[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
A friend of mine recently completed a photography project documenting the people of Dhaka, Bangladesh. These 265 mostly candid portraits capture what I like to call the miracle of the mundane. Without editorialising, they create a compelling polemic for the inherent dignity of every human being.
They’re noteworthy precisely because they’re not newsworthy.
If you were to ask me what animates me, what makes me take on the labours of love that fill my time to brimming, I would likely point to something like this. I’ve often been accused of being an idealist, but that’s only partly true. The ideals that I aspire to are simple:
We should have the right to a peaceful, respectful existence, with all the rights and responsibilities that this entails.
We should be able to choose which dramas and adventures we become involved in. Those we can’t choose should never grow so large that we lose all choice whatsoever.
One of the most alluring and endearing aspects of life in Vanuatu is our collective ability to drift along with few cares and few (sometimes too few!) responsibilities. The machinery of government grinds and chugs on by like a smoking bus with three cylinders firing, but aside from a bit of smoke and noise, leaves us largely unscathed.
Recent events, especially last Thursday’s tsunami warning, serve as a reminder just how fortunate we are. Within an hour of the alert being issued, news agencies the world over were contacting the Daily Post. Intent on the next human tragedy, they wanted to know: How much damage? How many dead?
The answer, happily, was that only one young girl was hurt when she ran in front of a moving truck.
Had a similar area in virtually anywhere else in the world been struck as we were by 3 earthquakes in quick succession, each in excess of 7.0, thousands, even millions might have suffered.
The simplicity of our existence – our lack of development – has in many ways saved us from the worst. If we didn’t have so little, we might have more to lose.
Life goes on today as it did the day before. We worry about where the next bag of rice is going to come from. We ruin our sandals in the mud. We bicker and fuss our way through petty jealousies. And we laugh at every opportunity.
In a place where the worst example of anarchy we can find is a dozen children playing on the beach, where the sum of our fears extend no more than a few miles from home, where even a hurricane is more frightening than deadly, we should really consider ourselves blessed.
But that should never make us complacent. For all its manifold blessings, Vanuatu society is still fraught with imperfection. Violence may not be institutionalised, but it is systemic. Too many women and children, safe from the predations of the state, are nonetheless victims in their own homes. Family, stronger here than in most other societies, is increasingly strained by distance and economic forces.
The difference between Vanuatu and its more turbulent Melanesian neighbours is as much one of luck as anything else. We all have corruption, venality, social and economic tensions and occasional violence. But for some reason, Vanuatu always pulls back from the brink.
How is this? What exactly is it that has allowed us to avoid the worst excesses of violence, economic and social dispossession? I honestly don’t know. If I were forced to answer, I’d likely wave my hands vaguely and mutter something about how people just don’t like things getting out of hand.
During the incipient insurrection some years ago between Police and Mobile forces, a besieged Police commander delivered an impassioned speech to the throng assembled behind the VMF picket. What began as an angry peroration culminated in a series of (ultimately tearful) apologies to everyone concerned for having caused such a ruckus. By observing the rhetorical standards of public oratory, the rebel leader defused his own obduracy.
We are a decent society, therefore, because we are used to acting like decent people.
Conclusions like this are dangerous. Too often, they lead only to self-satisfied complacency. As one chief explained it to me, it’s as if we are given the gift of a lovely garden with bountiful fruit trees. With such abundance, it becomes difficult to see the sweat and the toil that went into clearing the ground, the care and attention that allowed the tiny seed to become an adult tree.
It’s far too easy as well to assume that the tree will continue to bear fruit forever.
Thursday’s tsunami warning was a false alarm. But there is another tsunami approaching whose effects will be more widespread and, if we don’t prepare for them, more devastating than anything the ocean could do.
As development continues its inexorable spread through Vanuatu society, we must ensure that our politicians and policy makers never lose sight of individual faces of the people on whose behalf they were chosen to work.
They aren’t newsworthy, but they are noteworthy. They are us.