The Happiest Place…

[Originally written for the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

There should be a trenchant, thought provoking column in this space, but I find I have nothing to gripe about. For today, at least, we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Sure, Vanuatu faces innumerable challenges. It’s still miles behind in education, health services, infrastructure, wealth… you name it. The rights of women are neglected, often criminally. The cost of living is going up, and the financial world is crumbling all around us.

But everywhere I look, I see problems worse than ours.

The Australian dollar, once near parity with the US, slipped to less than 70 cents before recovering slightly. The vatu, well-backed and not subject to the vagaries of currency speculation, has been pretty solid throughout. When fuel prices skyrocketed across the planet, the impact here wasn’t as immediate or as extreme as elsewhere. We buy our fuel at intervals, which means we’re better insulated from short-term spikes. The Reserve Bank and VNPF have made investments that look pretty sober right now. As long as nobody sticks their hand in the cookie jar, they’ll be fine.

The US elections are looming and the mud slinging over there makes our campaign look like Sunday school. The challenges that our American friends face right now are fundamental and will require radical change. Our problems are fundamental, too, but the convulsions of the CRP are in the past.

Best of all, we have a proper opposition now, in the person of Ralph Regenvanu. He’s been doing yeoman service even in the few months he’s been in office. With a tone worthy of a chief he confronts the issues solidly and respectfully. His supporters should be proud, though not at all surprised.

Health services are a mess here, but at last we’ve got a decent minister at the helm. We have a long way to go, especially in the islands, but we can expect improvements fairly soon. At very least, what services we have are affordable to our citizens.

Education leaves a lot to be desired, but again, management has improved in recent years. We’ve seen VIT improve by leaps and bounds already. Hopefully, DG Lamoureux can work the same kind of transformation on the secondary and primary systems as well. All signs point in that direction.

We could do infinitely better on crime, especially violence against women. If the Supreme Court eventually does the right thing, at least we’ll have a law in place that requires action on this count. Then we can start after the police to get them to do their job.

There’s a lot more cash in this town than there was even 3 years ago, and not nearly enough of it in ni-Vanuatu hands. But newly-minted MP Patrick Crowby intends to remedy that by increasing the minimum wage by over 25%. It adds to each employer’s burden, but when I see the ridiculous disparity between expat and ni-Vanuatu salaries, I feel ashamed. Anybody who complains about 26,000 vatu should spend a month living on it first.

So there we are. There’s any amount of things that I could moan about, and not without cause, either. But when I start to, I’m forced to admit that yes, we are behind, but yes, we are making progress. Sometimes it’s not enough and it’s never fast enough, but step by step, like the little engine that could, Vanuatu keeps climbing up that hill.

Compared to our Melanesian siblings and our neighbours around the Pacific, we’re doing all right.
And on top of everything else, we live in a country where people are polite, welcoming and warm, whose society remains almost as tightly knit as it was 3000 years ago. Yes, it can be cloying, peppered with petty jealousy and spite, but it’s still one in which we can sit down together and laugh and talk about nothing any time, every day.

Calling Vanuatu a happy place is what my favourite author likes to call a lie to children. When we explain to a 3 year old why the sky is blue, or how rainbows come about, or why grandma had to go to Heaven, we don’t tell everything, and we don’t necessarily tell it right.

We tell our tales in a comforting way, in order to set comfortable boundaries on our existence. We make them smaller, easier to digest. As we grow, the stories fill themselves in, to the extent our curiousity allows.

Well, I’m not feeling curious today. If you ask me, I could find a hundred – no, a thousand – little aggravations that can drive the mind to distraction. There’s dengue and global recession. There’s crime, poverty and inequality. But in every area, I see people in Vanuatu who’ve devoted themselves to improving our lot in life.

And slowly, bit by bit, things get better. Or no worse. Or better than this country or that. So today – just for today – I’m not going to complain. This world is not a happy place, but here in Vanuatu, we’re as close to happiness as any people on earth have a right to be.