Summary of Our First Year In Vanuatu

Lakatoro School, with the Local Government Council offices and housing hidden in the trees up the hill behind. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

...Having attained the security of a good job and nice home (station wagon too, but no big dog) in Canada's most comfortable city (Victoria, British Columbia), we noticed that Stan had had his job for four-and-a-half years, more than doubling his previous record. Security anxiety set in, or perhaps living on the West Coast made us want to "share the experience" of the unemployed. We applied and were accepted for a two-year overseas posting with CUSO (meaningless acronym), a Canadian non-governmental volunteer agency. After quitting job, selling station wagon, and renting house, we set off for Vanuatu.

Pre-1980 maps will show Vanuatu, a string of islands located between Fiji and Australia, as the New Hebrides. Its population of about 140,000 Melanesians continues to live as semi-subsistence gardeners with some income from the sale of copra and cocoa beans. Copra is dried coconut meat, from which is pressed all that saturated coconut oil found in store-bought foods, while cocoa is the raw material for that essential human nutrient, chocolate.

Vanuatu faces many of the same problems as other tropical developing countries. It is over-dependent on one crop, copra, which competes in the world market with copra from other tropical nations and with a surplus of soybean oil produced by the subsidized farmers of developed countries. Despite an abundance of fruit and vegetables, the traditional diet is made up almost exclusively of starchy root crops. This results in nutritional problems that are a contributing factor in the high death rate of the two most vulnerable groups, young children and women of childbearing age. There is also the struggle to abruptly enter the twentieth century. Still, people generally seem to share the attitude of Stan's father, who was brought up on a farm in California's San Joaquin Valley in the thirties: "Everyone was like us, so we didn't know we were poor."

For an expatriate, though, this is the place in the Third World to volunteer. The climate is good, people friendly, diseases easy to control, food abundant, and snorkeling excellent. The lingua franca, Bislama, a pidgin English developed to allow the speakers of the 110 indigenous languages to communicate, is relatively easy to learn.

Solaise Hotel (now the Windsor) February 8, 1987. Photo by Alan McPhail.

We will admit that the weather isn't perfect, though, or maybe our luck just isn't good. We arrived in Port Vila, the capital, on the evening of February 6th on the last plane into the country before Port Vila was struck, on the night of the 7th-8th, by Cyclone Uma. Uma was the worst hurricane to hit Port Vila in over thirty years, and it destroyed or damaged 90% of the town's buildings. Our hotel was one of those destroyed by the winds of up to 170 mph from 1700 to 0300 hours. That's an experience that we'd just as soon not share next time, thank you. While the rest of the town nailed their roofs back on, cleared the streets, and patched up the water and electrical systems, we took our cue from the old American Express commercial and used our plastic emergency kit to check into Port Vila's only surviving hotel, which just happened to be the most opulent.

Chez Combs, Lakatoro, Malekula. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

A week-and-a-half later, we arrived at our new home in Lakatoro on the island of Malekula, where we are now comfortably settled in an easy-care house. Lakatoro is the former British Administrative Centre of Malekula and is now the seat of the island's Local Government Council. Because it was designed as a showpiece colonial centre, Lakatoro is more like a park, albeit a bit run-down now, than a local village. It is built on a steep hill, presumably so the former British District Agent's house just below us will have a good view of the sea from its veranda. Our house is located at the upper edge of town, where the forest starts. Within a few feet of the house, we have, in rotating seasons, papayas, mandarin and sour oranges, limes, two types of mangoes, and bananas. Coconuts crash to the ground year-round.

Aside from the odd bout of malaria, Heather (5 years) and Laurel (3 years) are having a ball here. The 2 1/2% annual population increase ensures that there are, unlike at home, plenty of other children to play with. They can run wild all over the place, which contrasts with Canada, where they were locked in a fenced back yard and kept under eagle-eye at all times. They can even converse with strangers, in Bislama, which they have picked up from their friends. Heather has just finished Grade One at the French school five miles north of here in Norsup, the old French administrative centre. In the short space of one month, she went from being driven and led by hand to half-day kindergarten in Victoria to taking the bus alone to full-day Grade One here - quite a change. She also suffered at first from excessive attention from her fellow pupils, as she is the only whiteman in the school (as opposed to the kid from Martinique, who is known as the "white kid who is black" and the albino ni-Vanuatu boy who is "the black kid who is white" - note that the first adjective denotes if one is ni-Vanuatu, the second skin colour). Laurel spent the school year in the Lakatoro Kindergarten and has acquired a repertoire of English Sunday-School songs sung with a ni-Vanuatu accent. The effects of a National Geographic special seen in Canada about sharks are beginning to wear off, and they are both starting to go back into the water at the local beach.

Holly came as a "non-working spouse", but hoped to find some part-time work, perhaps in her field of medical laboratory technology. Such an opportunity has not yet arisen and, as seems the case anywhere, she has found the house, garden, and children enough to keep her pretty busy. She has found her role to be more domestic than is optimal, but has made the most of it by learning from our neighbours to weave baskets and make the ubiquitous "Mother Hubbard" or "Island Dress" (a kind of short "Muu-Muu" festooned with lace and flying ribbons, with a deep V-neck for handy breast-feeding). In exchange, she has demonstrated how to make jam and cookies, which are usually bought at stores here, and shown them that cakes don't have to be made from a mix. The women are also anxious to copy the patterns for skirts, pants, and shorts that she brought with her. ...much of September was spent instructing at a Women's Business Management Workshop held by the Department of Social Development.

A-lo-ha! Malekula's first Regional Development Planner ready for work. Photo ©H. Morgan, 1987.

Stan has been getting into (and figuring out just what is) his job as the Regional Development Planner for the Malekula Local Government Council. This involves advising on LGC business ventures, giving rudimentary business planning talks to sundry groups, coordinating national development plans with regional realities, assisting with aid-funding applications by community groups (if he can force a new program through the bureaucracy), and training a ni-Vanuatu counterpart to take over in the future. The job has given him the opportunity to visit most places on the island, including those accessible only by foot or boat. He was prepared for people having a different viewpoint here, but has learned that, more importantly, they operate under a completely different set of assumptions and knowledge than North Americans. Beliefs that everyone here takes for granted would land a person in a mental institution in Canada. His challenge is to work within this cultural and psychological framework to assist ni-Vanuatu in achieving their own hopes and dreams.

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©Stan Combs, 1995