Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Mon 25 Aug 2008 04:40
We are now lying to a buoy within sight of Luganville, Vanuatu's second largest town, on the island of Espiritu Santo. Across a strait lies the small island of Aore, which boasts a very nice resort friendly to yachts. The mooring is sheltered, the food in the restaurant excellent, there is a laundry service, rubbish disposal, some internet facilities and a regular ferry service across to the town. Very comfortable.
On the day before we were due to leave Asanvari Nelson called us up on his new VHF radio, said the weather was miserable and due to get worse, and asked whether we would accept his pressing invitation to join the villagers at a memorial service, a requiem mass, for four lives lost at sea in May, and a feast afterwards. He was right about the weather and we said we would. Of the four who drowned when their small boat was overturned off the reef two or three were children. We were told that the man in charge had drunk too much kava and did not see the big wave coming. The ancient tradition out here is for one hundred days of mourning, after which the spirits are "let go". It seems to work as well in a Christian context.
We obtained clear instructions on timing and protocol and went ashore in the dinghy at 0730 in sheets of torrential rain - we were drenched, - but there had been a hitch; the service was delayed. This was no hardship because, having breakfast, was a campaign team due to speak to the villagers later on behalf of the Vanua-Aku Pati, one of the parties contesting the general election on September 2nd. The leader of the team, a retired radio engineer, was very interesting on the problems facing a small under-developed country with an expanding economy and rapidly changing culture and an hour passed rapidly. Only one in four children currently get the opportunity to go to school and the ballot papers will have to be distinctly coloured and carry photographs of candidates because not all can read and write.
Eventually Nelson arrived, asked us to pick up a plastic chair each and led us up and over a very slippery hill to the church. Fortunately the terrible rain had stopped. The service, starting at 0900, was in Bismali (pidgin), typically relaxed and laid back but recognisably Anglican and we could follow what was going on. The proportion of villagers who attended was probably similar to that in an English village - we understand from the chief that church attendance is still fairly strong but not as good as it was in his young days. The choir of nine lads gave a strong lead, which was a great help. There is no glass in the windows of the modern building and this was appreciated by the lads in the choir who found it necessary to lean out and clear their throats after each whole-hearted contribution. Everybody except Nelson and us sat on rush mats. It was typical of the local people's thoughtfulness that our comfort had been considered beforehand.
Dug out canoes and small boat on the beach at Asanvari. The yellow boat shown is similar to the one that overturned in a large wave last May when 4 people lost their lives.
After church it was back down the slippery slope to the club by about 1030 when it was suggested that we go back to the boat and return at 1200. On our return the political meeting was in full swing and we thought the team put on a good show. The villagers generally seemed to be impressed with the message. Apparently other parties had visited and spent most time criticising their opponents; these people preached togetherness and harmony among all the people and this was seen as a superior approach. Also convinced was JJ Moon's mate; I shall have my work cut out preventing her from voting on 2nd September. It all went on a bit in the manner of these things the world over and then it was up and over the slippery hill again to the big community hut divided into two parts - for men and women. The women cooked the food in their section and the men drank kava in theirs.
The Asanvari Yacht Club. In the photo it is being used for an election campaign meeting.
So, I have had my first shell of kava, and pretty ordinary I found it. A great deal of kava is drunk in this part of the Pacific. It is prepared by crushing the root of a local plant. I am told that after two shells (halved coconuts) you feel funny and after three you are away with the fairies. The taste alone will prevent me from falling into this depravity; kava drinking is unlikely to be added to the list of my vices. Still, some of us got rather stuck in and it was a little bit unedyfying but probably no worse than the Rose and Crown on a Friday night. People were very chatty and I had some excellent discussions with younger political activists and others while Mags had different but enlightening talk in her part. During this time the women were cooking the food in large holes in the ground lined and covered with hot stones. The menu consisted of a large piece of beef each and two pieces of taro, a root vegetable the local equivalent of potato. When prepared and cooked it has a consistency somewhere between mashed potato and bread. After quite a while the food was distributed in individual woven baskets lined with banana leaves and hung from hooks off the ground. Afterwards we were invited to take our basket home. Feeling decidedly peckish I decided to precipitate matters by asking what was in the baskets and was told it was the food and "your missus" would have mine. When I asked whether I could go next door and join her I was told "of course". Not a harem then. We ate up, said our "thank yous" and got back to the boat about 1630.
We thought it was an wonderful day sharing real, significant events in the life of the village with the political contribution a considerable bonus. For us it was probably much more interesting than the expensive custom dancing and hocus pocus going on at the same time on Ambrym. We were very grateful to Nelson for his invitation.
The weather was just as bad the following day but we left at 0640 and got here in good time without mishap. We need some provisions, some internet time and some good meals ashore.
A traditionally built house in Asanvari.