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Published: September 19th 2008
How many countries can you name beginning with V? A very geographically-minded person could possibly come up with four or five but it is unlikely that any more than a handful of people would name Vemarana, because as a country it only existed for three months from June until August in 1980.
In the years leading up to Vanuatu’s independence, two distinct political parties became the major candidates for the post-independence government. One of them, the Nanggriamel party, under the leadership of Jimmy Stevens, identified more with Custom; the other, the Vanu’aka party, under the leadership of Bishop Walter Lini, identified more with the Church. By the time the elections took place, missionaries had already been at work in Vanuatu for over a century and the Vanu’aka party won easily. It was, however, extremely unpopular in Espiritu Santo, known to most people as Santo.
Word spread throughout Santo, even deep into the jungle. Someone from one village passed on the news of the downfall of Custom to his relatives in the next village and they in turn passed it on. What later became known as “The Coconut Rebellion” was organized; thousands of tribesmen came out of the jungle, clad only in loincloths and armed only with bows and arrows. For some time they gathered at a village called Fanafo until, led by Stevens, they stormed Luganville, Santo’s main town, and declared their island’s independence as the Republic of Vemarana. Stevens is quoted as having said, "Time is not important here... We want to be free to make our own decisions, to run our own economy and have a picnic when we feel like having one."
The rebellion was, of course, easily put down by British and French troops and Stevens was imprisoned. After this brief taste of the outside world, during which a lot of them picked up Bislama, many of the tribesmen seeped back into the bush, forming communities determined to maintain Custom and shut themselves off from mainstream, Christian Vanuatu. Over the years many of these communities gave in to zealous fundamentalist missionaries, some of them advocates of churches such as the Seventh Day Adventists (S.D.A.) and Bahaia which most of us have never heard of. Impressed by the missionaries’ gifts of medicine, metal axes, knives and so on, people began to believe that these generous white men must be in the right, and that their own communities did in fact need salvation from hell.
I went to Santo with the aim of meeting people who had maintained their traditional way of life and Custom. I had planned on walking through the jungle for two to three weeks, but in fact I found what I was looking for much sooner than that.
After a bumpy ride on the back of a truck down the “road” that ran along Santo's coast I got out at C. with John, a man I had met on the truck who lived nearby. Together we walked for an hour until we arrived at his village on the other side of a small hill. In Malekula, the area between the houses in villages had been mainly neatly cut grass but here it had been cleared, exposing a large area of orangey-brown earth. We sat down on a log outside John's house and a small crowd quickly gathered, several of the men wearing only loincloths cut from strips of cloth.
I mentioned that I wanted to find a village called X. which was somewhere in the interior, probably about two days' walk away. There were several puzzled looks but one or two of them had heard of it, although no one seemed to know how to get there. In the end John said that the best thing to do, if I wanted to start my trek from here, would be to walk to a village called T. which was about fourteen mountainous hours away in vaguely the right direction but with nowhere to sleep on the way. It didn't sound like a pleasant trip but it seemed like my only hope.
"Or you could get a truck further down the coast road to N. and walk from there," someone butted in. "That's an easier and shorter walk, plus there are villages to sleep at on the way."
What a relief. Very grateful but slightly embarrassed at my rather brief appearance in the village and acceptance of their gifts of food and drink, I headed back to C. and slept at the Medical Aid Post.
On arrival in N. the next day it seemed that X. was going to be impossible to reach. No one wanted to take me there, saying they were worried that the people would use magic to kill them or even attack them with physical force. Previous experience with "civilised" people's stories about the behaviour of "primitive" people living nearby but in the jungle led me to discard this fear as absolute rubbish.
Eventually I mananged to find someone willing to take me to S, a village on the way to X. We headed inland, the path at first following the banks of the shallow Z River and later meandering off into the coconut plantations that stood on its banks and provided some merciful shade from the sun that had been beating down on my already burned shoulders and neck. After passing through several villages, each one with more people wearing loincloths, the path began to crawl up into the mountains.
In the afternoon we arrived at the collection of villages of which S. was a part. The chief, Akmoli, dropped everything he was doing and walked me to the Nakamal (meeting house) where we sat talking for hours. Even beforehand, when walking through his village with him, I could see that it was very traditional. All the men wore loincloths, although still the ones made from cloth rather than natural materials, and the women wore two leafy branches of the Nanggaria tree stuck into a belt, one at the front and one at the back. The Nanggaria tree, along with the Namele plant, represents peace to the Custom people of Santo's interior. In times of war a chief would hold them up together as a sign that he ordered the conflict to end. Jimmy Stevens named his party, Nanggriamel, after the two plants.
Akmoli was very proud of the fact that everyone in his village still lived in Custom. They wore Custom clothes, they worked in their gardens and didn't often visit the coastal villages and, of paramount importance for Akmoli, no one went to church or school. As I talked to him it became clear that these two institutions, which were inextricably entwined in his mind, represented the epitomy of all things evil to him. He did not fully understand what either of them was, but he had seen the effects that they had had on villages that had converted to Christianity: parents carrying out back-breaking work in the garden all day every day to pay for their children's school fees; children being given a taste of the outside world at school, and vast expectations that were dashed when they failed their exams and had to return home to a life of work in the garden, less happy with this life than they would otherwise have been; other children, the rare ones who progressed into secondary education and the rarer ones who continued to university and who never came back to their village. Akmoli was staunch in his hatred of church and school and anger was often noticeable in his voice and eyes when he talked about them.
"What religion are people in England?" he asked me.
"Christian," I replied. I don't think he had heard of this before, but only of word Church as an institution that constituted the arch-nemesis of Custom..
"And do you go to Church?" he eyed me suspiciously.
"No, no, not at all," I was thankfully able to answer truthfully.
In the evening of that day members of the village performed a welcome ceremony for us. Three cup holders fashioned from coconut shell were placed in a row on the ground and in them three coconut shell cups were placed and filled with kava. I stood in front of them, with Akmoli and the chief of a nearby village on either side of me. Three young men stood opposite; each bent down, picked up a shell and offered it to us with their heads and backs bowed low. After we had drunk we did the same for them. It was a truly touching experience.
Akmoli had offered to carry my bag and show me the way to X. The next day we set out early in the morning, just the two of us. The jungle became thicker, although nothing like the dense, oppressive jungles of Malekula where the sky is often not visible. We had to cross several steep mountains, although I never found myself in pain like that I had experienced in Malekula. Whether this was because the walking here was easier or because I had built up some muscles, I do not know.
We passed through several villages and at one the people put on a small feast for us with papaya, bananas, coconut, yam and taro. We left both having eaten far too much. After that village the path became worse, often having been taken away by landslides. In these situations Akmoli would use the machete that was permanently in his hand to cut a new path through the jungle until we rejoined the original one. At one stage the path disappeared for an hour and we had to walk though a river, its stony bottom agonising for my soft Western feet.
When we were apparently an hour short of X we bumped into another man heading back to his home village of Y, quite close to our destination. We walked with him until we came to a mountain top, across the valley from which a small collection of huts was visible clinging to the mountainside: it was my first sight of X.
We sat down to rest. Nearby a long stick protruded from the ground and on top of it an enormous snail shell hung. The man who had joined us walked over, picked it up and blew into it, producing a deafening sound similar to a ship's fog horn and alerting the people of X that someone was coming.
I arrived at X with feelings of mixed nervousness and excitement, not quite knowing what to expect.
It was a collection of ten huts laid out across a large area of bare earth on three separate levels with steps hewn into the ground leading down from one to the next. The bamboo huts, the rooves of which were made of thatch from the Natanggura plant, were extremely large and offered the inhabitants an impressive amount of personal space even with families of ten children, It was interesting to compare these long, tall structures to the small round huts that the people of the West Papuan highlands live in. In X the floors of the huts were just simple earth that was kept very clean by regular sweeping with a leafy branch, whereas in West Papua they had been covered with a layer of straw that harboured all sorts of creeping, crawling, biting nasties.
Just past the last huts was a large, empty, flat area of earth on which the children from the village would chase each other or kick around an old fruit or vegetable that was vaguely circular.
As word of my arrival spread more and more villagers came out of the jungle until about forty were gathered around me. Every woman wore the leafy branch skirt and every man wore a loincloth. These were not the ones cut from cloth like in S, however. These were all woven from the bark of a tree that in the language of X was called Palacoliliji. One or two of the loincloths had been dyed red with an extract from the Uli plant. At first glance I could have stepped through a time warp to the Stone Age, although I later found out that alongside their backup stone axes and wooden knives they also had several metal ones, as well as a few kitchen items such as plastic bowls. I later learned that on very rare occasions a couple of people from the village were sent into Luganville with kava to sell, afterwards using the money to buy these objects.
What happened next was utterly unexpected. An old woman in the crowd began singing and for a few seconds nobody else made a noise. Then all of a sudden everyone joined in with her and for several minutes they sang what Akmoli later told me was a welcome song. This extremely touching show of hospitality for a stranger who had arrived unknown and unannounced was unlike anything I have experienced before. Over the next few days I came to realise that hospitality played a major part in this culture; it is something that has been lost in our society but retained in theirs where receiving a visitor from outside the community is still a major event.
After the song I was taken into the Nakamal. Mats woven from pandanus and coconut leaves were laid out on the floor around the edges of the hut. I was told to lie down and rest after my long journey while several of the men went outside to cut and prepare kava for the evening. During my stay I learned that kava is drunk on an almost daily basis here and is believed to have medicinal qualities. Women and children never drink it unless they are ill, and young boys can begin as soon as they get a moustache. There was no set age for marrying, starting to drink or starting to smoke because nobody knew their ages. Once I asked the chief how many children he had. "Ten," he replied, "but two are dead."
"And how old are the oldest and youngest?"
"I can't remember how old the oldest is - he was born too long ago. But the youngest is about two."
I lay in the Nakamal with Akmoli, the Chief, whose name was Sura, and a man by the name of Redion. The Chief was probably in his early thirties, the previous Chief having died quite recently. He had been a sort of "Acting Chief" for some time after his father had become too old to work any more but had still always had to act on his father's advice until he died. He was quite a shy man but had an enormous, brilliant smile glued to his face almost all the time, even when slaving away planting taro in his garden. Watching him, one got the impression that life's every moment filled him with the utmost joy. Redion was a slightly older and more talkative man with a squeaky voice and a laugh that gurgled like that of a toddler at every opportunity.
I tried to find out some details about the religion of these people, to understand exactly what it meant to live in true Custom as they clearly did. They were not forthcoming about their God, Akmoli telling me that it was a secret. What they did tell me was that if you live in Custom, you work as much as you want to and you rest as much as you want to, as long as you plant enough crops to live off. If you want rain, you pray to spirits for rain and if you don't want rain you pray to the spirits for the rain to stop. You have no boss other than yourself - the Chief is there to help solve problems rather than to give orders. If someone needs help with something the whole village sits down together and talks about it, everyone giving their own opinions and the Chief deciding on a solution.
"Everyone here seems very happy," I remarked.
"Yes," the Chief replied. "We are happy every day because we have everything that we need. There is nothing that we don't have, and we don't have to work hard to get what we do have."
"Do you ever have arguments or fights in the village?"
"No, that has never happened here," the Chief replied, "because we are all family."
I felt like saying that in England families often have arguments, but I decided not to. I think the difference here is that the families spend more time together, have more time to support and listen to one another, have less stressful lives in general and that the children get more attention while growing up. They are not sent off to school to be brought up by a non-family member, but are brought to the garden with their parents every day and cared for every minute of their childhood. When they are about ten years old and have learned enough from watching their parents work in the garden, they too are set to work.
Everywhere I went I was greeted by the most radiant, heart-felt smiles and the sound of laughter in the background became everpresent. Everyone reaffirmed what the Chief had told me, that they were happy every day because of the extraordinary amount of freedom and choice they had about how to spend their time, at least within their limited environment. They all had vast amounts of time to talk to each other, play with each other and look after their children, a job which mother, father and older children seemed to share equally in.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between our society and theirs. I felt certain that if you analysed the average psychological happiness of people in both worlds, theirs would come out way on top. I don't think there are many intelligent people out there who have not noticed the downhill spiral that our world is in, the rise in psychological problems, the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse and the horrific wars that have killed millions. It is not an environment that is conducive to happiness. I am not trying to claim that everyone is depressed - most people have, in fact, learned to get by in this world. But "getting by" is exactly what it is, and no more. Is there really anyone who would not want to spend less time at work, more time with their family and live in a cleaner, healthier, happier world? Until I came to X I had never met people whose every moment was filled with the pure joy of being alive.
In some ways we have more freedoms and choices than the people of X: we can travel more, we can buy more things, we have the opportunity to meet more people. But then we spend so much of our time striving to earn enough money to buy all these material comforts and unnecessary luxuries that the strife becomes the main part of our lives and ends up controling us. The expectations that our drilled into us from childhood become our prison, whereas the people of X expect only to be able to eat and drink every day.
The day after my arrival I accompanied the Chief to his garden and made a pathetic attempt to help him plant taro, although I ended up taking more photographs than I planted head of the crop. He did not seem to mind, however, and roared with laughter when I showed him videos and pictures of himself working.
The garden was a large area where jungle had been cleared from the mountainside. Each household had its own garden somewhere in the jungle outside the village although there was also a large community garden further away which everyone worked in together once every few days. Each month is good for planting something different, so every month of the year they end up eating pretty much only one type of food. When that goes out of season and next month's crop becomes ready they move onto the new type of food. Taro is the only crop they have that can grow all year round. Unfortunately it is an extremely heavy, filling and flavourless potato-like thing for which I never managed to develop a taste.
There were four people working in this garden today, two weeding and two planting taro. To plant the crop, first a thick stick with a sharpened end was rammed into the ground several times to make a hole then pushed back and forth to widen it. They carried on at this back-breaking work for three or four hours until it was time to go for lunch, whereas I fell at the wayside much sooner.
After lunch nobody went back to work. A few people gathered some firewood, some prepared the evening meal but mostly people just sat around talking or, in the case of the children, playing with one another. I discovered that this was normal in X: unless, for some reason, there was an excessive amount of work that needed to be done, then most people only worked a few hours in the morning.
"If we feel like working we work, if we feel like resting we rest," the Chief told me. Of course there were limits to this - they could not simply rest all the time because then they would starve. But presumably the sort of laziness that would lead someone not to work at all simply did not exist here even as a concept or a possibility. Anyway, the Chief's words reminded me of Jimmy Steven's political philosophy "We want to be free... to have a picnic when we feel like having one."
In the evening they prepared a meal of taro and taro leaves. In X I was always given the biggest portion and if there was anything special on offer it would invariably be me who was given it. If they realised that I wanted to get something or do something, they would dedicate all their time to helping me. In one way it made me feel somewhat self-conscious but on the other hand it was far better than being in such a foreign environment and receiving no attention or help at all.
As I was half-heartedly working my way through a mouthful I felt something crunch inside. I was sure it was the shell of a river prawn, a rare delicacy in X but fairly common in Malekula, so I crunched it up and chewed on the meat inside. After I had finished the meat I took out the remains of the shell to find to my surprise that it was brown, not pink.
"What have you done to the shell to make it go brown?" I asked.
"It's not a prawn, it's a beetle that eats taro leaves. It's really good, isn't it?" Redion said, beaming.
I felt a bit sick but was glad they had told me after I'd eaten it rather than while it was in my mouth. I looked down at the brown pieces of shell and noticed the remains of a pincer in there.
"Do you eat insects often?" I asked.
"Yes, because we get little meat here. We eat spiders, cockroaches, anything we can find."
Huge spiders were found in abundance in this jungle, and during the days when I had been walking I had lost count of the number of times I had walked through their webs. I suppose it would be silly to waste one of the only types of meat that is available. Anyway, other than that one beetle I ate only vegetables during my stay in X. They were for the most part fairly flavourless although they did have their own kind of salt which they extracted from the Black Palm tree.
The next day everyone worked in the community garden which was situated half an hour's walk away up on the side of another hill. It was cut into a ridiculously steep slope, possibly as much as sixty degrees. Sections of it would be more accurately described as a cliff than a garden where the head of someone standing next to you would be level with your knees. The whole village was there spread out over quite a large area, some planting, some weeding, some starting fires to clear new areas for crop production or get rid of dead plants. Once every now and then we would be engulfed in thick clouds of smoke and would have to climb as fast as was safely possibly to a new area.
At sometime in the morning a snack break was organised. Redion took several taros, yams, bananas and papaya and laid them out. Everyone came over, sat down and the next fifteen minutes was filled with eating, talking and laughter. The laughter was mainly at me struggling up and down the slopes, working myself into a sweaty mess and trying to take lots of videos and pictures of everyone while constantly falling over.
Once again the work finished around midday and the rest of the day was mainly devoted to food, sleep, talking and kava. This evening though, they told me they were going to do me a special honour to say thank you for the (pathetically small amount of) help I had given in the garden. Today, instead of crushing the kava inside a hollow tree trunk, everyone was going to prepare it by chewing it in their mouths, thus making it finer and allowing more of whatever drug was inside to seep out into the water. I felt slightly worried due to the fact that many of them had coughs or colds, but turning it down would have been out of the question.
The next morning I felt slightly ill and over the next few days it developed into a cough, headache and agonising sore throat. Akmoli and the Chief of X had said I could stay there as long as I wanted, but I began to worry that maybe my illness was not caused by the masticated kava but by something more serious. I told Akmoli about my worries and said that the next day I wanted to walk back to the coast while I was still able. That at least was part of the reason why I left X after only five days. I am ashamed to admit the other reason for my departure and, looking back, I regret it enormously. The truth is that it was unlikely I was ill with anything serious, although that is how I justified it to myself at the time. In reality I was missing the unnecessary material comforts I had been brought up on in my own world; all the small addictions such as tasty food, hot showers, a comfortable bed, which are not in themselves evil but are a part of the culture of materialism which, since my stay in X, I am convinced does not lead to long-term happiness.
Am I suggesting that we try to change our way of life? Of course not. To do so would be utterly ridiculous. We are too far removed from X to try to emulate any part of their society in ours and are moving away from them at an exponential rate that is impossible to stop. The only thing I suggest is that we make sure we protect the remaining isolated groups in the jungles of the world; we should protect them from ourselves because they harbor something so precious that it cannot be effectively put into words.
At breakfast I announced that I intended to leave X the next day. After eating I went and lay down for a few hours, my sore throat firing up excruciatingly every time I swallowed. When I got back up again I went for a walk around the village and noticed that more people than usual were walking around. No one seemed to be in their gardens.
"Why is no one working today?" I asked the Chief.
"Because we're preparing a feast for your last day," he replied.
I felt touched but also guilty. It was the same guilt that I had felt in Malekula. These people were putting themselves out just to help me, not planting the food the would need to eat next year just to be nice to a Westerner who was traveling around to satisfy nothing more than curiosity. I had appeared in their world from nowhere; would I, or anyone else in England, have given them the same reception if they had appeared in our world from nowhere?
We had the feast, we drank kava, and on this last night several people seemed to overcome their shyness and began to ask me questions about where I had come from. Where is England? How do you get there? Does England have jungle? Does it have trees? Does it have rivers? Is it different from here?
I tried to explain to them something about England. "It's not like here. There are too many people in one place. Everywhere you go there are people all around. There are so many people that you don't know most of them and you can't talk to most of them." People looked at me in amazement, some whistling in surprise. "You also have to work very hard all the time. People aren't as free and happy as people from X." As well as being two comparisons that I thought it would be particularly easy for them to grasp, they were also two of the most pertinent.
During my time in X I had in fact talked most with Akmoli. We had had extra time to bond on the walk here, but apart from this I had found him easier to have a conversation with. His village was not so isolated and he had perhaps more of an inkling of what the outside world was like so we had more common ground to start from. His questions were less of the "Does England have trees?" type and more of the "Has England got its independence yet?" type.
The next day as he and I were about to walk out of the village everyone gathered to sing a farewell song. Parts of it were in Bislama, so I understood when they sang repeatedly:
"We'll never forget you,
So you don't forget us,
And please come back to us!"
I fought back tears and came the closest I had come in years to crying. I said goodbye and thank you to everyone individually, and told them how sad I was to be leaving. This time there were no smiles apart from the Chief, and even his was less broad and joyous than usual.
I walked out of the village, knowing in my heart that I was leaving behind one of the last bastions of sanity left in this crazy self-destructing world of ours. For a while one of the boys from the village followed us along the path until it forked and he disappeared into the jungle, the last part of X vanishing from my life. Once again it was just Akmoli and I, back on the long hard road home. Again I felt like crying as I thought back over my time there - it was all finished and in the past, all the laughter I had heard, the uncountable acts of kindness I had experienced and the memory of a people who had understood how far from home I was and had done their very best to make me as comfortable as possible. They had nothing apart from their time, their food and their homes, and they had shared all three with me in abundance.
We stopped in Y, the next village, a colection of huts similar to X. Already there were lots of people wearing loincloths made of cloth rather than tree bark but for a while a part of the magic of X came back to my life as the people of Y invited us to come and eat with them. We had already had breakfast and Akmoli, who had a funny habit of repeating his thoughts to himself out loud, groaned, rubbed his stomach and said, "Too much food. Must eat."
We didn't have time to stay long though and almost as soon as we had arrived we were moving on, crossing enormous, jungle-covered mountains, so exhausted and sweating so much in the humidity that I barely felt the pain of my sore throat.
Back in his village after a long day's walk, Akmoli and I both agreed that we didn't want to drink kava tonight. As he said, "We drank too much in X. X, X, X."
We had an early night and the next day set out for the coast. It wasn't long before we were back in the world of clothes and money, passing through villages where a wave and a hello were the extent of the hospitality we received. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but it just felt so utterly different from what I had experienced further inland.
We eventually came to N. We waited for hours until, at last, I heard the engine of a truck in the distance. Eventually it appeared, heading in the direction of Luganville, and I hitched a lift. I said a sad goodbye to Akmoli, jumped on the back of the truck, waved one last time as we drove off. And with that it was over. I was on my way back to a world ruled by money, work, materialism and, let's face it, greed.
Many people would think I am exaggerating in my comparison of our society with that of X. They would all be people who had not visited X, probably not even Vanuatu, but they would say things like, "Our lives are not so bad and theirs cannot be as perfect as he says." But I am not trying to say that their society or their lives are perfect. When the Chief told me of his two dead children the smile on his lips only faltered very slightly, but for a few seconds the one in his eyes died. Sadness does exist there, but it is a natural sadness at the death of a loved one. This has always been part of life but our highly developed society has worked hard at reducing the number of instances in which we have to deal with it.
Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I have tried as hard as possible to accurately put into words the impression that X left on me. What I found there was something unbelievably special that I have found nowhere else during my travels through the remote places of the world, be it the highlands of West Papua, the lowland jungle of the Amazon, Indonesia's Mentawai Islands, the deserts of Arabia, the High Atlas of Morocco or the tundra of Arctic Russia. The people of X exceed anyone else I have ever met not only in the extent to which they have held onto their traditions and way of life, but also in their hospitality, kind-heartedness and cheerfulness. Anyone who has been to Vanuatu will tell you that the people are the most friendly, welcoming and happy in the world, and most people who have been to Vanuatu will only have met the town-dwellers. The inhabitants of X are an extreme example of the ni-Vanuatu people as a whole, a relic of what society was like here before our world was thrust upon them.
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