[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
Tawi blong mi;
I write to you from the enthralling, magical island of Manhattan. This jewel of the North Atlantic is a marvelous place. It is visited by all the races of the world. They are drawn by its legendary abundance and wealth. Here, one can achieve one’s every desire. One has only to learn the curious local rituals to gather a bountiful harvest.
The Manhattoes – as they’re known – seem peculiar to us, but we should not judge them based only on a passing glimpse of their kastom and tabus. We can’t expect everyone to be like us.
The people of this lovely island have a peculiar cargo culture in which they equate meaningless numbers with material goods. I confess it’s a difficult concept to grasp. Let me explain….
Imagine a great chief, a big man among us who one day decides that he wants to buy his entire island. (Yes, I know that sole ownership of so great a resource is the height of folly; bear with me.) To do so, he needs money, which is like mats and pigs, only without any innate value.
According to custom, new money is created by buying goods, improving them and selling them. As befits a chief, our big man achieves this by sharing with everyone. He gives heaps of paper manna to anyone who asks, regardless of whether they can pay him back or not. ‘Go,’ he instructs them, ‘and make great houses for yourselves. Don’t worry about returning it to me just yet. For now, give me only two vatu for every hundred I gave you. When you have completed your great house, it will be worth more than ever, and you can use its value to repay me.’
What a powerful vision, tawi! His villagers’ reluctance is drowned in the immensity of his wisdom.
This great chief is not finished, though. He visits chiefs from other villages and borrows money from them. If any ask how he will pay them back, he tells them about the vast sums he will collect from his people. He says that he has bundled all this debt into very low-risk packages, so if any of them have doubts – Heaven forbid – about his good name, they can accept the further reassurance that he is borrowing only against the best of all possible debts.
But no chief would gainsay this great man, so they lend him a fortune equal to that which he will reap when his people’s houses are complete.
Tawi, try to imagine: There are even greater chiefs than this. These are the ones who lent our chief the money to give to his villagers. And now he goes to them with this vastly greater sum, and he says, ‘I will buy this entire island! Give it to me on the same terms as I have offered houses to my villagers.’
The great chiefs are glad. The chief has bought his island, but he has helped them buy the whole country.
A wondrous ritual, indeed. But recently there have been perturbations in its observance. You see, now the grace period is over, one of the families is having difficulty keeping up with the higher repayments that are now required. Not to fear, though; there is another ritual through which a man can absolve himself of debt. It is called bankruptcy. A penniless man can put himself at the mercy of the nasara and his chief takes solace in his losses by removing the man’s possessions and selling them.
Unfortunately, even the sum of these possessions is not equal to what the man has borrowed. Too many people have borrowed already; nobody can afford the full value of his half-built house.
The chief is in a difficult position. He announces to the other chiefs that he cannot pay them back just yet, due to regrettable, wholly unforeseeable circumstances. If he could just borrow a little more, he will surely be able to find other villagers who desire a beautiful house, and then all will be made well.
The other chiefs would love to do so, but they have their own problems. You see, they are in the same predicament. Now, nobody can lend to anyone. Tawi, I tell you: If a man cannot pay for his house, he has a problem. But if a man cannot pay for a hundred houses, his village has a problem.
As with all primitive customs, the day comes when it is confronted by hard reality. Tawi, that day came when one of the villagers stopped paying back his loan. Because he could not pay his loan, his chief could not pay the others. And when the chiefs could not pay, the great chiefs – owners of the entire land – could not pay theirs.
For want of a house, an entire country was lost.
Tawi, I encourage you to ponder the power of this curious ritual over kava this evening: The man who can’t buy a house may be poor, but the man who tries to buy a country impoverishes us all.
I remain, etc.