18.06.2018 - Wendy is currently volunteering as an Adult Literacy and Numeracy Officer with the Vanuatu Agriculture College. She will complete this assignment in April 2020.
I have been coming to Vanuatu for 17 years so you would think I would know something about language and culture, and I do thanks to those long chats in the little coconut leaf kitchens on the east side of Tanna. But when we launched enthusiastically into our VSA orientation week of culture in the morning for two hours and language in the afternoon after work for two hours, I was mesmerised.
The culture teacher, from a small island in Malampa Province, was a professional story teller and he took us through the custom spiritual Origin Story of the Melanesian peoples that began in Papua New Guinea and ended right down to New Zealand. I listened and took copious notes. The story teller hardly took a breath in two hours and poor acting Programme Manager Sam heroically listened to the Bislama rolling off the tongue of the story teller, faster when he got excited, only slowing down when I desperately had to ask a question. His answers would invariably clarify pieces of history I had previously heard. Bless him. Four days of explaining to bring us right up to present day. Then he delighted us by joining us to cross the sea to the village stay location. We all climbed into a tiny little wee aluminium outboard motor boat that was driven by a chief’s son. Two other young boys inside, one boom box and one swinging away worse for wear after a day in the big town, and determined to serenade us as he attempted to complete his stubby. With us three that made six, eek… A few big waves, got a bit wet, the night creeping in, new life jackets strapped on, but we did make it to the island of Tutuba for our village stay.
We were warmly greeted by the Chief in his traditional dress, as the first Kiwi volunteers to come and stay. We presented the village with the custom “road opening” ceremony, something for the floor, something for the table and something to put on the wall. In turn we were given a beautiful conch shell that he told us held the voice of Nicole, a volunteer with VSA in Port Vila, who had helped open the gateway to staying in this village. Nicole’s grandparents live on the island and we were lucky to meet this lovely couple and view their impressive yam garden.
There are certain things you must do when you stay in a local village. First, you as a person who has come to help others in your assignment, must become a person who is now helped to understand a world that is fast disappearing. The Chief’s wife was from Tanna, she had eight children and they had all had a good education due to the enthusiasm and drive of a young Chief, their father.
Our two days were full of learning in a random kind of a way. First for me was being completely helpless at persuading the chief’s wife that I do not drink kava, whatever excuses I gave, failed. So after 17 years, when I had my first and last taste of kava, this lovely wife of the Chief and woman from Tanna, convincingly won me over, on the grounds of respect and custom. With a one, two, three, the three of us down to our first kava shell, much to the delight of the men quietly encouraging us from the bamboo seats backing on to the wonderful gentle sea view. Three shells later I was convinced man Tanna had already heard that one of their own had now broken the rule, that “a woman Tanna does not partake in kava” according to their tradition.
I had Bislama lessons and the mistakes I normally made were now corrected by the four days of classes. Sam and I slept, in a shop actually, with a space cleared and a half wall between us and the soap, noodles, batteries, biscuits that were neatly lined up on the shelves next to the accounting book.
A newly built black polythene square had been erected for us to take in a bucket of water and swim; I am still not that good at cold water swims. The loo, down the hill a bit had a coal sacking door, remember those? But this was an ex copra bag.
We had fun, the children fell in love with Sam and her Bislama leapt ahead. We spent a day on the Chief’s packed programme, along with the rain showers. He wanted us to experience everything at once, so we made lap-lap yam in bamboo and cooked it over the fire, scratched coconut flesh with a long grater, squeezed kava, learned how to weave a basket from coconut leaves, visited the garden, the kindergarten, the copra bed, watched the young boys fishing with a net for our supper and sat with the women preparing the fish in the kitchen.
There was also time to be on the beach, which was too cold for snorkelling, and to learn about sand drawing and collect shells. Soon we were farewelled and put back on that same little boat. The waves were higher and it was a little darker, the chief’s son whooshed us up on to the beach and took off into the rising waves. Brigitte, our Country Programme Officer, was there ready with our transport. We gave her the nice white rooster we had been given, and Marcel, our culture teacher, got a basket of the famous Tutuba king yams to take back to his family in Vila.
Did we pass our language and culture test? I am hoping we did – at least we felt we did our best at everything and had nothing to complain about, every moment was something new and we had a newly formed admiration for the people of Vanuatu, the history, the culture, the way the language developed and the generosity of sharing.
P.S. I hope my kava drinking is forgiven by man Tanna when he inevitably hears about it.
Done and dusted, next adventure please.