This is the third section of a three-part letter about a small boat and walking trip my wife and I took across the south coast of Malekula in the first week of August, 1987. At this point, I had been on Malekula for six months. Although I had been over much of Malekula, my compatriots in the Local Government Council and the central government Department of Local Government had been passively resisting my requests for a tour of those parts of Malekula that were not accessible by road. This letter recounts the last portion of our trip.
Continued. . .
After some discussion, we decided to push on that afternoon to Hokai, and the Assistant Agricultural Officer agreed to go with us so he could visit relatives. This was a long day, I estimate 18-20 miles, and this segment was were Holly ran into trouble with her feet and legs. Even ni-Vanuatu are impressed when I tell them we walked from Mbonvor to Hokai in one day. It was really only 7 hour's walking, but as I have said, these guys don't waste any time on the trail. I didn't find it too bad, as we weren't carrying much weight, but for some reason Holly's thongs rubbed her toes and the quick long strides were hard on her knees. It was nothing for a triathlete from Alberta.
Holly drawing water at one of Hokai's low standpipes. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
Hokai, like many of the villages here, was really quite nice, if you don't need a toilet. You wouldn't expect it. but many of the villages here are laid out on a grid, with streets between the bamboo and palm-thatch houses. The streets are often lined with decorative bushes and shrubs. All of the ground at Hokai is covered with a layer of white sand, which is nice. They had a fairly new rest house with two rooms, one with table. It was very clean and had coconut leaf mats to cover the bedroom floor. One of the chiefs got a couple of pandanus leaf mats and a pillow for us from his house. Don't ask me why, but lots of villages elect two chiefs, and there is often a custom chief too. We got boiled taro for supper, which like kumala is quite good with coconut cream.
I guess I haven't mentioned that we were, of course, the main item of entertainment at these villages. The women were quite shy, but Holly won them over with her witty conversation and by holding the chief's baby. Whenever we arrived at a village, it was always insisted that we go into the rest house or equivalent to "spell", and everyone around crowded in and stood around looking at us. All the kids peered in the windows and through the holes between the bamboo. If we announced that we thought we might take a nap, we were told to just go ahead - don't mind us. After we laid down and shut our eyes, everyone would steal away silently and go back to their business.
There was one sad thing about Hokai. All ni-Vanuatu really love children, and always asked us all the details about ours. Here, however, like many villages, there was a complete absence of children because they were off at school. The nearest school to Hokai is on Akhamb Island, off Farun, which, as we well knew, was a good 3 1/2 hour walk away. The children all board there and come back only every 4 months for school break. This is a common situation. The schools don't seem very healthy places to me - Heather's (our daughter's public school, with many boarders) is right in mosquito territory and there are no screens. The diet is mostly white rice, I think. Nevertheless, even though education is not compulsory and it isn't likely that most students will leave the village, almost everyone sends their kids off to primary school. If their children's marks are high enough to qualify, many families really sacrifice to send their kids on to high school, which must be paid for.
That evening at Hokai, I cleverly staved off any community meeting by remarking that I could hear a guitar being played and asking if anybody had a spare one. The vintage five-stringer was produced, and the village crowded into and around our hut. I wowed them all with "Hey, Hey, Good Lookin'", followed by "I Saw The Light". To think they hadn't been introduced to Hank Williams before! Good thing the Canadian Taxpayer shelled out to get me down here before it was too late! We traded the instrument back and forth a while, but my problem is that, although I know lots of songs in my books, I haven't actually memorized very many of them. I managed to dredge up a few, though, and tried to explain what they were about. They all knew what a cowboy was, but I don't think I was able to get the "rodeo" concept over too well after "Someday Soon". Their songs were all very beautiful, even the one we've hear Laurel sing zillions of times - "Jesus Said I Am The Way" (or Whale, depending on whose interpretation it is). Three other sources of distraction were, as always: 1.my underwater camera and its price, 2.my topographic map of South Malekula, and 3.my US Army-style can opener. My camera is good, because I can lock the shutter and just hand it to the crowd to play with. Because it has a thick plastic case, it is difficult to harm.
Swapping songs in the Hokai guest house. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
Of course, after playing "I Saw The Light" and "Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore", everyone wanted to know what church we go to. Holly has picked up an unfortunate habit of responding to this question by telling people that we are "olsem man blong bus", which to them means "heathen", to which they cluck their tongues and tell us no, we couldn't be that bad. I just say I don't have a church, and when inevitably pressed quiet them with the statement that my father is a Presbyterian (you have no idea how difficult it has been for me to learn to spell that).
This is probably as good a place as any to go into this man blong bus business, and if it isn't, I'm going to anyway. Most of the people on the coast of Malekula have only came down from the hills since the late forties. When modern rifles became widely available up there, the inter-tribal rivalries became overly lethal, and people fled to the coast, which was controlled by the colonial powers. There is a plaque at Mbonvor which says that the first Christian came there in 1949. A few hundred people up in the mountains of Southern Malekula still follow the custom way of life, although they send some of their kids down to the coast to stay with relatives and go to school. John (Australian volunteer Livestock Officer) went up for a couple of days two weeks ago to look at their cattle. He was accompanied by a guy who came down with his father and family in the 60's. John reports that these guys are the real thing - bones in noses, no clothes, hunt with bows, strictly follow custom, etc. At the first village he came to, the chief sat him down and told him in no uncertain terms that, unless he was there for work only, he could just turn around and go back. The week before, a couple of American tourists had had 1000 vatu extracted from them and had been turned back at spear-point after the woman had entered the village along a path that was tabu to women. John figures that they tolerated him because he had come by a difficult, circuitous route in order to see some other cattle projects on the way. What they wanted in a professional way from John was advice on how to trap wild cattle. This, of course, is right up John's alley (he is an avid hunter), so he filled them in on using salt to lure cattle into corrals. There is also some thought of raising calves to lead down to the coast for sale. I am trying to convince John that an agricultural economist would be of use on his next trip up there, but I don't think I'm having much success.
Back to the trip. On Thursday, the plan was to walk for a couple of hours to Avok Island and catch a speedboat to Lamap Point and then walk to Lamap to speak with the South Malekula Area Council Secretary before flying back to Lakatoro on Friday morning. First, though, to justify my trip, I asked one chief if the village had any projects it wanted. He immediately said, yes, they wanted some improvements to the water system, which is seven standpipes fed from a spring up the hill. The taps were only about 1/2 metre off the ground, so kids play with them (two are broken) and dogs lick them to get water. They want the standpipes extended to 1 metre. So, all that is required is 7 pieces of 50 cm pipe with threaded connections and a foot of Teflon tape. One problem is that the nearest pipe is in Lakatoro, but that can be sent down. The real problem is that the nearest pipe wrenches are also in Lakatoro, and sending them down with a man is expensive. Not insurmountable, I could bring them down with the pipe on another trip. I have since checked with Rural Water Supply, though, and found that the village is due for a complete new water supply early next year, so the problem is solved. The new standard includes 1 metre standpipes and showers. This village had built showers by running hoses to nearby stalls, where they emptied into cans with holes in them. Crude, but effective.
The chief also wanted to show me a problem with the spring. With the feeling that I was glad I was inspecting the source of our drinking water after we had been drinking it, I followed him. My premonition was correct: I had been spared a lot of concern. The spring was full of the dainty footprints of cattle. I paced off the area and found that 500 metres of barbed wire would fence it. Water trickles below the dam all year, so there is no incentive for the cattle to break the fence. I asked the chief if I found the wire, would the village build the fence? He seemed a little taken aback, but said they would. I later found that these guys all know that it is the village responsibility to fence the springs, but since they pay the princely sum of 1000 vatu per man (500 vt per woman) head tax each year, they expect the gov't to do it. Meanwhile, everyone drinks water spiked with cow manure and urine. (Adjacent to the spring was a stand of bamboo - the villagers could have easily built a bamboo fence for free.) I priced wire in Lamap at 3700 vatu for a 500 metre roll, which, with staples, means that if all 18 households in Hokai chipped in 300 vatu each, they could solve the problem the next time someone went to Lamap. I think I'll make the suggestion. Bottom-up development means weaning oneself from dependence on others.
The chief wasn't too willing to provide a guide to Avok Island, since everyone had just been there two days before for a wedding, but after I said we would then go on our own, said he would dragoon some poor kid for the job. Just when we were returning to the village, salvation (for him, and I'll admit it, for us as Holly's feet had had it) turned up in the form of a speedboat coming into shore. It was on its way to Lamap Point, but when I tried to ascertain the price, I was puzzled by the captain's question as to my employer and his statement that he would work it out later with Andre Marshal, the Area Council Secretary.
We hopped in anyway. This was the 5 metre boat of the first page. At this point, we had seven on board (no life jackets, as per usual). We stopped in at Avok Island for another 4, then at the Maskelynes Islands for a further 4. Then I learned that we had lucked into a boat that was picking up all of the South Malekula Area Councilors and taking them to Lamap Point, were we would be met by a truck to take us to Lamap for an Area Council meeting. Not only did we get free transport, but I finally got to attend an Area Council Meeting.
When we hit Lamap, Holly and I celebrated our return to civilization by heading to the nearest store and eating a chocolate bar (only slightly stale) each right away. All of our fellow travelers hit the same store and loaded up on cargo (aluminum kettles and wash basins, thongs, big bags of flour, etc.) to take home that evening. Its not every day you get a free ride to the big city in that neck of the woods. Maybe I should mention that a store here is a single small room with maybe a thousand dollars-worth (make that a hundred in a small village) of merchandise scattered around the walls behind a counter.
I won't bore you with the meeting details, but our stay in Lamap was uneventful, except for me wearing a piece of the hide off my butt off while riding in a trailer behind a tractor back to the airport, and we flew home on Friday.
Now, instead of lacking work, I have a pile of it to follow up on all the stuff I found out and was asked along the way.
Your "Wicket War" is nothing. We get that type of thing here, except on a much bigger scale, all the time. For example, some guy with a water pipe going through his land will get mad at one guy downstream and break the line, cutting off water to an entire town. At least its not like Papua New Guinea, where people get killed all the time over that kind of thing.
Hokai's Beach, from where of the great man-vs. hammerhead attack was launched, perhaps with one of these very canoes. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
I see I have part of a page left, so I can't resist adding a good shark story we heard at Hokai. I guess one day a big hammerhead shark came in close to the village, and people were frightened that it might eat a child playing in the water or something. Well, I would have just waited until it swam away, but one of the chiefs hopped in his trusty outrigger canoe with a spear and went after it. When he stabbed the shark, it attacked the canoe, breaking the outrigger and throwing the man into the water, where it proceeded to take a chunk out of his butt. Rather than turning the other cheek when it came in again, he grabbed it by the snout and managed to roll over it. After a couple rounds of this, the shark retreated with his spear. A draw, I guess. You have to be quick on your feet around here.
Holly and I are just waiting for the incubation periods to expire to see what weird and wonderful diseases we picked up on our trip. It doesn't do to inquire too closely into how utensils are washed, or when the last time the person who is squeezing coconut cream into your food last saw a bar of soap, or what little beasties inhabit your pillow. Luckily it is dry season, so we didn't run into too many mosquitoes.
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©S. Combs, 1987