2019 Vanuatu Two ladies of Narovorovo
Two Ladies of Narovorovo – Lily Grace and Shirley
Albert told us there would be a market around 4.00pm and we would hear the bell being sounded (long empty gas cylinder, hanging from a tree) when the time was right to come ashore again. We saw these old gas cylinders hanging in many villages and used to send signals and tell the time just like the church bells once used in English villages. But the sound was not forthcoming so Albert called to us and waved us ashore.
While waiting Albert introduced us to Lily Grace, a widowed grandmother who with the help of her grand-daughter was preparing the evening meal. The little girl aged about eight was slicing choy by holding it in her hand and using a machete with confidence and precision. Lily had peeled taro root and hollowed out the centre keeping the outer layer to use as a lid. She would then put coconut milk in the hollow, replace the lid and roast the roots until they were cooked through, roasted outside and steamed inside. Sounded delicious.
Close by other young grandchildren were playing on the level concrete surface of her late husband, Jean Paul’s grave; their grandfather who would never be alone as he lay just outside the home they had shared. Another son sat on the tomb grating coconut flesh into a bowl and I was reminded of Fulunga last year, when Jone used to grate punnets of the pure white flesh for us.
Piles of chopped Kava root lay drying in the sun ready for export to the cities; the villages cut fresh each day for their own consumption in the numerous kava bars throughout the villages during the evenings.
We cooled our feet in the river chatting to the girls and learning about which was their favourite subject at school. The sturdy old stone bridge had been washed away when the overflowing river powered downhill after a cyclone and now vehicles drove across the river a little further upstream.
A new youth house lay incomplete for lack of building materials but the ladies were arranging a ‘bring and buy sale’ to help pay for the new ladies meeting house.
Each village is arranged slightly differently in the way they keep their animals. Here the cattle and chickens wander free and keep the grass short and well fertilised, the chickens clearing up the cow dung as they peck around, each hen with her brood of chicks. While the pigs are fenced securely in the coconut plantation behind the village where the men tend the new crop. Copra is big business because of the growing demand for healthy oils and within the village are plentiful lime, lemon, avocado (later in the year), grapefruit and bananas and coconut in abundance in the plantation.
The village homes were laid out in neat rows and a communal cookhouse and bread oven were in daily use. Larry opened the shop for Bron to buy a few items and then we went into the present meeting room to join some ladies also waiting for the market produce to arrive. I sat down between two ladies and we started chatting. Shirley was a trainee primary school teacher with 48 children in her class.
While we chatted a young lady offered us cooked crayfish from the river sitting on roasted coconut flesh and topped with coconut cream. It was flavourful. I mentioned to Shirley the items we had brought from NZ to give to villagers who might need them. Stationery and writing materials, bras and spectacles and a big bag of clothes from Martin and Renata to name the main items. When she said “There are many old ladies here in the village (of 200) who need glasses,” I was relieved and delighted. We arranged to bring them ashore the next day.
There was not much happening in the market so we made our way back to the boats to prepare for another lovely shared evening with Ken and Bron, taking turns to entertain. We had plenty of help to launch the tenders from the willing and smiling children.
After a wonderful still and restful night Sunday dawned with the sound of chanting from the Sunday school taking place under a giant banyan tree above the beach. The ‘gong’ summoned folk to the church service. Shirley was amazed when I told her there were three or four services on our little island in Fiji, “How boring!” She exclaimed.
She showed us into her new home that she only moved in to three months ago and next to it was her mother’s old house where she was born and raised.
“The old ladies are keen to try the glasses,” she said and I only hoped they would help their eyesight.
While in her teens her father obtained a job in the government on nearby Ambae, scene of the evacuation in 2017 and 2018 after the volcanic eruption. But Shirley left Ambae to return to her birth village when her teacher mother was dying. She clearly loved and missed her mum. Her new home was decorated with all the colourful wall hangings her mother had bought in readiness for Shirley’s marriage. On this island marriages are arranged and this union was not a happy one.
Shirley even referred to her husband as ‘lazy’ and there was no love lost between them. “I have my two children and my new home and maybe a job, so I am happy.” She had a vacant look in her eyes and I felt for her.
“Nice clothes,” she said almost to herself as she slowly went through Martin and Renata’s bag, and when she came to the stationery, “Ah good, pencils, the children keep asking me for more because they eat them!” She had prepared a snack of roasted wild yam with coconut cream and it was very welcome.
She told us the story of how when she was first married she kept pigs and asked her husband to build her a pen for them so they wouldn’t stray and damage neighbours’ gardens. But he never got around to doing this task and gradually the locals killed her pigs and finally the sow so although they compensated her she has refused to keep pigs again until she has a secure pen for them. Now villagers’ pigs are kept safely in the plantation.
She loves her teaching job and the children but the government is delaying making it a formal position. Shirley explained there is much self-interest and nepotism in government and the good jobs go to friends and relatives of the officials so she is afraid her job might be taken from her. If they do come good for her then much of her income must go to the village funds or she will be shunned. She is between a rock and a hard place it sounds like to me.
After she gets back from school she spends her time making the beautiful pandanus mats we have seen many times before. See on the picture how she weaves in different coloured stems and uses dyed chicken feathers as the fringe. She weaves a 2 X 3 metre mat in a week, it will grace the main room of her new home.
We were silently amazed to learn that they do not know how to milk cows so the animals are constantly being suckled by their calves and they allow the chickens to breed freely so instead of collecting eggs the chickens have three broods per year and raise all the hatched young, well at least they have plenty of chicken!
Shirley is the proud owner of the first house in the village to have a solar powered TV and in the evenings her main room frequently fills with children watching TV programmes.
She walked with us back to the beach and called her husband over to say hello before we left. He appears in the photo beside her.