Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

8th September

"I remember when the volcano on Ambrym fired up," Old Mark told me. "I was a boy at the time. The sky on Pentecost turned black. For three days my father had to light a stick of wild cane and take it with him when he went to work in the garden."

There had been no torches or paraffin lanterns back then.

"How old do you think you are?" I asked.

"Oh, I think I've beaten a hundred," he told me brightly.

People on Pentecost are seldom sure of their age. Even my students often respond with uncertainty when asked their dates of birth, and at the time Old Mark was born there was certainly nobody around ticking off days on a calendar. Ages are often exaggerated - several islanders claim to have grandparents aged 120 or more. However, since Old Mark had just described a historical event that occurred in 1913, the mystic-looking yet bright-eyed old man sitting beside me probably was a genuine centenarian.

In Vanuatu, even more so than in Britain, old people have lived through a fascinating amount of history. A hundred-year-old on Pentecost today is only a generation removed from the Dark Ages, and only a couple of further generations removed from the Stone Age. A real life Stig of the Dump, almost, yet one who has adapted with total nonchalance to the shiny screens that are filled on Friday nights with tiny moving people and to the flying canoes that pass low over the village on their way to the nearby airfield.

"Were there missionaries around when you were born?" I asked.

"Oh yes, I remember a couple," Old Mark said. He listed the names of some of the first missionaries to have worked on Pentecost - or at least, the first who had escaped the cooking pot long enough to begin converting the islanders to Jesus's cause.

I badly wanted to ask whether people were still eating each other at the time he grew up, but I couldn't think of a tactful way of phrasing the question. Recalling the trouble that Prince Philip had once got into for asking a similar thing on a similar island, I moved on instead to the subject I had come to ask about: the language that had been spoken when Old Mark was young.

Pentecost is haunted by the ghosts of extinct languages. The linguistic diversity of the place today is impressive enough - four living languages, with nine or ten dialects between them, confined to an island of fifteen thousand people - yet in reality these merely represent the survivors from an age of an even greater diversity. Two centuries ago the inhabitants of Pentecost lived in tiny and isolated clans, and had lived that way for long enough for each clan to have developed its own distinct way of speaking. Occasionally a clan and its language would die out, but a new one would soon arise to replace it, and a rich variety was maintained.

The arrival of white people, however, unleashed a linguistic maelstrom. Pentecost's population was gutted out, as epidemics of Western disease to which the islanders had no immunity killed off perhaps nine-tenths of the people. The survivors regrouped in new villages, and were often obliged to marry those from other clans, since so few of their own clan's people were left. The establishment of schools, churches and plantations brought together young people from different areas, among whom the most widely-spoken language would be adopted as a lingua franca. Some of the smaller languages became the preserve of the elderly, who would sit in lonely corners conversing in them, being largely ignored by their children and grandchildren (some of whom would later regret this deeply). When the last of these old people died - or rather, when the second-last person died - the ancestral languages would cease to be heard.

The last generation that truly spoke the old languages died off as the twentieth century drew to an end. However, some of their languages survive as ghosts in the minds of the speakers' children, people who never fully learned their parents' language but have not fully forgotten it either. The Ranwadi area is home to one such ghost, Sowa language, described in an earlier diary. North-western Pentecost has two resident ghost languages, named Volvoluana and Nggasai. And from southern Pentecost I'd heard numerous linguistic ghost stories, the most well-known of which centres around the village of Hotwata, once home to a language named Doltes. Doltes is believed to have died around half a century ago, yet its ghost survives in the memory of one very old villager: Old Mark.

Sitting in Old Mark's house, a breezy wood-and-cement building that would have resembled a dockside shed if it hadn't contained beds and mats, Old Mark gave me as many words and phrases as he could remember in Doltes, which he referred to as 'the small language'. He translated these for me into 'the big language' - Ske, the language now spoken in the Hotwata area. (This made me smile: Old Mark's 'big language' is spoken by a mere five hundred people. On my way down to Hotwata from Ranwadi, I'd walked right across the area in which it was spoken in an hour and a half.) With his grandchildren's help, Old Mark translated these phrases into Pidgin English, from which I translated them into proper English. It was a weird meeting of cultures: a speaker of a language known only by a single person, working with a speaker of a language known by a billion.

"Bononfu", Old Mark said. "That means dog, in the small language. In the big language we say boblievuk."

Translated literally, "the white man's pig".

I noted the words and phrases down as best I could with English letters, scribbling accents onto the ghost language's incredibly short vowels. In my basket I had an MP3 player containing a tiny microphone, but I didn't bother to get it out.

"Tubwi. That means bamboo in the small language. In the big language it's tumbul."

I scribbled.

"But there's two kinds of bamboo," Old Mark continued. "The really strong kind they called aio fat."

"Aio fat?"

"Yes. Aio on its own means 'knife'."

Of course - before metal came along, knives were made from strong bamboo. This really was a Stone Age language.

We chatted more about language, and about history. The sun outside got lower, and I remembered that I had a long walk back at Ranwadi, and that I'd arranged to meet someone at sunset. I thanked Old Mark for sharing his language with me, and prepared to leave.

As I packed my notepad away, I remembered the MP3 player in my basket. Doltes might never have been recorded before, and there might never be a chance to record it again. By the time the next person with an interest in language happens to come by, Old Mark will probably not be around. I asked if the old man would mind repeating a few of the words into the microphone. He agreed, and I made my recordings.

When Old Mark eventually passes away, those two short MP3 files, tiny snatches less than a minute in length, may be all that survives of the sounds through which an entire community once lived their lives.


12th September

Good housekeeping can be summed up in one basic principle: you and your pets should be the only living organisms in your house.

Back home, this is not too difficult to achieve. Once upon a time it was said that an Englishman's home was his castle, but a modern Englishman's house is in fact his aquarium: a glass-windowed tank, carefully sealed from the outside world. The main reason for this design is to shut out cold air, but it has the useful additional benefit of shutting out any creature incapable of turning a door handle. In any case, most of Britain's wildlife is of the kind you see in children's books sitting on toadstools in the forest, rather than the kind that you see illustrated on cans of poison spray. As a result, most British homes contain few living things larger than a bacterium, and with the help of expensive cleaning products even the bacteria can be kept to a minimum.

Houses on Pentecost are different. Since none are heated or air-conditioned, there is no need for them to be well sealed - in fact, many builders deliberately incorporate holes in their houses to let in light and fresh air. Even houses that are made from cement and plywood, rather than from bits of the local forest, are lightly built and contain plenty of cracks and crevices. Windows are almost permanently open, and although in the newer houses these are meshed to keep out mosquitoes, the meshing easily acquires holes. This being the tropics, there is no shortage of critters that will find them.

Here at Ranwadi I accepted long ago that my house is a place of biodiversity. Housekeeping here is an exercise in ecology, trying to manipulate the environment so as to control the populations of the more obnoxious members of the ecosystem. Rats, for example. These are endemic in Vanuatu's villages, and in its schools. Leaning against the walls of the Dining Hall, you can feel the vibrations of the creatures running behind the wooden boards, inches away from you. In a staff meeting I was once laughed at for suggesting that the school ought to try and do something about them.

Every so often one of these rats finds its way into my kitchen and spends a contented couple of days foraging there. Things come to a tragic end when the hapless rodent stops to investigate the morsel of food placed temptingly on a metal plate surrounded by spring-loaded wire. A few rat-free weeks then go by before another rat comes along, finds the territory to be vacant, and never stops to wonder why.

Few of the rats make it as far as my bedroom (I am very careful not to keep anything there that might tempt them in), but one or two are adventurous. One night I had a dream in which a rat was crawling over me. I awoke to the sound of scuttling rodent disappearing down the side of my bed, and realised that there had indeed been a rat crawling over me.

A different rat, finding all the food in my kitchen sealed into gnaw-proof containers, developed a taste for eating the candles that I keep around the house to provide lighting after the school generator is switched off in the evenings. When I got fed up with the tooth marks on my candles and hid them away in tins at bedtime, the rat switched to eating my bathroom soap instead. The following night I set two traps: one baited with food, the other baited with candle wax. The rat ignored the food, but couldn't resist the wax, and is now roaming the great chandlery in the sky.

Last month, in a reshuffle of the staff accommodation at Ranwadi, I was moved into a new house, at the bottom of the hill at the entrance to the school. Rats don't seem to venture down to this part of the school much, but in their place the house has other visitors: large black lizards that hide in the cupboards and leave runny trails of droppings across the kitchen floor. Lizards present an unusual pest problem: they don't touch (or don't spring) my rat traps, and none of the store-bought poisons that proudly claim to kill rats, mice, flies, ants, cockroaches, spiders and so on make any mention of diarrhoeic reptiles. In the end I was reduced to chasing the creatures around the kitchen, trying unsuccessfully to stab them with various implements. I didn't want to have to kill the lizards, but nor did I want to cook in a kitchen full of shit.

The black lizards, together with the yellow geckoes that hunt moths across the walls, form the top of the house's food chain. I am technically at the bottom of the food chain (in an interesting reversal of the outdoor situation), since it is my crumbs and dead skin cells that sustain the smallest of the insects, and my blood that feeds the mosquitoes which make it past the netted windows.

At the second level of the food chain are the spiders. Pentecost's is home to some worryingly exotic-looking spiders - such as the armoured black-and-yellow Butsungos, which shares its name with a monster in local stories - but these tend to stay outdoors. Most of the ones I find indoors are essentially ordinary brown house spiders, although some of them would be large enough to get their photos in the local newspaper if they came crawling out of a bunch of bananas back home. Despite their evil size, they don't appear to be dangerous to anything larger than a cockroach, and since anything dangerous to cockroaches is very welcome in my house, I have never attempted to sweep out the creatures. As the saying goes, my enemy's enemy is my friend. The giant spiders, which seem to hunt by pouncing on their prey, are at least less messy than the smaller ones, which gather in colonies to spin webs of sticky fluff along the walls and ceiling.

The house's insects, too, are an ugly but ultimately fairly harmless lot (unless you count the abundant malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which are technically the world's most deadly creature). Wasps and hornets are absent, apart from one slender variety (an introduced species, according to the locals) that doesn't appear to sting anyone. Flies are an immense irritation when sitting outdoors, but the mosquito netting keeps most of them out of the house. The ants are a nuisance in the kitchen, but can easily be kept off food by standing the plates and containers in dishes of water. (This doesn't stop the geckoes, which enjoy licking sugary things and have been known to take flying leaps onto trays of cakes and biscuits surrounded by water.)

My house at Ranwadi
My new house at Ranwadi - a haven for wildlife

The local insect life is most evident at night. Moths and other species that evolved to navigate by flying towards the moon never anticipated that human beings would one day fill the world with artificial moons, and Ranwadi, being the only place for miles around with electric lighting, attracts swarms of the creatures. After the power is turned off for the evening, the moths and flies abandon circling the fluorescent lights and turn their attention to any other light source they can find. When working late on my laptop, I keep a candle beside it to distract the insects that would otherwise hurl themselves at the screen when the electricity goes off and the laptop, switching to battery power, becomes the only source of light in the room. One particularly stupid variety of beetle will fly straight into the candle flame, get knocked out by the heat and spend a few minutes recuperating before flying straight back into the flame, repeating this over and over again until the witless insect succeeds in burning itself to death. I hope that if enough people burn candles on Pentecost, evolution will eventually teach this species to fly only towards the cold white moon, not the hot yellow one.

At bedtime I blow out the candles (which leaves the house smelling of birthdays), and the place becomes completely black. This is the cue for the cockroaches come out of their crevices. Occasionally I attempt to deal with these by fumigating the house with spray cans brought from Vila, which kills a good number of them, but the population quickly recovers. Brands of insecticide that promise to provide "lasting three-month protection" don't live up to their claims; Pentecost houses are too porous, and too well-ventilated. Fumigation does have the interesting side effect of driving out the more exotic crevice-dwellers, organisms that I would never otherwise have realised that I was sharing a house with, but in some cases I would have preferred them to remain hidden. Past hauls of dead creepy-crawlies found after fumigation have included millipedes as long as pencils, a centipede as long as my finger, and a small scorpion.

The centipede bothered me the most. From the otherwise-dull Arthropod Biology course that Edinburgh University forces its zoology students to take in their final year, two images stuck in my mind: the eerily blue eyes of one of the girls in the class, and the sight of a garden centipede under a microscope. The latter made me shudder; a more sinister-looking creature would be hard to imagine. The tropical centipede that I found dead in my house at Ranwadi looked much the same, except that I didn't need a microscope to make out clearly the rows of jagged, articulated legs or the red, venomous pincers. The locals reassured me that the beast was harmless. The giant venomous centipedes that terrify expatriates in Port Vila are an urban pest, not found on Pentecost.

I put the centipede in a jar, took it down to the science lab, and pickled it in methylated spirits. Next time the biology students were learning about the redness and toothiness and clawiness of Nature, it would make an enlightening specimen.


20th September

"There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families."

In traditional Vanuatu, this saying was truer than in the grim Thatcherite Britain in which it was coined. The people of Pentecost historically lived in clans, in which everyone was related, either directly or by marriage, to just about everyone else in the clan. Even today, islanders are defined by their relatives - he's the brother of so-and-so, she's the sister-in-law of so-and-so's auntie. With enough patience, you could probably draw a family tree encompassing the entire island, or at least large areas of it. Guests at wedding parties often introduce themselves, a little worryingly, as relatives of both the bride and the groom.

Word such as "brother" and "sister" are used loosely in Vanuatu. A brother or sister may in fact be a cousin, or a second cousin, or a well-known outsider who has been accepted as an honorary member of the clan. A father and mother may be biological parents, or they may be uncles and aunts, or other elderly kinsfolk who have taken it upon themselves to help look after a particular child.

In the old days, the downside of these strong family ties was tribalism. Members of the same clan may be brothers and sisters, deserving of kindness and support, but members of other clans were good for little more than being raped or eaten. Following the arrival of the missionaries, however, the islanders were told to put aside their tribal differences. This didn't mean that they should stop thinking of the world in terms of family members - far from it. Jesus's innovation was to insist that they should try and extend their notion of the family to include the whole world. According to the new gospel, it's fine to lavish favours on your brothers and sisters, provided you accept that we are all brothers and sisters, with God as father over us all.

"We are one big happy family," begins a popular song that ni-Vanuatu children sing in Sunday school.

Shadows of tribalism do still persist in modern Vanuatu. The country is full of the kind of politicians who use their power to channel benefits to their kinsmen, and the inter-island rivalries between disaffected youths in Port Vila and Luganville still flare occasionally into violence. However, on the whole the islanders have taken the missionaries' message remarkably well to heart. This doesn't mean to say that they are always pleasant to one another - the quarrels fought by family members are among the most passionate of all - but, on the whole, they do treat one another with the kind of trust and generosity that comes naturally to Westerners only among members of the family.

"You-me brother everyone," says a line in the Vanuatu national anthem.

Such is the need for people in Vanuatu to fit in to a family structure that long-term visitors to the islands are generally assigned a 'host father' and 'host mother', whose families the volunteers slot into, taking on new brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, and so on in the process. Most of these host fathers and mothers look after their adopted 'children' well, and take their parental responsibilities seriously, sometimes a little too seriously.

"I'm giving a ceremonial red mat to the church because I'm embarrassed by your behaviour," Sara's host father at Melsisi recently told her.

I was never given a host family on Pentecost. Ranwadi is more of a college campus than a village, and perhaps the school felt that parents would cramp the volunteers' style. However, after spending a pleasant weekend in a village in North Pentecost, the guesthouse owner John and his wife told me that they wanted to adopt me like a son while I was on the island. I was welcome to come and stay again any time I wanted, they said, and wouldn't be expected to pay. I did go back, and was welcomed as "brother Andrew" by John's children. However, I did insist on giving a small amount of money "to help with my brothers' and sisters' school fees"; a genuine older brother would have done the same.

There is still no such thing as society in Vanuatu, only individuals and the family. But that doesn't matter - not if we are all members of the family.


One side effect of treating everyone like family is that it leaves little room for one other concept that underpins Western societies: friends.

For foreign city-dwellers, friendship is an essential institution, allowing individuals to forge what feels like a community out of a big, anonymous mass of people. As anthropologists have noted, the population of the average person's address book is roughly the same as the population of a traditional village. A network of friends, from this perspective, is essentially a personalised, custom-made village, made up of only the people we want to share our lives with. (Whilst this sounds like a good thing, and sometimes is, it has a downside: popular people find themselves torn between too many villages, whilst there are other lonely individuals whom nobody wants in the village.)

Rural islanders don't have this luxury of picking and choosing: they are stuck with the community that they are born into. Their social network, or at least a large part of it, comes ready-made. Their friends are their relatives and their neighbours, which are usually the same thing.

The word 'friend' does exist in Vanuatu - it even has equivalents in the native languages (which is a good indication that the concept predated the arrival of Westerners) - but it is not used in the same way as in Western countries. Among men, or among women, the word refers to a brotherly or sisterly relationship between people who happen not to share parents. Between a boy and girl, the word implies a sexual relationship. "We're just friends" in Vanuatu does not have the same meaning that it does back home.

Such boy-girl friendships are always illicit, and do not have an official place in Vanuatu communities. As soon as the couple's elders find out about the friendship, it is either stamped out (Vanuatu's schools put a lot of effort into catching and punishing students who try to make friends), or else leads swiftly to marriage, which converts the friend into a family member and restores the comfortable everyone-is-family situation.

Ni-Vanuatu who see tourists and expatriates together find the ease with which white men and women associate one another deeply bizarre. Many assume that the friendships they see between these men and women must to some extent be sexual, an attitude reinforced by the willingness of white women to reveal what locals regard as indecent amounts of bare skin in front of their male companions. Other islanders conclude that since white people all come roughly from the same place and speak roughly the same language, what they are seeing are brother/sister relationships between members of the same clan.

At Melsisi, the villagers habitually refer to me as Sara's brother. Some realise that we aren't actual siblings, and a perceptive islander might notice slight differences between our dialects and customs - the kind of difference you'd expect between two ni-Vanuatu whose home villages were maybe five miles apart. Nevertheless, we clearly belong to the same clan. Sara and I haven't tried too hard to set them straight on this: my regular visits to Sara's house in the evenings would be scandalous if she weren't my sister.

The idea that an unrelated boy and girl in Vanuatu cannot have a non-sexual relationship is self-fulfilling. None would dare try to start an 'innocent' friendship, since they are well aware that any attempt to do so would be misinterpreted both by their prospective friend and by the rest of the community. At school such a pair would certainly be punished: even if they were believed when they told their teachers there was nothing romantic going on, the teachers would consider that it was only a matter of time. Outside school, too, they would be punished for their friendship, either by concerned relatives keen to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or by chiefs anxious to avoid a scandal in the village.

Apart from fear of the consequences, the main reason local boys give for not making friends with girls (except as a prelude to sex or marriage) is that they are "ashamed". Western-style friends, defined in a way that the ni-Vanuatu would understand, are two companions who could potentially have sex but choose not to because one or both is already attached, has the wrong sexual orientation, is irredeemably unattractive to the other person, is unwilling to put time and effort into conducting a relationship, or is too shy to ask. To have friends of the opposite sex is therefore tantamount to an admission that you (or the people you choose to hang around with) are gay, ugly, lazy, cowardly, or unfaithful to an existing partner. Hence the shame.

"I don't talk to girls," a villager in his twenties recently told me, in the manner of a six-year-old. "Boys, I talk to. But girls, never."


<< August 2007 diary · October 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007