Don't Plan On It

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Recently, I’ve come across references to a phenomenon some expats have wryly termed the ‘V’ factor. Apparently there is some magic variable Vanuatu inserts into every equation that reduces our ability to calculate a sensible output to zero.

As emblematic phrases go, the ‘V’ factor ranks somewhere between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and those inane office posters warning you that ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.

Joseph Heller penned his famous novel in an attempt to characterise the crushing, often deadly banality of bureaucratic systems. His initially humourous tone peels away layer by layer until death, disappearance and the destruction of innocence leave the surviving characters with few illusions about humanity’s true nature.

Compared to this tour de force of gallows humour, a silly-looking poster tacked onto a corkboard seems innocuous, to say the least, little more than an ineffectual, protesting squeak from a mouse in a maze.

The ‘V’ factor isn’t so harmless. Rather than explain (Catch 22-style) Vanuatu’s unique environment, it substitutes dismissive hand-waving (often accompanied by another beer) for any serious desire to adapt to the reality of the situation. In essence, it’s a quick and easy way of exculpating oneself, of refusing to be implicated in the petty, small-world inefficiencies that define Vanuatu.

The ‘V’ factor is the final excuse of someone who wants into the show, but doesn’t want to pay for the ticket.

Okay, I’ve said what the ‘V’ factor is, but the real question is: What does it look like? It is the best laid plans of expats and investors going awfully awry. It’s the sum of the gecko eggs in the computer case, the centipede in the sandal and the rats in the wiring. It’s the axiom that, of a truck, some fuel and a driver, you can have any two at a time. It’s the two-day-late SMS that says, “I’m waiting. Where are you?”

It’s the always-empty service desk, police who don’t patrol, the teacher who’s later than his students, the meeting that’s always one short of quorum, but never the same one. It’s the marvelously, magically receding deadline, beckoning like the endless sunset on a westbound plane.

But most of all, it’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a will-o-the-wisp, a flight of fancy. It’s fairies in the buttercups. It is the recognition that the world isn’t working the way you want it to – and the irrational impatience you feel as you wait for the world to adjust itself for you.

Why, then, are even the best-laid plans doomed to failure? And if they are doomed, what should we do?

I’m glad you asked.

Systematic planning, order and organisation are all anathema in the islands. And not without good reason. You see, the village is a very small place, and in Vanuatu, it’s always been the source of all abundance, of everything that’s good. In order to ensure continued access to that abundance, we villagers need to understand a few basic rules:

  • Give a little, get a little. Yes, it can be a pain to suffer constant interruptions, distractions and requests for help, but the day will certainly come when you’ll be the one at someone else’s door with your hand out.
  • Get along with everybody, all the time, if you want to prosper. You’re going to need a hand some time soon, so you’d better be nice to people, even that greedy, jealous so-and-so who’d cut your throat as soon as look at you – if he didn’t have to be so nice, too.
  • The nail that stands up gets hammered down. The village is a small place, and there’s no room for rivalry. Keep your head down, don’t get too noisy or ambitious or, just like the weak dog in the pack, all the others will turn on you.
  • The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away. Trust in today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. Worst case scenario: your fellow villagers will all be in the same boat as you, so your misery will have company.
  • Don’t plan on anything. There are no kings here to tell us how it’s going to be, and you really don’t want to act like one. That would make you the nail in a village full of hammers.

Vanuatu is changing; there’s no doubt about it. But over 90% of the country has a set of rules that have worked well since time immemorial, and let’s face it: this is their country. This may be paradise, but even paradise has its rules.

Many of us expats – myself included – are here as agents of change. We know the world outside, what it consists of, and devote our energy to helping ni-Vanuatu come to terms with the things they cannot change. But in order to do that, we need to know the ground we stand on.

It may be that throwing your hands in the air and laughing off the ‘V’ factor will work for you. But don’t plan on it.