Tuesday, 26 May, 1987; Lakatoro, Malekula

Papayas must be harvested when a yellow stripe is just visible. Sooner, it will not ripen off the tree; if left one more night, a fruit bat will eat it. Photo ©S. Combs, 1989.

. . . Just to twist the knife, Mary, I've been busy eating papayas every morning for breakfast for the past couple of weeks, as our trees finally started ripening. This morning, that little ingrate, Heather, said she was tired of papaya and demanded an orange! Actually, something that you'll no doubt think is funny did happen to me last week. I saw a ripe papaya on a tree sticking out of the bush behind our house, so I slashed my way into deepest, darkest Vanuatu to get it. I had knocked it down and was slashing my way out again by a shortcut, when I was attacked by a wasp that stung me four times. Of course, while I was thrashing around (sorry for the writing; I'm laughing now - maybe it's the vermouth), I cut my knee with my bushknife. Good thing I had just sharpened it. Holly heard the commotion and though I had cut off my arm or something - she doesn't trust me with sharp objects. I guess Vanuatu wasps aren't too venomous - the stings never swelled up much and stopped hurting after an hour or two. The wasp started just in front of my left ear and worked his way down my left shoulder and elbow before crossing over to my right wrist as I swatted at him. I suppose next time I hear loud bussing around my ears, I won't ignore it for five minutes. The worst of it was that I dropped my papaya and had to go back for it after I'd washed all the blood off my knee.

. . . I've done a couple of economical analyses of local development projects recently and, in my naivete, was shocked to find that the projects, instead of fostering economic independence, make the aid recipients dependent on the equipment and machinery donated. Since the projects can't make enough money to buy new equipment once it wears out (i.e., they lose money if depreciation is included), the aid recipients rely on continued donations. I expressed my concern to another CUSO Regional Development Planer, who told me this was OK, because we ripped Vanuatu off so much in the past. Hardly an attitude that will assist Vanuatu in coping with the real world.

Stones and potions used for sorcery. These were surrendered at the urging of a ni-Vanuatu Christian evangelist on Paama and stored in the local government office for want of a suitable disposal method. Vanuatu's version of toxic waste. Photo ©S. Combs, 1991.

. . . This other RDP did tell me a good development story. I guess he was alone in the office the other day when a delegation from a local village came in and demanded that he do something to force a group of men from Ambrym (an island feared for the reputation of its sorcerers) to return home. The complaint was that these men, who were over to work, had been using magic to put the local men to sleep and seduce their women (who were also put into a trance so they wouldn't remember the experience). There was no doubt as to the truth of the charges - they had some of the smooth stones used to work the magic with. I told Michael he should have insisted on keeping a stone or two, as "evidence", of course. My boss and his assistant often meet with delegations here about vague "problems" that I suspect are similar.

I find the recent military coup in Fiji and the compliance of the Governor-General to be disgusting. The people here seem to be divided between distress over the coup (they had a short civil war here in `80) and support for their fellow Melanesians.

One thing I intend to buy here, on my next trip to Vila, is a small digital shortwave radio. The markings on my ghetto blaster are 7.0, 10.0, ,12.0, 14.0, 18.0, which doesn't help a lot when you're trying to find 7.150, 7.350, 9.410, 11.955, 15.360, 18.080, etc. I waste a lot of time trying to lock into a good station. Unfortunately, I was told by CUSO in Canada that electronic goods are duty-free here. This is true - if you have an air ticket for departure within three days. Otherwise, it is more expensive than Canada. That sort of radio, which I think goes for about $180 in Canada, starts at 30,000 vatu here; about US$300 or CAN$375. Luckily, I just got a travel subsistence payment of 34,500 vatu.

I've promised Holly a trip to Vila within the next two months. She wants to go the week of my birthday. A couple of months ago, the CUSO Field Staff Officer here gave me a song and dance about how we don't need bush leave because there is a hospital in Norsup(?). Does not compute. I just went through my list of CUSOs, and there are only three of us whose work doesn't often take us to Santo (local name for Luganville) or Vila or who don't live in those towns. Actually, the only thing that attracts me to Vila is shopping, which is why Santo won't do (imagine three blocks of poorly-stocked general stores with a bar in the centre, and that's Santo). Vila is pretty artificial and a mess since Uma, but it does give you at least a fighting chance of finding what you want to buy.

Hey, we learned the Vanuatu method of chicken-killing the other day. It is, of course, a method without tools. I would have thought ni-Vanuatu would just wring chickens' necks, but Aslika showed us how to tuck a hen under your arm, pull out a big wing feather, and pith it like a frog.

Got to go to bed now. . .

(The following is written over itself and straggles down the page:) Damn generator just went off for the night. I guess I have to finish this off now. When there's no moon it is like being inside a velvet bag here.

Tuesday, 9 June, 1987

Dear Mom and Dad,

Just a short note to include with the kids' letters. Thank you for sending the ukelele strings. My counterpart was surprised to learn that they come in different thicknesses. They just use fishing line here.

Last night at 21:00, we heard a big splintering crash outside. Holly claimed it was a banana tree falling over, but not believing her, I went out to look. A twenty-metre tree (roots weakened by burning the surrounding garden) had fallen over beside the house of our next-nearest neighbor, falling about 1 foot short of his car and missing the house by four or five metres. We have a much larger tree near our house that I hang my radio antenna from, but everyone assured me that if it falls, it will fall away from the house - ha.

(The following letters were written as dictated and are included to illustrate the linguistic confusion suffered by our kids after several months of schooling in French and playing in Bislama.)

Monday, 8 June, 1987

Dear Grandma,

Thank you for the dot-to-dot and the mazes books. Kyla gave me some stickers and I'm going to put one on this letter. Thank you for the poster. I'm going to color it until it is "finis" (finished). Thank you for the hat, and I'm going to wear it every day, all day long. I like it. Puskat blong mi i olraet long haus blong mifala? (Is my cat all right in our house?)

Love, Laurel (my three-year-old)

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

Thank you for my colouring and dot-to-dot book and my poster and my hat. Here is wan samting (something) I learned in school: Ma mamam. J'aime bien ma mamam. Allez, balle pour moi. Comme un fleur. Qui sont bon?

I like the poster because my mother saved some crayons from Canada, and I spend a lot of time on it.

Love, Heather (my five-year-old)

Wednesday, June 24, 1987

(Here's an example of my linguistic troubles:)

Mi nidim evri praktis we mi savi kasem wetem Bislama blong mi. Sipos mi storian nomo wetem sam man wanwan, mi savi toktok gud nuf, be sipos mi wetem plenti man olgeta, mi no save haremsavi ani samting. In other words, I'm finally feeling fairly confident with Bislama in one-on-one situations, but in a group, like at a meeting, I only pick up on a fraction of what's said. Everyone here has a different accent, and mumbling a mile-a-minute is a national institution, so what with my poor hearing, I can't understand a thing. I'm going to give in and have my hearing tested when I get home. Maybe they can fit a hearing aid in my glasses, like Grandma. (Funny, my hearing is fine amongst English-speakers.)

A girl and her coconut lorikeet. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

I finally got my bird. I was at chez Michelle and Daniel (French education adviser and husband) last week checking out their digital short-wave radio, when I noticed that they had a fledging lorikeet, or whatever all these things around here are. I said I was also looking for one, and they insisted that I take it. The story was that Daniel had killed it's mother with a bonara (here's a challenge - figure that one out! Your only clue is that it is phonetic.) and because they have a cat, they were only keeping it until it could fly. I hustled right home and built a cage out of timba and copra waer (about 1 cm grid that is used in copra dryers for the copra to sit on). I picked the bird up on Saturday, and it is now sitting right outside our kitchen window. Holly says I can't let it fly around the house like our old bird (cockatiel in Canada, whose droppings are still on our furniture 15 years on), so it is banished to the veranda. It is real gentle - hasn't quite drawn blood yet. I work with it three times a day, feeding it papaya and petting it. I guess it's too fragile to whack with a stick when it bites. I tried it on peanut butter tonight, but it wasn't impressed. The rest of the time, I let it eat banana. I'm told they live their entire life on fruit. Holly and the girls did pick up a cuttle bone at the beach on Sunday, which I attached to the cage. The bird may be a little old, as almost all of it's down is gone. It doesn't have any tail or wing feathers yet, so it looks pretty stubby sitting on it's perch.

Holly's been storianing with a local woman who's been telling her about her bird that comes flying down from the tree every time it hears her stirring sugar in her tea, so it can have a sip. Sara also used to have a pet flying fox, which she raised from a baby by hanging it from a stick and letting it lap milk from a saucer. It had a little cage to sleep in during the day, and even brought a mate back home for a while until some neighbor's kid saw it hanging from the mango tree and (tears come to her eyes) killed it with a stick.

While I chatting in fractured French with Daniel, I mentioned that I had heard that he had built a nakamal, and I got invited to the grand opening on Saturday. It was a good time. We men got to sit in the shade (women and pikininis outside, although a part of the wall of the shelter was left off so they could see, and listen to a chief from north of here give a speech conferring a custom name on Daniel (Lingname), and after Daniel gave him 5,000 vatu, Daniel gave a short speech (from a scrap of paper, as his Bislama isn't too hot) and clubbed a small pig (included in the price of the name). A bunch of us men then retired into the new nakamal to drink kava and storian (chat). Later we had a meal outside (other ranks, i.e. women and kids, got the leftovers - I could get to like it here!), and the chief and friends sang and danced a bit. I had a good time, although Lambert, my counterpart, wasn't too happy about it when I told him. He opined that all of this spoilem kastom blong mifala (breaks our traditions), and was especially upset about the pig killing - he doesn't feel that Daniel has the traditional rank to kill a pig. I'm beginning to see why they have so many disputes here. The officiating chief is from Lambert's island and the nakamal was built with the collaboration of the Norsup chief, so they apparently think the affair fit in quite well with custom, but others have a different opinion of just what custom is.

Daniel's nakamal dedication. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

You sure have to tread carefully to avoid being lynched or starting a war. According to which story you believe, last year a CUSO left voluntarily or was held hostage in his house and made a dash for the airport when he and his live-in girlfriend moved from Vila to her home village.

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©S. Combs, 1987