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On be(com)ing happy

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

Yesterday, during an interview for a documentary film about climate change, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the badly affected Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was going to come from. On the southern island of Tanna, which was utterly devastated by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in that part of the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives.

The penny began to drop when I visited Cildo (pronounced SEEL-doe) and his parents in Erangorango, in the foothills overlooking Port Vila. Cildo is a sturdy, plain-spoken, twelve-year-old boy originally from Malekula. His family home had been utterly destroyed by a massive tree which fell at the height of the storm, injuring his father and barely missing Cildo and his mother. I interviewed him for UNICEF, as part of a series of videos taking stock of the effect of the storm on children in Vanuatu.

Cildo was remarkably matter-of-fact:

When the cyclone came we went inside and ate, then we all went into one room. Then a tree fell onto our house, and we all sat in the remaining corner until morning.

That’s it. Plain facts, delivered without inflection or stress. And when I took his photo standing in the ruins, he flashed the brightest smile.

It was only a couple of weeks later, as I was reviewing all the shots I’d taken in the days following the disaster, that I realised his secret: You don’t need a reason to be happy.




Transactionality and causality are so deeply ingrained in the western European psyche that it comes as a revelation that actually, happiness does not need to be pursued. It can be found wherever you happen to be standing.

The rootless and sometimes purposeless nature of consumer societies often stand in the way of such realisations. For my part, I spent the better part of my childhood coping with damage that never should have happened, and spent my young adulthood as a half-formed Angry Young Man. I was ruled by surges of anger, righteousness and cynicism, until circumstances finally forced me to conduct an existential stock-take.

By the time I arrived in Vanuatu in 2003, I was ready to learn. And before eighteen months had passed, I knew that this is a place where I could be happy. I could be happy, not because things are better here; in many ways they’re not. I could be happy because I no longer needed a reason.

Back in 2010, I wrote:

I’ve been stuck in cyclones, got malaria, dengue, been hospitalised from the after-effects of prolonged dehydration, had more parasites in more places than anyone really wants to know. I’ve been stung by things straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I’ve had death threats and constant, insanely unreasonable demands on my time and my pocketbook.

And yet, and yet in spite of it all, I was happy. Further back, in 2008, on the event of the perfectly preventable death of a little boy, I wrote about his funeral:

To an outsider, it’s wildly incongruous to watch the mourners as they approach the deceased’s house, chatting quietly, even laughing amongst themselves as if on some innocuous errand. The only clue about their destination is a cloth draped across one shoulder, to wipe the coming tears.

At the very instant they reach the gate, the wails begin. They are contrived, it’s true, but utterly heartfelt. The display of pain and sorrow at a funeral is more than most people of European descent have ever seen. To hear women moaning and weeping during the vigil and the burial is an uncanny and deeply moving experience. Though ritualised, the depth and sincerity of the emotion is starkly undeniable.

And then, as quickly as it begins, it is done. Life goes on, there’s food to be cooked, children to be tended to, and laundry to be done. The laughter, the scolding and the [conversation] start up again, as they always do.

Everyone in Vanuatu understands the place of things, and the need for everything to be in its place. Respect for public display and private observance of all of life’s events is universal. If someone smiles and jokes with his friends and colleagues just days after his first-born son has died… well, that’s as it should be. The funeral is over, and though there will be other opportunities to look back and mourn over the next hundred days, life goes on, whether one wants it to or not.

But it took a decade—and a cyclone of historical dimensions—for the lesson finally to land: People in Vanuatu are not happy because of anything. They are happy because the alternative doesn’t bear considering. Living as they do in a Least Developed Country with little or no modern technology in village life, with death and disaster around every corner, and people with whom you might or might not get along tucked up nice and cosy next to you (and you’re on an island, remember; they’re not going anywhere)… well, the least you can do is have a laugh now and then.




Vanuatu’s designation as the happiest place on earth was the result of research conducted by the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think-tank. Their Happy Planet Index actually placed more emphasis on the happiness of the planet than its people. It is a measure of people’s well-being in proportion to environmental footprint. Vanuatu was included in the inaugural 2006 survey, but not in any subsequent studies.

Still, the title endures because it fits. And now, as we face the impact of the developing world’s environmental footprint in the form of rising ocean levels and storms of unprecedented severity, this ability to be happy in the face of adversity will no doubt serve us well.

But don’t for a minute let that lead developing countries to complacence. Just because we smile our way through the hardship doesn’t mean that life is easier here. It’s not easier at all; it’s just better.

And honestly, developed nations would do well to take a lesson from this. Disasters wrought by climate change are inevitable now. The damage is done. The storms will reach you too. You’d better learn to smile through adversity as well, because you might not have much else to smile about.

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An urban kastom story

Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

‘Really,’ asks the King Rat, ‘how exactly are rats and humans different?’

Out of that simple spark rises a complex allegory of honesty and deceit, selfishness and survival, all found in the least likely places. Wan Smolbag’s newest play—one of three in this year’s season—is the most ambitious yet in terms of its story-telling. Director Peter Walker says the play has a bit of a Cinderella quality to it, but here, it’s the rats are riding in coaches.

Rats and humans have always lived together, we are asked, so how, exactly how do they differ? They have leaders and followers; they all live and thrive surrounded by refuse; they squabble and vie incessantly; and they lust and love—and confuse the two—just as (in)constantly.

So why is it such a big deal then, when the King Rat becomes obsessed with Veronik, a still-pure flower of a girl, living in semi-squalor in Port Vila? At turns charming and menacing, he and his cohort are willing to wheedle, extort, con and coerce anyone in order to win her hand. Despite King Rat’s constant moans of frustrated desire, the solution turns out to be a simple one: Just find enough money to satisfy the girl’s so-called parents, and nothing else matters. Not even the wishes of Vero herself.

The plot writhes from one episode to another as rat and human natures try to come to terms, and as their mutual motivations are unveiled, it becomes increasingly difficult to answer King Rat’s question. And yet… and yet, as Vero’s younger brother candidly confesses, ‘who wants a rat for a brother-in-law?’ Continue reading

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Defending the indefensible

A word of advice to Nauru: As the wise man famously said, ‘if you find yourself trapped at the bottom of a very deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.’

A word of advice to Australia: Stop handing Nauru the shovel.

In all honesty, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm required to express an adequate level of outrage following the discovery that the government of Nauru were requiring Digicel, the country’s only ISP, to block access to Facebook. Initially, the blockage was denied, then described as a technical problem. Then, days later, the Prime Minister went on the record stating that it was an attempt to protect the island’s predominantly Christian population from the scourge of pornography.

Then a human rights worker stated that she had been told that the request to block Facebook originated from Australian authorities.

If her reasoning is to be accepted, then cutting off Facebook and social media was never aimed at Nauru’s indigenous population. It was designed to silence security staff and to stop inmates from discussing the pros and cons of accepting exile in Cambodia with people in the outside world.

The dismantling of Nauruan democracy is merely a side-effect of Australia’s failed policy.

As they witness the country’s lurching egress from democracy and social harmony, many Nauruans in public and private life must be asking themselves, ‘how did it ever come to this?’ Cutting off conversation and quashing dissent is simply not the Pacific way of doing things.

Managing this policy can only be a thankless task for those who carry its burden, but the fact remains that the world is watching with increasing incredulity as it slips further and further down that proverbial muddy hillside.

The only way out of this is to talk. To face up to the realities of the situation, to come back to the Pacific way, and to hash things out until there’s nothing more to be said. The lid will not stay on the pot, no matter what measures people may be willing to consider. As painful as the prospect may be, it is better to front up to the situation now than to allow it to fester any longer.

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Surviving Cyclone Pam

[Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.]

Supercyclone Pam, bringing winds gusting to more than 300 Kph, swept nearly two dozen of Vanuatu’s central and southern islands bare. The destruction is difficult to conceive of, harder still to express. Let one tiny example stand for all: A brand new trade school, constructed to the state of the art, razed after only ten days in operation. Behind it lie the shattered remnants of a giant banyan tree. These trees are integral to Tannese custom; because of their monumental size and durability. Indeed, each of the storied twelve nakamals (sacred gathering places) of Tanna is located under a banyan tree.

Both the ancient and the modern were swept away with equal ease by Pam’s unprecedented power.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

To everyone’s surprise, even amazement, only five of the island’s nearly thirty thousand inhabitants perished. The story is the same on all of the worst hit islands: On Efate, with the highest population, just a handful. Two more from tiny Emae, which took a direct hit from the eye of the storm. The list goes on. In all, only eleven people have been confirmed killed, and four of those had been in hospital in serious condition prior to the cyclone.

Nobody can say for certain just yet why the death toll has been so remarkably low. There are likely a number of contributing factors. The first is that the Ni Vanuatu people have had 3000 years to prepare. Historically, Vanuatu has received an average of 1.5 cyclones per year for as long as we’ve been keeping records. Local dwellings are designed with eaves nearly reaching the ground in order to prevent the roof from being blown away. The bamboo walls and natangura-thatched roof are flexible and sufficiently porous to withstand even the strongest winds. Some people hid in purpose-built traditional cyclone shelters. These are tiny, half-subterranean shelters dug into a hillside, walled with tightly woven bamboo. They are cramped, dirty and wet, but they go a long way to ensuring survival.

Had this been a ‘normal’ cyclone, it’s doubtful whether it would have made the news at all. Continue reading

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The fourth estate in peril

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.
This week’s Post Courier debacle, in which a lurid front-page spread purporting to show Asian sex workers in a Port Moresby nightclub was shown to be false, is only the latest journalistic misstep of many across the Pacific islands. As far back as 2012, accusations of plagiarism have been levelled at the author of the article. The evidence in some of these cases is compelling.

In this particular case, the paper published a front-page correction the very next day, admitting that the writer had published the photos without knowing their actual provenance. The very same cover featured another couple of photos of Asian women with their eyes blacked out, ‘reluctantly supplied’, they said, by one of the sources of their stories on sex workers coming to work in Papua New Guinea.

While the Pacific Freedom Forum welcomed the prompt correction, social media response was less forgiving. A large number of commenters decried the entire week-long series, claiming that it was a transparent ploy to sell papers on the back of public prurience.

The readiness of media professionals throughout the Pacific islands to treat untested sources, hunches and even rumour as reportable is a phenomenon that needs to be recognised and addressed. It’s difficult to measure the civic importance of having reputable news services, but it’s fairly safe to say that fewer Pacific islanders than ever see their media organisations as truly authoritative.

Complaints are rampant in social media and elsewhere about the ability of media services to reliably and objectively report ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ as one masthead famously stated. State-owned television and radio are determinedly non-confrontational. Even private-sector media are fighting what seems to be a rising tide of political and financial pressure.

It sure doesn’t help that elsewhere in the world there are fewer and fewer examples to hold up for emulation. Continue reading

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Poettering Uber Alles

The wisdom of Dear Leader Lennart Poettering:

The design of systemd as a suite of integrated tools that each have their individual purposes but when used together are more than just the sum of the parts, that’s pretty much at the core of UNIX philosophy.

I would say that he misunderstands the essence, the substance and possibly even the purpose of the UNIX philosophy… but I think he actually does understand. I think he’s simply being disingenuous, twisting the definition to meet his desires. It’s clear that this is a man who believes that he knows what’s good and what’s not.
Continue reading

Torrenting clichés live on for a reason

Freddie de Boer has a post up, decrying pro-torrenting ‘myths’ that need to die.

Down in the comments, he writes,

Many of you are dramatically underestimating the kind of resources that are necessary to make great artwork. Sgt Pepper could not have been made by dedicated amateurs. Even today, high-quality recording costs are far higher than people realize. Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro and a dream. Nobody laboring alone in his bedroom could code Half-Life 2.

But Counter Strike absolutely WAS coded by a bunch of volunteers as a result of their own enthusiasm. Likewise Team Fortress.

Oh – and the Linux kernel, which drives most of the web today. And BSD Unix – the framework on which Mac OS X is built.

And pretty much all of deviantart.com. And a majority of the stuff on 500px.com. And a great deal of good writing.

Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro, but that does nothing to diminish what a couple of kids with a GoPro can do. And Sergeant Pepper – oh, this is silly and childish. Freddie, your proposition is that Great Art is not possible without significant resources being brought to bear. The real proposition is that some kinds of creative endeavour (the majority of which are decidedly not great) are not possible without significant resources. Continue reading

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Snowdrift? Toboggan hill!

Paul Chiusano, in the course of reinventing the world, writes:

One of my personal pet causes is developing a better alternative to HTML/CSS. This is a case where the metaphorical snowdrift is R&D on new platforms (which could at least initially compile to HTML/CSS).

The problem with the ‘snowdrift’ here, to abuse the metaphor, has nothing to do with IP law, and nothing to do with lack of innovation. It has everything to do with the size of the drift. You don’t have any choice but to wait for someone else to come along to help shovel. But the author is trying to say, If everyone doesn’t shovel, nobody gets out. And that’s not always true.

A quick reminder: When HTML first came out, the very first thing virtually every proprietary software vendor of note did was create their own, better alternative. Web design tools were so common, it became difficult to market oneself as someone who actually knew how to create HTML by hand. And each of those tools used proprietary extensions and/or unique behaviour in an attempt to provide a ‘better alternative’ to consumers – and of course to corner the market on web development, and therefore on the web itself.
Continue reading

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The ‘Digital Divide’ is a chasm

The ITU, bless their binary souls, just released the 2014 Measuring the Information Society report. The headline is – or should be – that something is very wrong on the internet, and we need to fix it.

I used to scoff at the phrase ‘digital divide’, which was used to soft-peddle the glaring technological inequalities between rich and poor nations. I still don’t like it, but for different reasons. I used to think that the technological gap between the developed and developing was evanescent, a transient blip which would rapidly disappear as wireless broadband technologies proved viable in even the most marginal markets.

Not so. At least, not so far. The 2014 ITU report shows a widening gap between rich and poor, in spite of the fact that growth in the global digital economy is driven entirely by the developing world.

Let’s look at who’s got access to broadband on their mobile:

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The disparity between the richest and the poorest countries is glaring, and unlikely to right itself. The developed world and the Least Developed Countries are on completely different trajectories. Even the developing countries are showing a rate of increase that would require radical change even to come close to the level of ubiquity seen in Europe and North America. Continue reading

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Systemd and The Unix Way

What follows is not for the benefit of systemd supporters. I write it because somewhere out there In the wilds of the internet, there might still be some youngster with a clue who needs to get this:

Systemd, OOP and a number of other technologies have been touted by people who have a curious mixture of cleverness and a lack of imagination or experience (something altogether too common in the world of software development). They claim that because they have solved a problem, they are therefore entitled to use the same approach to Solve All Problems Ever. So instead of exercising a little humility and moving their work ahead in a way that’s accepting of other approaches, they charge in full speed, damn the torpedoes and devil take the hindmost.

It happened with Microsoft and ActiveX. It happened with Object Oriented Programming languages – most notably with Java: there was a time when it was hard to find work programming in anything else. It happened, to a smaller degree, with design patterns. You can find numerous other examples if you search for them.

It’s happening again today with systemd. Continue reading