John Frum and Father Christmas are coming: Charitable gift giving in Vanuatu

12th July 2017. Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu. About 25 degrees in the shade. 11am.
Casual observers on the beach in Port Resolution may have been somewhat bemused to see a dinghy with four people in, laden with goods, towing a tiny dinghy with a huge red wheelbarrow in it. AIN’T FANCY, the smallest boat in the fleet at 36’, had bought and brought not one, but three wheelbarrows with them. The Gift Exchange Ceremony would start in a couple of hours.


The World ARC has been supporting the community in Port Resolution for several years now. Each year the fleet arrives from Fiji and donates items the village needs. In order to avoid massive duplication of things that we presume the village might like, and to avoid us delivering things they simply don’t want or need, this year we had all been emailed a wish list. A shopping list, if you like. It did not start with the words ‘Dear Father Christmas…’ but it may as well have done. The somewhat astonishing list was as follows:

220v solar inverter

School items (books, pencils, pens etc)

Clothing

Shoes/Flipflops (all sizes)

School bags

Fishing rods

Ropes

Hand tools

Snorkelling & fishing gear (fins, snorkels, reels, lines, lures, hooks)

10 small sleeping tents

15 Machetes

3 Wheelbarrows

3 Lawnmowers

10 Shovels

10 axes

6 medium cooking pots

Solar-powered lamps (as many as we can supply)

3 guitars

Dietmar and I were quite taken aback by the list. Did they expect us to bring all of these things? Then we remembered that their village was flattened almost completely in 2015 by Hurricane Pam and we are all lucky and privileged enough to be able to take off around the world in yachts that are worth more than any of these villagers could earn in an entire lifetime. Food for thought. Anyway, at this point there were officially 19 boats in the fleet, but several had peeled off. KYMOTHOE and SKYELARK had gone elsewhere, SANDVITA and TAISTELAI were held up in Fiji by illnesses. A depleted fleet of 15 boats and a huge shopping list. Still, plenty of buying power and the possibility of some comedy duplications. Thankfully, Ros on MISTO stepped up to the plate and took on the task of trying to keep us all up to speed about what other boats had bought. The rest of us scratched our chins, and then scratched around on Fiji to see what we could buy. 

From Vuda Marina on Fiji, I had hopped into a taxi with a Fijian-born Indian chap called Veeru who escorted me on my shopping expedition to Lautoka. I explained what we were looking for, and why, but I am sure he thought I was quite bonkers. We went to shop after shop and I found a very nice guitar, the smallest tent they had in Courts (which was nonetheless pretty big (“for 4 people, or 3 Melanesians,” as the shop assistant told me, with a wink)), and half a dozen solar lanterns. In a DIY shop I bought 5kgs of galvanised nails and fencing staples. I then dragged poor Veeru round half a dozen clothing shops and came away with two large bags of clothes for children and women and twenty pairs of flip-flops. In a different shop I found sets of mathematical instruments in football team tins, exercise books, pencils…

2 hours later… time to stop shopping now, because:

a) Veeru was insisting on carrying everything for me and we had already carried one load of swag (the guitar and the tent and the solar lamps, which were quite heavy) back to the car once. Like most men, he was clearly running out of enthusiasm for this particular task;

b) No one was expecting CESARINA to buy the entire list by ourselves;

and

c) I’d left Dietmar grafting in the heat on the boat which was still on the hard at this point and I still needed to go to the supermarket for our own groceries otherwise we would be eating spam and chickpeas for the next couple of weeks…


 

Fast-forward to the day of the Gift Giving Ceremony in Port Resolution, Tanna. That morning, we were invited to visit the school and to bring with us anything that we had specifically brought for the children. When our group arrived in the school hall, the children were already on the stage and singing for us. Their voices were so loud and clear and full of joy that there were plenty of wet eyes among our rufty-tufty ocean-going sailors.

The principal of the school stood at the lectern on the stage and formally greeted us. He thanked us for our ongoing support and explained that they were hoping to develop the site so that they could also offer a Secondary School in the village and to that end were hoping to raise funds to build a science lab and some extra teachers’ housing. He said he was happy that the new teachers’ houses and Headmaster’s House had been built, thanks to funds that had been raised over the last year. He said he was very grateful for the support that the World ARC gives and also to the other agencies and charities from Australia and New Zealand who are also helping. He said he had requested 6 laptops for the teachers and hoped that we had brought them. I raised an eyebrow at this. I couldn’t shake off a sense of expectation and it made me very uncomfortable. A little cynical? Perhaps. Perhaps it was just a bit lost in translation and he didn’t mean it quite how it came out. Stefano from World ARC gave a charming speech in return. Once more the children sang, accompanied by a kindly-looking man with a battered guitar.

We were invited to bring our gifts to the stage and lay them out so the children could see. I laid out the books and stationery and had also bought a selection of small toys and a couple of skipping ropes. I could see these were being eyed with enthusiasm by some of the little ones. The hit, though, was the pair of suitcases brought by the crew of LEXINGTON, containing not 6 but 8 laptops, loaded with new Windows software. They were gleefully gathered up, one by one, by the teachers. They seemed pretty pleased.

 

I met the principal’s wife outside later, shy, soothing their son who sobbed inconsolably. I asked what was wrong and neither he nor she could tell me. She said she was happy with their new house. She didn’t say much more but her English didn’t appear to be very good and I don’t speak either Bislama (the Vanuatu national language, like a pidgin English) or Tannese.

 

We returned to our boats to fetch the gifts for the rest of the village. Dinghy after dinghy motored in to the beach, laden with all manner of items from the list and a number of other things including cosmetics. We delivered them all to the Yacht Club and then processed to the clearing where we would be officially welcomed in a traditional ceremony by the village.

The dancing and singing began. The men, now in colourful sarongs with woven grass and fern headdresses, stamped their rhythmic dance into the black earth. The women, faces painted and in traditional grass skirts over their dresses, sang the soprano part and circled the men, bouncing high in bare feet, grinning widely and leading their small daughters by the hand. It was a whirl of colour and noise.

Under a light drizzle of rain we fell in behind the parade of singing children, back to the Yacht Club where we were greeted by women from the village with a kind of lei and a pandanus-leaf woven hat adorned with flowers and a (very welcome) fresh coconut with a sugar cane straw. We laid all our gifts out on the grass and the village brought their gifts for us – baskets of fruit and vegetables and beautiful bags and fans that people had woven for us. There were speeches from both sides and grins all round. The gifts to the village were divvied up and we collected our baskets and produce and returned to our boats with big smiles on our faces.

I’ve done a fair bit of fundraising for various causes over the years – our local hospice in the UK, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and various charitable foundations both local and international. I’ve donated happily to a number of what I considered to be worthy causes. We willingly spent a not insignificant amount of money in Fiji to buy the requested items for the community in Port Resolution and felt very privileged to have been allowed a glimpse into a completely other way of life. We were both though, I have to confess, somewhat perturbed by the wafting scent of expectation. Port Resolution seems to be extremely well supported by a number of international fundraising bodies as well as by the Australian and NZ governments. The school buildings are impressive and there is no doubt that the new water tank will be put to good use. Nonetheless, the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots in the village was clear to see. On the one hand, we had seen families just scratching by at a subsistence level (which, we came to realise later, is not the same as being in poverty), but at the welcome ceremony we also saw smartly and cleanly dressed young men from the village in expensive trainers and branded baseball caps over fashionable haircuts, filming us with iPhones. That felt very strange. The unseemly alacrity with which the laptops were seized upon by the teachers, without any heed of the need for chargers or any accessories, felt a little odd. I casually observed the handing out of items that we had brought and noticed that some people seemed to be given multiple items but most people nothing at all. This may of course have been according to need, but the beneficiaries were mostly individuals that we had met over the past few days who seemed to be quite influential. It wasn’t quite the bucolic, utopian idyll that some of us had probably naïvely anticipated and it led to some interesting conversations about the nature of charitable giving and the relationship between the donor and the recipient. It also dawned on us that the society that we come from is very different to this one. Values and expectations, customs, traditions, morality and ethics are different. We actually have very little in common apart from human kindness, a readiness to smile and mutual curiosity. And we probably have little right to judge what the recipients of our largesse do with their new acquisitions. Thankfully, the World ARC keep half an eye on where the cash goes that is donated and make sure that promised projects actually take place. Who should get the wheelbarrows though? That’s a different question…

 

Interestingly, we were approached by a village man in a dug-out the next morning who asked us if we had any batteries for his torches. We gave him what we had and he stopped to chat for a while in good English. We asked whether he had been at the ceremony the previous day and he said he hadn’t. He had known that we were coming but knew nothing about any list of requested items. He didn’t know that we had brought large quantities of goods with us but then asked whether we had anything else we could give him.

 

We weren’t expecting fawning gratitude – absolutely not – and there is no doubt that the items that we all brought with us will make a palpable difference to the lives of the people in this village. It was also fantastic to see the hope in the eyes of the children in Port Resolution. It wasn’t however fantastic to feel that this community was perhaps being slowly poisoned by western capitalism and that some of the community had figured out how to milk the kindness, and perhaps pity, of much richer (in material terms than they are) westerners. I heard that only two years ago, the village people were still wearing traditional clothes – island dresses and clothes made from bark. Now everyone is in t-shirts and western clothes. There is no mains electricity but we saw a lot of mobile phones. There doesn’t appear to be much employment.

I wondered how much of this social evolution could be attributed to something I found ever so slightly sinister. Accessing Facebook in Vanuatu does not carry a data charge. Accessing every other part of the internet will cost you money, but not Facebook. It’s a bit like dishing out free packets of cigarettes. I would not wish ignorance on anyone and I know that becoming aware of other cultures and customs in the countries I have been lucky enough to visit in the last 9 months has definitely broadened my world view for the better. I am nonetheless anxious for the people of Tanna – free access to Facebook may be a little like eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – if you can see that people elsewhere have greater material possessions than you do, and you are given to understand through advertising and audience targeting that this is better than what you have, then you are bound to want more than you have. Having said that, the ‘kastom’ traditions are still very much alive and well and we got the feeling that they are still very much part of everyone’s lives here. I hope that the cultural dichotomy can survive the onslaught of shrewd search engine targeting. Let’s hope the serpent does not descend any further from the tree.

 

There is a ‘cargo cult’ alive and well on Tanna; watch this fantastic BBC documentary on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFKfqrdP6xs or read this article in the Smithsonian online for the lowdown: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/in-john-they-trust-109294882/ . I had cause to think about this more than once. A cargo cult is, in essence, a religious sect that believes that one day great riches will be delivered to their community by plane or boat. It all stems from a mysterious American by the name of John Frum who now lives in the boiling lava of Mt Yasur with his army but who, they believe, appeared on Tanna some time in the 1930s to assist the Tannese to cast off the tyranny of the Christian missionaries. In the absence of any effective colonial power, the missionaries were meddling relentlessly in a variety of matters of law and order, banning certain traditional practices such as penis wrapping and dancing, and coercing the indigenous population towards their own interpretation of good Christian life which somehow also involved indentured labour and regular beatings. The figure of John Frum led the Tannese to throw their money in the sea and revitalise their old traditions, but also to believe that they would one day be blessed with great riches arriving from abroad. Sound familiar?

 

In extraordinary contrast, the next island we visited after Tanna was Erromango, a smaller island to the north of Tanna. The village we sailed to in Dillon’s Bay (or Williams Bay as it is otherwise known) has a population of about 500, of which about 300 are school age children. There is no road in and out. Women did their washing in the stream. There are 7 or 8 different churches for the population of 500, including Seventh Day Adventist, Catholic and Episcopalian. We brought food for a Pot Luck lunch and the women from the village completely unexpectedly produced a feast of local deliciousness to go with it. We had a wonderful lunch even though the order in which people were permitted to eat seemed very unusual to us: women from the fleet got to eat first, followed by our menfolk. Only when we had completely finished and stopped going up for seconds were the children of the village invited to eat next. Then the women, and finally the village men. Not a scrap was left.

Life here seems much simpler and less polluted by western nonsense. The people we met seemed genuinely happy and wise. That they are unworldly by our standards seemed irrelevant. Let’s face it, after all, most Americans have never left the States, and I know plenty of Brits who believe everything they read in The Sun or The Daily Mail. The difference is really not that big. But in this community you won’t find the latest KitchenAid or ThermoMix mixer in the kitchen. Every house does not have satellite television or a 50” TV with surround sound. The girls don’t hanker after the latest handbag as toted by Posh Spice. The boys don’t think that every girl should look like a shaved Barbie doll because that’s all they see in the media. And yet you could not consider this community poor: besides a ready supply of free solar power for electricity, they also have easily available clean and chemical-free water, free fuel for cooking, free house building materials and an abundance of free food from land and sea. They have families that look after each other and a strong sense of place that binds people. Everyone has a value and a sense of worth. I know many people who are supposedly wealthier and more fortunate who have none of the above.

Dietmar and I decided to stay an additional night in this bay as we knew the weather was a bit hairy and we had no wish to sail out into 30kts of wind and big waves if we could avoid it. The next day we went ashore and met the chief (Jason) again, who introduced us to one of his sons and some of his son’s friends who would guide us on a tour of the village. The teenagers were articulate and bright and it was fascinating to talk to them. Tunia, for example, a strapping 14 year old, stubbed his toe and wanted me to give him a plaster so that he could cut his toe and make it bleed and then put a plaster on it. He said he had to get the bad blood out. For better or worse, I didn’t have any plasters with me so he opted not to take a knife to his foot.

Instead, he chatted in broken but fairly good English about the things he was learning in school, about football, and of course he had his own Facebook account. He showed us where they grow several different varieties of bananas as well as taro, yams, coconuts and leafy vegetables at the edge of the village in the black and fantastically fertile soil. I asked him about girlfriends and he giggled. It was, he said, expected that he would marry a girl from the same village but he didn’t have anyone particular in mind. His friends tittered over this and then asked me if I had a sister. I said I did but she is 38 and already married. They seemed less alarmed that she was already married but really giggled when they heard she is 38. A bit old for them, they agreed. Dietmar jabbed me in the ribs gently and pointed out that I was probably embarrassing them. Probably I was. Sorry.

We walked under absolutely enormous trees, past cows and goats freely grazing, along lushly overgrown tracks to a pool in the river where the swifts were swooping and the water was icy cold and crystal clear. We sat down on the warm stones at the water’s edge and talked about life. The basic things about our lives in Europe were really difficult for these youngsters to grasp. I come from a small city – Canterbury – with a population of about 70,000. It’s about the same size as their island. How much things cost was a revelation to them and I found myself ever so slightly dodging questions in the face of their wide-eyed-ness. They asked me to bring them football boots next time I come as they are not available for purchase on Erromango and they knew they were about 4000 vatu (about 40USD) in Port Vila which to them was a fortune. (MISTO are going back and I gave Ros some money in Port Vila to do exactly that. I look forward to hearing how MISTO get on with their return trip.)

Later that day we took a pretty long dinghy ride to a beach two bays down. White sand and waving palm trees in a secluded cove that was straight out of a Bounty advert. We were going to visit the ancestors and pay our respects. One of the boys scrambled up a rock face to ask permission from the ancestor chief to allow us to visit. This was clearly granted as we were then invited to scale the same steep wall of rocks and vines to be received by the chief. His living, breathing body had long since decomposed but his skull and that of his wife and previous chiefs certainly indicated their ongoing presence. To the boys we were quite literally in the presence of the ancestors. It was a surreal and strangely humbling experience.

 

Port Vila, on Efate, felt like a different universe. 80lumpy,  bumpy sailing miles away and a hundred years into a grim future. Traditional culture in the town is fairly well hidden under a smothering blanket of cheapo cruise ship tourists,  Thai massage parlours, burger joints, bars and lots of very fat white people plus a more or less permanent traffic jam. A vast and wonderful fruit and veg market is great for provisioning but the promising handicrafts market sells the same old crap that we have seen for the last 9,000 miles, more or less. I missed Erromango, but I was happy to leave Port Vila.

Bye bye Vanuatu. Australia, here we come!

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