble their efforts to keep young boys and girls well apart.

The arrival of HIV in Vanuatu five years ago brought a change in attitudes. Now, illicit liaisons were no longer merely a matter of loose morals and poor family planning - they could be life-threatening. Doctors, aid workers and the Vanuatu Ministry of Health began to put out earnest messages about the importance of safe sex. In bashful island society, however, their messages did not penetrate far. The only form of sex education given at many Vanuatu schools is to remind the students that it's a sin.

At Ranwadi, where staff and students live together on a small campus and there is nearly always somebody watching you, the school is fairly efficient at finding and stamping out inappropriate friendships before they reach a serious stage. The path between the school and its sports field, laid with coral stones last year by boys who'd been sentenced to spend their afternoons doing hard labour after being caught alone with female friends, is a monument to frustrated teenage love. (The path is starting to become slippery as the coral wears thin, and I privately hope that a few more students will fall in love soon so that we can get it resurfaced.) Penitent young Romeos also supplied many of the stones for the rockery outside my house.

Outsiders occasionally worry that the boys at the school will react to this suppression of their instincts in the way that male prisoners sometimes do, but as far as the locals are concerned, this isn't an issue: homosexuality doesn't officially exist on Pentecost. (Then again, neither do teenage romances.)

In the French-influenced, Catholic environment of the Collège de Melsisi, the gap between preaching and practice is wider than at Ranwadi, and with the school buildings scattered through a large village full of dark nooks and crannies there is more room for mischief. After listening to some worrying gossip about what her students get up to after the electricity generator is shut down for the night and the lights go off, Sara the Peace Corps volunteer decided to do something about it. A bowl of little foil packets appeared in Sara's house. Boys who came round to the house for help with their homework could slip one into their pocket if they wanted, no questions asked.

I admired Sara's bravery. "You're giving out condoms to the kids on a Catholic mission?"

"The students are already friending one another. They might as well be doing it safely."

Sara's next step was to organise a health education workshop for the students at the College. Local aid agencies gladly contributed a pile of resources, including booklets explaining in Pidgin English how to use a condom ("Step one: Find'em one partner who ee want'em make'm sex with'em you"), and several Peace Corps volunteers from other parts of Vanuatu came to help.

The local doctors and the Ministry of Health approved wholeheartedly of Sara's efforts. Her Catholic colleagues, she suspected, might be less supportive. The workshop was scheduled for a Saturday - when none of the other teachers would be around.

I visited Melsisi late on the day of the workshop, and found the participants gathered around the lawn in front of the College. Lessons had finished, and the students were busy demonstrating their new knowledge to their friends. Small groups of boys and girls had organised short skits, each designed to communicate a message about being healthy and responsible, and were performing them in front of the others. It all seemed to be going well. The first to perform were the youngest students, the Year 7s, whose skits dealt with uncontroversial, straightforward topics such as drinking and smoking (don't do it, kids). After a break for dinner, the innocent young Year 7s were sent home, and the hard-core stuff could begin.

During the break, I chatted to some of the students attending the workshop. Compared with pupils in sex education lessons in Britain - who think they've heard it all before, and often treat the lessons as little more than a slightly-awkward form of light entertainment - the teenagers at Melsisi were serious and solemn.

It's good that they are teaching these things to us, some boys said.

They said it a little nervously. I didn't know whether they were nervous of romance, of sex, of embarrassment in front of their friends, of AIDS, of sitting in classrooms listening to foreigners break local taboos and wondering just how far they'd go, or of the prospect of their English teacher being kicked out of the village by an irate Catholic priest. (The latter, to Sara's relief, never happened.)

When I returned to Melsisi a few days later, two of the other Peace Corps volunteers were still there. One was sitting at Sara's laptop, reading out questions in Pidgin English that had been submitted anonymously by students at the workshop.

"Hole b'long sex ee big one or small one?"

Sara and the other volunteer were dictating answers.

"You guys are really taking this health programme seriously," I observed.

Sara nodded. "Let me show you the sex education room."

She led me into her spare bedroom, where the walls were covered with posters, many of them hand-written in Pidgin English. Some had diagrams, illustrating what happens when boys and girls turn into men and women, while others explained topics such as "sick moon" (menstruation) and contraception.

It's OK to say no if your boyfriend wants sex, said one poster. But here are some things you can do in the meantime. The suggestions ranged from "write'm letter" and "hold'em hand" to "hold'em titty" and "fight'em cock" (either alone or with your partner, the poster advised).

"Don't Catholics consider that a sin?" I asked.

"That's why some of the women here are so unhappy," Sara said. "As far as the men are concerned, masturbation is a sin, but forcing yourself violently on your wife when she doesn't want it is not."

The following Friday night, while Sara was down at the shore collecting a parcel off a cargo ship, two of the schoolboys approached her and asked for condoms.

Nervously, as though she were a drug dealer, Sara allowed the boys to follow her back to her house. It was late, and she hoped her neighbours weren't watching. She explained to the boys that she would only give them what they wanted if they intended to use them responsibly. They were not to play with them, and were not to try and use them on any girl who wasn't entirely ready and willing.

"So who are your girlfriends?" she asked.

The boys looked awkward.

"Er, me-two-fella ee hope, say, me-two-fella ee try'em with'em you."


"Me-two-fella ee want'em make'm sex with'em you." The boys were serious. "You savvy show'em how you make'm sex. Help'em education b'long me-two-fella."

Sara was still in shock when she told me the story the next day.

"What you are asking is completely inappropriate and disrespectful," she had told the boys, as she kicked them out into the night. "There are lines, lines that you don't cross, and you have crossed those lines!"

"But you already crossed their lines," I pointed out. "You crossed their lines by talking to them about sex, which is normally taboo here. How were they supposed to know where the new lines were drawn?"

"But I'm their teacher! It's totally disrespectful."

Although horrified by what the boys had said, Sara never reported the incident to her colleagues. ("Nobody in Melsisi surfs the Internet, and they certainly wouldn't read a page in English", she reassured me, when I mentioned this diary.) One of the boys had a record of misbehaviour and would have been expelled if the Principal had discovered what he had tried to do with his English teacher, which Sara didn't want. She was also reluctant to draw attention to her sex education programme.

By this time preparations were well under way for the PISSA Games - a big inter-school sports tournament, which Melsisi will be hosting this year - and the college was busy coaching students and building new sports facilities. Sara went back to her usual job of teaching students to shoot basketballs at hoops and conjugate English verbs, and at the Collège de Melsisi sex was quietly forgotten.


<< May 2007 diary · July 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007