Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

2 December 2006

With teaching finished, the three gap volunteers and I set out to explore the southern end of Pentecost Island. Setting out from Ranwadi, we walked for five or six hours along the gritty coastal road, negotiating muddy puddles and wading stony rivers. Beyond the airfield we passed the village of Hotwata (Hot Water), where a scalding, sulphurous stream welled out of the black rock and trickled into the sea. After this there were other villages, many of them home to Ranwadi students who had already returned from the holidays.

"Hello, Mr Andrew!" teenagers shouted as I passed.

"You got small torch?" asked a passing truck driver.

People from the southern end of the island had seen their relatives returning from Ranwadi with my tiny keyring lights, and now they all wanted one too. I wondered how many other parts of Vanuatu the small torch mania had spread to.

We passed other villages - Rangusuksu, Panas, Wali. I had travelled this way once before, on a bicycle, but on that occasion I hadn't got the chance to look at the places properly. It's hard to admire the scenery when you are preoccupied with the challenge of keeping up with the athletic Australian ahead of you while skeetering to avoid the rocks, ruts, holes, chickens and children that appear in the middle of the road with dangerous frequency.

River in South Pentecost
One of many rivers to be crossed on the road south

South Pentecost is land-diving country: it is in this part of the island that the local men perform their ritual dives from tall towers with vines trailing from their feet. Tourists will pay appreciable sums of money to witness "the most remarkable custom in all of Melanesia" (I quote the Lonely Planet guidebook), and the villagers of the south are relatively well off as a result. However, unlike in many other parts of Vanuatu they haven't rushed to spend their money on cement and corrugated roofing iron. Instead, a surprising number of their buildings are constructed in the traditional way, with straw-coloured walls woven from bamboo strips and palm thatch on the roof. Not just small houses, but school buildings and even large churches are built in this way. The buildings have a playhouse appearance to them, and some look as if they wouldn't fare well if the Big Bad Wolf (or, more plausibly, a tropical cyclone) tried to huff and puff and blow them down, but they are cool and breezy and beautiful to look at.

The southward road rounded a point where an eroded pillar of stone jutted out of the ocean, with spiky palms and grasses on its summit waving against the tropical sky. It looked like part of the set from Pirates of the Caribbean. This was Captain Cook's Rock, perhaps sighted by the famous sailor as he sailed down the coast of Pentecost. Looking back in the direction from which we had come, a wide arc of beach curved away like a lens into an infinite-looking series of hills and headlands.

Captain Cook's Rock
Captain Cook's Rock

Beyond the point of land was Homo Bay, lined by the sandy villages of Panngi and Salap. Feeling that we had walked far enough for one day - we were now over fifteen miles (24 km) from Ranwadi - we checked into the Panngi Guesthouse, another beautiful bamboo-and-thatch building with a floor of shingle and woven mats. The guesthouse's owner was away on business, but we were looked after by his wife, a cheerful lady named Evelyn with an intriguing collection of local artefacts, including flying fox traps that resembled a cross between a bird cage and a lobster pot.

Evelyn apologised profusely for the lack of electric light or running water; on Pentecost I hadn't expected either. She made our beds and shooed out the large dog that had settled down for a snooze in the outhouse, while her smiling six-year-old daughter showed us around and took the two gap girls for a swim.

"She likes playing with white people," her mother explained.

Another bamboo building next door to the guesthouse served as the local restaurant. Eating in restaurants isn't something I associate with Pentecost life - there are none in the vicinity of Ranwadi - but the place was delightfully Pentecost-like in every way. The cook was a smiling woman in an island dress, who brought out steaming plates of kakae while her husband staffed the shop next door and her children milled around making themselves useful. The only food on offer was laplap (vegetable pudding) with rice and stew, served at a big table by the light of a kerosene lantern. The 'local fowl' in the stew was so local that we had heard it squawking outside earlier that day. It was delicious.

Jutting out into Homo Bay was a sturdy, new-looking wharf. The name "Queen Elizabeth Landing" had been scratched into the cement at the entrance to the jetty, and a plaque nearby proclaimed that this was the spot on which Her Majesty had come ashore during her 1974 visit to Pentecost to watch the land-diving ceremony. (It was the wrong time of year for land-diving, and one unfortunate jumper had plunged to his death in front of the Queen after misjudging the elasticity of his vines.)

"You been talk-talk with'em Queen?" asked one villager, after discovering that I was from England.

I've never even seen her, I said. Although I did once have a brief conversation with her daughter.

"Me been look-look him," the villager told me. (Speakers of Pidgin English do not distinguish between "him" and "her".) "Time way him ee come 'long Pentecost, me been look-look."

It seemed that almost the entire population of southern Pentecost (which may have been only a few hundred people at that time) had turned up to greet their royal visitor. Nearly everyone old enough to remember the occasion reminisced about seeing the Queen.

The new jetty had been built to receive less illustrious visitors - tourists on cruise ships. Thankfully, none were scheduled to arrive until next year. As we sat on the end of the jetty at sunset, watching small fish poppling the sky-coloured water and distant thunderclouds sparking over the volcanoes of nearby Ambrym Island, the bay was empty and calm.

Our destination for the next day was the village of Bunlap, across the mountains on the far side of the island. Bunlap is one of a number of 'custom villages' in Vanuatu - places where people are reputed to live entirely according to their traditional customs, unspoilt by the influence of missionaries. The men there are naked except for nambas (penis wrappers made from leaves or woven grass tucked into a belt around the waist, with the testicles dangling freely below), and the women wear nothing but grass skirts. Food is grown in local gardens, houses are built in traditional style, and the economy is based on the exchange of pigs and ceremonial artefacts rather than coins and banknotes. Customary rituals and taboos are strictly adhered to, whilst Christian ones (such as "conceal thy nakedness") are not.

Four gawking Westerners could hardly turn up unannounced in such a place. We therefore went to see Chief Willy, one of a handful of south Pentecost leaders who have built lucrative businesses out of showing off the sights of their native island to foreign visitors. We walked along to the Naghol Bungalows, Chief Willy's private resort, located just beyond Salap at exactly the point where the good road southwards ends (in other words, where stony wheel ruts deteriorate into overgrown, muddy wheel ruts). It wasn't tourist season, and Willy's bungalows were lonely and deserted. The late afternoon sun slanting through the trees onto the faded wooden buildings gave the place an autumnal feel. We found the chief kneeling in one of his huts, while a holy man stood with one hand on Willy's shoulder and a Bible in the other, chanting prayers.

"Him ee pray from health b'long me," Willy explained, after we had respectfully waited for the prayers to finish. He wheezed and patted his chest. "Me got short wind."

After various negotiations, Chief Willy organised a guide - his eldest son - who could take us over the mountains to Bunlap and arrange our entry into the kastom village.

We set out early the next morning. When I went into the store next to the restaurant to buy a packet of biscuits for the journey, the family's eldest daughter, who is in my 9B Maths class at Ranwadi, was behind the counter.

"How much is the change?" I asked her, handing over money with one hand and covering up her calculator with the other.

She smiled and gave me the right answer.


Traditional life on Pentecost is damp and muddy. After trekking up the rutted main road to the top of the mountain ridge, we left the road b'long truck and descended into Bunlap via a series of increasingly steep and slimy mountain paths. It was hard not to 'glis' (a delightful Bislama word that appears to combine 'slip', 'slide' and 'glide', though was more probably inspired by the French glisser) as we scrambled diagonally down slopes of loose mud, especially after it began to rain. We descended the hillside with the slowness of a cautious mountaineer, sliding precariously from one slimy foothold to the next.

Pentecost a narrow island - only 6 miles (10 km) across at its widest point - yet in nearly a year of living on the island this was only the second time that I had crossed it. I know people who have spent many years living and working on the west coast of Pentecost without ever venturing to see the other side. That gives you an idea of how bad the 'roads' on eastern Pentecost are.

Along the path we came across small groups of topless, grass-skirted women, on their way to gardens up the mountain. They stared at us far more than we stared at them. One old woman squeezed the two gap girls by the arms, sizing them up like livestock destined for the market, perhaps assessing whether or not they had the strength for the journey.

"White people!" the younger women shouted excitedly. (They were speaking their native language - a different one from that spoken around Ranwadi - but it's not hard to pick up the local word for 'white person' when visiting new areas of Vanuatu. It's what small children shout to their friends when they see you coming.)

Answering shouts came from unseen villagers in the bushes nearby.

Across enormous areas of the mountainside, the forest had been cleared to make way for gardens of local root vegetables - taro and yams. For city-dwellers whose food is shipped to them from distant, industrialised farms, it's easy to forget how much land it actually takes to feed a human being.

By the time we reached the village, we were filthy with mud and sweat, and the rain had become torrential. Thunder from the clouds on the mountain above mingled with the thunder of waves crashing on the coastline below. We were still far above the sea, but through gaps in the trees we could see a fearsome swell rolling in off the (misnamed) Pacific. Whilst western Pentecost is shielded by other islands from the full force of the ocean, here on the eastern side of the island there was no land at all between us and Fiji, several hundred miles away, and no substantial landmass between us and South America.

We were taken to the Bunlap Guesthouse and sheltered there, waiting for the rain to stop. A succession of half-naked men and women came by to shake our hands and introduce themselves, while groups of bare children - round-bellied as a result of their starchy, low-protein diet - gathered in the doorway to watch the white people. Rain dripped cleanly off the villagers' bare skin. Our own clothes were clammy and soaking.

When the rain eased off we were given a tour of the village. Bunlap is built on a steep mountainside, and the paths between the buildings were just as awkward and slippery as the mountain track down which had come. What passed for the High Street resembled a garden water feature: a narrow cascade of boulders, coated in the slippery film that grows on damp rock in the tropics, terrifyingly steep, with rainwater gushing down it. On the few flat surfaces, mud and water - with at least a hint of pig shit mixed in - coalesced in warm brown pools. While the locals accompanying us negotiated their perilous home with complete ease, the gappers and I picked our way nervously around the village like toddlers in an adventure playground designed for older children.

Most of Bunlap's residents live in long thatched huts, with low, triangular roofs reaching almost to the ground. The houses are built on terraces on the steep hillside, packed closely together, and from a distance the village has a vaguely Oriental appearance. Pigs wallow in the gulleys behind and between the houses. At the top of the village are three dark nakamals (men's meeting houses) with flat ceremonial grounds outside.

None of the buildings have hinged doors; instead the doorway is built about half a metre off the ground, and the overhanging roof extends down to about the same level. This arrangement keeps out driving rain, wandering pigs and high-flying chickens, but allows human beings (with a certain amount of effort) to scramble in and out.

Villagers in various states of nakedness came out of their houses to greet us and shake our hands. There was a very foreign atmosphere to the place, but the lack of clothing wasn't the reason for it. In fact, being surrounded by half-naked people seemed remarkably natural. Of course, I courteously kept my eyes at face level, but I would have done the same with fully-clothed people back home. The only awkward moment came that evening, when I only narrowly avoided accidentally shaking a man by the penis as he bent down to shake my hand in an extremely dimly-lit nakamal.

The braces on Nat and Hugh's teeth attracted great curiosity among the villagers. When Nat took out her removable brace, there were squeals of surprise from the children, who then followed us around the village, shouting to their friends to come out and see the amazing white girl who could take out part of her mouth and put it back in again. (They were speaking their native language; I'm guessing at what was being said.) Nat repeated the trick, and the children stared.

My tiny LED keyring torches, predictably, were another source of fascination. I gave one of the torches to one of the villagers in exchange for a traditional penis wrapper (though I declined to wear it in public for fear that it might fall off as I clambered up and down the treacherous paths). Hugh accused me of corrupting the villagers' traditional customs; I saw it as a cultural exchange.

I certainly wasn't the first person to introduce foreign goods to the village. Life in Bunlap is not exactly as it was in pre-colonial times, and not just because of the lack of tribal warfare and cannibalism. Western imports abound in the village. The traditionally-built huts are held together with iron nails, the traditionally-grown vegetables are cooked in metal pots using water fetched in plastic buckets, and after dark many residents use electric torches to navigate the treacherous footpaths. The guesthouse has a tin roof and electric lights (although no electricity at the time of our visit, since the generator was on loan to a neighbouring village). Nowadays Bunlap even has a telephone.

I know of no community in the world that totally and unequivocally rejects new technology (even people such as the Amish and the desert Aborigines allow a few selected modernities into their lives) and the inhabitants of Vanuatu's custom villagers are no exception. In fact, apart from the clothing (or lack of it), life in Bunlap was not noticeably more traditional than in many of the settlements in the mountains above Ranwadi. The difference between a custom village and an ordinary one was more a matter of attitude. In ordinary villages in Vanuatu, people tend to covet the lifestyle enjoyed by white people, or by their wealthier cousins in Port Vila, and if they continue to live like their ancestors it is only because they have no choice; they can afford no better. In custom villages, by contrast, the residents do not aspire to change their traditional lifestyle, although they are happy to adopt new technologies such as nails and cooking pots that will make that lifestyle easier.

So far, the villagers of Bunlap seem to have done a reasonable job of blending their customs peaceably with the realities of life in a modern world. They continue to believe in their traditional god, but respect the Christian one too, regarding the two as one and the same. They do not wish to send their children to school, but are keen for a Peace Corps volunteer to come and teach them the basics of reading, writing and English. (Some of the villagers I spoke to were manifestly illiterate. "What do you call this kind of dog?" asked one man, pointing at a picture on the face of a souvenir clock - presumably a gift from a past Australian visitor - under which the word "kangaroo" was written in large letters.) When traditional healing techniques fail to cure illness, they are happy to turn to Western drugs (although, sadly, Bunlap's medical dispensary is currently locked up and unused because nobody can be found who is qualified to hand out the medicines). They welcome white visitors into their community, but insist that they respect traditional taboos. (Whilst Hugh and I were invited into the nakamal in the evening, the two girls were forbidden even from walking along the path leading beside the building.)

There is no rule against being modern in Bunlap. Villagers are free to put on Western clothes or to supplement their local pork and vegetables with packaged foods if they wish, and a few choose to do so. Most, however, are well aware of the benefits of their old way of life, developed over thousands of years to suit the local environment.

"Some visitors who come to Bunlap choose to put on nambas and grass skirts, just because it's so difficult to keep your clothes clean here," one of the villagers told me.

Travelling to a custom village is not a trip into the past. Rather, it is a journey into an alternative version of the twenty-first century. Personally I prefer my own version, the version with computers and aeroplanes and supermarkets and paved roads. However, to the villagers of Bunlap on their muddy mountainside, the local version of twenty-first century life apparently seems equally satisfying.


8 December

With the school now empty of students, I devoted my last few days before the Christmas holidays to unpacking the boxes of equipment recently donated to the school by AusAID - the last stage in the Australian government's million-dollar programme to transform Ranwadi into a proper modern college.

In the science lab, there were new test tubes, measuring cylinders, compasses, flasks, pipettes, microscope slides, molecular models, indicator paper, pipettes and textbooks to explain to students how all these shiny and fragile-looking pieces of apparatus are supposed to be used. There was also fancier stuff: an oscilloscope, an electrical pH meter, and set of sophisticated-looking digital thermometers.

Having come to Vanuatu full of self-satisfying notions about going to help the poor in the Third World, it was a little disconcerting to reflect that the science department I was now working in was now better-equipped that of some Western schools.

Better still, the school's new computer room now had actual computers. A dozen shiny new PCs had been unloaded from the ship a few weeks ago, and were stacked in boxes waiting to be unpacked. For a while, the Principal held out some vague hope that AusAID would send a technician to set up the machines, but in the end the job fell to the person somewhat dubiously regarded as the school's resident computer expert: me.

Extricating a dozen computers and their keyboards, mice, screens, speakers and cables from their polystyrene-padded boxes, wire ties and polythene wrappings is a remarkably tedious business. By the end I had accumulated a sizeable heap of superfluous plastic, each piece carefully printed with "choking hazard" in a dozen languages, just in case some greedy infant or greedy lawyer should happen to get his hands on it during its five-second journey from box to dustbin. If anybody from Samsung, Asus, Computer Alliance, BTC, X-Sonic or Canon happens to be reading this, please be aware that your company is responsible for a pointless heap of plastic waste being dumped on a beautiful Pacific island, and ask them to have their products packaged more biodegradably in future.

One of the new computers went into the Principal's office. ("It's not really for me," he explained, beaming like a child with a new toy. "I want everything set up ready for the person who takes over my job when I eventually retire.") Another computer, with an interactive encyclopaedia installed, went into the Library. Two more replaced the ailing, cobwebby machines in the office and the staffroom, which crash so often that their reset buttons have broken from overuse. The remaining eight were set up in the computer room for students to use.

Ranwadi, it seemed, was now fully equipped for the twenty-first century. Except for one thing: during class time, there is no electricity to power the computers. The school can only afford to run its generator for three and a half hours a day (fuel is expensive in Vanuatu), which is done in the evenings so that the electricity can be used for lighting. Since the students spend much of each evening eating dinner, saying compulsory prayers in the chapel and getting ready for bed, the computers are only likely to be used for a couple of hours each day, and even this will only be possible if teachers can be found who are willing to spend their evenings supervising the students in the computer room.

To make matters worse, the Internet access that the Vanuatu government provides to schools so that students can be trained in the use of the technology is available freely only during the daytime.

All of these issues could have been solved, of course, if AusAID had had the insight to send laptop computers, which could have run off their batteries for a couple of hours during the day as well as being used in the evenings. Six laptops would have provided the school with as much use as a dozen desktop machines. They would also have been easier to set up, and easier to take into town if they needed repair.

For the hundredth time, I was left moaning about foreigners' inability to appreciate what life is like on Pentecost Island.

I pictured the scene in Australia when the goods were dispatched. "Vanuatu? Vanuatu... oh yes, that's the island where people go for beach holidays, isn't it? Better not send laptops, they might get sand in them. Besides, we're sending these to the Third World, aren't we? The poor sods will be grateful for anything they get. The natives probably haven't even seen a computer before. And look, there's a desktop model here that's a hundred bucks cheaper than the laptop version. The shipping cost? Never mind, that's not our department..."

Having said all this, I am of course grateful to AusAID for its efforts to help Ranwadi. A dozen half-useable new computers are infinitely better than none at all, and for students who grew up in huts in the jungle but aspire to get well-paid jobs in schools and offices, even brief contact with such technology is extremely useful.

I look forward to a long line of students and teachers knocking at my door asking me to "Show'em how b'long make'm computer ee work" during the year ahead.


13 December

While Ranwadi emptied of students and teachers, up the coast at Melsisi a big Youth Conference was under way. A thousand young people from all over Vanuatu had come to the village to hold meetings at which they discussed, amongst other things, the importance of respecting Jesus and resisting temptation lest they should all die of AIDS. (Being teenagers, a number of them would then go out in pairs to the bushes at night and give in to the aforementioned temptations.)

Accommodating a thousand extra people in a rural village is a considerable challenge. The school classrooms were converted into makeshift dormitories, with curtains of clothing hanging up outside. Melsisi's always-temperamental water supply creaked and sputtered under the strain, and several of the taps higher up in the village ceased to flow. Sara and her neighbours had to trek to the communal taps further down the hill in order to wash themselves and fill their buckets. It rained heavily at the start of the week (once again Pentecost was on the fringes of a small cyclone), and Melsisi's roads were soon trampled into brown slime. The mud, the lack of running water and the fact that the rain had washed dirt into the river made it difficult to keep clean, and the smell wafting from the makeshift dormitories was abominable.

In spite of all this, there was a great atmosphere in the village. Nearly every house seemed to have put up a shack outside offering food or kava for sale, and two or three newly-built bamboo huts in the village served as restaurants. In contrast to the usual situation, the stores were well-stocked (some even had beer, much to Sara's delight) and kept open for long hours. In addition to their meetings, the participants in the Youth Conference organised singing, dancing, and small shows.

For the first time, it became possible to have a Western-style night out on Pentecost, meeting friends for drinks in bars then going out together for dinner. In fact, I enjoyed these nights out in muddy little Melsisi far more than I enjoyed nights out during my student days in glamorous Edinburgh. This was partly because I could socialise with nearly everyone I met: most of the locals at Melsisi now know me, and the visitors at the Youth Conference were keen to chat and make my acquaintance. Nights out at Melsisi were also cheaper: an entire night's worth of kava cost less than a single pint in a trendy British establishment, and a hot plate of eggs and rice (eaten with a spoon at rickety bamboo tables) could be bought for less than a dollar.

Best of all, the pointless Western habit of permanently jet-lagging yourself by staying out late on some days and getting up early on others has yet to reach Pentecost - at Melsisi the drinking and merry-making began as soon as the sun set. By nine or ten o'clock the drinkers were stupefied and sleepy, the pots of rice and stew at the stalls were empty, the village's electricity generator was switched off, and the entire village was ready to go to bed.

Crowds gather in Melsisi for the ordination of the new priest

On the Saturday at the end of the week, a new priest was ordained in a service at Melsisi's Catholic church, which was followed by an afternoon of traditional dancing. This brought a further influx of visitors into the village. By one estimate there were four thousand people at the event, making it the largest gathering ever held on Pentecost. On a Pacific island four thousand is a lot of people.

On the previous evening, Hugh and I went on a bar crawl, sinking and sliding in mud as we picked our way from one dimly-lit shack to the next. The bars had watered down their kava and were charging the same prices as in Port Vila (an entire 25 pence for a shell-full), but were nonetheless packed. Everywhere there was activity. Cooking fires were burning, lumps of taro were being peeled and bullocks were being dismembered in preparation for the feeding of the four thousand the next day. Trucks were grinding their way up and down the hill, dazzling stoned men with their headlights. The pounding of kava roots boomed through the village.

Hugh and I spent the night at Sara's house, together with a visiting Peace Corps girl from Ambrym, a random Frenchman who turned up from somewhere and disappeared mysteriously the next day, two boys from a village down the coast, and an excitable dog. Sleeping space was in short supply in Melsisi that night. Sara's house has only one spare bed, but after several shells of kava the concrete floor seemed comfortable.

The next morning, so many people attended the ordination ceremony that not even the huge church, which is by far the largest building on the island, could accommodate them all. The pews - a grid of simple wooden slats onto which several hundred people could be tightly packed like fruit in a shipping container - were full, and more people were standing on the narrow concrete balcony above. Others crowded into the doorways.

Paper bunting had been strung across the church, and coloured leaves and balloons hung from the balcony. There was a sermon expounding the importance of the priesthood, followed by praying and singing. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and (thanks to the clever arrangement of windows in the church) heavenly light shone down on the giant cross behind the altar. The sound of the hymns rolled around the building, blending into a wordless, choral hum, but thanks to the nun sitting at the front of the church with an overhead projector, I could make out what was being sung. Some hymns were in French, some were in Bislama, some were in the local language, and one or two were even in English, although if it hadn't been for the lyrics projected onto the wall I would have had a hard time recognising my native language.

The man who was being ordained stepped up to the altar, dressed in white. This was like his wedding, I thought - the wedding he will never have.

He was asked, in Bislama, whether he was sure that he wanted the life of a priest. I wondered if any would-be priests had ever had second thoughts and run away from the altar during their ordinations.

"Yes, me want'em," he replied. I do.

When the ordination was complete, everybody applauded. After more songs of praise the priests and the visiting bishop filed regally out of the church, followed by the congregation. Outside, we were joined by a crowd of semi-naked dancers, with red mats wrapped around their shoulders and nuts tied around their ankles. The shuffled brown dancers followed the serene, white-robed priests through the squelchy mud in a bizarre-looking procession. The priests and the bishop went off to a private party where they celebrated together with a group of local dignitaries, the two American girls, and several bottles of undiluted whiskey. The rest of the crowd dispersed to their houses and food stalls to eat lunch and prepare for the afternoon's dancing.

Soon afterwards, I left. Once you've seen one traditional dance you've seen them all, and after many hours of dances there comes a point where even extracting test tubes from bubble wrap in an empty science lab becomes a more exciting way to spend the time. I saw almost nobody on the road home, except for the local idiot (the man who went mad after accepting money from white ghosts) who sat by the roadside silently contemplating a patch of shrubs. With nearly everybody else still at Melsisi, neighbouring villages were deserted, like a series of empty landscape paintings dripping in the midday heat.


A couple of months ago, while kava drinking at Waterfall Village, I notice a curious handwritten notice stuck at the entrance to the nakamal. It was written in something resembling the local language, of which I now understand a little, but I could figure out very little of what it said. I put this down to the arcane spelling.

"Me try'em learn'em language b'long you-fella," I explained to the villagers who noticed me puzzling over the notice.

"Him here ee no language b'long me-fella," they told me. That isn't our language.

The notice was written in Sowa language, they explained. Sowa was once spoken in this area of south-central Pentecost but has since been displaced by Apma, a language which came down from higher in central Pentecost.

Up until then I'd had no idea that the language currently spoken by the villagers was not their ancestral one. However, after hearing about Sowa a couple of things suddenly made a lot of sense to me - and not just the bizarre spelling of the notice at the door of the nakamal. Given that Ranwadi is geographically more accessible from the flat coastal plain of southern Pentecost than from the mountains 'up central', it had always surprised me that the villagers living nearby spoke a Central Pentecost and not a South Pentecost language. I had also been surprised at how few of the local place names appeared to mean anything in the local language. The existence of Sowa accounted for both of these things.

I was a little embarrassed with myself for not having figured this out sooner. It was as if a visitor had gone around the Scottish Highlands for a year assuming that English had always been spoken there, and never questioned why all the lakes are called 'loch', the valleys are called 'glen' and the mountains are called 'ben'.

I scribbled down a copy of the notice and e-mailed it to a linguist I know who studies Pentecost's languages, in case she was interested.

"I'm not entirely sure what it means," I said, "and the spelling is presumably non-standardised. Its accuracy is probably not helped by the fact that it was dark and I was stoned when I copied down the notice."

"You should know your stoned, in-the-dark transcription of the notice is a significant contribution to Vanuatu linguistics," she replied. "There are few/no records of Sowa, and until now it wasn't clear that there were any Sowa speakers left!"

I resolved to find out more about Sowa language.

Trying to track down speakers of a language presumed extinct is like trying to track down the Tasmanian tiger or some other recently-exterminated beast. I spoke to many old men who vividly remembered encounter the language in their youth, and a few who thought that a speaker of it might survive in some remote corner of the island. However, when I went to those places, I found that the rumoured Sowa speakers were dead, or that they actually knew Sowa only as a second language and no longer spoke it fluently. Eventually, I was forced to conclude that there is nobody left in the world who speaks Sowa as their mother tongue. As a living thing, Sowa language is extinct.

Sowa was a victim of the disease epidemics that swept Vanuatu after Europeans arrived, bringing germs to which the islanders had no natural resistance. Some villagers were reduced to half a dozen people; others were wiped out completely.

"The only people left in this area were my father, his uncle, his uncle's cousin and one other man," a man at one village told me nonchalantly, pointing around the nakamal.

With so few people left in the area, the local men were forced to marry women from further afield - women who spoke Apma language rather than Sowa.

"While our grandfathers were in their gardens or at the nakamal," one villager explained, "their wives were at home, teaching Apma to their children". The children grew up speaking their mother's language, and within a generation, Sowa had been displaced.

Fortunately, the old language has not been totally forgotten. Wandering around Pentecost and talking to people, I found an encouraging number of men who still know something of Sowa, and some who had even made attempts to write down their ancestors' language or teach it to their children. It was touching to see the effort of these people, who saw that a part of their culture was dying, to try and keep the language alive.

In the past, I have been cynical about attempts to preserve minority languages. When I saw that Gaelic translations had been painted at considerable expense under all the signposts in the Scottish Highlands - which were perfectly well understood by everybody in English - I was (and am) horrified that there was someone in the local council who was genuinely unable to think of a better use for the money. However, it is one thing to hear in books about something's demise, and another thing to talk to the people who have watched it die. Extinction is a terrible thing.

Sowa, in any case, is not in the same position as Gaelic (or any of Europe's other minority languages). A vast body of literature already exists in Gaelic, and detailed dictionaries of it have been printed. Even if the last Gaelic speaker dies out, the language is in no danger of being forgotten. And Gaelic has ten times as many speakers as even the most prolific of Vanuatu's indigenous languages.

Most of the speakers of Sowa, by contrast, were illiterate. No linguist has properly studied the language, no thorough dictionary of it has been compiled, and (to my knowledge) no stories or poems in it have ever been written down. If the local people forgot their ancestors' language, it would be totally and irredeemably lost - and they are harrowingly aware of this. However, some have not given up hope that their language can be preserved, and might one day even be revived among their children.

In Europe, furthering a cultural agenda by bringing up your child to speak a quaint local language instead of a widely-useful one raises moral issues. However, in Vanuatu all the indigenous languages are as 'bad' as one another when it comes to their usefulness in the wider world, so it makes little difference to a child's chances in life which language they grow up to speak. The children of south-central Pentecost who currently speak Apma might just as well learn Sowa and keep their heritage alive.

My enquiries about Sowa led me back to Waterfall Village and to a man named Isaiah, who is at the forefront of efforts to resurrect the language. Isaiah encourages men who still know a little Sowa to speak it together in the nakamal, and was responsible for the notice that first sparked my interest in the language. He is also hopeful that Sowa will someday be taught to children in the local primary school.

Isaiah's father was a native Sowa speaker who never learned Apma and died when Isaiah was in kindergarten; his mother is a speaker of Ske, a south Pentecost language closely related to Sowa. Isaiah began writing notes on Sowa back in 1998 when he was at high school, where he was encouraged by one of his teachers. "One day," the teacher told him, "white people will come and want to see what you have written". By visiting him I was unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy.

With the help of a recently-deceased local elder, Isaiah has now compiled a book containing about 900 words and phrases in Sowa, with Apma translations. The listings are neither alphabetical nor divided into clear sections, and for a few words the Sowa translation is missing (nobody could remember it), but the book is intended to cover all the basics of the language. It was typed up on a friend's computer, but only five copies were printed - the villagers could not afford more. The book was launched earlier this year at a small ceremony in the nakamal, and Isaiah hopes to put together further books on Sowa in future.

"Our mother tongue [is] our identity. Therefore, this booklet encourages our young generations to...unite and help develop the resurrection of our language," the book's introduction concludes.

Some locals see Isaiah's efforts as a waste of time, he told me, and he seemed pleased and surprised to discover that there might be people from outside Pentecost who care about the preservation of its languages.

With Isaiah's permission, I borrowed his book, took it to the school and printed several more copies. I gave six to him, which he intends to give to other communities within the Sowa area that have yet to receive his book. I also offered to take a copy to be filed at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila.

Before leaving, I used by little MP3 player to make recordings of Isaiah reciting a few of the Sowa words and phrases from his book.

Isaiah seems hopeful that his father's language and culture will not be forgotten. In Port Vila, he tells me, there is now a Sowa Association, consisting of people from south-central Pentecost who help one another out in times of difficulty. The association's members do not actually speak Sowa, but they recognise their common heritage.

Wantokism - granting of favours to people who share your native language - is a widespread feature of Melanesian society. With so many languages around (Vanuatu has around a hundred, in a country with half the population of Edinburgh), the people who share your language ("one-talks" or wantoks) are your family and your neighbours - the other members of your clan. It was interesting to see that wantokism can survive even when the language around which it was based has gone.

As Melanesia's indigenous languages continue to disappear, I predict that groups such as the Sowa Association will become common in the future - tribes united by the ghost of a common language.


16th December

After a week of thunderous rain, Pentecost's rivers were at a higher level than I'd ever seen them before. Waterways that I could cross during the dry season without even getting my ankles wet became waist-deep torrents, and new rivers sprang up in places where they had never existed before. The waterfall became even more spectacular than usual, filling the gulley below with searing mist. When Hugh and I went for a swim in the pool below the waterfall, the sensation was like sitting in a giant toilet bowl while somebody pulled the flush.

I was due to fly home for Christmas, but with the airfield once again closed by waterlogging, I worried that I might have to spend a day or two on the deck of a cargo ship in order to get off Pentecost. Fortunately, a few days before my departure the rain relented and the weather became brighter. At this time of year, hot days in Vanuatu are really hot, and the airfield quickly dried. I watched the sky nervously for further signs of rain, but the sunshine held.

With the rivers still too high for the school truck to drive through, I walked the six miles (11 km) to the airfield in the melting afternoon sun, a water bottle in each hand. Unbalanced by the huge rucksack on my back, I was frightened that I would stumble over in one of the rivers and that my belongings would get drenched. In the end I managed to stay upright, but I wrapped my laptop and my camera carefully in waterproof plastic bags just in case.

I reached Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, and spent a couple of days there, wandering amongst the resorts, restaurants, shops and souvenir stalls. On the radio, cheesy French pop songs were playing, local politicians were giving long speeches in Bislama exhorting their latest projects, and on the English-language news every second item was about the recent coup in Fiji. People in Vanuatu sympathise with the way their Fijian neighbours are suffering economically as a result of the coup: hotels are empty, foreign students are being sent home, and sugar farmers warn that they will go out of business if Europe decides to withdraw the subsidy it currently provides them. (I wonder if Ranwadi's senior students, whose exams are marked in Fiji, will be affected by the crisis.) A few pessimistic newspaper reporters warn that there could be a similar upheaval in Vanuatu unless the government listens better to the wishes of the people, but that seems unlikely. Vanuatu's democracy may be a shambles, but it's hard to see who would bother overthrowing it. In any case, you only have to glance around Port Vila, a town built on the money brought in by foreign tourists and tax dodgers, to see how much Vanuatu would have to lose.

During the middle of the day, the centre of Port Vila resembles a Queensland resort town, with bronzed expatriates driving around in their SUVs while holidaymakers dripping with sunscreen mill about in search of a beach. However, you don't have to fly to islands to Pentecost in order to see 'the real Vanuatu'. Taking a shared minibus from the airport into town, zigzagging through shanty-like suburbs where brothers and sisters and cousins crowd together in tin shacks and women in island dresses sell pineapples by the roadside, will give you an insight into local life in this overgrown Melanesian town. Alternatively, get up at dawn while the tourists are still snoozing in their hotels, and you can watch the locals going about their business much as they would in their home villages, making the most of the daylight in a place where electric lighting is expensive. And at dusk, you can venture out to one of the dimly-lit little shacks with lanterns at the door to gulp down a few shells of kava while exchanging stories with the other drinkers, then pick up a slap of laplap or some pieces of cooked banana from one of the local food stalls.

Port Vila
Port Vila

I attempted to go shopping for souvenirs in Port Vila, but couldn't find much that I wanted. Going home laden with T-shirts and mugs and pens and playing cards imprinted with pictures of palm trees on beaches and the words "Vanuatu - untouched paradise" would give my friends the wrong impression about what kind of place I'd been living in for the past few months.

The extent to which a place is genuinely an untouched paradise is inversely related to the number of times you see the word 'paradise' in print. In Port Vila, the word is everywhere. Billboards welcoming you to paradise stand by the roadsides amidst the dust and the litter. I can only guess as to what the town's poorer residents, struggling to make a living in their grimy little suburbs, make of it all.

On Pentecost, I don't remember ever seeing 'paradise' written down (although admittedly, you don't see many things written down on Pentecost, except in schoolbooks and on tins of food). Visitors to Pentecost do not need to be repeatedly reminded that they have come to a wonderful island, and the island is made all the more wonderful by the fact that they are not.

I left Vanuatu with the words of The Eagles running through my head...

"You can leave it all behind, sail to Lahaina
Just like the missionaries did, so many years ago.
They even brought a neon sign: "Jesus is coming",
Brought the white man's burden down, brought the white man's reign
And you can see them there, on Sunday morning,
Stand up and sing about what it's like up there.
They call it paradise, I don't know why;
You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye."


18th December

"Welcome to Auckland, where the temperature outside is 15 degrees Celsius."

I'm going to freeze, I thought.

The previous day in Port Vila, it had been 34°C (93°F). On Pentecost it was similarly hot, and with no fans or air-conditioners or chilled drinks I had been exposed to - and adjusted myself to - the full force of the climate.

15 degrees? Wasn't Auckland supposed to have a mild climate? And wasn't it midsummer here? Even Scotland occasionally manages to be warmer than 15 degrees in summer.

As the plane descended into land, I was struck by the colourlessness of the landscape. On clear days, Vanuatu's greens and blues are as bright as those on the surreal backdrops that come with Windows XP. New Zealand's colours were mingled heavily with brown.

With hastily piled-on layers of clothing designed for the tropics, and hair that hadn't been cut for seven months, I must have looked a mess when I stepped off the plane. Fortunately, New Zealand is a country of odd-looking people. Kiwis are like their houses: homely and welcoming on the inside, but ever-so-slightly incongruous on the outside, with the appearance of having been cobbled together too hastily from spare parts. You can't help but wonder if their forefathers, the early settlers who chose to abandon Europe in favour of a lonely life on an island outpost, were the ones not attractive enough to find themselves a good partner back home. (I can sympathise.)

I spent that afternoon wandering around the city centre, doing some Christmas shopping and reflecting that each store I entered probably held more goods than every single store on Pentecost put together.

The strangest thing to get used to, at first, was the lack of Bislama. When trying to communicate with people who didn't speak English as a first language (of whom there are quite a few in Auckland), being unable to fall back on a common lingua franca made me deeply uncomfortable.

During my time in Vanuatu, one of the poorest countries in the South Pacific, nobody ever attempted to beg from me - unless you count the schoolkids who regularly knocked at my door to ask for "scotch" (sticky tape) and similar bits and pieces. Even in Port Vila, the people who accost you on the street generally want nothing more than to wish you good day. Within a couple of hours of landing on the richest island in the South Pacific, however, somebody had stopped me on the street and asked me for money.

Whilst in Auckland, I did what the ni-Vanuatu usually do when they go to a strange place - I stayed with one of my cousins. Over the next couple of days, I realised just how many little things had been absent on Pentecost without me ever really noticing their absence: toasters, irons, sofas, carpets, cushions, wall paintings, soft toys, signposts, street lighting, and (at this time of year) Christmas decorations.

The appliance I had most difficulty readjusting to, bizarrely, was the light switch. These exist at Ranwadi, but are rarely touched: people leave the switches permanently on so that the lights come on at sunset when the generator is started and go off at bedtime when the generator is turned off. (Another reason people at Ranwadi don't use the switches is that if some lights are turned off part-way through the evening they cannot then be turned on again - the surge in voltage when the generator is first started is needed to kick the ailing fluorescent tubes into life.) Entering darkened rooms at my cousin's house, I would fumble around in the dark or reach in my pocket for a torch before realising that there was a light switch on the wall, and that there would be electricity to power it no matter what time of night it was.

Back in Scotland, with its eighteen-hour winter nights, I will probably rediscover the use of light switches quickly enough.

Fortunately, I don't have to get too well readjusted to Western life. I have already promised the Principal at Ranwadi that I will be back on Pentecost in time for the start of the new school term.

"Choose a big television," said Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, during his famous 'Choose life' soliloquy. (I've deleted the expletives.) "Choose washing machines, cars... electrical tin openers... Choose a starter home. ... Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fabrics. ... Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, sprit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. ... Choose your future..."

I chose none of these things. I chose Pentecost Island instead. I chose life.


<< November 2006 diary · January 2007 diary >>



See also...

The languages of Pentecost Island

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2006