Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

12th August

In a damp clearing surrounded by little thatched houses and overhung by giant tropical trees, two high chiefs gathered their people together to welcome a representative from a great foreign tribe.

Over the past few months, the leaky little pipes that carry fresh water from springs on the mountain down to Ranwadi and the surrounding villages have been replaced with a new system of sturdy plastic hoses and tanks, thanks to an aid project funded by the Japanese. Now the Japanese ambassador had come to Pentecost, and the local residents had organised a ceremony to express their gratitude.

The ceremony was held at Lalbetaes, the home village of Chief Alucio and Chief Philippe, the area's highest-ranking chiefs. These two men are cousins, but if you met them you wouldn't know it. Chief Alucio is often seen sitting slightly apart from the other villagers, his back slightly stiffer and his head slightly more upright. He walks around leaning on a long wooden stick, and speaks in polite, measured tones. Everything about him portrays calmness and clarity. Chief Philippe, by contrast, is typically found sitting in the middle of a loud, booming, guffawing cloud of tobacco smoke. He drives around the local villages in a metal-green truck with red lightning stripes along the side, barking at passers-by in a deep, grumbly voice.

The village of Lalbetaes gives the sense of being a place of wealth and power. Not in the manner of Ranwadi and Melsisi - which have the island's brightest lights and its newest buildings - but in a deeper, more traditional way. The village is slightly inland, built at the end of a muddy road (deeply rutted by the wheels of Chief Philippe's truck), in grassy clearings in the forest. Huge banyan trees overhang the village, and navele trees stand like Christmas trees decorated with streamers of yellow blossom. Pigs snuffle around in the brown spaces beneath the trees. These are not the obese pink porkers found on a British farm, but hairy, grunty little beasts in varying shades of muddy black and brown. Some wander freely around the village; whilst others are tied to trees, or grub around in makeshift pens.

The nakamal where the people of Lalbetaes gather for meetings and ceremonies is built in the same style as the one down at Vanwoki where I regularly drink kava with the villagers - a sloping, thatched roof supported on chunky wooden beams above a brown dirt floor. However, whilst the Vanwoki nakamal is a homely little hut, Chief Alucio and Chief Philip's nakamal at Lalbetaes has the dimensions of a gigantic hall, capable of holding hundreds of people. The vast roof contains tens of thousands of natanggura palm leaves, which have been individually cut, bent and pinned onto supporting poles. In Pentecost's climate, such roofs rot within a few years. Only a chief who could call upon the help of a large number of people could maintain a building of this size.

The water supply ceremony was held outdoors. A large crowd of villagers, teachers and students gathered around the nasara - the village green - where the Vanuatu flag was flying from a makeshift flagpole of green bamboo. Two bullocks had been slaughtered for the occasion, and all the students who had spent their afternoons carrying sand and gravel up the hill for the construction of the new water supply were rewarded with a rare chance to have a decent meal. The Japanese ambassador and his wife were seated, together with local chiefs and government dignitaries, under a corrugated-metal shelter at one side of the nasara. A microphone had been rigged up, and the dignitaries gave speeches to the crowd.

I arrived part-way through the afternoon, having tried to estimate what time the speeches would be over. My estimate was out by about half an hour, but I managed to miss the worst of the welcoming and thanking, and got to hear the Principal's elderly father - keen to remind everybody that the Japanese ambassador wasn't the only figure they had to thank for supplying their villages with water - take the microphone and sing a spontaneous hymn.

The final speaker was Chief Alucio, who earned my deep respect by beginning his speech with "Me no want'em talk too-much, ee no got plenty thing me want'em tell'em." This is a common way for speakers in Vanuatu to begin, and usually heralds a speech of average length and above-average pointlessness, but wise Chief Alucio actually meant his words. After a couple of sentences of thanks his speech was over, and it was time for the traditional dancing to begin.

The group of men who shuffled and sang their way into the nasara to begin their dance were clothed in an odd mixture of ceremonial mats and Australian board shorts. Some had bunches of rattling nuts tied around their ankles to provide percussion to the dance; others wore white trainers. Most had nanggaria - ceremonial leaves - stuck into the backs of their mats or their shorts, giving them the appearance of giant cockerels. A couple of men tapped out a beat on wooden slit drums, while others led the dancers in an ululating chant.

Vanuatu's custom dances are not elaborate, gymnastic affairs. Imagine how people might dance if gravity were doubled, and you will get some impression of what a typical performance is like. Dancers shuffle in slow lines up and down the nasara, or gather in the centre in a loose, revolving mob. In some dances the performers are hunched over, shaking their elbows like chickens and scuffing their feet against at the ground like frustrated cattle.

After a few minutes of ritual shuffling, the man on the microphone invited the audience to join in.

"You-fella who ee stop 'round long place here, suppose you want'em dance, you come join'em dance."

Two old ladies stepped forward a little way from the crowd, and shuffled dead-weightedly in rhythm with the dancers. A couple of young men entered the nasara and followed the lines of dancers, attracting laughs and cheers from the crowd. The school sports master took up a slit drum and joined the fray. Everyone else continued to watch.

"Andrew, you now, you come join'em dance," said the man on the microphone.

Two hundred people looked in my direction.

I turned towards the announcer and made the silent arms-wide gesture that the ni-Vanuatu use to mean "What's going on?".

"Yes, Andrew, you come dance. Me-fella ee want'em look say you, you dance today."

Two hundred people stared. Memories of high school ceilidhs came flooding back. (To Scots, a ceilidh is a country dance. To an immigrant English teenager with two oversized left feet, it's an exercise in trying to shrink backwards into the wall when dancers are told to "take your partners please" in the hope that no girl will be stupid enough to come over and invite you to dance.)

I shrugged and took my position in the crowd of shuffling dancers. Several other men came out of the crowd and joined in. The announcer on the microphone egged me on. My students laughed and cheered.

Contrary to the belief of most of my family and friends, I have always enjoyed dancing. True, I am usually the person standing in the corner of the dance floor holding everyone else's jackets, or the person cowardishly explaining to a girl that "I'd rather sit out this one" on the occasions when I shrank backwards but the wall failed to absorb me. However, this is not because I don't want to dance. It is because I have poor co-ordination, I am shy in Western social situations, I am taller than the average girl to an extent that makes dancing with them awkward, I have a surplus pair of limbs (other people have this problem too, but unlike me they seem to be able to use their arms in ways that don't make them look idiotic), and I am usually sober enough to care what other people are thinking.

None of this mattered on Pentecost. The sort of leaden shuffling that drives my friends to despair in Western nightspots is perfectly in keeping with the style of a Vanuatu dance. There was no awkward "take your partner" moment: men and women were dancing in the same way that men and women do nearly everything else in Vanuatu - in the same place at the same time yet utterly independently of one another.

Custom dancing was fun. And even if I was dancing badly, everybody knew I had never tried this before, so nobody was expecting me to be any good. The crowd was staring and laughing at me because I was a white man, not just because I was a terrible dancer, and strangely that made everything OK.

Some of my students, dressed for the occasion in their school uniforms, joined in the dance. It began to drizzle, but nobody minded. Chief Philippe's truck passed back and forth, piled with tables and chairs which had been borrowed from the school and were being returned now that the ceremony was over. The school Head Boy, riding in the truck with Chief Philippe, hung out of the passenger window like a happy labrador. Yellow afternoon sunlight shone through the rain. The trees around the dancing ground glinted. The men and women shuffled in circles. The dignitaries looked on from their dripping shelter. The dancers chanted, stamping their feet three times at the end of each chorus. I stamped along with them, and wondered how I had gone, in two years, from marching through the Edinburgh Meadows in a white T-shirt on a sunny afternoon to campaign for more aid to be sent to poor countries, to dancing around a muddy nasara in a jungle village in the rain in gratitude for such aid.

Unlike the African countries whose cause Bob Geldof was championing on that July weekend, Vanuatu has little difficulty finding generous well-wishers to help it in times of need. The tiny republic is peaceful, friendly, democratic and only moderately corrupt, and its islands are full of the type of people you see in aid-agency adverts - hard-working farmers who are trying bravely to haul themselves out of poverty and might well succeed if only somebody would build them a hospital or dig them a well. The country has never fallen into the grip of a dictator, fought a war, or been associated with terrorism. In crude economic terms, it is demonstrably poor: this year the United Nations added Vanuatu to its list of Least Developed Countries, placing it in the same category as the world's worst Third World hellholes. Vanuatu also does a good line in natural disasters - regular earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that remind foreign donors of the odds that the islanders face in trying to develop their vulnerable country.

There is another, less wholesome reason why big foreign governments lavish aid on tiny island states. Many countries have pet causes for which they would like to win the support of as many nations as possible - whaling, for example, or the status of Taiwan - and the friendship of a country the size of Vanuatu is cheaply bought. If the Japanese spent a hundred dollars on every man, woman and child in Vanuatu, Japan's own citizens would be out of pocket by a mere fifteen cents each.

For would-be international Santa Clauses trying to decide which impoverished country to reward with the biggest presents, Vanuatu therefore represents an excellent choice. When the United States offered money from its Millennium Challenge Fund to help deserving poor countries build up their infrastructure, Vanuatu was the only country in the South Pacific to qualify. The children in the Vanuatu household might squabble a bit over the gifts in their Christmas stockings (the local officer in charge of disbursing the Millennium Challenge money has recently been suspended over fraud allegations), but they've had such a hard time lately that you can hardly blame them, and you can at least trust them not to shoot the reindeer or relight the fire while Santa is still working his way back up the chimney. And they will be sure to leave a generous plate of mince pies.

At Lalbetaes, the Japanese ambassador left the nasara holding a long, black wooden spear that the islanders had presented him with (which served as a convenient walking stick on the slippery road). Two or three well-wishers followed behind to help carry the many other gifts that had been bestowed upon the little man. One of them held an enormous bundle of brightly-patterned woven baskets. Another cradled a giant, leaf-wrapped ceremonial pudding in his arms.

When the sun set and the dancing was over, the men decamped to the nakamal, where kava was already being prepared, and the visiting dignitaries from Port Vila were filling in their rural counterparts (who seldom get to read newspapers) on the latest in Vanuatu politics. A group of men sat in a circle while Charlot the local MP talked about the nation's current big scandal: the attempt by various figures in Charlot's party to defraud the National Bank by millions of dollars. I didn't understand everything that Charlot said, since he was speaking the native language, but I'm guessing he was reassuring his constituents that he wasn't involved.

I chatted to a figure from the Department of Geology and Mining, whose offices were destroyed two months ago in a suspicious fire. The offices contained, amongst other things, the computer that received and analysed data coming in from the various seismic monitoring stations around the country. Such monitoring is important: Vanuatu has nine active volcanoes, some of them prone to nasty eruptions, and suffers frequent earthquakes, which occasionally trigger tsunamis. (Two weeks ago Ranwadi was shaken awake at 4.10 a.m. by a prolonged tremor that cracked roads and disrupted power supplies in the town of Luganville.) The news that the country is now without a functioning seismic monitoring network was not reassuring.

After the fire, the Vanuatu government called in help from France, a reliable foreign Santa who asks only that children say "Merci" rather than "Thank you" in return for their Christmas presents. A replacement computer is on its way.


22nd August

My first brush with the devil nettle was in the forested gulley that runs down the northern boundary of the school grounds. Since this gulley is occasionally used as a hideaway by boys and girls who sneak out for illicit liaisons, it wouldn't surprise me if someone had planted it there on purpose. A romp in the bushes loses its appeal when the bushes can give you nasty stings.

The pain inflicted by touching the devil nettle's leaves is no more intense than the sting of a juicy British nettle. However, the devil nettle is the size of a tree, and its stings remain sore for a week.

Devil nettle is a description invented by Western botanists ('fever nettle' and 'nettle tree' are alternative names). Among islanders the species is always referred to as the nanggalat. The reviled tree is synonymous with things that sting: jellyfish, in the local languages, are known as "nanggalat of the sea".

Trees and plants of all kinds feature very strongly in the lives of the people of Pentecost. They are the only resource that the island has, apart from stones and water and a meagre amount of wildlife. Whilst the nanggalat may be a nuisance, there are maybe a hundred other local tree species that people value for one reason or another. The bulk of the islanders' house-building and nearly all of their cooking is done using wood gathered from the local forest, and trees were also a traditional source of dyes, resins and twine. There are jungle trees with enormous flat buttresses that were used for making plates and dishes in the days before China's manufacturing industry flooded the world with its wares. There is the perfume tree, the glue tree, the bead tree, the ankle rattle tree, the fish poison tree, and the canoe tree, whose uses are all self-explanatory. There are decorative plants, known locally as 'colour leaves', that are worn by dancers at ceremonies. There is also a variety of medicinal plants, many of them known only to witchdoctors, people who are referred to as 'clevers' because of their specialist knowledge.

Most obviously, there are the fruit and nut trees. In addition to familiar, introduced species such as bananas, mangoes, papayas, avocados and oranges, there are nakavika (Malay apples), nakatambol (dragon plums), naos (hog plums), nandao (native lychees), navele (bush nuts), nangae (native almonds), and namambe (Tahitian chestnuts).

(In case you're wondering why the names of all Vanuatu's native trees begin with "na", in several of the country's languages "na" is a grammatical marker corresponding to the word "the" in sentences like "It stung me again, the bloody tree". In Bislama, whose vocabulary is based largely on English but draws on the native languages in describing things that don't exist back in England - of which, thankfully, the nanggalat is one - this marker has become stuck inseparably to the words.)

There is also a variety of smaller fruits and nuts that do not merit a name in Bislama but do provide tasty snacks for hungry children. Outside my old house at Ranwadi was a 'bean tree', often surrounded at certain times of year by schoolgirls who would hang off the little tree, plucking the tiny seeds out of their pods and eating them. The seeds that the students missed sprouted everywhere, and were a nuisance, but the girls would wail when they saw me pulling the seedlings up.

"Mr Andrew, that's a bean!"

Some plants have multiple uses. The ubiquitous coconut palm provides the islanders with wooden posts, brooms, flaming torches, leaf mattresses, roofing for temporary shelters, ornaments, kava-drinking cups, and half a dozen varieties of food and drink, which range (depending on the ripeness of the nut) from a sickly juice to an ice-cream-like gel. Dried coconut flesh (copra) was also Pentecost's main export, before its people discovered that planting kava was easier and more profitable than scraping coconuts by the sack-full.

One thing that nearly all of the island's trees and plants have in common is that they propagate themselves with ease. Vanuatu is a country of colonists: to get the archipelago, each of its plant species had to cross a thousand miles of ocean, either by drifting on the water or by hitching a ride in the canoes of early settlers. Any variety that was fussy about setting down roots in new soil would never have made it. Whilst Western agriculture is based the sowing of seeds, most of the islanders' crops can be planted by the simple means of sticking a cutting into the ground and waiting for it to grow. A few, such as the banana plant, don't bother producing seeds at all. Many of the rows of sticks that the villagers set up as fence posts also sprout into saplings, and over time a fence evolves into a hedgerow. Even the wooden shacks surrounding bush toilets occasionally sprout leaves.

When discussing the island's flora, many locals refer not to "different kinds of tree" but "different kinds of wood". Lighting a fire that won't go out or building a house that won't fall down relies on knowing the characteristics of the wood from each particular tree and knowing what it is good for. Durable posts that will not rot in damp conditions are stuck into the ground to support a house; equally strong but less rot-resistant timbers can be used hold up the roof. Some trees have fine-quality wood but grow too crookedly to be a source of building material; these were traditionally used for making the handles of tools. Sticks of a wood that was known to burn particularly slowly and steadily were used in days before matches to carry fire from place to place.

Even the nanggalat has its uses. Before anaesthetics came along, boys would sometimes have their penises whipped with the leaves to deaden the pain during circumcision. On one island, a soup of nanggalat leaves was reportedly drunk to heighten the temper of those psyching themselves up for a fight. The Guide to the Common Trees of Vanuatu also reports that cuttings of the tree are occasionally planted to make a barrier that no intruder will touch - a living electric fence - although the book notes that "the difficulty of handling the material means that it is not often used".

The most important of all Vanuatu's trees is the palm-like cycad, or namele, sometimes referred to as the 'peace tree'. Numerous ancient customs surround this prehistoric plant, which only high-ranking individuals were traditionally allowed to cultivate. Its long, spiky leaves are recognised throughout the country as taboo signs: ni-Vanuatu will not pick fruit from a tree against which a namele leaf has been rested, or fish in a spot where such a leaf has been displayed. Last month a government office on Malekula Island had to be temporarily shut down after a disgruntled villager barred its door with a namele leaf. Since tradition dictates that only the person who set up such a taboo is entitled to take it away again, unless a very high chief intervenes, nobody would work in the building until the Vanuatu Supreme Court had ordered the leaf's removal.

Back in the time of darkness (the islanders' own description of the time before missionaries brought them light), the namele tree had other uses. A person who had committed a grievous offence, and could not afford the pigs needed to pay a fine to the chief, would be tied to a namele and burned alive.

That doesn't sound like an appropriate use for a peace tree, I commented to an old man at the nakamal. How did the namele come to be a symbol of peace?

When people saw a namele tree growing in a village, I was told, they would be reminded of what would happen to them if they caused trouble. Thus the namele promoted peace.

Perhaps American cities that suffer crime problems should display electric chairs on their street corners.

In the days of tribal warfare, a pair of crossed namele leaves would be put up to indicate that a village no longer wished to fight - a white flag of peace. If warriors approaching an enemy village saw the crossed leaves, they would put down their weapons. If only a single leaf was displayed, however, they would sharpen their spears and axes and prepare the cooking pit.

Today, this crossed namele sign is displayed on the Vanuatu flag, surrounded by the whorl of a pig's tusk and Rastafarian colours with various symbolic meanings. Next to the flagpole in the centre of Ranwadi School stands an aged namele tree. Its upper crown of leaves is withering, but bright young growth is sprouting from lower down the tree - a perfect emblem for a place where children come to be educated.

Outside my own house at Ranwadi is a miniature Scottish flag, fluttering surreally against a backdrop of coconut palms. This, too, carries a crossed symbol: the saltire of Saint Andrew, who died on a diagonal cross after protesting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord. The cross, a place where people were once strung up in pain and executed, is recognised today as a symbol of hope and peace. Just like the namele.


Knowledge of trees is, of course, starting to disappear, as islanders get increasing numbers of the things they need from the local store rather than the local forest. Such a loss of knowledge is not confined to Vanuatu. I know a lot of British people in my parents' generation, yet very few people in my generation, who could tell the difference between a birch tree, an ash tree, a beech tree, an elm tree, a poplar tree, and so on. I couldn't, and I have a degree in biology. (Really this is a shift in knowledge, rather than a loss, since at the same time that my generation was failing to learn the names of trees it was learning the names of sportswear brands and social networking web sites.)

It doesn't matter too much if Brits don't know the names of the trees in their fields and gardens, because they can look them up if they need to. If you want to find out whether you might be prosecuted for cutting your hedge on the grounds that it's a breeding site for endangered butterflies, or whether the strange leaves you found the dog eating are poisonous, books and the Internet will tell you. In Vanuatu, by contrast, such information is seldom written down. If children never learn what their parents knew about the local plants, within a couple of generations that knowledge will be lost.

Yet children, in their own way, remain among the most enthusiastic of botanists. No handyman in Vanuatu today would try to use the glue tree, but schoolchildren with no money to buy glue still occasionally stick pieces of paper together with the adhesive gunk from its fruits. No adult at Ranwadi would bother eating the seeds from the bean tree, but for students fed on rice and cabbage soup the beans are a valuable supplement to their diet. The giant seed pods of flamboyant trees (known in Vanuatu as Christmas trees because they produce red flowers in December) are of little use to adults, but make great swords for play-fighting. And although Vanuatu has no adventure playgrounds of the Western kind, its children do spend happy hours clambering around in the branches of trees.

Back home, too, it is children that make the most intimate use of the local flora. When I am in Britain today I seldom regard its plants and trees as anything other than decorations, yet as a child there were species that I knew and used. My friends and I knew the location of just about every horse chestnut tree in the village, and every October we collected and played with their conkers. We knew about pine trees, oak trees, and sycamore trees - those, too, dropped interesting toys on the ground. We knew plants with sticky burs, which could be put to various childish uses, and we knew which plants had thorns. We could recognise stinging nettles - just as Vanuatu children recognise the nanggalat - and we knew the dock leaves that would relieve their stings. We knew the few wild berries that were sufficiently easily-distinguished from poisonous species for our mothers to let us eat them. We knew how to tell the time by blowing fluff off a dandelion, how to tell if someone liked butter by holding a buttercup under the chin, and how to tell if a girl loved a boy by pulling alternate petals off a daisy, in much the same way that Pentecost islanders know how to make it rain by rubbing a magic leaf. My grandmother taught me how to twist a particular grass so that its head popped off in an amusing way (I still try this occasionally, but can never seem to find exactly the right kind of grass). I knew numerous flowers, which evoke powerful memories of England at certain times of year: snowdrops in winter, crocuses and daffodils at Easter, bluebells in early summer, and soft purple Michaelmas daisies in September. Simply thinking about these plants today reminds me, as I read e-mail bulletins about foot-and-mouth disease and flooding and terrorist plots and other things that make me wonder whether I should ever bother going home, that Britain too can occasionally be a beautiful island.

Children in rural areas have an instinct for learning the local plants, and probably have done ever since our ancestors were monkeys. Once upon a time, this helped prepare them for life. In modern Britain - and to a lesser extent modern Vanuatu - it is little more than good fun. It keeps them amused until the time when they grow up, forget the location of the blackberry bushes and the conker trees, and replace it in their minds with the location of the organic fruit section in the local supermarket.


31st August

There was a very slight unease in people's expressions when I told them that I was planning to go over to the other side.

It'll be interesting for you to see, some of them said. Interesting how they do things over there.

The day before I crossed over the island was a Sunday. Attending church in the village of Nambwarangiut on the north-west coast of Pentecost, from which I'd planned to start my trek, an old man on the bench in front of me turned around part way through the service and whispered to me.

I hear you're planning to go across to Lafatmangemu.

I nodded.

I want to give a talk to you.

After the priest had concluded his service, the old man stood up in front of the church and addressed the congregation. First he gave messages of encouragement to a group of local youths who were preparing to go and participate in a sports tournament. Behave yourselves, he warned them. Then he turned his attention to me.

I didn't understand everything he said - nothing said to me during this trip was in English - but his message seemed to be this: remember that what they do over there doesn't solely reflect on Pentecost. Their ideas draw on those of Melanesia as a whole.

I don't want to criticise their methods, said another man, as the villagers and I sat on tree stumps in the moonlight that evening. But you must remember that some of the things they say and the things they do are things they invented themselves. They don't represent our traditions.

I realise that, I said. But I'm curious to see them anyway.

The next day, my host showed me the path that led up the mountain. The north-west coastline of Pentecost expanded below us, rich blues and greens hazed with the steamy dew of a tropical morning. The sun, peering over the hilltop, was shining on Nambwarangiut.

I knew Pentecost's climate well enough to realise that I was probably leaving the sunshine behind. A couple of miles into the interior of the island a thin mist descended - or rather, we ascended into it. For an hour or two the road meandered along ridges and hillsides, past windswept gardens and stands of tall trees. Solitary namala - harrier hawks - hunted across them. It began to spit rain.

In a dense clump of bushes, we passed the site of a giant's grave. A man so big, according to legend, that children could hide under his arms.

At the Village of the Eight Stones - the eponymous stones were arranged in a cross shape outside the nakamal, placed there by an old chief for some ancient purpose - our path joined the white road. This desolate, chalky highway, connecting north and south Pentecost, is etched like a vertebral column onto the highest ridge of the island. Cold vapour hung on the ridge.

We walked for a little way along the white road, through a village whose thatched roofs were black and sodden. We reached a turning, and my host led me aside along a small footpath, through a stand of trees and onto the top of a rocky cliff.

There's a good view from here, he said.

Below, in a thunderous mist, stretched the coastline of East Pentecost - known to locals as the Big Sea. This was the wild side of Pentecost, the open ocean. The place where winds that have blown free across the ocean for a thousand miles slam into a two thousand foot wall of island, reacting with a fury of cloud and condensation that drenches East Pentecost in greyness. Out towards the horizon of the Big Sea the water was faintly blue - the sun was shining out there - but closer to shore the mist had turned it the colour of metal. Enormous jagged reefs stretched away from the shore, barricading the island against the anger of the ocean, which pounded on the reefs with such violence that even from here on the mountaintop I thought I could hear the noise.

The Big Sea
East Pentecost - the Big Sea

Down by the white-washed shore I could see a village; elsewhere the mountainsides stretched away into the fog in shades of the darkest imaginable green. When diseases cut through Pentecost's population a century ago, most of the survivors fled west towards the lights of missionaries and cargo ships, who landed on the island's placid western coast rather than braving the Big Sea. There in the west, they built schools and churches and stores, while on the far side the inhabitants of the few remaining villages continued, in an isolated and lonely way, to follow the lifestyle of their ancestors. The ghosts of their lost neighbours vanished into the forest.

The road down the mountainside twisted away into the trees below us.

You can find your own way from here?

Yes. I thanked my host, and set off down towards the Big Sea.

On a couple of bends, I encountered toothless old villagers, who stopped in surprise at the sight of a white person on the road.

I'm going down to Lafatmangemu, I told them.

Do you know the way?

I think so.

Do you have a map?

Yes, I told them, half truthfully. I did have a map, but I'd left it at home. You can't follow maps on Pentecost - the island's terrain is too convoluted, the roads are too organic, the maps are too vague. Even the big maps surveyed by the Vanuatu Lands Department are a decade old, and covered with labels such as "approximate position".

The road reached the ocean at Renbura - the village I'd seen from the mountaintop. Prehistoric houses of wood and bamboo, built on gritty sand, set back from the shore at what their owners hoped was a safe distance from the ocean. The tide was out, exposing vast flats of sand and stone, a No Man's Land in the battle between island and sea. Beyond this empty zone, giant waves reared like white ghouls out of the grey water.

I took a shortcut across the beach, wading a blue-tinted river, and rejoined the road as it ran northwards along the sandy woodland beside the shore. The woodland had a skeletal appearance; saltwater had burned and flushed the undergrowth away. The bare ground was littered with droppings from the trees - the long hairy flowers and giant seed pods of the sea navele, the round nuts of the nambagura, and the long needles of the whistling pine - blackened with damp, and silvered with moisture.

After a mile or so, the road turned inland, and darkened sand gave way to compacted mud. Bushes had been planted along the roadsides - spiky-leafed namele and slender, colourful nanggaria, both powerful symbols of Vanuatu custom. Thatched houses and the triangular roof of a huge nakamal could be seen behind the trees.

The nakamal at Lafatmangemu is enormous, I had been told. Bigger than any you've seen before.

This must be the place.

Were they expecting me? There are no telephones in this part of Pentecost, but I had tried to pass on a message to let them know was coming. I had no idea if the message had arrived. Nervously, I approached the village, and prepared to introduce myself...


The community run by the famous Chief Viraleo at Lafatmangemu is, first and foremost, a school. Not a school like Ranwadi, with its computers and photocopiers and piles of textbooks following curricula designed in Australia and New Zealand, taught largely by staff born or educated abroad. Chief Viraleo's establishment was a school of custom. It claimed to be a place where islanders could come to be schooled not in Western ideas and Western languages, but in Pentecost's native traditions.

Students of all ages come from all over the island to attend lessons, which are held during the first week of each lunar month. The Western calendar has been dispensed with in Lafatmangemu. I arrived on the day before the full moon - the middle of the month - and the place was relatively empty, although a few scholars remained. Most were young men. Many were introduced as assistant chiefs, who had come to Lafatmangemu to acquire knowledge about traditional customs which they would then take back and share with their communities.

Upon my arrival I was shown the way to school office, which occupied the upper level of an impressive two-storey building made entirely from local wood and bamboo (except for the tin roof, and even that was lined on the inside with a woven bamboo ceiling). I clambered up the wooden staircase and was met at the door of the office by a bearded scholar.

"Ihaku be Andrew. Nan mai Ranwadi." That was as much North Pentecost Language as I could manage; I switched into Pidgin English, and asked if Chief Viraleo was around.

The assistant showed me into the room. It was large, cosy-looking, and richly decorated with everything from sculptures in traditional patterns to posters of local wildlife. Many of the notices on the walls consisted of strange, loopy symbols: Pentecost's native writing system. This was Avoiuli, the 39-letter alphabet based on designs in ancient sand drawings that Chief Viraleo had spent fourteen years deciphering (or, according to his critics, inventing).

The chief was sitting in front of an old fashioned ledger, filled with his native writing. He was a younger man than I expected, with a shaved head, narrow reading glasses and the air of an eccentric schoolteacher. He got up, walked over to me, and tapped his forehead against mine.

"That's our custom greeting. We don't shake hands here."

I introduced myself properly and explained why I had come. "I've heard lots of stories about this place."

"Yes, the BBC were filming here a few weeks ago," Chief Viraleo said. "One of their people was called Andrew too."

I knew - several friends and relatives had forwarded me the news article. The BBC had come to report not on the school, but on another of Chief Viraleo's ventures, his 'custom bank'. Instead of dealing in vatu, Vanuatu's official currency, the bank at Lafatmangemu deals in 'livatu', a novel currency based on the red mats and curved boar's tusks that Pentecost islanders traditionally used as money.

A lifetime's education at the school of custom costs 72 livatu. At an official exchange rate of 18,000 vatu ($180) to the livatu, this amounts to over a million vatu - a lot of money even by Western standards, and more than the cost of an education at Vanuatu's ordinary schools. Some sceptics, looking at the price of pigs' tusks and mats in their own villages, claim that the livatu is overvalued. However, since pigs' tusks and mats are not identical and some are naturally worth more than others, this is hard to prove.

"What if I wanted to stay for just a couple of days at your school, learning about custom?" I asked. "Do you offer short courses?"

"Do you have any livatu?"

"What do you mean?" Lacking the right currency was a problem I'd only encountered before when crossing international borders, not when crossing a five-mile-wide island in one small corner of one small country.

"Do you have any pig's teeth?"

Damn, I left those at home.

"Couldn't I pay in vatu?"

Chief Viraleo gave me a look like an animal rights activist whose friend has just asked if she'd look good in a fur coat.

"Sorry to corrupt your village with white man's money," I said. "It's all I have." Surely the chief's bank could convert it for me.

Chief Viraleo thought for a while, and accepted. We negotiated a price.

"You can pay your school fees at a ceremony this afternoon," he told me. In custom, it seemed, you can't just hand something over and get a receipt. I would have to stand in the nasara while a chief walked around three times, inspecting my cash as if it were a red mat or a pig that I was presenting for approval, while a speech was given thanking me and welcoming me into the school.

From outside came the thudding noise of a slit drum: the school bell.

"Lunch time."

I followed the chief and his assistant down the wooden steps of the building, across a forest clearing and into the huge nakamal that served as both the school's classroom and its dining hall. The building had a brown dirt floor and no walls, just an enormous, overhanging roof, made entirely from bamboo and palm thatch and supported on pillars made from tree trunks. Benches of local timber ran along the sides of the nakamal, and an old-fashioned blackboard stood at one end. A blossoming native apple tree carpeted the bare ground outside in deep pink fluff.

A rather un-traditional bank of fluorescent lights had been attached to the rafters of the nakamal, connected by garish pale wires to a light switch on one of the pillars.

"We only run the electricity generator on special occasions," Chief Viraleo told me.

An old man entered the nakamal.

"Rantavuha," I said. Good day.

"We don't use that phrase here," Chief Viraleo said. "Here we follow the old custom: we address people as family. If a man is your father, you greet him with the word 'father'. If he is your uncle, you greet him as 'uncle'. Or if he is a chief, you can address him by his chiefly title."

"What if you don't know who somebody is?" This wasn't an issue in traditional times, when strangers in the village were a rare sight and any who did turn up were likely to be treated with suspicion rather than greeted cordially, but Pentecost society has changed since then.

"You should call him 'tua'." The local word for 'brother'.


"We find that using the old system helps make sure we know our families," Chief Viraleo explained. "If you just say good day, you start to forget who people are."

Women shuffled into the nakamal and began laying out food. A group of slightly malnourished-looking children wandered at their feet.

"Here we eat only local food," Chief Viraleo said. "We don't eat anything that we buy from the store."

"No biscuits, no chocolate, no tomato sauce?" I said. "I feel sorry for you."

Everybody laughed.

Nobody in Lafatmangemu eats from plates or dishes. Instead, each person's food was served on a woven, basket-like tray, lined with giant heliconia leaves. One of the women handed me such a tray, heaped with an absurd quantity of food. There were pieces of baked tuber in an assortment of phallic shapes, which were bland and starchy in varying degrees, along with chewy slabs of grated vegetable that had been mashed up with coconut milk and baked in a fire to make laplap, Vanuatu's national dish. Some visitors to the country take to laplap, others despise it; none would choose to eat it for three meals a day.

A side dish, consisting of a gigantic bean pod that had been boiled down into greenish-brown mush, was handed to me in a bowl made from a giant clamshell.

"Try this," said Chief Viraleo, pulling out the inside of an exotic-looking whelk and handing it to me. It had a green tinge, and tasted as if it had been plucked straight from the reef at low tide. I swallowed.

After lunch, I was shown to the dormitory that I would be sharing with the scholars. This was another dirt-floored nakamal, dark except for the grey light straining through slats in the walls. There were no beds or mattresses; instead, people slept on woven pandanus mats on the floor, with coconut leaves underneath them for padding. I lay down and found that midribs of the leaves dug into my back, making it hard to get comfortable. The pillows, too, were made from strips of pandanus, hard and shiny, woven together at the edges and stuffed with crushed-up leaves. Woven mats were historically used as bed covers, too, but here at Lafatmangemu the scholars had brought along ragged sheets of cloth to sleep under. Some had also strung mosquito nets over their beds. There are custom medicines that can relieve malaria, but people didn't seem to put too much faith in them.

Nakamal at Lafatmangemu
The nakamal at Lafatmangemu - an unusual classroom

That afternoon, I rested and chatted to Chief Viraleo. Another chief was introduced, a yellow-haired and elderly man, and I paid my school fees. After circling me three times, the old man slapped me on the legs like a prized pig as I handed over the money.

At sunset, the men at Lafatmangemu gathered in yet another nakamal, higher up the hill, to drink kava while women and children busied themselves in the background preparing dinner. The nakamal was in the process of being rebuilt, and half of the building consisted of bare wooden posts, with a gnarled yet sturdy-looking ladder made of local wood leaning against them. Bats flapped in and out of the nakamal, and the forest outside was mystic-looking in the moonlight.

Wood fires glowed under the cooking pots, and one woman held a bundle of strips from a coconut frond which she used as a flaming torch, shaking it every time the light dimmed so that it flared into life, scattering glowing sparks on the ground. Small lanterns illuminated the rest of building. Paraffin being a Muggle invention, and an expensive one, the people of Lafatmangemu fuelled their lamps using locally-pressed coconut oil instead (a very sensible idea that other communities in Vanuatu ought to copy). Some of the little lights were made with half-coconut shells; others burned inside tall glass jars.

"We found the jars washed up on the beach," Chief Viraleo told me. "We think they came from Fiji."

Supper was handed out in individual baskets, which each man took back to eat in the dormitory after he'd finished drinking kava. When I returned to the dormitory, my companions had already lit a camp fire in the middle of the floor and were sitting around it on wooden stumps, tearing apart lumps of pig and taro from their baskets. I joined them, licking my greasy fingers - there are no knives and forks in Lafatmangemu - and flicking gristly bits of pig into the fire. The fire died down as we finished eating (which I was thankful for, as it was rather close to my flammable-looking sleeping mat) and by the time I fell asleep the only light in the dormitory came from red embers and a green luminous mushroom growing out of one of the wooden posts in the wall.

I woke at dawn the next day and went in search of a stream or a river in which to wash. (I knew better than to ask Chief Viraleo where the bathroom was.) I was shown the way to the village well, a deep, sandy hole in the forest with slippery spiral steps running around the edge. Constructing a narrow, European-style well with a winch for hoisting up water would have been impossible in the days of true custom, I realised. At the bottom of the well was a black, murky puddle of water, overhung by ferns. I filled up a bucket (waterproof containers are one concession to modernisation that you'll find even in the most traditional of Vanuatu communities) and disappeared into a nearby shack of coconut leaves to have a shower.

Breakfast consisted of more laplap and tubers, with a clamshell of boiled cabbage on the side. I made a mental note: when visiting custom villages, bring a supply of chocolate.

"We find we have more strength when we eat only traditional food," Chief Viraleo told me.

Forget strength - I wanted a sugar hit.

After breakfast, the scholars went to work on various activities, and I followed Chief Viraleo back into his office.

"So, what do you want to learn?" he asked.

I had lots of questions for the chief, but the thing I had really come to find out about was language. A while ago, with the help of my students at Ranwadi, I had begun the daunting task of trying and compile a phrasebook of all five of Pentecost's native languages (and their thirteen dialects). Several students obligingly contributed words and phrases, but a problem emerged: the language of Pentecost's youth today is insidiously mixed with Pidgin English.

Pentecost's native tongues are the languages of Stone Age people. In their original form, they lacked a vast number of words that are necessary in modern life: not just for technologies such as 'engine' and 'telephone', but also for the intangible concepts of big civilisation, such as 'association' and 'government'. Some speakers have attempted to solve this problem the Icelandic way, by creatively rearranging the words they already had in their languages: there is a local word for 'plane' that translates literally as 'flying canoe'. However, the main way in which the problem was solved was by massive borrowing of words from the foreigners who had introduced all these new things to the islands.

As a means of acquiring terminology for new concepts, there is no harm in this. After all, this kind of borrowing is largely how the English language itself has expanded and enriched itself over the years. However, on Pentecost the mixing of indigenous languages with the national one has become such a habit that even perfectly good native words, such the terms for 'blue' and 'thousand', are now being replaced by the Pidgin English equivalents. Some villagers tell me that the language of children educated in Churches of Christ schools such as Ranwadi is particularly corrupt.

Some borrowed words have been so mangled in the conversion that people no longer even realise that they are foreign words. Even native English speakers have difficulty spotting that 'kolosisi' (toilet), for example, comes from their own language.

If Pentecost's young people want to alter their languages, that is their choice. However, it would be immensely sad if there were no record of the old words - something that my students can look back on in fifty years time if they wish to reminisce about the language their grandparents' once spoke. In the phrasebook, therefore, I wanted to try and include as many genuine native words as possible, alongside their Pidgin replacements. And if there was one person who was sure to know the traditional words, it was Chief Viraleo.

The chief and I spent the morning flicking through books and notes, and writing down words. Sometimes Chief Viraleo would scribble down a word in his own alphabet first, and ponder over it for a while before offering me a Western transliteration. We pored over pictures of birds and trees. The ones that the chief didn't recognise from the pictures, we showed to the other scholars down at the nakamal at lunchtime. I sat in the centre of half a dozen young men, all vigorously debating the identity of a particular species.

"It grows deep in the bush; flying foxes take the fruit... Yellow fruit, not red ones... Maybe they're the same kind... Straight wood, black in the centre... People used to make arrows out of it... No, that's not the right name, wait, it'll come to me... This tree is a..."

And I would hurriedly scribble down the word as the men smiled and agreed that this was indeed the correct name of the tree.

I asked a lot of questions at the school of custom, and got answers to most of them. However, the exchange of ideas went both ways, and during the two days I found myself trying awkwardly to string together Pidgin English answers to some very searching questions. Chief Viraleo had one of the most probing minds of anyone I'd met. In conversation he had a bright stare that gave the impression he was weighing what had been said carefully, finding the connections, and analysing how it fitted into his eccentric picture of the world.

"What are you reading?" he asked, arriving in the nakamal after an afternoon break and scrutinising my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

"A story," I told him. "A story about a boy who fights against people who use black magic."

"Ah yes, black magic."

"It's just a story," I said. Although it would be hard to find any school in the real world that resembled Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry more closely than Chief Viraleo's school of custom.

"You're a science teacher, aren't you?" he asked.

"Uh huh."

"Do scientists believe there is magic?"

"No," I said.

"But what is magic?"

Magic is anything that scientists don't believe possible, I thought, but realised that this was a circular argument. It was actually a good question: how do you define magic?

"Imagine if somebody wants to move a stone," I said, giving the first example that came into my head. "If they move it by touching it, or blowing on it, or poking it with something, that is normal. But if they can move it without touching it or pushing it in any way, that is magic."

"Here, stones move without being touched or pushed," Chief Viraleo informed me.


"Yes. A while ago, a huge stone appeared on the reef down there. Nobody knew where it had come from. It just appeared. That was magic."

"The sea probably shifted it there."

"But it was a big stone. A really big one. The sea couldn't have moved it. Nobody could have moved it. It just appeared."

"You believe in magic then?"

"Yes, of course." Chief Viraleo looked at me inquisitively. "But you really don't believe?"

"No, I don't."

Chief Viraleo thought for a moment. "What if a sick person uses a leaf to make himself better? Is that magic?"

"Not necessarily," I said. "Plenty of leaves are known to act as medicines."

"What if a person uses a leaf to make it rain on a hot day?"

"That would be magic."

"What's the difference?"

"Scientists know how medicinal leaves work," I said. "They can study them, and find out what's inside the leaf that helps the body to heal. But there's no means by which rubbing a leaf can cause rain."

"People here use the leaves, and when they do, it starts to rain."

"Perhaps it would have rained anyway." It rains a lot on East Pentecost.

"But it always happens after people do their magic."

"When do people do this magic?" I asked, rhetorically. "They do it after a hot day. And that's the time when it rains. Scientists can explain that - it's got nothing to do with leaves. On a hot day, the power of the sun causes water to rise up into the air. Afterwards, that water falls back down as rain. That would happen whether you rubbed the leaves or not."

Chief Viraleo was chuckling and smiling. He didn't believe me, but he was enjoying the debate.

"Do scientists believe in things like gods and spirits?" he asked.

"Some do."

"So those are part of science?"


"What are they then?"


Chief Viraleo nodded. "And not all scientists believe in these things?"

"That's right."

"But how can you explain the creation of the world, if there are no gods and spirits?"

"Oh, scientists have a very good explanation for that," I said. "Before the world existed, there were lots of stones flying around in space. Scientists have another story explaining how those stones got there in the first place," I added quickly, forestalling a possible objection. "Those stones came together, one by one, to make bigger stones. They were pulled together, in the same way that things are pulled towards the ground." I demonstrated this by dropping Harry Potter; the heavy book hit the bench below with satisfying force. "Bigger and bigger rocks came together, and eventually formed a really big stone - the world we're standing on."

"Yes, someone else told me there are lots of stones flying around in space," Chief Viraleo said, interested. "Is it true that one of them could fall down and kill us?"

"It could happen," I said, "but it probably won't. Most of the stones are so small that they burn up in the air. When you see a falling star, that's what it is - a burning stone from space."

Chief Viraleo looked a little confused. In the down-to-earth lives of the ni-Vanuatu, one of the essential properties of a stone is that it doesn't burn.

"But sometimes these stones do hit the ground?"

"Yes." I smiled. "Maybe that's where the mystery stone on your reef came from. Maybe it came from space."

We all laughed.

"What about the other stars? The ones that don't move."

"They're like the sun," I said. "Like the sun, but very far away."

"And the planets?"

"They're like the world we're on," I said, "except that there are no trees or animals or water. Just empty stone, and sometimes clouds."

"How many planets do scientists believe in?"

"There are eight going around the sun," I said. "Eight, including the world we're on. Scientists used to say that there were nine, but then they held a meeting and decided that the ninth shouldn't be called a planet. It's really just another big stone."

"In our custom, we believe that there are ten planets," Chief Viraleo said.

That was interesting. "So your ancestors knew that our world isn't the only one?"


"Did they realise that our world is round?"

"Yes, they knew that."


"They saw it in an ancient sand drawing," he said, crouching down and scratching a design in the dirt floor. The design was enclosed by a circle.

"This circle," Chief Viraleo said, tracing it with his finger, "is formed by the wind, blowing around the world."

That made sense. The wind blows across Pentecost largely in one direction - as the unfortunate inhabitants of the east coast, who are on the windward side of the island, know well. It would be natural to assume that the wind was going around in a circuit and coming back.

"So your ancestors invented this drawing."

"No, it was here before them."

That was strange. "Are they any legends about how your ancestors first arrived on Pentecost?" I asked.

"They didn't arrive," Chief Viraleo told me. "They were created here."

This, too, was strange. I'd heard other stories - from local people, as well as history books - recounting the arrival of the first ni-Vanuatu in canoes across the ocean. One local legend puts their arrival on Pentecost at 140 generations ago, which fits fairly well with archaeologists' beliefs.

"So people were created here on Pentecost, and then spread to the rest of the world?"

"Yes. They built a ship, and sailed away across the ocean. And I now know where that ship went ashore," Chief Viraleo proclaimed.



Apart from being on almost exactly the opposite side of the world, I was pretty sure that Mali is a landlocked country - quite an unlikely place for a ship full of Pacific islanders to turn up.

"How do you know this?" I asked.

"I was in Brussels once," Chief Viraleo told me. "I went there to attend a conference on traditional culture. I went out for dinner one evening, at a restaurant. In restaurants in Europe, you can ask for anything you want, and they will cook it for you," he added, for the benefit of the assistant sitting next to him. "I ordered a steak, and they brought me a steak. I asked for a glass of wine, and they brought me wine."

Chief Viraleo's assistant whistled, impressed.

"And then I noticed that there was a sand-drawing design on the wall. It was exactly the same as the designs on Pentecost."

A lot of Pentecost's traditional sand-drawings are quite simple patterns. It wouldn't be especially surprising if somebody else in world had arrived by chance at the same design.

"I asked where the design had come from," Chief Viraleo went on. "The waiter said it had come from Mali. So now I know that the ship from Pentecost went to Mali."

"Mali is a desert country," I said. "It has a lot of sand. Maybe the people there invented sand drawing for themselves."

"But this design was identical to the ones on Pentecost."

Try looking up 'coincidence' in the dictionary of Vanuatu Pidgin English - it's not there. The word doesn't exist in the islanders' vocabularies.

I tried a different argument. "How do you know that the design wasn't invented in Mali, and then taken to Pentecost later?"

"Because our ancestors understood the meaning of the design. They knew what it symbolised. That proves that it started here."

Five minutes earlier I'd felt as if I was in a Harry Potter story. Now it seemed like I'd strayed into the Da Vinci Code.

"The Bible doesn't say anything about Man being created in Vanuatu, I said." Citing the Bible is usually a fail-safe way to win an argument with a ni-Vanuatu.

"No, but in custom, we believe that's how it happened."

"So you don't follow the Bible?" Hearing a Pentecost islander contradict the Bible was like hearing a Scotsman praise the English - refreshing, provocative, and unsettlingly strange. "Do you believe in God?"

"I was schooled as an Anglican," Chief Viraleo said. Exactly the same evasive response that I give when people on Pentecost ask my religion.

"Is there a church here?"

"There's one in the next village." Evasive again.

Chief Viraleo, I realised later, was reluctant to tell me his beliefs for fear that I'd criticise him as a sinner. Over shells of kava that evening, the other scholars were more open.

"Back in our villages, there are people who don't want anything to do with us, because we no longer pray," one told me. "But we're not living without religion - we do have gods."

"In custom, there are two gods," another explained. "Everyone else in the world says there is one god. It is only here on Pentecost that we believe in two."

"Plenty of cultures believe in many gods," I said. "But having exactly two gods - that is unusual."

"There must be two gods, because there is two of everything in the world," the scholar explained. "Look at yourself. You have two eyes. Two ears. Two hands. Two legs. People are divided into men and women - two kinds. It's the same with animals - two of each kind. So there must be two gods."

I wanted to explain that there are species of micro-organism that have dozens of different sexes, but my Pidgin English failed me.

"What if the two gods disagree about how to run the world?" I asked.

"They don't. They work together."

"Then how can you be sure that there are two of them?"

"Look," one of the scholars said, "The Bible talks about God and Satan, right?"

I nodded.

"God and Satan - there you are. Two of them. Two gods - just like ours."

"Satan isn't a god," I protested.

"Why do you say that?"

I thought about this, and realised that Satan does in fact have all the attributes of a god.

"You see," one of the scholars said. "Our beliefs aren't really that different from the Bible."

God-fearing islanders don't all see it that way. A couple of days after returning to Ranwadi, when I told the men down at the nakamal about my trip to Lafatmangemu, Old Zaccheus the Principal's father was visibly angry at what he heard.

"You see this," he said, waving a chubby finger at the candle illuminating the nakamal. "This is what the missionaries brought us. Light! The light of God! Before they came, we were down here, in darkness." He pointed at the shadow cast by the wooden stump on which the candle stood. "People were fighting each other. They were killing each other. They were eating each other! Then the word of God arrived, and we rose up into light." He illustrated this progress with hand gestures directed at the candle. "Now they want to drag us back down into darkness again!"

I stared thoughtfully at the darkness underneath the candle.

"I've spoken to people from villages where people have gone and joined the school at Lafatmangemu," the old man went on. "There are no pigs' tusks or red mats left in those villages now. The people have given them all to Viraleo. All of them. What will happen if one of them wants to get married? How will they pay for the ceremony? All their pigs and mats are gone! And for what? It's... it's... all just a..."

I think the word that Old Zaccheus (and several other people I spoke) to were skirting around, or perhaps didn't know, was "cult". Vanuatu, with its deeply spiritual, tribally-minded and intellectually isolated people, has always been a rich breeding ground for cults. The arrival in the past century of European sailors and American soldiers laden with fabulous foreign goods spawned cargo cults, some of whose followers actually built roads and wharves in preparation to receive the miraculous cargo which they believed would be delivered if they prayed hard enough for it. Elsewhere in the country, the idea that the British royal family are of ni-Vanuatu ancestry (an improbable belief that is surprisingly widespread throughout Vanuatu) has reportedly given rise to a cult of people who worship Prince Philip. Could Chief Viraleo's quirky establishment be just another cult, a group of followers bewitched by a persuasive yet self-serving leader?

But it was natural for Zaccheus to be angry at the developments at Lafatmangemu, I thought: he is an elder of the church. And some of the more evangelical church ministries that find eager audiences in Vanuatu have cult-like qualities themselves. I remembered Benny Hinn, the multi-millionaire American faith healer whose begging letters addressed to poor students continue to pile up in the inbox at Ranwadi, even after I returned one of them with a letter of my own explaining to Mr Hinn and his colleagues that the people they are writing to are struggling Third World schoolchildren and pleading for the poor kids to be removed from his mailing list. If the people of Pentecost are going to put their money and faith in the hands of a questionable leader, it has to be better that they throw in their lot with Chief Viraleo - who has never threatened anybody with hellfire and who promises his followers nothing more than a thought-provoking education - than with the likes of Benny Hinn.

"Another thing," Old Zaccheus continued, "is their idea of using only custom money. It doesn't make sense. What if I want to order something from town? They will want cash - they won't accept red mats! And what if the Japanese lend us money for a project? They won't want to be paid back in pigs' teeth."

This had occurred to me too. I've heard too many comments - not just from Chief Viraleo, but also from Western journalists who have reported on his banking scheme - implying that the 'custom economy' somehow offers the islanders a means of relief from poverty. Their logic seems to run something like this: in an economy based on vatu and dollars the people of Vanuatu are poor, because they have little money, but in an economy based on pigs and red mats they are rich, because those things are plentiful here. You don't have to be an economist to spot the flaw in this. Vanuatu's economic problem is an external one: there is a 3 billion vatu difference between the money that Vanuatu spends on foreign imports and the money that it earns with which to pay for those goods. Unless the Australians and Taiwanese develop a sudden desire to own highly-curved tusks, custom currency cannot possibly be used to make up the shortfall.

Of course, traditional money can and does play a role in the internal economy of islands such as Pentecost. However, apart from its cultural cuteness it's hard to see why it's better than Western money, and it does in fact have some disadvantages. As I pointed out to one scholar at Lafatmangemu who tried to tell me that coins and banknotes were a pointless invention, you can't put a pig in your wallet.

"Chief Viraleo isn't the only one promoting the custom economy," I told Zaccheus in his defence. "The Vanuatu government is into it too. After all, they've just ruled that only traditional items such as pigs and mats - not vatu - can be used in ceremonies."

This caused a murmuring around the nakamal. The villagers, it seemed, hadn't been aware of this.

"There was a wedding down the coast yesterday," somebody said. "The bride was paid for with vatu."

"It's a free country," said Old Zaccheus defiantly. "If people want to use vatu in their ceremonies, they have the right to do that. What right does the government have to stop them?"

"There are already plenty of laws and customs that control how people use money," I pointed out. "Both here and in countries like mine, there are certain things that it's perfectly legal to give someone, but utterly forbidden to sell for money. Political influence, for instance. Or sex."

In fact, I realised, those are exactly the two things that are generally bought and sold with custom currency - the former at grade-taking rituals where the slaughter of pigs allows a man to rise through the chiefly ranks, the latter at weddings. It wasn't really surprising that the government objected to the use of cash in such ceremonies.

"But what if somebody who wants to get married has a lot of vatu, but no custom currency?"

"Then he can use his money to buy pigs and mats from someone who does have them." Chief Viraleo would do nicely out of the whole business. Perhaps the guy did understand economics after all.

However far-fetched his ideas may have been, Chief Viraleo was unquestionably a thinker - and he was the kind of thinker who inspires the people around him to think too. At the end of the day, I liked and respected him for that.

"On my trip to Europe, I went to England," the chief had told me. "I was really surprised at what I found there. I had been taught that England was a great country. It used to lead the world. Yet when I arrived there, I found people begging on the road. People with no food and no money. It was the same in the other countries I went to. Big, rich, powerful countries. It was a real surprise to go there and find people who were hungry."

"I know," I said. It's a paradox that Vanuatu, which is among the poorest of the thirty-two countries I've visited, is also the only one in which nobody begs on the streets.

"And yet the people I saw in the restaurants threw their half-eaten food into the dustbin," Chief Viraleo went on. "The ones who were hungry on the road had to come and eat it out of the dustbin. It didn't make sense. Why couldn't the people in the restaurants just have given their unwanted food straight to the people who needed it?"

I had never really thought about this before. Perhaps they couldn't be bothered, I mused, although I didn't say this out loud. Sharing food is an important way in which ni-Vanuatu show their friendship, not just with their friends and neighbours but also with visitors and strangers, and I was frightened of what Chief Viraleo would think of a society that allows the person on the other side of the road to go hungry simply because the person with food to spare cannot be bothered to go across and hand it over. My second thought was that restaurants nowadays would probably be frightened of being sued, if their generosity happened to inadvertently make somebody ill. I didn't share this idea either; my ni-Vanuatu companions would have found it too ridiculous for words.

I said nothing. Chief Viraleo stared at me quizzically. I suspected I knew what he was thinking. It isn't always our customs that are the crazy ones.


<< July 2007 diary · September 2007 diary >>



See also...

Piggy Banking

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007