Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…

These are the opening lines of a song made immortal by American Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Her personal story was heroic; battling poverty, marginalisation, racism and abuse, she managed to become one of the most influential singers of the 20th Century.

Strange Fruit’, Holiday’s signature tune, became a hallmark of a quickening social sensitivity to the plight of black people in America. Provocative, courageous and compelling, its twelve short lines could reduce even the most jaded listener to tears.

The song’s central image is the victim of a lynching, the ‘strange fruit’ hanging from a tree. Holiday, who had been raped at 11 and prostituted by 14, and who faced a lifetime of drug addiction and domestic abuse, made it a vessel into which she poured all of her pain and suffering.

Vanuatu has its own strange fruit: Planted between the roots of a nakatambol tree lie the bones of a Tannese woman murdered, burned and discarded after 14 years of neglect by her own people. An overgrown lot in Freswota is a-flower with yellow crime-scene tape marking the place where another young Tannese woman was raped and beaten to death with a timber. Her 3 year old daughter lay strangled nearby.

Just as the mightiest tree often comes from the smallest seed, Vanuatu continues to reap this bitter harvest because, in every aspect of their lives, women are subject to coercion.

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Human, All Too Human

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

A man paddles his canoe into Lolowei's harbour, sheltered by standing rocks on one side and this massive cliff on the other. A shocking story is emerging from the Northern Vanuatu island of Maewo. Last week, two brothers, fugitives from Kaiovo village, appeared at Lolowei Hospital on neighbouring Ambae island. One was treated for injuries. Witnesses said he claimed he had been stoned following a village meeting. The other walked onward to Tumsisiro, an Anglican mission, and requested sanctuary.

Before long, a caller from Maewo ascertained the brothers’ presence in Ambae, and a motor boat was dispatched. Reports estimate that up to a dozen men armed with axes and bush knives arrived at Lolowei. They proceeded to the outpatient clinic and promptly murdered the first brother. Stunned onlookers watched as they struck him dead, then dragged his corpse down to the shore, mocking and abusing it as they went. The second brother met the same fate soon afterward.

Within hours of the events, the story began to spread that accusations of sorcery and murder were the cause of this tragic episode. As with most such events, speculation is rampant and details are difficult to corroborate. One distraught Ambaean related a tale that seems to align well with others:

She told of a meeting held in Kaiovo to deal once and for all with the death of two local school employees, widely suspected to have been poisoned. At its climax, a local church elder announced that God had given him the names of the perpetrators. He had no sooner identified the two brothers and an elderly male accomplice than the local chief instructed the villagers to kill them.

Before the brothers could react, she said, one of the villagers picked up a large volcanic cooking stone and launched it at one of them. He missed, and the two began to scramble to their feet. Another stone quickly followed, striking one of the brothers and injuring him. They nonetheless managed to escape, leaving the older man to be beaten severely by the villagers.

Reports indicate that they obtained a canoe and paddled across several kilometers of open ocean to Lolowei’s tiny cove. It was there that their pursuers caught them up and murdered them.

Poison, witchcraft, religious visions and mob justice. One could easily dismiss these events as the actions of a backward, primitive people, benighted in superstition.

We should be careful not to mock too loudly, lest we mock ourselves.

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