[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition. The events described here are all true. Names have been changed for obvious reasons.]
I never saw it coming.
I was with my adoptive brother Frank, his wife Marie-Anne and some friends, sitting on the porch one Saturday evening, chatting and sharing a little kava. Some other family members were hanging about in the compound. A dog barked once, punctuating the silence.
I didn’t see Jerry’s wife arrive, nor did I notice when she began her whispered tirade against him. So when he leapt up and cut her down with a right hook, I sat frozen, lightning-struck. He kicked her once in the ribs, picked her up, threw her full force into the cement wall. He hit her with two more right hooks before I could intercede.
His wife never made a sound.
[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
I don’t often talk about my motives. Newspapers, in my opinion, make lousy confessionals. I’ll make an exception today, because it helps make a point.
I recently experienced a curious moment. I’d spent a sunny Port Vila Saturday at the office catching up on email, news and whatnot. There were a couple of stories in the local newspaper about communications companies setting up shop here, there was a link to a story about ‘eternal’ airplanes – unmanned spy planes that never have to land. There was a story about spy agencies listening to our Skype calls. One about radio tag implants for everyone, so we can be tracked more easily.
I locked my screen, turned off the lights, and headed out of the office. The sun was westering, drifting almost level with the bay. An acquaintance happened by and invited me for coffee.
I found myself curiously disoriented. It’s happened before, and will no doubt happen again. In the course of a few steps, I’d traveled from an echoing data chamber to a sleepy village where strangers don’t exist.
Nathan’s little boy died of nothing. The seven year-old got a boiler in his nose. It was painful, but nothing a course of antibiotics couldn’t fix. Nathan dutifully brought his boy to the island hospital, and requested treatment. As usual, there was no doctor present, but a nurse gave him some medicine. The pills were past their expiry date, but they were better than nothing.
The inflammation subsided, and the boy was able the sleep again for a while. The infection, however, didn’t disappear. Once the under-strength antibiotics had run their course, it came back with a vengeance.
To look at the boy, there wasn’t much wrong. A little swelling around one eye and nostril, but otherwise nothing. What you couldn’t see was the constant, excruciating pain as the infection moved into his sinuses and began to press against his brain.
Re-worked from an older post for this week’s Daily Post Weekender edition. ed.
Ever since I arrived in Vanuatu almost five years ago, I’ve woken every morning to the rhythmic shushing of the scrub brush as the women in the neighbourhood do the morning wash. It’s often the last thing I hear before sundown as well.
Anyone who’s ever washed their clothes by hand knows just how arduous the process is. Most women in Vanuatu have extremely well-defined arm muscles, and many of the older women on the islands are built like wrestlers. Laundry is one of the reasons why.
When my tawian Marie-Anne approached me some time ago with the news that she’d begun participating in a micro-finance scheme, I encouraged her to do so, and immediately began wracking my brains for an activity that would allow her to earn money and still take care of her little girl full-time. I tossed out an idea or two, but nothing I suggested seemed very compelling. Marie-Anne was patient with me, and waited for me to wind down before telling me that she already knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to buy a washing machine, and charge the local women to use it.
How very stupid of me not to have thought of it before.
[First written in February of 2004. I’m reposting it here for posterity, and because it came up in conversation earlier today. There’ve been a few serious attacks against expats recently, including a murder and a particularly brutal rape. The perception among some is of a sudden uptick in violent crime. I recounted this story to suggest that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.]
The attack happened last Monday in the afternoon. It didn’t last long, but it left her with a concussion and a broken collarbone.
She was in her apartment, had been for a little while. She settled herself down at her laptop to write up some workshop notes. She heard a noise from the front bedroom, empty now because her friend had left precipitately after no one listened to her fears. She stood, not sure whether to investigate or flee. A man appeared in the doorway, and knocked her down hard as she started to scream. The broken bone immobilised her, so all she could do was scream as loud as she could. Her assailant fled within seconds.
And nobody came.
Ever since I arrived in Vanuatu almost four years ago, I’ve woken every morning to the rhythmic shushing of the scrub brush as the women in the neighbourhood do the morning wash. It’s often the last thing I hear before sundown as well.
Anyone who’s ever washed their clothes by hand knows just how arduous the process is. Most of the women in Vanuatu have extremely well-defined arm muscles, and many of the older women on the islands are built like wrestlers. Laundry is one of the reasons why.
When Georgeline approached me some time ago with the news that she’d begun participating in a micro-finance scheme, I encouraged her to do so, and immediately began wracking my brains for an activity that would allow her to earn money and still take care of little Daniela full-time. I tossed out an idea or two, but nothing that seemed very compelling. Georgeline was patient with me, and waited for me to wind down before telling me that she already knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to buy a washing machine, and charge the local women to use it.
How very stupid of me not to have thought of it before.
Vila is quiet. The hospital gates are locked and guarded. There are about twenty officers lounging outside the police station. Most businesses are closed and the remainder are nearly deserted. Every passing group is scrutinised quietly.
Most of my family stayed with me last night, five of them in my house and about eight more in the storage shed across the yard. None of us wandered far, electing instead to fill up a plastic jug with kava and sit in my house watching movies.
To anyone not attuned to life in Vanuatu, things would appear perfectly normal, if a little cosy. Kids were being kids, the women prepared supper and chatted amongst themselves. A few of the men wandered off into the night, but most hid under the eaves, joking quietly and looking off into the rain.
The story goes like this: A Tannese woman died, apparently poisoned by her husband and his brother. The person who supplied the poison was a practitioner of nakaimas from Ambrym. Whether he was coerced or paid depends on who is telling the story.
[Amalgamated from a series of live blogging posts as Cyclone Ivy hit the village of Saratamata on Ambae island, where I was staying at the time.]
Imagine the worst storm you’ve ever seen. Double it. Double it again. Make it last 14 hours at its highest intensity. That’s how cyclone Ivy was for us. The wind stayed consistently in excess of 50 knots from mid-afternoon of the day before yesterday (the time of my last post) until late into the night. It gusted far above that.
There were four of us staying in a very small house. We made light of things as best we could, but it was a little hard to be entirely glib when the door blew off the front of the house, taking the sheets of masonite covering the windows with it.