Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

3rd November

"We can't rewind, we've gone too far,
Pictures came and broke your heart,
Put the blame on VCR."

- from the first song ever played on MTV

"Have you ever been at home during a power cut?" asks one of the British-authored science textbooks used by the junior students at Ranwadi. "Life's not much fun without electricity."

The majority of the students have not had the experience of being at home during a power cut. Their homes don't have power. Even at Ranwadi, where the buildings do have electricity wired into them, nobody uses the word "power cut". Instead, they talk about "power on"; absence of electricity is the normal state of affairs. Power on is from sunset until half-past nine in the evenings, and sometimes for a couple of hours during the daytime if the teachers need to use the photocopier or the computers and the school can afford the fuel for the generator.

With poorly-installed circuitry, corrosive humidity, and generators that struggle to cope with the load (twenty or so houses and an entire high school campus are run on a wattage that probably wouldn't light even half of Al Gore's house), electrical problems are common. In some rooms, fluorescent lights spend the evening flickering pathetically, their power supply insufficient to kick them into life. Students from certain classes wander the school during evening study times because every single one of lights in their classroom is out. The boys' dormitories were without lighting for the whole of last term, due to an electrical fault caused by one boy's attempt to hack into the power cables running through the wall beside his bed and wire in an extra plug socket. ("Him ee danger little-bit," commented the school mechanic, with typical understatement.) Sometimes computers and DVD players flick off and on as the voltage coming out of the sockets drops critically and teachers rush around the school trying to find and stop whoever is overloading the power supply - the handyman using power tools perhaps, or too many people opening and closing the freezer in the school store.

Qualified electricians do very occasionally visit Pentecost, but at other times the job of operating the electricity generators and repairing faults is done by a combination of the handyman, the mechanic, the boarding master and the Technology teacher. The handyman is experienced at painting and patching up holes, the mechanic is skilled at disassembling engines, the boarding master is good at odd jobs, and the Technology teacher has a certificate in woodwork. Their knowledge of electricity is limited, but they all know how to use a screwdriver, and through their combined efforts they manage to keep the majority of the lights on.

Fixing the school generator
Ezekiel the mechanic (centre) and Charles the Technology teacher (right) work on the generator, with help from the Principal (left)

In addition to its main generator, the school has two or three small generators, one of which, on average, is in working order at any given time. These are not enough to power the entire school, but will run parts of it at times when somebody needs electricity for a specific purpose, such as photocopying an important exam, and wants to economise on fuel. They are also a useful backup when the big generator breaks down.

Twice in the two years that I've been at Ranwadi, all the generators have broken down simultaneously, and the school has gone completely without power, on one occasion for nearly a month. However, apart from the frustrating lack of contact from the outside world (the only times I've ever phoned home from Ranwadi rather than e-mailing were during power outages when I used the mere two or three minutes of international call time provided by local phone cards to reassure my parents that I was still alive), I quite enjoyed the absence of electricity. Evenings were quiet and candlelit, and instead of doing battle with temperamental computers and being called out of lessons by colleagues who need help unjamming the photocopier, I wrote my notes by hand and chalked them on the blackboard for my students to copy.

Nearly everything that people on Pentecost need to do can be done without electricity. Light can be provided by battery-powered torches, or by candles and lanterns. (It was only after seeing the little orange flames shining from teachers' houses late in the evenings that I realised why people talk of "burning the midnight oil".) Heating is rarely necessary - the coldest temperature I have ever known on Pentecost was 18°C (65°F) - and villagers who do feel the cold on winter nights can wrap themselves up in a blanket or huddle around the fire. Air-conditioning would be nice, but in its absence those who don't want to sweat in the heat can cool themselves by reptilian means like sitting in cool breezes or jumping in the river. The stove or the fire can do the job of an electric kettle, a toaster or a microwave. With most food either gathered straight from the gardens, or bought in packets and tins with Methuselan shelf-lives, fridges and freezers are seldom needed. Many of these can be powered with gas or kerosene anyway. Instead of vacuum cleaners there are bush brooms; instead of hair driers there are towels and the sun and the wind. Musical entertainment can be provided by stereos running off chunky batteries, or by the old-fashioned means singing and playing the guitar.

In spite of all this, a number of villagers are now using the increasing amounts of money earned from selling kava to buy themselves small electricity generators. However, this is not because electrical household gadgets are more convenient than their old-fashioned predecessors: most owners of new generators continue to cook on wood fires and light their houses with lanterns. The real reason for the slow but noticeable spread of electricity across Pentecost in recent years is the invention of the DVD player.

Television and videos are one of the few things for which the islanders have never found a non-electrical substitute. You can run stoves and fridges and lights on wood and paraffin and gas, but to my knowledge nobody has ever invented an oil-fired TV.

Until recently, few people bemoaned the inability to plug in televisions, because there would have been little to watch. Pentecost is too far from town to receive terrestrial TV broadcasts, and satellite TV is beyond the means of most of the islanders. A handful of people used to have videocassette players and tapes, but these were expensive, and didn't last long in a jungle environment. When I was required to show a video to my Year 13 students last year using the school's ancient VCR, I had to stand beside the screen like a weatherperson explaining to the students what the blurry pictures and inaudible fuzz were supposed to be showing them. This year, I refused to do the exercise unless the exam board sent me a copy of the video on DVD.

Even in a country where import duties double the price of most electronic goods (don't let any of the Australians who have offshore bank accounts in Port Vila tell you that Vanuatu is tax-free), DVD players can now be bought at Chinese stores in town for no more than the price of a couple of sacks of good home-grown kava. Even very cheap DVD players are more robust and portable than the old VCRs, and their discs can be copied and distributed with far greater ease than videocassettes. People in Vanuatu have a sophisticated notion of copyright when it comes to traditional artefacts - those wishing to copy a particular carving were traditionally required to pay pigs as royalties to the chief who owned the design - but the concept is non-existent when it comes to music and videos. A few well-equipped storekeepers buy packs of "empty DVDs" (the word "blank" has yet to enter the local vocabulary) onto which they burn whatever movies their customers feel like watching, which not only saves money but allows them to respond effectively to local demand, a rare thing on an island where warehouses and suppliers are a long ship journey away.

Approaching a village in the evenings, it is now common to be greeted by the sound of a rumbling generator and the sight of a group of people sitting fixated in a pool of bluish light. At the increasing number of food and kava nights that local people put on to raise money for community projects or their children's school fees, video showings are a regular attraction. At Ranwadi, meanwhile, a couple of the teachers have become such video junkies that they will run small private generators even when the school's main generator is off, just so that they can watch a DVD.

The most popular DVDs are "stories belong fight". The ordinarily gentle ni-Vanuatu have an astonishing love of on-screen violence of all kinds, whether it comes from black-suited gangsters raiding casinos, Oriental martial arts masters, a giant computer-generated gorilla, rebellious Roman legions thrown into the gladiator pit, Bruce Willis and a noble troop of well-armed American soldiers splattering their way out of an awkward military situation, or blue-painted Scotsmen baring their cheeks at the English enemy before running them through with swords and spears. People who have seen the movie before may actually fast-forward through the parts where people are talking rather than killing, and stop the movie not when it reaches the end but when it reaches the point where the last bad guy has been killed.

The local taste for violent movies is partly, though not entirely, because they are straightforward to understand. As far as I know nobody has ever produced a movie in any of Vanuatu's languages, and even well-educated islanders struggle to follow the English of Mafia bosses or William Wallace. Subtitles help, but on cheap discs imported from Asia these are often unavailable, or at least not available in languages that the locals understand. I recently came across a group of Francophone villagers squinting at a movie subtitled in Portuguese and muttering that French was hard to understand. In addition, the dialogue of the average movie is so loaded with idioms and foreign concepts that it would thoroughly confuse even an islander who understood every individual word, just as I get confused when villagers are describing customs to which I don't know the cultural background.

Whilst the villagers will happily sit down with their children to watch movies containing the most hideous violence, sex is another matter. Although privately there is a keen demand among local men for "rubbish movies" (by which they don't mean the kind in which Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom go on a journey of romantic self-discovery), at video nights the slightest hint of on-screen intimacy has the villagers scrambling for the fast-forward button. Not only are sex scenes embarrassing and distasteful to the locals, they're also not very entertaining, since they seldom culminate in anybody getting killed.

At video nights, it's customary to play a few music videos before the main movie begins. People watch these avidly, and not just because they enjoy the songs. Try spending a few minutes watching MTV sometime and think about how many of the seemingly-mundane images that you see - a person riding a subway train, for example, or sending a text message on a mobile phone - would be fascinating to a person who grew up in a village in the jungle. Such glimpses of Western life also occur in movies, of course, but the villagers are well aware that Hollywood mixes fact with fiction, and that moviegoers can't always tell which is which. People ask me whether Scotsmen really wear skirts, and in the same tone of voice ask whether there really are islands still inhabited by dinosaurs. Music videos are more interesting, one islander told me, because they show "things that are true".

What must Britain and America look like through the lens of a pop video, I wonder? Dangerous, colourful, decadent, fast-moving, extravagant and hyperemotional, perhaps. Full of Englishmen who talk like Americans, Irishmen who talk like the English, and black people who wear hats and sunglasses indoors and make weird gestures with their hands (which are imitated obnoxiously by Vanuatu teenagers when they get the chance to pose in front of a camera) in order to look cool. A culture obsessed with youth, beauty, money and sex? A lifestyle that is frightening and strange, or one that is simply alluring?

How would it feel for the islanders to travel to these glamorous places and find out that, just like in their own countries, the majority of the inhabitants lead dull lives, wear ordinary-looking clothes, and concern themselves with the mundane routines of earning a living, bringing up children, dealing with their friends and families, and growing old? Perhaps something like the way it would feel for a Westerner who'd grown up on Band Aid images of the Third World as a place whose inhabitants struggle humbly to maintain their traditions and work themselves out of poverty to go there and find that, just like his own country, it is full of loud and fashion-obsessed young people who squander their education and desire money mainly so that they can buy a bigger TV screen.

Last year, AusAID sent Ranwadi a dozen new computers to help with students' education. Developing computer skills - which are still rare among ni-Vanuatu - could be a real asset to students when they leave school and seek good jobs in town. Interactive learning exercises could also help the students get over the immense difficulty they have in trying to conceptualise ideas when presented to them in a strange language. At first, working with the students on the new computers was fun: they were eager to learn, took obvious pleasure in their ability to use the new technology, and mastered it extremely quickly. However, after it was discovered that the computers could play music and videos, nobody wanted to use them for anything else. Students who were allowed into the computer lab to study would start playing music and games as soon as they sensed that a teacher was no longer looking over their shoulders. Getting the students interested in using computers for anything other than entertainment became so difficult that I and the other expat teachers largely gave up bothering. It's no fun trying to teach a student to type a letter or fill in a spreadsheet when the student is paying little attention and enduring the lesson only in the grudging hope that the teacher will give them permission to click on "My Videos" when their work is finished. The lovely new Computer Room now sits largely unused, except when the teachers want to play space invaders or watch a video CD.

Fortunately, Pentecost is not an island of telly addicts yet. The cost of fuelling their electricity generators means that, for the majority of the villagers, watching videos remains an occasional treat rather than a daily pastime. However, the spread of newer and cheaper solar panels and of communal electricity supplies such as the school's will eventually overcome this limitation. Now that there are potential viewers in so many villages it is also only a matter of time before the Vanuatu government (or one of its many foreign friends) builds a TV transmitter on Pentecost, providing continuous entertainment even to those who have run out of DVDs to watch. The French would probably pay for the transmitter, if they were given a guarantee that plenty of its output would be en français. Or the government could try asking for help from China, which has already begun generously supplying viewers in Port Vila and Luganville with CCTV9, its poisonous English-language news channel. Perhaps Benny Hinn could chip in a few dollars, in return for the chance to beam his televised sermons to 15,000 virgin viewers who have fallen too hopelessly in love with their new medium to realise that it might be capable of lying to them. And don't bemoan the naivety of islanders who would allow themselves to be manipulated in the interests of cheap entertainment: we all do the same every time we watch an advert on TV.

The most often-repeated lie on television, anywhere in the world, is that is output is not to be missed.

"I couldn't go and live in a place like Vanuatu," several of my friends back home tell me. "I would miss television too much."

The majority would not.

Television is like caffeine. For those who are used to it, a day or a week's deprivation is painfully frustrating. However, go without for a month, or for a year, and you'll forget that you ever wanted it. There is no longing to watch the next episode, no fretting that you have lost track of the fortunes of your favourite soap-opera characters. You lost track ages ago, the episodes passed you by, and after a while you found that it didn't matter any more. The series you were following came to an end, and although you know that new series have replaced them, you no longer care what they are. Hearing friends discuss the latest programme is like hearing them discuss someone you don't know - you might prick up your ears if something particularly salacious comes up, but by and large you just ignore them.

Admittedly, I am not an ideal guinea pig in which to study the effect of televisual deprivation in humans: I was never a particular fan of television. I dislike unnecessary background noise, and back home I would get irritated by people who automatically switched on the TV when they sat down in a room even if there was nothing they really wanted to watch. (I, in turn, would irritate those people by switching off TVs that nobody appeared to be watching.) As a student in Edinburgh I went for a year without a television set, and enjoyed it, except for the regular annoyance of people trying to start conversations about what they'd seen on TV and an offensive stream of letters from the TV Licensing Authority insinuating that I was lying when I told them I didn't own a television. Yet ordinarily TV-loving expats who I meet in Vanuatu say the same thing: it's strange how little we miss television.

Television may not be missable, but its absence is something that I certainly will miss as the new media spread across Pentecost. Already, the experience of tranquil tropical evenings spoiled by rumbling generators and videos turned up to full volume to drown them out has led me on several occasions to wish that the DVD player had never been invented. To the locals, however, silence is primitive. Loud entertainment is the future, and cheap DVD players would be the best thing since sliced bread if the latter had yet made it to Pentecost.

(Sliced bread, incidentally, is another invention that I will lament when it eventually does arrive on the island and replaces fresh, crisp, wood-smoked loaves. One enterprising local baker has already asked me if I knew where he could order a slicing machine.)

To describe TV entertainment as a drug would be clichéd and wrong. (Drugs stimulate the mind in novel ways.) Yet there is undoubtedly something narcotic about the glowing blue screens and the way they draw you in.

On my last evening in Panngi, as I lay in my bed in the normally-peaceful thatched guesthouse recovering from the effects of inadvertently drinking paraffin, the sounds of the crickets and the waves on the beach were interrupted by the splutter and drone of a generator being started. In the hut opposite, villagers had gathered to watch music videos on DVD. Unable to relax amidst the lawnmower-like noise coming through the window, I did the only thing I could. I went across to the neighbouring hut, sat down amongst the villagers, fixed my eyes on the screen, and began to watch.


16th November

One Sunday after church, Sara put on her best dress and stood in front of a crowd of villagers to make her apology.

For months, her neighbours had politely ignored the fact that Paulo, a handsome young man from a nearby village, was spending nearly every evening at Sara's house. In Pentecost culture, it would be scandalous for a man to call on a lone woman in her home, but people realised that foreigners did things differently. Paulo, they knew, was one of the few people among the French-educated villagers around Melsisi who spoke good English. He had spent time abroad, and could chat at length about world affairs. He was also helpful around the house. Perhaps he was only visiting Sara to chat to her in her native language, or to watch her DVDs, or to give a hand with tasks such as cutting the branches of the grapefruit tree that clattered on windy nights against the tin roof of Sara's house - tasks a girl shouldn't be expected to do on her own.

When Paulo took Sara up the mountain to visit his village - the Vanuatu equivalent of bringing the new girlfriend home to meet the parents - whispers began. However, the majority of Sara's neighbours continued to turn a blind eye.

However, when Paulo overslept and was seen leaving Sara's house quite a while after dawn, rumours began to spread in earnest.

Then Paulo's father, a prominent local chief, announced proudly that his son was going to get married to the white girl.

Sara had not been consulted about this.

"He's just my boyfriend!" she protested to the villagers. "I'm not planning to marry him."

That was when the scandal really broke loose.

"Lots of people round here are having secret relationships," one of Sara's colleagues explained to her. "I've had affairs. Plenty of the other teachers have gone to bed with women who are not their wives. If they do it in secret and nobody can prove anything, then it will be OK. But you cannot ever admit in public that you are having a relationship with somebody you are not married to. When you do that, then there is trouble."

The behaviour of Pentecost's inhabitants is governed by two authorities. The first is that of God and the Bible, whose position on relationships between unmarried men and women is fairly clear. The second is the temwat.

"Temwat" (or "tamata" in neighbouring languages) is most commonly translated as "peace". The concept encompasses not just the kind of peace in which people aren't fighting one another, but also spiritual harmony. Temwat also refers to the set of unwritten laws and principles by which peace is maintained. Traditionally these included both obvious rules such as not stealing, and local taboos such as not visiting particular places at particular times. Enforcing these rules is the role of traditional chiefs. If everybody follows the rules and upholds the temwat, the islanders believe that their community will be protected from harm. However, if the temwat is broken, the person responsible must perform a ceremony to make amends - not just with the chiefs and with the person who was wronged, to whom pigs and red mats must be paid in compensation, but also with the spirits. Only when such a ceremony has been completed will the temwat be restored and harmony return.

Screwing the white girl was definitely not good for the temwat.

In traditional society, if a boy and girl 'made trouble' together, it would be up to their parents to make amends.

"My parents don't care that I have a boyfriend," Sara told the villagers truthfully. "They're happy for me. And Paulo's father doesn't have a problem with me seeing his son either. It's nobody else's business."

Other local elders, however, were demanding that fines be paid.

The host 'father' who had been assigned to look after Sara when she first arrived in Melsisi, embarrassed by the scandal, gave a red mat to the church.

"You shouldn't have done that," Sara told him.

Sara's host father, in turn, demanded a pig from Paulo's family in compensation for the defiling of his daughter.

"I'm not giving that man anything," said Paulo, whose clan have a long-standing feud with Sara's host family. "He's not your father."

Down in the nakamals and kava bars, the whole business was discussed at length. At the Sunset Kava Bar, I listened to the villagers chattering in their language and followed little of it until the flamboyant barkeeper chose to make his contribution to the conversation loudly, in a language I understood well:

"Ee never been got one man before, along place here, who ee take'm one white missus!"

"We don't blame Sara," the villagers hastily assured me. "Paulo is the one who has done wrong."

When I tried to defend Paulo, who had never seemed to me to be anything than an honourable gentleman (although I did wonder how his father had come to be under the false impression that Paulo and Sara had marriage plans), the villagers shifted their blame elsewhere.

"The College Principal is the one who's really to blame," they agreed. "He should have kept an eye on Sara and put a stop to this relationship before it got this far."

Although the villagers would have agreed unhesitatingly that a local boy and girl who caused such a scandal should be fined and forced to repent, there was concern about the idea of imposing the same punishment on a Peace Corps volunteer. The College de Melsisi plans to expand next year and badly needs more expatriates to come and teach English there. Some locals worried that treating Sara harshly would dissuade overseas organisations from sending future volunteers.

"You are right to be worried," I told them, in an attempt to persuade them to drop the matter. "Sara and I appreciate that things are done differently in your culture, but people back home are going to hear about this and find the idea of treating someone this way just because she has a boyfriend weird and wrong." Punishing Sara would also be wrong in the eyes of the Peace Corps organisation, which tries to protect its volunteers from arbitrary fines.

When legitimate discussion in the nakamals was exhausted, wilder gossip began to take its place. One popular rumour held that Sara and Paulo were planning to run away to America together. A medically implausible but far more entertaining story told that Paulo had been rushed to hospital for an emergency circumcision after developing a life-threatening swelling during a passionate night with Sara.

"Gammon, gammon, gammon," I said, repeating the Pidgin word for lies.

"No, me-fella ee think say ee true," said my drinking companions.

Even my students at Ranwadi joined in the gossip.

"Are you going to fight Sara's new man?" they asked me.

"Why would I do that? I like the guy."

"But he took your girl."

Most of the islanders, for whom boys and girls can never be 'just friends', have always classified Sara as either my sister or my girlfriend. Either way, I ought to have been furious with Paulo. Even Paulo himself seemed to find it slightly odd when I ran into him a couple of weeks later in the village of Hotwata, a few miles down the coast, and greeted him like a friend.

"I came to Hotwata to attend a wedding," he explained. "Then my cousins here asked me to help them clear the ground for a new kava garden. After that, I was on my way back when someone pointed out that there was another ceremony happening and asked if I could stay. Then, just as I was getting ready to leave, something else came up..."

"...and I bet it's nice for you to get out of Melsisi for while," I added.

Paulo nodded, grinning with embarrassment.

Up at Melsisi, Sara remained defiant. Even by the standards of Vanuatu society, it was ridiculous that everyone was making such a fuss simply because a boy and a girl were dating. It seemed that whenever Sara worked hard to help the community - spending hours filling in application forms to secure funding for new equipment, for example, in addition to her time-consuming teaching job - her efforts were taken for granted. Yet now that she had done something wrong, every eye in the village was suddenly on her.

There was a great deal of hypocrisy in the whole business: few people in Melsisi were sufficiently without sin to throw the first stone. During her work on Pentecost, Sara had patiently endured the company of many repulsive men whom she knew to have beaten, raped or cheated on their wives. Although privately she moaned about the state of Vanuatu society, and had got involved in community education programmes aimed at improving the role of local women, she had never openly passed judgment on her neighbours' behaviour.

I suspected that some of the villagers' gossip was also motivated by jealousy. Paulo had merely succeeded in doing to Sara what at least a dozen other guys had told me on various occasions they would have liked to do to her. And then there were the double standards. I had spent nights at Sara's house on many occasions without drawing any comment from the locals, as had several male Peace Corps volunteers. Villagers who encounter me in Melsisi in the evenings - even the ones who don't treat me as Sara's brother - actually encourage me to sleep at her house rather than braving the long and ghost-infested road back to Ranwadi. But in my case it was different, of course. Not because I was sleeping in the spare bed (which I don't think all of the villagers believed), but because I was a white man.

The sad truth seemed to be that in Vanuatu, like elsewhere in the world, even people who are not ordinarily racist get uneasy at the sight of a black man hand-in-hand with a white woman.

"I'm not getting fined for this," Sara asserted.

Unfortunately, Sara and Paulo had fallen foul not only of the Catholic mission and traditional customs, but also a complicated web of village politics. As the scandal brought to the surface long-standing rivalries between Paulo's family and the various factions involved in running the mission, old feuds were reopened. The temwat had been broken, and Sara reluctantly accepted that something needed to be done to put things right.

The penalty demanded from Sara was six red mats - traditional money equivalent to a hundred dollars or so. By local standards, it was a big fine. Paulo and his family were to give two prized pigs with whorled tusks - one to Sara's host father, and the other to the local priest in compensation for fornicating on his mission. The 'sorry ceremony' was arranged for the following Sunday. After the ceremony was completed, all would be forgiven, provided that Sara and Paulo did not see each other again.

Sara, of course, had no red mats. Modern money would have been accepted as a substitute, but Sara decided instead to do things the Pentecost way.

If a local person had lacked the pigs or mats needed to pay a fine, he would have gone cap-in-hand to his family, his friends, and anybody else who was well-disposed towards him. Historically, an offender who could not raise the necessary pigs and mats to pay a fine would have been strung up to a tree and burned alive. The fact that your neighbours' willingness to do you a favour might one day be the only thing standing between you and a fiery death presumably gave people a strong incentive to treat one another nicely (as well as providing a mechanism for ridding the community of arseholes). Nowadays, nobody gets executed for failing to pay a fine, but they might be banished from the village. This was the fate that Sara was now threatened with if she didn't pay.

It was time for Sara to get her reward from all the people for whom she'd done favours - filling in grant application forms, typing up letters, lending magazines and DVDs, umpiring and scorekeeping at sports matches, taking photos, helping order goods from abroad, and teaching English to the children. She put on her best dress and set off around the village to ask for red mats.

"I'd contribute a mat if I had one," I told her.

By the time of the ceremony, Sara had persuaded her friends and neighbours to donate the mats she needed. When she arrived in the grassy clearing outside the tin meeting house where the villagers had gathered, proceedings were already underway. The mats and the pigs were presented, local chiefs inspected the items and gave speeches in a language Sara didn't understand, and the ceremony was completed.

The sorry ceremony
Saying sorry, Pentecost-style

Sara believed that this would be the end of the matter. Yet the conversations she had with the villagers afterwards bothered her. A worrying number of people seemed to be under the impression that by presenting a pig to Sara's host father, Paulo's father had blocked Sara.

In the unromantic language of Vanuatu relationships, 'blocking' means that a father claims a girl as a future bride for his son, blocking her from other suitors. In other words, Sara and Paulo were now formally engaged to be married.

When I next saw Sara, she was about as happy as you would expect a girl to be after learning that her hand in marriage had been given away, without her knowledge, in exchange for a pig.

"It wasn't even a particularly good pig," she complained.

Had Sara been blocked or not? Different people had told her different things. Since she hadn't attended or understood all of the ceremony, she had no way of finding out for herself.

In frustration, she wrote an open letter to her school principal and the local chiefs, explaining (amongst other things) that there were important differences between Pentecost marriage customs and American ones. After further confusion and a couple of meetings, it was eventually explained to her that she had not, in fact, been blocked. Not that it really mattered, of course: Sara had no intention of being forced into a marriage against her will. Unlike the unfortunate local girls who find themselves in similar situations, she had a means of escape.

"When my placement ends in a couple of months, I'm out of this place," she said. Her tone was not sentimental. "If Paulo chooses to come and visit me in America, he's welcome. But what happens in future is our business, nobody else's."

A few weeks later, I found myself drinking kava with one of the chiefs who had presided over the ceremony.

"What really happened at Sara's sorry ceremony?" I asked him.

"Paulo's father tried to have her blocked," he replied. "But we refused to allow it, on the grounds that Sara's real father wasn't around to give his agreement."

Everything was OK, then. Provided that Sara's father in America didn't develop a sudden hankering for pork, she was safe from being sold away into marriage.

Many people, including me, were hoping for a Hollywood ending to the whole drama. I had a vision of Sara and Paulo jumping on the backs of the two prized pigs and galloping away like cowboys, trailing long red mats behind them. A crowd of angry villagers would shake their fists and give chase, while an irate priest bellowed hellfire at the departing fugitives and Paulo's old father watched the couple disappear around the headland with a proud smile on his face. They would arrive at the airfield with the villagers in hot pursuit, to find the plane already taxiing away along the grass. Leaving the pigs behind to fend off the mob, they would jump onto a nearby truck, pursue the Twin Otter along the field at a hundred miles per hour, leap on board during the split second that the plane began to leave the ground, and fly away to live happily ever after in the land of the free.

But Hollywood romances do not happen on Pentecost. Two months later, Sara's placement at Melsisi came to an end, and she packed her things to leave.

She will probably never see Paulo again.


23rd November

"It's like a modern form of grade-taking," Mr Neil observed, after the Vanuatu government announced that this year there would be national exams for the country's Year 8 students, in addition to the usual exams sat by Years 10, 12 and 13.

In the days before Western education arrived on Pentecost Island, a young man who aspired to high status would have to advance through a series of grades. At each grade, a couple of years spent raising pigs and learning traditional customs would culminate in a ceremony at which the pigs were killed and shared with the community, who in turn would accord the young man greater respect. To reach the highest levels of society a man needed to have both the right personal qualities, and wealthy friends and relatives who could help him get together the pigs required for each grade. Many people contented themselves with minor chiefly titles, whilst others never bothered to set foot on the social ladder at all, preferring simple lives of low status to the demands of grade-taking and chiefdom.

Old-fashioned grade-taking continues to take place on Pentecost, and the system still underlies the island's society. However, for the majority of its youngsters today, the route to achieving their ambitions is not through pigs and rituals, but through schooling. This, too, involves a series of demanding stages through which individuals must pass in order to reach the higher levels of society. Each stage involves the expenditure of wealth, tests of character, and the learning of skills, culminating in a graduation ceremony and an end-of-year party at which a pig or two is usually roasted. And like in the grade-taking system, only a minority of those who enter the Vanuatu education system will make it to the end.

Until recently the first challenge came in Year 6, at the end of primary school (although in the darker corners of Vanuatu there were kids who didn't even make it that far), at which children sat the first of the sets of exams that would decide their educational fate. The better-performing students had the opportunity to proceed to secondary school, provided that their parents could afford the school fees.

Dropping out of school at the age of eleven is a sad fate in any country, and the Vanuatu government is now trying to reform the system by keeping leaving it until Year 8 before subjecting children to the trial of examinations. The government's official hope is that the by the time they leave Year 8, even those who are not academically gifted will at least have acquired enough basic literacy and numeracy to enable them to enter vocational training courses. In practise, many will go back to their villages. It's true that Year 8 leavers will emerge from school better able to make a contribution to their communities than Year 6 leavers, but this is mainly because a thirteen-year-old can swing a gardening knife with more force than an eleven-year-old.

For those who progress beyond Year 8, the next trial comes at the end of Year 10, in which students sit exams set by the Ministry of Education. These mark the point at which the national curriculum comes to an end, and until recently this was the end of the road for most students. A mere decade ago, no school on Vanuatu's rural islands offered education beyond Year 10.

The principal of Ranwadi, saddened by the sight of so many bright students having their opportunities cut off at this level, was one of the first to try and change this, by expanding his school to take students on to Years 11 and 12. Other schools followed suit. At the end of Year 12, the students sit exams set by the South Pacific Board for Educational Assessment (SPBEA), one of the many quirky institutions through which the micro-countries of Oceania pool their limited resources. The region served by SPBEA spans the International Date Line, which makes for confusing exam timetables.

A handful of schools have since added yet another grade to the hierarchy with the introduction of Year 13. For this level schools have two options: providing a further year of teaching prescribed by SPBEA, or allowing students to follow self-taught distance-learning courses organised by the University of the South Pacific (another quirky regional institution). Lacking the staff and resources to offer a fully-taught programme to its Year 13s, Ranwadi has adopted the latter option.

This expansion in education has, of course, been made possible by money. Contrary to what optimistic islanders will tell you, Vanuatu's people are not getting richer: the country's official GDP per head is actually going down as the population grows faster than the economy. Yet the slow shift from a traditional economy to a modern one is making it easier for parents to get together the cash needed to pay a child's school fees, and the increasing number of lucrative jobs available in town has created a class of rich uncles who can help out with their younger relatives' education. Overseas aid organisations have enabled schools to expand physically by paying for new classrooms and textbooks. In addition, many foreign visitors who fell in love with Vanuatu and were upset by the sight of their new lover's children in rags have begun sponsoring local students.

The expansion in education will bring huge benefits, both to students themselves and to their country, which is now training enthusiastic young citizens to perform many of the roles for which Vanuatu previously relied on foreign expertise. However, it also has a downside. Whereas youngsters once struggled hard in the knowledge that only the very best would be given the chance to continue their studies at higher levels, many have now begun committing the Western sin of taking their education for granted. Just as the grade-taking system was undermined a century ago when islanders who had earned money working for the white man began trying to buy their way into the hierarchy without learning the rituals of chiefdom, the education system is damaged today by students who know that even if their grades are mediocre they will still find a school willing to take them and relatives willing to continue paying their fees. Most, it is true, will succeed in leaving school with some sort of qualification, but they will then struggle to find work among employers who are well aware that a high school certificate is not the mark of talent and dedication that it once was. Meanwhile, the genuinely bright are forced to continue their studies to ever-higher levels in order to distinguish themselves from their middle-of-the-road classmates, sometimes postponing the start of rewarding careers in order to do so. Of course, you can never have too much education. But you can definitely have too much schooling.

As my friends will tell you, I am in no position to criticise those who take their schooling for granted. I drifted ambivalently through high school, went to university more-or-less for the hell of it to study a subject I had no serious intention of pursuing as a career, and generally took full advantage of an overgenerous Scottish education system built on the weird belief that keeping people in school for ever-longer periods will make them smarter. Nevertheless, as a student I always ensured that I made enough of an effort to get good grades (and was pragmatic enough to try and drop subjects in which attaining a high grade looked to be more trouble than it was worth). As a teacher, it is immensely frustrating to see students who would be smart enough to get good grades if they worked hard wasting the opportunity to do so. It is even more frustrating to see students who are not smart enough to get good grades wasting their time on a subject in which they are hopeless instead of admitting defeat and turning their attention to something they are good at.

The problem is particularly acute with Ranwadi's hapless mob of Year 13s. At this age, Vanuatu's smartest young people have left for urban colleges and the bright lights of town; rural schools like Ranwadi pick up those who got left behind. Standards among Ranwadi's Year 13s are so low that scraping a pass in all four of your subjects is deemed a tremendous achievement. In some semesters not a single student reaches even this minimal target.

It was with great reluctance that I agreed to take on Year 13 classes this year. Not because they are hard work - students who produce little work to be marked, seldom bother asking for help in their studies and have few scheduled classes (to which they do not always turn up) make for easy teaching. The students are friendly enough, and some of the subject matter in their courses is interesting. The problem is that it's all such a depressing waste of time. It is miserable to stand in a tutorial trying to explain what ought to be an interesting topic to students who have no apparent interest in the subjects they chose to study - and are only present at all because fifteen minutes after the lesson was scheduled to start I got fed up with waiting and went down to the dormitories to wake them up - when there are a hundred more useful things I could be doing with the time. Like sitting at my desk doodling interesting patterns onto the back of my notebook.

"We find that students who do these courses in Year 13 are better prepared when they come to university," explained the professorial old man with enormous hair who came from the University of the South Pacific to visit the school. "They have practise at taking responsibility for their own learning. With other students we have an enormous headache trying to adapt them to university life."

"But under this system, we get the headache," I pointed out.

"Personally I would be honoured if I had the opportunity to get a headache in the interests of helping a young person improve his education," the big-haired man responded airily.

Among the younger year groups at Ranwadi, fortunately, there are plenty of students who have not yet lost the enthusiasm to learn. Often, I would return to my house after a dreary attempt at getting the Year 13s to take an interest in their work, muttering to myself that education in Vanuatu was a waste of time and that the students would be better off scraping coconuts back in their villages, only to have my thoughts brightened by visits from Year 10s, Year 11s and Year 12s anxious for extra help with their schoolwork. These students were dedicated and enthusiastic, and after repeated visits it was clear that at least some of them were learning what they had been taught. One Year 10 boy would come to me nearly every week with a piece of Maths homework that his teacher had ticked and crossed, keen to find out where had gone wrong and how he could avoid making each mistake in future. Sometimes we would spend an hour together, working through each concept that had caused the student difficulty until he was satisfied that he now understood it. His visits were immensely time-consuming, but I was glad that he came.

As the end of the year approached, the Year 10s and Year 12s began to prepare in earnest for their final exams.

For students at Ranwadi, exam preparation involves two equally important things: studying and praying.

As a good scientist, I completely support the idea that praying will help the students pass their exams. The human psyche is a powerful thing, and the belief that God is on their side will give students the confidence to succeed, regardless of whether or not He is there to listen. However, I was anxious to avoid the excesses of last year, when some students spent the weekend before their exams staying up until midnight singing prayers and going without food to show their devotion. I needn't bother telling you how well the tired, famished students subsequently performed in their exams.

"The human brain is like an engine," I told my colleagues in a staff meeting. "It needs rest, and it needs fuel. Its fuel is glucose sugar, which it gets from the food we eat, and this is how much it needs in one day."

I held up the flask of white powder which I'd measured out in the science lab. It was an impressive amount.

"I know some students will want to fast, or to stay up late praying. But please, please, encourage the students to do those things well before their exams begin. Let's give their brains a chance to recover so they're working fully on the day of the exams."

To my surprise, the advice was followed.

While my colleagues organised spiritual sing-songs and a commissioning ceremony (to formally place the students' fate in God's hands), I concentrated on helping my Year 12 Physics and Chemistry students with the other important aspect of exam preparation: revision. In Physics, I prepared sheets of exercises that systematically covered each of the topics in the course, to help them identify which areas they needed to focus on. The students eagerly worked through the exercises, and periodically brought them to me for checking. Some had done well.

To keep the Physics students interested during their revision, I set the class a challenge during each lesson, which could be solved using the techniques they had learned in the course. In each lesson, there was a packet of chocolate biscuits as a prize for the student who came up with the most accurate answer. For the first challenge, I gave them a metre stick and a 100-gram weight, and asked them to tell me the mass of the stick. In the next lesson, I gave them a ball and a stopwatch and asked them to tell me the height of the room. In another session, I gave out metre sticks and small mirrors, pointed at the mountaintop behind the school, told the class how far away it was, and asked them to measure its height without leaving the vicinity of the classroom.

To students who are fed on school meals worthy of a Dickensian orphanage (except that Dickensian orphans were lucky enough not to live on an island where the staple crop was swamp taro), a packet of chocolate biscuits is a big deal. They took up the challenges with great enthusiasm, and a surprising amount of skill. I knew that they would be a lot less confident when faced with written questions, but even if they did badly in their exams, it was nice to know that I had helped to educate young people who could apply science to the problems of the real world.

Physics students measuring ripples
Physics students measuring ripples in the ocean

My Chemistry students were having a harder time. Early on in their revision, it became apparent that they had not only forgotten most of what they were supposed to have learned in the past two years, but that even the items listed in the syllabus as "prerequisite knowledge" - things they should have known before they even began the course - bewildered them. I handed out revision exercises, containing what I hoped were easy questions. The students stared at them, baffled.

Some of these were bright students, who had answered the same questions correctly when the topics had been covered earlier in the year. How could they have forgotten so much? Whereas Physics involves things that are easy to visualise - bouncing balls, light reflecting from mirrors, electricity flowing around circuits - Chemistry is full of abstract concepts and unfamiliar things. Although the students had learned a lot of individual facts and techniques, it seemed that they had never really put it all together in their heads.

Working through past exam papers with the Chemistry students, I did my best to help them picture what was going on by getting out the chemicals and giving demonstrations. Where the necessary chemicals weren't available, or were highly dangerous, I found substitutes. If an exam question asked how to speed up the rate of a reaction, I performed the reaction in the test tube and invited the students to suggest ways of speeding it up, then tried them to see if they worked. If a question asked about what colour of flame would be produced by a particular burning substance, I allowed them to get a piece of metal and a Bunsen burner and see for themselves what would happen. If a question asked about the structure of molecules, I got out the coloured balls and sticks.

"Chemistry is interesting," said one girl, after we had fizzed, burned, boiled and modelled our way through one lengthy exam paper. She said it as if this had never occurred to her before.

Formal classes came to an end, and the students were given a week to do their own revision before the exams began. I photocopied a pile of past exam papers, and prepared for a stream of students coming to my door in need of last-minute help.

None came. To students at Ranwadi, any period in which there is no teacher forcing them to sit in a classroom and work is, by definition, a holiday. Their studies were finished for the year, their prayers had been said, and - as far as they were concerned - all they had to do now was wait around for a few days, fill in a few exam papers and go home. While they waited, they amused themselves by wandering to and from the beach, kicking footballs around, hanging out with the villagers, and twisting each other's hair into elaborate styles. (You can always tell how much time the students have on their hands by counting the number of girls with plaited hair.) Any attempt to suggest that the students ought to be spending their time revising was dismissed as if it was a ridiculous thing to expect of them.

At the end of the week, the two Year 12 classes held their end-of-year parties. These followed the standard format of any Vanuatu celebration: a room was decorated with palm fronds and other vegetation, and people spent the day preparing dishes of food which they heaped onto a big table. Guests turned up an hour late, each carrying a plastic plate, cup and spoon, found that the party hadn't started yet, then wandered away for another hour. When proceedings eventually began there was a salusalu greeting in which garlands of flowers were hung around the necks of honoured guests (of which I was one, along with the Year 12s' other teachers), followed by lengthy and half-whispered speeches consisting mainly of thank-yous, during which everyone sat and stared hungrily at the food. The speeches concluded with a quick prayer, then an awkward moment as the most honoured of the guests proved too polite to be the first to get up and fill his plate with food. Eventually the guests lined up and took their plate-fulls, together with cups of diluted fruit cordial, then sat with the plates on their laps shovelling food into their mouths with their spoons and feeling that they really ought to be showing their gratitude for the feast by making conversation by somebody.

Anxious to put their years of malnourishment at the hands of the school cooks behind them, the Year 12s had laid on an impressive feast. Spread on the table were roast piglets, which the students had saved up their money to buy, and a sizeable proportion of the school's chicken population. There were fried fish, and delicious chunks of an enormous squid that the boys had caught at night on the reef. ("So that's what they wanted the torch batteries for," said Mr Neil.) There were pineapples, and watermelons that a student's father had brought from his garden. There was a bright purple vegetable whose colour couldn't possibly have been natural. There were steaming pots of rice, and bowls of stew. At the end of table were cakes. These presented guests with a dilemma: do you take a piece with the main course and risk it getting soaked with gravy and pig juice, or do you wait until later, by which time the cake might be all gone? (Or do you scoff the cake as a starter, before starting on the main course?) One solution is to balance the cake on the edge of your plate, teetering between the gravy and a long fall.

The following Saturday, the Year 8 and Year 10 students held their own end-of-term party, at lunchtime on the beach below the school. Mr Albion the Agriculture teacher and a group of boys with machetes had spent much of the week preparing for the event, and had transformed the sandy strip of trees between the road and the seashore into an impressive party venue. The area beneath the trees had been cleared of twigs and leaves and coconut-palm detritus, and lines of benches had been nailed together out of pieces of wood cut from nearby saplings. Tables had been brought down to the beach, and a generator rumbling in the bushes powered a large sound system. Fringes of green coconut frond had been twisted around the tree trunks, a pink frangipani flower fastened to each spine, and coloured balloons had been strung from the branches of all the trees. Every so often one would explode in the midday heat, startling nearby partygoers. A few of the balloons had fallen into the ocean, where they bobbed like toys in a swimming pool. Beach mats made from woven palm leaves had been left on the sand for those who wanted to lie down. Younger children were swimming, while older ones who wanted to cool off out on the water but didn't want to get salty were taking turns in an outrigger canoe.

At the party, I was one of the guests invited to give a speech.

"You-fella ee lucky," I began. (Usually I insist on speaking proper English in front of the students - it's the only way they'll learn - but as this was a party I figured I'd give them a break.) British children go to outdoor parties at this time of year, too, I explained, but those are nothing like this. I tried to paint a picture of children standing around a giant bonfire in a black field on the edge of town on a shivering November night, trying through impossibly thick gloves to eat a wind-chilled hot dog without getting ketchup on their scarves or losing the sausage onto the muddy ground. (And enjoying the whole thing immensely, because unlike ni-Vanuatu kids, British children do not normally get the chance to play around fires.) It was all a very long way from a summer day on a South Pacific beach.

The students' beach party
Party on the beach - a long way from a British Bonfire Weekend

A few of the students, however, had their own ideas about how best to celebrate the end of the year. Yeast and sugar began disappearing from the school kitchens.

When the teachers discovered a bucket of homebrew hidden at the base of a banana plant, they jokingly accused me of teaching the students too much in Chemistry lessons. The teachers left the bucket in place, intending to come back and replace its contents with seawater. However, when they returned, the bucket had already gone.

The week before their final exams, three Year 10 boys were seen going into a room that was later found to smell of alcohol. Nobody saw the boys drunk, and the evidence connecting them to the alcohol was circumstantial. That didn't matter. All three were expelled.

Getting drunk to celebrate the end of high school is a ritual for students in Vanuatu, just as it is for students back home. Unfortunately, whilst the teenagers' attitudes are much the same as those of their Western counterparts, their parents' and teachers' attitudes are not. Students at Ranwadi are particularly unfortunate in that the school is run by the Churches of Christ, which disapproves of alcohol and kava even in the hands of responsible adults. Originally, the church's discouragement of drinking was probably a practical measure to ensure that the congregation was not hung-over on Sunday morning, but groups of people have a tendency to become fixated on the things they forbid. (Just look at the amount of newspaper space devoted to paedophiles, or to Catholic priests caught with their trousers down.) In the minds of many in the Church today, drinking is an inexcusable sin, right up there with murder and adultery and coveting your neighbour's livestock. At a recent staff meeting at Ranwadi, a colleague circulated a piece of paper explaining how we could all strive for "excellence" in our work. Under the subheading "spiritual excellence", he had listed just one item: "alcohol and kava".

Under the discipline policy approved by the Ranwadi College council, drinking is a capital offence. Steal or fight or run away from school and you might be let off with a suspension or a week's hard labour, but touch alcohol or kava and you will be out. In past years the school Principal, a forgiving and tolerant person who believes in the goodness of people, was deliberately lax about enforcing this rule; he preferred to give students a second chance. However, after a particularly rampant homebrew-making season at the end of last year, the Churches of Christ conference (which has authority over the school) told the Principal sternly that from now on he must stick to the rules. Any student caught drinking was to be expelled immediately; no forgiveness allowed.

Of course, no head teacher ever utters the word "expel". Students are "withdrawn" by their parents, then if possible "transferred" to inferior schools. It is true that most of those forced out of Ranwadi are removed with the grudging agreement of their parents, and will find places at other schools. But regardless of the school's choice of verb, they leave under the stigma of expulsion.

The locals gossiping in Pidgin English are in no doubt as to what has happened: "All-ee chuck'em-out."

Later that week, I went down the kava bar to find Mr Albion sitting next to a morose-looking Year 13 boy.

"It's all right, he's been thrown out of school already," said Albion, seeing my surprise at the sight of a student in the kava bar.

There was no need to ask what the boy had done.

"I was thrown out of school when I was your age," Albion said to the student, trying to console him.

"What for?" I asked.

"Smoking," Albion responded, as if it was a silly question. He walked over to the candle illuminating the bar and lit his tube of rolled-up paper and tobacco.

"I found another school and did well for myself," he went on. "These things are all part of life's challenges."

The student looked unconvinced.

"I was nearly thrown out of school too, on the day before my exams," I added.

"Just one of life's little challenges," Albion repeated, drawing a deep breath of pungent smoke.

The student sat in silence and buried his head in his hands.

The following night, two more Year 13 boys joined their teachers down at the kava bar.

"Why are the students such fools?" one of the villagers asked me afterwards. "They know drinking is against the rules. They know they will get expelled if they are caught. Why do they keep on doing it?"

"They do it precisely because it's against the rules," I said. "They want to rebel." For a certain variety of teenager, the fact that they were risking their educational lives by drinking only increased the temptation.


Exam week arrived, with much moving of tables and chairs. Teachers hung around outside the chapel, which had been converted into an examination room, waiting to ask their students how they had got on.

"Fine," they all responded. Some smiled more weakly than others.

The teachers flicked anxiously through spare copies of the papers, hoping that there were no questions they hadn't covered in class. Occasionally there was muttering that a question was unfair or didn't make sense. (The Vanuatu Ministry of Education steadfastly refuses to let native English speakers check its exam papers.)

My Physics and Chemistry students were among the last to sit their exams. When the Physics exam was over, I took a copy of the paper and opened it at the first page. It was a question on data networking.

"This is a question from a Computer Studies exam!" I protested.

"Yes, they misprinted that page," the invigilator told me. "Don't worry, we handed out correction sheets."

On the last day of the Year 12s' exams, other students gathered in a mob outside the chapel to give their friends a wash. Some carried buckets of flour and water and mashed-up leaves. Others had talcum powder. One boy held up a rotten papaya. Most of the school - including the teachers - had gathered to watch. Students huddled nervously inside the chapel, besieged like medieval fugitives taking refuge in the house of God. One by one, they plucked up the courage to step out of the door, and were greeted with showers of beige liquid and mushy fruit.

Washing a student after the exams
Students washing a friend after the exams are over

That evening, some Year 12 boys and their friends headed down to the village.

"My brother is roasting a pig for them in the kitchen," Smith the barkeeper told me at the kava bar. "We've prepared a big poubelle of kava. Why don't you go and join them?"

"You shouldn't be giving kava to the students," I said.

"It's OK now that their exams have finished," Smith assured me. "They're not really students any more - they're just hanging around waiting for a ship home."

I headed over to the family's kitchen. Like nearly all Vanuatu kitchens, this was a separate hut - traditional cooking is too dirty and smoky to be done in the main house - with a dirt floor and a roof of natanggura palm leaves. Smoke from the cooking fire seeped through the roof, curing the leaves. (Villagers often take strips of thatch from old kitchens to use on other buildings, knowing that they will last an exceptionally long time before rotting.)

I was intercepted at the door of the kitchen by one of my Chemistry students, staggering out of a clump of banana plants nearby. He took me by the hand and spoke to me in a high-pitched voice. The boy had clearly been drinking more than just kava.

"I just want to say thank you for all that you have done for us," he said. "Thank you for teaching us Chemistry. I'm sorry if we didn't work as hard as we could have done in your lessons, and I want to thank you for forgiving us."

I returned the compliments - this particular boy had been a good student - and went into the kitchen, which glowed orange in the light of the fire. Several students were sitting along a bench at one side of the hut, next to a stereo playing music. A couple of young girls were sitting by the fire carving up lumps of pig and taro. Smith's mother sat on a stump at the back of the kitchen, keeping a gentle eye on the children.

One of the boys shuffled along the bench to create a space, and motioned eagerly for me to sit down beside him. He, too, shook my hand.

"I want to express my thanks to you for all that you have done for us as a teacher," he said. I didn't think I'd even taught this particular student, but I accepted the compliment. This is nice, I thought: we should let the students drink more often. Not only were they charming when drunk, but they were speaking good English with a confidence I had never heard before.

"Hey, give Mr Andrew some kaekae," called out Smith's brother, who was chatting to someone outside.

"I only came to chat," I said. A generous bundle of pig and taro was nevertheless pressed into my hands.

The school Discipline Master appeared in the kitchen doorway. He glared at the students, but didn't stop their party.

"Make'm sure you-fella ee sleep 'long place here tonight," he said. Don't come back into the school until you're sober. "You hear'em?" He turned around and went off to the kava bar.

I stayed with the students for a while. Smith's mother and the girls cleared away the remains of the food and left the boys to their party. People began dancing. Students passed around bottles and cigarettes. I declined the cigarettes and whatever nasty-looking mixture was in the bottles, but accepted a couple of shells of kava from the poubelle. Being offered kava by my students felt like being offered marijuana by a policeman, but what they were doing here was a gesture of friendship, not of rebellion. More boys shook my hand and thanked me for whatever I had done for them. I had never had the chance to socialise with most of them outside the awkward confines of a teacher-student relationship, and was struck by what good-natured people they were.

"Do you think what we're doing is wrong?" one boy asked.

"If you did it during school time, yes, it would be wrong," I said. "It would spoil your studies." My eyes glanced sideways with hypocrisy. "But you've worked hard and your exams are over now. I think you're entitled to have a good time just this once."

By teenage standards it did, indeed, seem to be a very harmless piece of fun. Nobody was being loud or aggressive, no girls were there to get in trouble with the boys, nobody was consuming anything illegal, and apart from headaches the next morning I doubted anyone would be any the worse for their night of celebration. I thanked Smith's brother and the students for their hospitality, and made my way cheerfully back to school. I felt proud to have helped educate such a decent group of young people.

Under the searing blue and yellow light of a South Pacific morning, things looked different. Contrary to what Smith and his brother had believed, the students' party was not OK with the school. A list was made of all the Year 12s who had been drinking. They were ordered to pay a fine of 5000 vatu ($50) - otherwise the school would withhold their leaving certificates - and told that they would not be admitted back to Ranwadi for Year 13.

The list of those thus expelled read like a roll call of the best and brightest of the Year 12 boys. It included the top students from my Physics and Chemistry classes, prefects and class captains, sportsmen who had won medals for their school, a student who had been short-listed for the annual 'citizen of the year' award, and the Head Boy. There were students who had worked with enthusiasm in my lessons, and come to my house in the afternoons for extra help with their work. Students who had seen me struggling to hack down bushes with a machete in my garden and come over to give me a hand, and students who had done gruelling weekly chores around the school with smiles on their faces. Students who always leaned out of the window to shout a cheerful hello when a teacher walked past their dormitories. Students who had asked me for references so they could apply to training colleges. Students who had not only achieved good results in their studies, but had been valuable members of the community, and an asset to their school. All their shining records thrown out of the window because of one harmless night of fun.

I was furious. It was reasonable, I conceded, for the school to disapprove of the students' behaviour. While waiting for the ship home they were still under Ranwadi's care, and the sight of students staggering around still drunk the next morning had been an embarrassment to the school. But if the students' party was forbidden, why hadn't the Discipline Master put a stop to it? And who had given Smith's brother the impression that it was OK to prepare kava for the students? If there was blame to be handed around, the boys were not the only ones who deserved it. Most of all, though, I was angry that the students had been told that they were not welcome back next year.

What will happen to the school, I thought, if it callously throws out good students who make occasional mistakes whilst allowing those who wilfully waste their time and make no effort in their studies to keep on coming back for more? Some of those boys had achieved a lot during their time at Ranwadi, and done a lot to help the school. Did all that count for nothing?

I asked the Principal if there was any chance that the students could be given a second chance. He shook his head and muttered about "policy". He looked unhappy about the situation too, but his hands were tied.

The Churches of Christ had fallen into the same trap as anti-drugs campaigners all over the world: the belief that punishing people ever-more harshly for using a substance will dissuade them from doing so. A belief so obvious and seemingly irrefutable that people maintain it even when it proves completely and catastrophically wrong.

Tightening the screws on students who broke the rules had merely increased the temptation to do so, and had harmed the school in the process by depriving it of good students. The hysterical reaction had also undermined a perfectly sensible piece of advice - that excessive drinking is bad for you. Tell students who drink only once and do so after their last exam has finished that their drinking will ruin their education, and your advice is as likely to be believed as the cry that there is a wolf on the mountainside.

I would like to think that the Churches of Christ conference will look at this year's events and draw the conclusion that their policies for discouraging drinking do not work, and need to be re-thought. But I suspect that elders will cling instead to their faith: that the world is a place of rights and wrongs, that teenagers respond rationally to authority, and that good kids are the ones who Just Say No.


<< October 2007 diary



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007