Memoir

Just passing through

I MET A hippy on the road to Port Vila. His pale dreadlocks set him apart from the other whitey tourists who more commonly sported braided hair and irregular tans. It was Saturday morning and I was walking home from the market, laden with island cabbage and coconuts, grinning and drenched after a twenty-minute downpour.

"How's your journey?" he asked, although he was the one with the backpack. On the strength of his greeting, I invited him up to sit on the balcony to watch the sea change colour, to eat the first raspberries of the season and to hear him talk about island-hopping by cargo ship. Travellers rarely come to Vanuatu with limited funds, helping unload kava from the MV Brisk and sleeping curled up on the captain's mat next to the ship's engine. He had walked from village to village, making and eating starchy laplap with the mamas and never turning down an offer from a chief to share some supremely strong kava, which is sometimes still made in the outer islands by masticating the roots of the favourite national pepper plant.

"Is it just me or is there a lot going on under the surface here?" this West Australian asked after we'd finished the raspberries, standing in my kitchen chopping taro and cabbage like we'd been friends for years. "I feel like I have whole chats without saying a word."

I was also enjoying this experience, now that my addiction to inner-city Melbourne adrenaline was easing, but I hadn't put it into words yet. The other young Australians I was volunteering with in Vanuatu weren't really into discussions about the hurbally-burbally of collective consciousness or intuition, and my Ni-Vanuatu friends just took it for granted. Here – in this forty-year-old who was on his first overseas adventure – was my first chance in a year to muse on the more metaphysical aspects of the development work I was doing.

 

ARRIVING ALMOST A year earlier in Port Vila as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, I was indoctrinated with development theory and the idea that, as a journalist trainer at the weekly newspaper the Vanuatu Independent, I would significantly lift reporting and sub-editing standards and "transfer skills" to the journalists in our newsroom. The jargon about "capacity building" had etched its mark on my vernacular, but before the end of my tenure I would discover that "skills transfer" is a two-way process – and I would come away from my year in paradise with more skills than I ever transferred.

Each year, around four hundred "skilled" young things are dispatched around the Asia-Pacific region as part of the programme: engineers, pharmacists, filmmakers, environmental educators, teachers and cricket missionaries – all of us under thirty, mostly tertiary-educated middle-class kids eager to "make a difference" in emerging economies through "sustainable development". I suspected the programme was designed more to give young Australians a chance to broaden their world-view than to bestow their professional wisdom upon needy developing world workplaces, but my ego was still massaged comprehensively. I was being offered the chance to transfer my knowledge and skills. I felt like I was part of something bigger (cue patriotic music). I was an export, an ambassador. Welcome to AusAID.

Initially, I didn't want to make a difference. I wanted to get paid to spend winter in the tropics doing something I loved – working with words. But soon I was filled with the notion that the media in the Pacific were sub-standard and that some of the answers lay in the photocopied first-year journalism school textbook from which I was planning to teach, even though I had wagged most of the lectures myself. Sure, for the previous two years I had been editor of the quarterly literary journal Voiceworks, blessed with the company of a brilliant and unruly editorial committee, as well as the finest young writers and artists in Australia. I had little experience as a staff reporter at a newspaper, let alone at a newspaper subject to the subtleties of Pacific politics and society.

Some of the journalists I was supposed to be training had more than thirty years' experience in the media, and almost every journalist in Vanuatu has at some stage been sacked by the government for writing or broadcasting unfavourable stories. Reporters are occasionally threatened by thugs connected to unhappy businessmen or politicians, and a balance must be struck between nurturing "bigmen" connections and breaking the occasional story. All reporters are intricately involved in the small-town gossip networks that keep Port Vila entertained and informed, and complex relationships requiring differing levels of respect or deference can be traced through the traditional belief systems, known as kastom.

"Sit back and watch how people interact for the first month," we were told during our pre-departure briefing. This lasted about eight working days, and then I tried to institute a bunch of changes to make our weekly production cycle run more smoothly. Not that I didn't enjoy the atmosphere in the newsroom when we tumbled into another deadline without a page-one story or lead photograph, but I suspected that with a little planning we could avoid the hysteria that regularly drove the reporters into hiding. Most of my ideas, however, were met in the newsroom with good humour and then abandoned, mostly because they didn't work, but sometimes because they created extra work – a cardinal sin in Vanuatu.

 

I NEEDED TO ease into the skin of this humid country, so I relinquished caffeine in favour of kava, which helped me to understand that nothing in Vanuatu can be rushed. There is much for a reporter to learn from the hushed conversations that take place in outdoor kava bars. Exhausted by the humidity, the stupefying residual levels of kava in my system and too much starch in my diet, I had no choice but to slow down. I let my pupils dilate fully to absorb the landscape, gave myself over to the heat and tried to understand my new friends by soaking up the surrounds. Everything was big and moved slowly – unlike in Melbourne, where discourses and weather patterns alike brushed against you urgently and moved on. Here, people gave each other space and time. Travel took forever as people stopped to share stories, or wait out a morning downpour. Rains grew powerful over hot open seas, and when a cyclone passed over the islands four hours north, the weather in Port Vila was surly and people talked quietly of distant relatives who might at that moment be hurriedly bracing their homes and crops by tying down corrugated iron roofing or cutting the tops off giant taro leaves.

It was nothing to wait hours for a meeting, and then they rarely happened in the place appointed; more likely, they would start spontaneously on the landing outside our office, or at a lunch table over curry and rice in the market, or under a mango tree while waiting for a(nother) non-government organisation's workshop to disperse for afternoon tea. If we found it hard to rally reporters for the weekly news meeting, mostly it was because the reporters were off herding "green pigeons" – spending three days chasing down a source, or hunting for a politician who had disappeared into the communications black hole of the outer islands, or waiting for an uncle to spill the beans on a simmering issue. With a daily tabloid for competition, the reporters often found it pointless writing their big stories until they knew they hadn't been beaten to it.

Secrets got out quicker than press releases. More than the midday radio news, or the daily tabloid, our weekly newspaper competed with "radio coconut", as our reporters affectionately referred to the gossip that permeates life in Vanuatu. Having enjoyed the anonymity that comes from living most of my life in a biggish city, I spent the first six months in shock because everyone seemed to know my movements better than I did – down to how many bottles of French plonk I purchased and who I drank them with. The market mamas told one reporter that Alexander Downer was making an unscheduled pit stop in Port Vila before the Australian High Commission had even dispatched the embargoed press release about the Foreign Minister's impending tour. Sitting on a big story was almost impossible – particularly when journalists often liked to reduce their workload, make some extra money or help out a tawie (friend or relative) at another media outlet by sharing news leads, copy or photographs. Competition is a difficult concept in a country where community comes before the individual.

Family and a connection to the land are the ties that bind this Melanesian nation of 200,000 people, where four out of five still live a subsistence lifestyle and kastom provides guidelines for almost all actions and events. There are around one hundred different languages – not dialects – and many Ni-Vanuatu can speak more than four: English, French, Bislama and at least one indigenous tongue. The Vanuatu Independent is trilingual, and most Ni-Vanuatu are educated either as Anglophone or Francophone, the languages of the two administrations that colonised and presided over the country before independence in 1980. The official national language, Bislama, developed in the sugar plantations of northern Queensland, for which thousands of Ni-Vanuatu were kidnapped during the shameful "blackbirding" era between 1866 and 1906.

The only means by which Ni-Vanuatu could communicate with other indentured Pacific Islanders and Aboriginal Australians in this strange environment was through a pidgin that is described as "essentially uncorrected English grafted on to a Melanesian syntax" in Jeremy MacClancy's To Kill a Bird with Two Stones(Vanuatu Cultural Centre, 1981). When the labourers returned (in seriously depleted numbers) to their villages after they were deported under the "white Australia" policy, they used pidgin to communicate with colonial administrators and traders. Slowly, with the glorious creativity and inclusiveness of Melanesian culture, Bislama evolved and absorbed phrases from French too.

Bislama has been used as a written language for about three decades, but an attempt at standardisation was only initiated in 1995. A word like "republic" can be written in Bislama in any of the following ways (and possibly others): "ripablik, repablik, republik, ripublic, republic, repablique, ripublique", according to Terry Crowley's excellent A New Bislama Dictionary (University of the South Pacific, 1996). There are no silent letters in Bislama, there is no female pronoun and everything is spelt as it sounds – and because people pronounce words differently, there is plenty of room to move. At the newspaper, I found that creative free-form phonetics filtered through all levels of communication, and into English and French as well. Any attempt at implementing a style guide would take a lot of negotiation and much longer than a year.

I knew I was getting better at the language when I conducted a conversation with the cadet entirely through the movement of eyebrows and key hand gestures. Wanting to conceal from the senior reporters her trepidation about an assignment, she ducked her head below the partition and asked: Did she have to go by herself to that press conference with three "bigmen" from AusAID, even though her English wasn't good? Could she borrow my "small recorder" so she got the quotes right? It wasn't until after the cadet left the building – nervous but armed with technology and the promise of free morning tea after the press conference – that I realised we hadn't uttered a word in the exchange. I often witnessed this kind of thing in the market, or outside the post office, or between reporters trying to slip unnoticed out of the newsroom, or while the receptionist protected someone from the debt collectors who liked to visit on payday. People just knew what was going down without the need for words.

Journalists often employed extremely curly language as a form of defence. At first I thought something must have been lost in translation as a story would journey from the spoken Bislama through the journalist's French schooling and into the English that was expected for page three. "But this story doesn't actually say anything," I was often heard to exclaim late on a Thursday night before deadline, red pen in hand, after attempting to unravel fact from hearsay and libel, all shrouded in the passive voice.

"It's OK, people know what I mean," the deputy editor would reply sagely, placing her hand on my wrist. "We don't need to write any more; the story will come out in time. I have all the facts here, but I can't say any more," she would say, patting a stack of documents. Case closed. Our newspaper, it often seemed, was a place where we marked events down "for the record" without using a news hook, or to let a crooked person know that we were on to them without elaborating on the details.

 

CORRUPTION RUNS LIKE a songline through Vanuatu society, and the country received mention in the Global Corruption Report issued in 2005 by Transparency International. Changes of government without elections, the re-election of a prime minister serving time for forgery, shady dealings by the Vanuatu Commodities and Marketing Board and the Vanuatu Maritime Authority were all listed in the report. It doesn't help that Western concepts like "parliamentary democracy" have been imposed on top of traditional structures of governance like the chief system. What may be described as nepotism can also, to some degree, be seen in Melanesian countries as honouring your wantoks, or relatives. Political stability, good governance, accountability and adherence to the rule of law are the concepts being introduced through largely foreign aid-sponsored reform programmes. Transparency International Vanuatu has written a primary school curriculum about good governance in the hope of instilling civic responsibility in coming generations.

There is still a vaguely colonial feel to the presence of foreign aid donors, who sing loudly about the need for self-determination, legal strengthening projects and public sector reform, but in this post-colonial landscape, donors are an inextricable feature. A level of dependency on aid has replaced the colonial administrations – aid is needed to keep schools open and prop up the health service and strengthen the legal sector. But donors often want something in return. Vanuatu is the fourth highest aid recipient in the world based on population size, according to the International Monetary Fund's September 2005 Finance and Developmentreport, and Australia committed $34 million to development in 2005, $10 million of which shored up a budget shortfall. This extra money was delivered to the new government partly as a reward for establishing political stability, just after the visits by those three "bigmen" from AusAID and Alexander Downer in late 2004.

At the Vanuatu Independent, we were caught between integrity and the Daily Post, which harboured less of the Melanesian courtesy our journalists stood by. In print, people would be identified as Chinese even if they were born in Vanuatu, while "half caste" was acceptable and "lady lawyer" didn't ruffle a feather. Vanuatu, it seemed, skipped lightly over political correctness. Then I landed with my genderless terminology and codes of conduct expounding why newspapers shouldn't identify rape victims, or describe methods of suicide or print photographs of an infant's body savaged by dogs. But the way I went about addressing these issues was often a little abrupt (highlighting passages of offensive text and writing in red pen in broken Bislama and English why it offended me). Early on, the politics reporter smiled as he dubbed me Man Tanna because of my "strong head"; people from Tanna are stereotyped as vigorous defenders of their culture, and the landscape of their island is intensely, violently volcanic. Being given the title of a woman belonging to this island was a playful way for my colleague to suggest perhaps I could ease off, and slowly I learned to make a point through laughter and gentle nudging instead.

I felt the weight of my own post-colonial opinions acutely and often wanted to bite the hand that fed me, but I had to admit I was not a passenger. My role at the Vanuatu Independent was also loaded with power relations – it was important to AusAID that there was a credible and effective competitor to the Daily Post, a friendly media outlet that would hopefully be receptive to the good work of Australia and Australians. Across the region it is sound business and relatively inexpensive for the Australian government to build goodwill at under-resourced organisations with eager-beaver, skilled volunteer labour. I often flew the flag for the information age, gleefully imparting Western-sanctioned knowledge and straightening out deliciously rambunctious concepts with swift strokes of my sub-editor's red pen. Occasionally I even caught myself saying things like: "That's not how we do things".

 

THERE'S NO POINT in comparing the bamboo to the banyan, but the difference between me and my new hippy friend struck me two days later when it was nearing time for both of us to leave paradise and pick up our respective lives in Australia. While we shared a love of the spirit of the people of Vanuatu, his understanding of his time there seemed more honest and straight-up than mine. He had opened his heart and travelled without the emotional baggage of sustainable development, wandering through the islands accepting the generosity and warmth of villagers and wanting nothing more than a good "story-on" with whoever would sit beside him.

Although I tried to disengage from the "making a difference" ethic and simply get a sense of the shape and texture of the archipelago, I still had to fill in self-congratulatory quarterly performance reports that measured the success of my posting. I was another expat passing through. At one of the gazillion farewell parties for me and my ambassadorial comrades, one of my Ni-Vanuatu friends turned to me with a look of despair. "Oh, Kelly. I'm not going to make friends with any more Australians. I just put you inside my heart and then you leave." 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review