Sunday, May 10, 1987; Lakatoro, Malekula


n Australian woman chosing a purchase in an open-sided, covered m

An Australian nurse shops at the Norsup Market, where we bought our vegetables and met friends each Saturday morning. Photo ©S. Combs, 1989.


Yesterday, we all rode our bikes into Norsup for the market and spent some time looking for shells on the beach on the way home. We all took naps and lazed around all afternoon. For the first time, we didn't do the breakfast or lunch dishes right after the meal. Of course, that did it- we had our first spontaneous visitors, one of the head honchos from the big Commonwealth Development Corporation cocoa plantation across the island and his family. (The CDC is a British Government organization that makes commercial investments in the third world. I could write an essay on lessons that should be learned from their two agricultural investments in Vanuatu.) They came over to break our lunch date for today - had to do so in person because there are no personal telephones on Malekula. I don't know what shocked them more, the size of the Local Government Council houses around here (much bigger and fancier than the plantation managements') or the size of ours (I need not elaborate). They have two daughters, 6 and 8, who are anxious to spend some time with Heather and Laurel. Because Justin has been doing international work for many years, his girls are doing their schooling by correspondence and don't have any contact with other children. The management housing at Metenesel Estates Ltd. is separate from the workers and no other management has children their age, so they really are isolated.

I think Justin's girls lead sheltered lives - the six-year-old went out of her way to warn us that we had "ants in your bin". I managed to contain my shock. Our garbage can has, despite Holly's continued efforts, nourished several generations of a large colony somewhere outside the house since we got here. The Metenesel Estates Limited management houses are all built on stilts - maybe the ends are set in cans of kerosene to keep insects out or something.

Thank you for the dairy ranching paper. (My father is a international livestock advisor.) I'll show it to the local Livestock Officer. We just hung the first drapes that Holly has made, red with black split-leaf philodendrons, for the living room, so it's off to bed again.

Monday, May 11, 1987


attle under coconuts.

Cattle under coconuts at Plantation Reunion de Vanuatu (PRV Plantation); Norsup, Malekula. This coconut plantation was planted by Vietnamese indentured labour in the Thirties; the trees are at the end of their economic lives. The metal bands keep rats from climbing the trees and destroying the nuts. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.


OK, back to cattle... About the plantation herds: expatriate plantation owners first imported cattle for meat, and later increased the herds to keep the grass down underneath the coconuts so it would be easy to spot and pick up the coconuts. Very little plantation coconut planting has taken place over the past 30 years, and most plantation trees are nearing the end of their productive lives. It appears that the plantations are all switching over to beef. A couple of new operations have also started up and are clearing large areas of "dark" or virgin bush for grazing. I suspect that, besides uneconomic copra prices, land tenure insecurity has a lot to do with the switch. Although they can lease land from ni-Vanuatu for up to 75 years, expats are given only 2-year residency permits, and several have been canceled without notice on the whim of the powers that be.


Smallholder plantation, with uncollected coconuts; trees from sprouted nuts growing too close for maximum production. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.


I think there probably is some possibility of expatriate plantation dairy production. Ni-Vanuatu smallholders, however, have a cultural bias against producing anything on a steady, regular basis. Being "affluent subsistence" farmers who participate only marginally in the cash economy, they tend to view cash crops in the same manner as products gathered from the wild: when you need some cash, you produce just enough crops to get that cash. Copra and fenced, but semi-wild, cattle work well with this philosophy, but cultivated cash crops and livestock that requires any management don't fit in. (Except pigs for ceremonial killings, but that doesn't have an economic motivation. A "Big Nambas" man told me that it takes 7 years to grow a pig with lower tusks that curve in a complete circle -the upper ones are knocked out, leaving nothing to wear down the lower tusks, which grow throughout the pig's life- and, though these pigs are very valuable while alive, the value is nil after they have been clubbed.)


usked pig.

Tusked Pig. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.


I'm not sure what the market for milk products would be. There is one dairy herd near Vila to serve the urban expat market. There does seem to be a lot of New Zealand powdered whole milk and very small amounts of UHT milk sold in the rural stores here. (I later learned that this is used only for adding to tea.) Cheese is not sold outside Santo and Vila, except for small amounts of Kraft Processed (I don't know what this was made of, but it would burn before it melted on our improvised pizzas). Nobody has refrigerators except expats. All in all, it's probably pretty difficult to compete with New Zealand powdered. (I wish that we could buy NZ instant powdered whole milk in Canada, but its importation is prohibited in accordance with the desires of our heavily-protected dairy farmers.)

The Agriculture and Heath Departments here are pushing peanuts as a crop to improve the diet. Small-scale commercial fishing is also being pushed as a substitute for Japanese canned mackerel, a prestige convenience food. (I later did a financial and economic study of the government Village Fisheries Program and concluded that dirt-poor villagers were cutting copra to subsidize their fishing operations that provided protein for wage-earners in Port Vila. This was also evident to others, and the program has been modified and scaled down.)

Speaking of agricultural cultural problems, in March, a young worker at Metenesel Estates Limited suddenly died of cerebral malaria, and within a few days, 25% of the 300 workers up and went home to their villages because "the ground was angry" (from being cleared and disturbed to plant the plantation). MEL finally hired a "kleva" (ni-Vanuatu with custom healing and magic knowledge) for 3000vt to appease the ground. He brought some leaves and a potion and toured the place, dropping his medicine wherever he sensed a hot spot. The guy knew how to avenge the ground: he proclaimed that the worst place was in the center of the carpet in Director's office and proceeded to empty his potion bottle there, to the amusement of all management except the Director (a great guy who was later murdered by a plantation worker in Papua New Guinea). I guess the bulk of the MEL workers have now returned to work. (When the various leaders of the local Christian denominations heard that a "heathen" had been called in to soothe the ground, they demanded equal time, and the MEL ground became the most blessed in all Vanuatu.)

(In response to one of my family's concerns) I don't spend too much time worrying about catching AIDS from mosquitoes. . . . I sure am glad I brought my own mate down here, though.

Speaking of safety, some large branches from the tree in front of my office were cut off last week to let more light in. The largest was pruned in the traditional manner: one guy sawed and another pulled down on the end of an attached small branch, jumping out of the way when it came down. Several cars and motorcycles passed under the branch during the procedure.

. . . I hope someone at home got my message about sending me new ukulele strings. I just exhausted my last local hope of finding any here. At 500vt, its probably cheaper just to buy a new instrument, but it seems wasteful. The ship carrying nylon guitar strings was supposed to come in last week, so I'll phone Vila this morning to check on it. (We later gave up on asking anyone in Canada or Vila to send us anything; almost inevitably, well-meaning people who had no knowledge of our needs substituted something they felt was more appropriate, and what we received was often useless.)

The place in Vila that told me they would develop my hurricane slides "overnight" six weeks ago finally admitted to a friend in Vila that they "don't do slides", so he either took them elsewhere or sent them to Australia. Maybe I'll see them someday. (I eventually got the slides processed and returned, but when I sent the best ones to Vila to be made into prints, the enclosed money was stolen at the Post Office and the slides discarded. There went some naivete about lack of theft in Vanuatu.)


Return to Main Page.

©S. Combs.