"They may not mean to, but they do" - a term back at Ranwadi


Not a single student turned up to my first class. Since 7A were aware that their regular Science teacher had gone on maternity leave, and it is not normal practice at Ranwadi School to arrange cover when teachers need time off, this didn’t surprise me. In any case, it was only Tuesday of the second week of term. Half of the students were still making their way back to school. Some would be waiting for a ship going in the right direction to pass their village, others waiting for their parents to find cash for their school fees, others simply aware that nothing important ever got done in the first couple of weeks of term and enjoying a nice long holiday. Meanwhile, a few of the students who had found their way back to school were probably hiding out in the dormitories, hoping that nobody yet realised they were back.

Rather than try to teach anything new to what was certain not to be a full class, I had planned to do a small practical, comparing the boiling points of freshwater and sea water, revising the work on water that the students had done last term. The previous teacher hadn’t actually left any notes on what they’d done, but I’d flicked through one of the Year 7s’ books, and – an unexpected surprise – there was actually an intact copy of the government’s Teacher Guide to hand.

A decade ago Ranwadi was one of the best-equipped schools in Vanuatu, thanks to an Australian-funded rebuilding programme. Maintenance had not completely stood still since then – the chapel had been beautifully repainted with a mural of first-century Galilee, and the staffroom had a new solar panel – but there was basically nothing in the science lab that wasn’t a rusty and half-broken version of what I remembered from ten years ago. Solutions of chemicals were still sitting in my old ketchup bottles, graffiti-covered human skulls still smirked from the top shelf (these came from a cave near Ranwadi where cannibals once disposed of their leftovers), and the giant venomous centipede I’d killed back in 2007 was still sitting, a little shrivelled, in its specimen jar. The jar lid had rusted a little and the preserving spirit had evaporated away, but giant venomous centipedes are nearly indestructible.

Earlier I’d found enough unbroken beakers for three or four groups of students to use, dug out some grimy Bunsen burners and tripods, and turned on the gas supply at the main valve. Not entirely to my surprise, no gas came out of the taps. There’s a spare bottle, the Principal assured me. Three colleagues and I hauled the new 108-kilogram gas canister into its place behind the hibiscus bushes at the back of the lab and connected it up, as the ching-ching – the big wooden drum that functions as a school bell – pounded for the start of class. But the gas taps still didn’t appear to be working. So the lack of students was a relief.

“There is a tiny bit of gas coming out,” the handyman pointed out to me, putting a match to the end of one of the taps. Sure enough, there was a tiny blue flicker, like the world’s most pathetic Christmas pudding. “Dirty flies sometimes nest in these pipes,” he went on, frowning. You could tell he really hated having to deal with dirty flies. We unscrewed one of the gas taps, and sure enough, it was solid with insect-nest material. The handyman poked out the crud, reattached the tap, turned it on full and put a match directly to the end. He whooped with delight as a sheet of flame shot across the desk and nearly set the blackboard on fire. Year 7A were missing a treat. We went around the room cleaning the other gas taps – the ‘dirty flies’ at been at work on every single one – and the lab was finally ready. Though since it seemed like nobody had done a practical in the lab for a while, I wondered if the students would have any idea what they were doing.

A few of the students from 7B, whose lesson was next, did show up to class. Perhaps word had now got around that there was actually a teacher in the science lab. Girls in pale blue blouses, deep blue skirts and flip-flop sandals shuffled nervously into the room, followed by a small group of boys in white shirts and dark shorts. I introduced myself and the topic in English, well aware that the students weren’t understanding everything I was saying; my English was very different from the kind they’d heard from their primary school teachers, and even that wasn’t always understood. The students needed exposure to Western English – Vanuatu’s policy of teaching students in languages they don’t understand, among other things, would ensure that when they left school and went to seek jobs in town, plenty of them would find themselves answering to foreign managers rather than locally-educated ones. If their English got good enough they might even be able understand the dialogue of the movie clips on smartphones that had now become one of the island’s main sources of entertainment, instead of just fast-forwarding to the violence. But having to listen to me speak my mother tongue was hard on students fresh out of primary school who had never heard English outside the classroom.

The small group of classmates, drawn from an area about the size of an English county (there are other secondary schools in this area too, but school allocation in Vanuatu is capricious) had maybe half a dozen different native languages between them. But that wasn’t the reason why I had to speak to them in English; Vanautu has a common language, Bislama, which in most situations bridges the gaps between the country’s 140 language communities perfectly well. Bislama is one of the most brilliant communication tools ever devised, easily picked up by speakers of both European languages and unrelated Melanesians ones, flexible enough both to blend with English in technical situations and to mimic tribal languages on the tongues of uneducated villagers, while giving both enough commonality to get a message across. But to old colonial schoolmasters, Bislama’s mixture of simplified English vocabulary and Melanesian grammar was illegitimate, a language belong road – a bastard language. Almost everywhere in the world that Europeans colonised, while missionaries were in their schoolrooms primly trying to teach the newly buttoned-up natives how to speak like good white people, in the bushes outside the classroom their languages were fathering bastard offspring of this kind. Labels like ‘bastard language’ and ‘broken language’ are used mainly by speakers of these languages themselves; linguists call them creoles, and consider them just as legitimate as any other language. After independence, some creoles went on to become the working languages of whole countries – and even, in Vanuatu’s case, the constitutionally-upheld national language. But like Dr Frankenstein, the educated elite fostered by those earlier missionaries never came to terms with the hybrid creature that had been created, and most countries still ban creole languages in the classroom. Reconciling these languages with their illegitimate parents, and allowing them to reinforce each other in school rather than keeping each other at a shameful distance, would do more for education in developing countries than any of the expensive school-building or staff-training programmes beloved of donors and politicians. But linguistic snobbery is a deeply-rooted instinct, and creole languages, like the fat spotty kid who wears glasses and sits next to the teacher, are too tempting a target not to get picked on.

I repeated some of what I’d said to the Year 7s in Bislama. I was breaking the school rules, but I wanted the students to be reassured that they could communicate with me properly if they ever really needed to. And unlike my ni-Vanuatu colleagues, who had worked hard to learn the main skill needed to be a secondary school teacher in Vanuatu – the ability to stand up and speak confidently in English – I had nothing to prove here. If I addressed the students in a language other than good English, nobody would doubt that I was doing so by choice.

I went through the day’s practical. “Now, each group take a set of equipment and follow the instructions on the board.” Nobody moved. “Nao yufala i kam tekem ol ting afta mekem wanem we mi raetemaot long bod.” Still nobody moved. Language barriers weren’t the only issue; the pupils were nervous. In their villages with the safety of extended families, ni-Vanuatu children are independent and outgoing, but being sent away to a boarding school which resembles an ill-disciplined and God-fearing army camp (Vanuatu secondary schools come in no other variety) is hard on twelve year-olds. And even in their villages, ni-Vanuatu children are scared of white people. Their mothers have long since learned to take advantage of this, chastising them with warnings like “if you don’t be quiet a white person will come and eat you”. It had taken several visits and a lot of fresh peanuts before my girlfriend’s two-year-old Small Girl had lost the urge to scream at the sight of me. My Year 7s were old enough to have realised that their mothers hadn’t meant everything they said about white people, but actually being shut in a room with the Big Bad Wolf was still a tiny bit daunting. I wondered if there was anything that would have the same calming effect on them that shelling peanuts did on Small Girl.

“Come on, get started.” I smiled and gestured towards the equipment. Eventually one brave girl collected her group’s set of equipment, and the others followed. I walked around watching, and shutting louvres where the wind was blowing out the flames. To my surprise, the Year 7s did seem to know how to use a Bunsen burner. Perhaps the gas taps had been working last term, and the dirty flies had only moved in over the holidays. Watching Year 7s do science practicals was one of the nicer things about teaching at Ranwadi. After years of drilling in foreign books and scripture, getting their hands on real stuff they could see and touch, even something as simple as a flask of boiling water, was exciting for them. Not as relevant to their lives as the chapel and its mural of first-century Galilee, they were constantly reminded, but still more fun than listening to a teacher droning for half an hour in a foreign language, then asking the students to copy writing off the board for the remainder of the hour - the usual Ranwadi lesson format. Ask former Ranwadi students their favourite subject, and they usually say Agriculture. Partly this is because the Agriculture teacher tells dirty jokes in languages they understand and doesn’t take schooling too seriously. But it’s also because they can get their hands dirty and do something they can actually relate to. Occasionally they even get to plant peanuts. Science couldn’t offer miracles or fresh peanuts, but there was the occasional hope that something might spill or blow up. Or at least change colour in a curious way.

The other subject that I’d been left to cover, on the other hand, was hateful. Year 9 Maths is not a difficult thing to teach – just open the next chapter of the textbook, do some sums, and then get the pupils to do some similar sums of their own. Even language barriers weren’t a big issue – pointing at numbers and tapping on a calculator is much the same in any language. (When I once tried teaching a Maths lesson in Bislama, it sounded stilted and not very different to the English version – Bislama takes all its mathematical vocabulary from English anyway, just as the English once did from their own ex-colonial language, Latin.) But trying to make the subject the least bit interesting is nearly impossible. I tried. As well as plodding through the textbook I set class challenges, and went round the room offering prompts and hints as students groped for a solution. Sometimes there were even treats on offer for the first student to get the answer right. Typical question: “A boat leaves at 3:00 and travels at 19 km/h. Another boat leaves 15 minutes later and travels in the same direction at 24 km/h. What time does the second boat catch up with the first?” You can solve this problem either by plotting a distance-time graph and seeing where the lines converge, or using algebra, both of which were topics the students had recently covered in class.

If the students had been brought up to relate mathematics to their lives, and to appreciate that numbers had meaning, this might have been fun and educational. As it was, the students were simply left exasperated that their teacher expected them to apply their skills to question formats they hadn’t encountered before. In addition, how were they expected to know that 15 minutes is a quarter of an hour? (Most of them knew when questioned that there are 60 minutes in an hour, but that seemed an unrelated fact.) And when submitting answers like “the boat catches up in -0.5 seconds,” why did the teacher shake his and react as if they ought somehow to have appreciated already that that wasn’t the right answer? Numbers were numbers, you rearranged them in certain ways because that was what you were told to do, just like words in the English language. The students had done their best to do as they were told, even though they hadn’t really been told what to do; why did their teacher now look disappointed with them? Not one of the sixty students worked out that the boats would meet at 4:12. One eventually earned himself a peanut butter cookie by suggesting – not by educated guesswork, which would have impressed me more, but by laboriously writing out a lot of timings – that the answer was probably sometime around 4:15. The students, worn down in English and other subjects by nine years of helplessly repeating and reciting stuff they didn’t fully understand, had come to apply the same attitude to their Maths, the one subject that ought to have transcended language and cultural barriers. And it had crippled their thinking skills.

I knew all this even before I’d started teaching Year 9, because I’d been through it before. Back in 2006, I had been taken out of my comfortable science lab and asked to fill a staff shortage by taking 9B Maths. This proved the most memorable, exhausting and frustrating class I ever taught at Ranwadi. I’d taken on the class in the middle of Term 2, and found them only halfway through Term 1’s material, so it was a race to catch up. When students don’t have adequate background knowledge, racing through material does not suit them well. Whereas science students mostly got on quietly with their work, 9B Maths was a constant show of hands, with me racing around the room in 30-degree heat to try and answer everyone’s questions and check everyone’s work. One student abandoned hope and sat in the corner making animal noises whenever he was approached. Others who got tired of Maths would sit with their Bibles open, hoping that no teacher would dare suggest that multiplying double brackets might deserve more attention than the word of God. Pencil sharpeners and rubbers flew continuously around the room. Often this wasn’t intentionally disruptive, and was in fact a sign that the students were working – as with most equipment they didn’t have one each so they needed to share, and they took enough pride in the state of their exercise books to want to erase their mistakes rather than just cross them out. But if someone got hit on the head it was easy for the perpetrator to make it look like an accident. And then there was the day when one of the good students at the front of the class opened his mouth without warning and asked, “Mr Andrew, can you tell me what is a clitoris?” He never got a straight answer, but did establish that I didn’t consider it an appropriate topic of discussion in a Maths lesson, and from then on, the boys in the room became prone to breaking out in faint murmurs of “clitoris, clitoris” whenever they got fed up with their work. They did it so softly that I could never hear for certain who was saying it; sometimes I wasn’t even certain whether I was hearing rude words or just the wind.

Some of the better students continued coming to me for help with Maths the following year, after their old teacher had taken them back, so I like to think that my actual teaching wasn’t that bad. One boy spent an hour every week with me after class going over his Maths homework until he was satisfied that he genuinely understood; he graduated with good results, and the sessions we spent together were one of most rewarding things I ever did at Ranwadi. But on the whole, the subject was an exhausting struggle.

Each class of students graduating from Ranwadi inscribes their names on a concrete slab, and one row of these slabs now forms the steps leading down the slope from the staff room down to the Year 9 classrooms. (The stairway is incomplete, leaving teachers and students to scramble down a couple of metres of dirt at the bottom end where the classes of 2017, 2018 and 2019 will one day be memorialised.) The names of my old 9B class are there on one of the steps. Walking over them brings back strangely-poignant memories of hot afternoons in the golden dry season of 2006, when I would sit at the front of the class ticking the register (and feeling privately grateful that the two or three most disruptive members of the class were fast asleep in their dormitories, even as I lectured the class about attendance). Some of the names on that slab are now on my Facebook friend list too.

“Looking back, I think some of us were only good for weeding taro gardens,” one of them confided afterwards.

In fact, my old 9B class, now in their mid-twenties, did alright for themselves. They went on to include teachers, nurses, bank tellers, cruise ship attendants, the lead singer in a popular string band, and the founder of Vanuatu’s first social media network. Many of them are now responsible parents with children of their own. One of them has a Small Girl who is fond of peanuts.

I reflected on all this as I met my new Year 9 students. This term, I was teaching both 9A and 9B. When students first arrive at Ranwadi at the start of their secondary schooling, the first names on the list go into the A class, and the stragglers go into the B class. The B class thus comprises students who were registered late, or who were initially banished by the Ministry of Education to inferior schools for having poor primary-leaving results but whose parents nevertheless managed to wangle them places at Ranwadi. (I remembered the old Principal coming out of the office one day with a guilty look on his face: “I’ve just agreed to do something inappropriate for a government minister’s daughter.”) In Year 7 the difference between the two classes is not hugely noticeable, but by Year 9 two very different class cultures have emerged. While the B-students in my Maths lessons fidgeted, demanded constant attention, shouted out often-ridiculous answers as I went through the work, and sought in the friendliest possible way to distract their teacher from the lesson, the A-students sat in silence, got on with their work, and almost never sought attention, even when encouraged to ask for it. I much preferred 9B.

Just like in 2006, I had arrived in the second term to find the students still halfway through the first term’s textbook. There were fewer intact textbooks now than back then, and missing pages were still a bane of life for teacher and students alike, but the chance to get their hands on one of the less-tattered copies did at least incentivise the students not to be too late for class. Though frequently the whole class was late because the ‘ching-beater’ hadn’t done her job and nobody knew what time it was – clocks are few at Ranwadi and mobile phones get confiscated – or because the students had been detained for an extra-long prayer session (this messed with my lesson planning but I knew better than to question it). One day the whole class turned up not in uniform. I didn’t question this either, assuming there was a good reason for it; it turned out that I had missed the announcement about Mufti Day. At break time that day, the students lined up dressed according to their ‘future careers’ – among them teachers, nurses, a flight attendant, a mobile phone saleswoman and a pastor. Based on actual experience there should have been a few supermarket cashiers there too – at one point Au Bon Marche in town seemed to be staffed almost entirely by familiar youngsters who would greet me with “How are you doing, Mr Andrew?”. The fad for becoming an airline pilot, which had gripped the island a few years ago after one or two locals had made a success of it, seemed to have dissipated. Accountancy appeared to be the new hot career choice. Or perhaps that was just because suitable Mufti Day clothes were hard to find, and accountants don’t need a very specific uniform.

Somewhere in the middle of the pile of Maths textbooks, I found my old copy, with the mistakes in the book corrected and all the answers pencilled in. (I’m not sure if the Ministry of Education ever produced answer books to accompany its textbooks, but certainly no copy ever reached Ranwadi.) Whichever lucky students had been using this book in the last decade must have got good marks. I felt like the Half-Blood Prince from Harry Potter. The heavy-duty stapler that I used to use for repairing half-damaged books was nowhere to be seen, but like anyone who regularly uses ships or planes in Vanuatu, I had parcel tape to hand. Licking my finger where the rusted end of an eleven-year-old staple had scratched it, and resisting the temptation to scrawl “sectumsempra” in blood in the margin, I re-taped the spine of my Teacher Copy and put it aside from the other textbooks.

By the standards of underachieving classes in the hands of an unqualified teacher, this year’s 9B Maths were not desperately chaotic. In fact, the majority worked reasonably diligently, albeit with a lot of fidgeting and copying from one another. Competing with the noise coming from adjacent classrooms, however, was a constant nuisance. Typically I would peer into the classroom that the noise was coming from and find half a dozen students chatting and laughing among themselves, with no teacher in sight. None of these classes had scheduled free periods. When asked “Where is your teacher?”, the students would look at me as if it were an odd question. There were plenty of reasons for teachers to miss classes. Sometimes they were ill – Ranwadi, for all its superficial modernity, sits in a malarious jungle. Sometimes there were weddings or funerals to attend in the villages. Sometimes the teachers were in their houses or the staffroom catching up with other work, having told their students to “Finish your work” or “Do private study” during that period. Sometimes they had been detained by more interesting duties in the chapel or on the sports field. One afternoon just after mid-year exams, while teachers were busy with marking, I wandered around the school and found each classroom containing an average of five students and 0.1 teachers. (I resisted the temptation to task 9B with this calculation in exchange for peanuts.) Sometimes people just went AWOL. And then there were banking days. Every other Friday, the teachers who were already on the government payroll (some of the newly-qualified ones were working only for small stipends in the hope that maybe next year the Ministry would see fit to pay them a salary) would get on a vehicle and head to the local bank in Melsisi to withdraw their fortnight’s wages. The process would take half the day, since every other salaried worker in that part of the island was also queuing at the bank that day, and rural branches of the National Bank of Vanuatu are still run using handwritten passbooks and phone calls to head office to check balances. (Ten years ago there was no alternative to this, but now that Melsisi is overlooked by two mobile phone towers and solar panels are cheaply available, it is time that someone installed a computer and a cash machine.) When I was first at Ranwadi, alternate Friday afternoons were invariably wasted as teachers abandoned their classes to go to the bank, and students seized the excuse not even to attend the classes of teachers who were still on the premises. Naively, the school moved weekly sports time to Friday afternoons, in the hope that classes would no longer be disrupted by banking. The teachers responded by doing their banking on Friday mornings instead.

When I took an unscheduled week off myself, after my return from a trip into town was delayed, my students didn’t seem the least bit bothered that I’d been gone. Emboldened to do as the Romans do, I took a further afternoon off to walk to Melsisi and get some medicine that I could have coped without for another day or two, leaving work behind on the board for my Year 9s to complete (I was pretty confident that no other teacher would be in the classroom that afternoon to rub it off). 9A did the work I’d left them. 9B didn’t.

Multiplying teacher and student absences together, and including the weeks missed at the start and end of each term, the average Ranwadi student is in a classroom with a teacher for perhaps only 50% of the time they are supposed to be. (Ranwadi is not unique among Vanuatu schools in this respect, though it is probably at the worse end of the scale.) Students leaving the school in Year 12 will thus have enjoyed only as much schooling as a Year 9 student in a Western country where supply teachers exist and unauthorised absences are a rare and extreme occurrence rather than a daily nuisance. (This assumes that local students’ primary schooling was top-notch; if not, some of these apparent secondary school graduates might effectively be Year 6 leavers.) Treating schooling as a rite of passage rather than a means to impart understanding, and having spent the school fees necessary to reach the end of Year 12 and got the certificate, school leavers are then outraged to find themselves working for peanuts at menial jobs while foreigners, for whom a Year 12 certificate means twelve actual years of quality schooling in a medium they understand, take any role that needs deep technical understanding. Some go to university in search of a remedy, which is as effective as it be would if Western students were sent to university, to study in a foreign language, at the end of Year 6 or Year 9. A good number end up back in their old classrooms teaching, and the cycle of ineffectiveness deepens.

But maybe all this is missing the point. Ranwadi is bright, breezy and beautiful. I wouldn’t fancy going away to an impoverished boarding school where the food is awful and the staff can’t be relied upon to do their jobs, enduring lessons I didn’t understand because the teachers wilfully refused to speak to me in a language I did understand, and failing my exams at the end of it. But its former students all speak fondly of the school, and Ranwadi has never felt like a place of cruelty. People make friends here. The school keeps three or four hundred people occupied and well, and it does teach them something, even if it’s only how to endure boredom and plant peanuts. Most of its teachers are, in their own way, dedicated professionals, and are supported by a lively community of husbands, wives, small children, ancillary staff and passing villagers. In the evenings, the school’s lights shine out from the black face of the island, the brightest thing for many miles around. Keeping those lights on, with limited resources and in a place so far from generator repair shops, fuel suppliers or electricians, let alone electrical grids, is an achievement in itself. So is keeping the water running in the taps, firewood stacked in the school kitchen and bakery, rubbish dumped or burned in the right places, the nettle tree and mile-a-minute vine kept off the lawns, God and Jesus adequately prayed to, and disputes resolved amicably. Imagine a Western institution whose teenage inmates come from jealous rival communities, grew up in poverty, are all armed with machetes, and are left alone half the time with no adult supervision, on an island with no police. Yet few places in the world feel friendlier than Ranwadi. Everyone at the school smiles and looks continuously towards the future, whether it’s a lucrative career working for a government department that cares nothing for numeracy skills, a simple life settling down on one of the green mountainsides around the school and starting a family with the pretty girl from the next class, or the long-awaited return of the guy from first-century Galilee who is painted on the chapel wall. Having taught a previous generation here, I have now seen my students’ futures, and they are not bad. (Or where they are bad, it is because of things like chronic illness, family feuds, or falling in love with the wrong person, which no amount of good schooling could have prevented.) Perhaps effectiveness in education is a Western concept that just isn’t needed here.

Rainbows hang on the ridge across the valley from the school on showery days. Behind the Science labs and Agriculture gardens, mountain peaks lined with tree ferns and banyan trees steam in the mist. Above the Year 9 classrooms, a frangipani tree showers geometric yellow and white flowers onto the ground like snowflakes; the students occasionally bring them indoors to decorate the rooms. Below the Year 7 classrooms, which sit on the edge of the hill, waves lap the reef, and a succession of dappled mountainsides and coconut-tipped headlands fall away along the coast of the island. The school is bordered like a decorative canvas by flowers and vines, and set against immense backdrops of shimmering green and blue. The students smile politely at their teachers, and laugh and joke as they swim on the beach on Saturday afternoons, wring out their wet uniforms together outside their dormitories, or dash between classrooms in the rain. They play football, sing, and wear stylish T-shirts under their uniforms, no matter how hot the weather. And many, at least, are sitting neatly in their classrooms at the start of each lesson, pencils and exercise books at the ready, eager to learn.

If only education at Ranwadi were effective, what a fantastic place it could become.

The language of the ghosts

The old man sitting alone by the fire in the village meeting hut had liked his father’s language. But he couldn’t speak it well any more. Nobody could. Only with one of the wuk – the ghosts, the spirits – could he now attempt a conversation.

 

He was grateful for the appearance of a pale figure in the doorway of the meeting house that night. The bottle of kava that he and his son had brought down the hill from the funeral was stronger than they’d expected, and his son had already had enough and staggered off into the darkness - presumably to bed, though in Pentecost Island’s mild climate, if he woke the next morning in the bushes by the roadside he’d be just fine. The old man didn’t fancy finishing the rest of the bottle all by himself.

 

The meeting house was a big wooden building, its rafters blackened by smoke from the fire, its corners filled with cobwebs. A small lantern, powered by a solar-charged battery, bathed the entire building in a faint white glow. The moon had not yet risen, and beyond the entrance where the pale figure was standing was pitch blackness. There was never a door to a meeting house – the entrance was an open black space, through which anyone or anything could walk in.

 

The wuk came in and sat down on a stump of log.

 

“Have some kava from that plastic bottle,” the old man said. I got up and poured myself a shell.

 

In the dying days of the old language, wuk had also come to mean “white person”.

 

Mwem séné askol?” the old man asked. I smiled at hearing the extinct language – I’d been fascinated by extinct things ever since discovering dinosaurs at the age of three, and running into old people who were still able and willing to share a few words of Sowa language was the linguistic equivalent of finding Jurassic Park repeated on TV.

 

I nodded in response to the question and spat onto the dirt floor. The kava was indeed strong.

 

“The old people you grew up with called it séné?” I asked.

 

“Yes. Why?”

 

“I’ve heard people from other villages say that the word for kava was milók.”

 

“Oh no, they’ve taken that word from another language.” In the little language spoken by Matan’s community four miles along the coast, “kava” was mliok.

 

Languages disintegrate as they die. Everybody’s speech varies, but when there is a whole population conversing together, the combined effect is to maintain some sort of standard. I grew up with rural East Anglian words from my mother, Scottish expressions from my grandfather, some odd features of my grandmother’s English that may be of Irish origin, and a couple of words that frankly I think my parents just invented for my sister and I. Thanks to thousands of other English speakers, I recognise all these as non-standard, even without the help of the Queen and the BBC, and instinctively don’t use them around other people. But if my family were the only English speakers in the world, then it would become literally one person’s word against another’s. I would have no way of knowing whose was the ‘real’ English, if indeed there was such a thing.

 

When working with Matan to translate stories for her kindergarten pupils, I had once made her laugh by inadvertently misreading mahlok – the word for “fish” – as mliok. Ever since, “Going fishing?” has been Matan’s standard refrain whenever she sees me heading in the direction of the kava hut, and when I come back late she will ask disapprovingly how many fish I’ve caught. So long as there are 300 other speakers of Matan’s language left alive who know the correct term for “kava”, this remains nothing more than a private joke. But if Matan’s two year-old daughter grew up to be last speaker of her language – and it’s possible she actually might, given the pressures on her tiny language community – one could imagine her as an old woman three-quarters of a century from now telling a visiting linguist that she wasn’t sure of the word for kava (women don’t drink it, or at least hadn’t in her youth) but that she vaguely recalled her mother referring to it as mahlok.

 

Now there were a couple of old men who insisted that the Sowa word for kava was séné, and a couple of others who insisted that it was milók. Perhaps the milók guys had indeed borrowed the word. Or maybe it was the séné folks who had succumbed to the influence of other languages – that word was suspiciously similar to the drink’s name in the language spoken today. Perhaps it was once a dialect difference, with thousands of speakers in the séné camp and thousands in the milók camp. Perhaps it was just one of those things that varied, like the way English people pronounce “scone”. Perhaps someone’s great-grandparents had once jokingly referred to kava as fish. With the whole language community now gone, there was no way of knowing. Sowa language had not merely fallen out of use, it was lying broken in pieces.

 

“Sowa was a nice, simple language,” the old man recalled. “When you ask a question, people today will say something like ‘O ba tegabis’ – ok, that’s good. In Sowa, the old men would just say ‘O’.”

 

“Maybe that’s just because they were old men?” I suggested. Had they been younger and more livelier, they might have been more verbose.

 

“Yes, maybe. What was the Sowa word for ‘good’ again?”

 

“I’ve heard two words for it,” I said. “Awé and adwus.” I’d also heard atwus, but this was probably because local people today had inherited from their grandmothers – the ones who’d married into the community bringing its modern language, the language that had displaced Sowa – an inability to pronounce d at the end of a syllable. Their grandfathers, I suspected, had pronounced it without difficulty, although since nobody ever tape-recorded any of them, it was hard to know for sure. Once upon a time there was probably some subtle distinction between awé and adwus, like English “good” and “nice”. Now it was anybody’s guess which one was appropriate to use when. Some people insisted that “Good night” should be bóng awé, others insisted that it should be bóng adwus. I simply had to remember which old man preferred which version. It was probably fruitless to try and ascertain which was the true version, because their forefathers never used either phrase – wishing people “good night” was a habit introduced by Westerners. In the old days, people had other ways of taking their leave, rather than making positive remarks about the night, which in those days was black and full of demons and enemies and marauding wuk. Sowa language was like a time traveller from the past, frozen and then revived into a world in which it no longer fully fitted in.

 

Meanwhile in Matan’s village, some people were wishing each other good night with bóng ambis, some with buong ambis, and some with biong ambis. Their language was starting to disintegrate too. An increasing number of them preferred the invasive bung mwamak – Matan’s grandmother’s language, the same language that had killed Sowa – or the even more invasive gud naet. Half the island (about ten thousand people) knew bung mwamak, so if multiple versions of the phrase ever appeared, everyone could be fairly sure who it was that was being a bwet woo - a “wild taro”, an innovator, the one that had sprung up without being planted. Being a wild taro in Pentecost Island’s conservative culture is not seen as a good thing. I wondered if Sowa language had had a phrase equivalent to bwet woo. Maybe there was an old person somewhere who still remembered.

 

“What about the word for ‘bad’?” the old man asked.

 

Asasanba,” I said, picking at random one of the two versions of that word that I’d heard.

 

“Ah yes, asasanba.” I suspected that the old man would have nodded in equal agreement if I’d said the other version. “You know, I once spent some years living at Zobok, up on the mountain. When I was with the old men there, we spoke Sowa.”

 

“You actually spoke the language with them yourself?”

 

“Yes, a bit. I was living up there with them for a long time. But I can’t remember much any more.”

 

I attempted to test him. Together with the chief from the neighbouring village, who was desperate to see Sowa language revived, I’d managed to piece together enough of the language to construct basic sentences on paper, though when speaking them I was conscious of my foreign accent. I tried my best to sound like an elderly Pentecost islander might have done half a century ago, though this would have been something of a guess even if I’d been any good with accents. “Mwi towtow ran dol ne Sowa, ki mwa rong pwese?

 

O,” he mumbled. It was hard to tell if he was saying yes, I do understand you when you’re speaking to me in Sowa, or just clearing his throat. No wonder the older generation had passed only fragments of the language on to their descendants. “Have another shell of kava.”

 

My mouth was still numb from the last one. “I’ll wait a while. Your kava is strong. Mwem séné askol.” I’d go back to calling it milók when I was with the old guys from the other village.

 

“Thank you very much,” he said.

 

“What for?” I began to say, then realised he was asking for a translation. “Oh, I’ve heard people say ‘Ki mwa barew alok zengzeng’.” Thank you very big. This seemed an awkward way of expressing it, the sort of thing that might have been invented by someone who didn’t speak a language well, but nowadays nobody could come up with anything better. Ki mwa barew alok zengzeng was Sowa language now, whether the ancestors’ ghosts liked it or not.

 

As I’d tried over the years to piece together the recollections of different old people, my notes on Sowa had become so full of inconsistencies and things that didn’t look right that I’d begun to wonder if my reconstructions bore any resemblance at all to the real thing. Perhaps half of it was just made up. But then, last year, I’d encountered an old man I hadn’t met before, one who’d grown up in a remote village with a father who spoke the language. He could no longer speak it himself, but claimed to still understand it well. I tried out some of my reconstructed sentences on him – new sentences, ones I’d put together myself using what I’d figured out of the language’s grammar. He had looked at me as if he had truly seen a ghost – his father’s language has been dead for decades – and then quietly repeated back in the modern language, perfectly, everything I had just said to him. Linguistic reconstruction actually works.

 

“I’ve been trying not to forget Sowa language,” my companion said. “Your notes have helped.” I worried about those notes – the sons and grandsons of Sowa speakers still had real memories of the language, and I didn’t want them abandoning those in favour of my faulty reconstructions. Maybe I should have kept my notes to myself until the last people who’d actually heard the language alive were gone. But a number of people were keen to try and re-learn their ancestral language, and now that their fathers and grandfathers were no longer around to teach them, writing it down was the only way.

 

“In my grandfather’s home country, there’s an old language which people are trying to preserve,” I said. “My grandfather grew up speaking English, but when he got older he decided he wanted to know his people’s traditional language, so he learned it from books.”

 

There was no need to say “my grandfather’s home country” – in Vanuatu, one’s place is one’s father’s place, going back as many generations as one can remember, so my paternal grandfather’s home country should have been simply “my home country”, even if I hadn’t grown up there. But I have never felt able to call myself Scottish, because I don’t speak like a Scottish person. It’s hard to claim that you come from a place if you don’t speak its language. And that was why the old men in this part of Pentecost Island still wanted to try to speak Sowa. Even though the language was extinct, this was still Sowa country. And the landscape was still strewn with the language. Ranwadi was Sowa – according to the old principal, the school’s name had once meant “on a mound of stones by the shore”. So were the names of most of the villages around. The old man and I chatted about place names for a while.

 

“The old name for this village was Vantowokarav,” he said.

 

“Under the hand-axe-shaped almond,” I translated.

 

The old man looked up. He hadn’t realised that karav had meant “hand-axe”. Hand-axes were a Stone Age tool, and had died out even before Sowa language (though the teardrop-shaped stones still turn up occasionally where pigs disturb the ground, the Stone Age having ended on Pentecost Island only in the 19th century when sailors arrived with metal tools). I only knew the word because back in the 1960s, an old person who still spoke Sowa had been asked some basic words by a visiting linguist and had responded to one embarrassing vocabulary item, slightly inaccurately, with maza karav. Rediscovering the term in an old book, I had seen what this corresponded to in the modern language: meta gerep, the pointy tip of a hand-axe. The guys at the kava bar today still use the same metaphor. Thus, a now-elderly linguist’s inability to tell “vagina” apart from “clitoris” had saved a word from extinction.

 

The old man encouraged me again to help him finish the kava, and I got up to pour a shell. There was enough left in the bottle for the old man to have one last shell too, and then it would be home to bed.

 

“How do you say ‘They’re going to bed’?” he asked.

 

I thought for a minute. Pa ba la pa mzóó.” The old man pondered this sentence, trying to unpick it. There was a grammatical feature in this phrase that didn’t correspond to anything in his own language, a quirk in the way Sowa speakers construct phrases. Fortunately Matan’s language shared the quirk, and that language still had living speakers with whom you could test any number of sentences until you had figured out that repeating the plural marker in a string of verbs (“They go to they sleep”) was one of the language’s rules. Goodness knows what other grammatical quirks Sowa had that nobody would ever figure out.

 

We chatted for a while and then I got up to go. I thanked the old man for sharing his kava.

 

Ki mwa baréw alok zengzeng.”

 

Bóng adwus.”

 

The wuk disappeared into the night, leaving the old man alone with the fragments of his dead language.

Her place

The mountainside was so steep that even standing in one place hurt my legs. While my companion scrabbled at the soil with her machete, I eyed up a patch where vines straggled over the dirt and contemplated trying to sit down.

 

"Watch out for black ants there."

 

I moved away from the vines and did my best to dig my feet into the loose soil. There was no point complaining - it had been my idea to come and see the garden. And like most islanders, she did this every week, complaining only when it was an exceptionally long day or the rain left her particularly soaked and muddy.

 

"The way we see it, it's not a hard life, because there's always free food here when we want it." This didn't look free - it looked like much harder work than what anyone else I knew did for a living. But I knew what she meant: no subsistence gardener ever feared being made redundant or getting fired for turning up late to the garden. In the old days there was the fear that cyclones or floods or marauding neighbours would destroy your crops, but nowadays aid agencies and the government could be relied upon to send aid if that happened. For people with no job and no garden, however, the Vanuatu government has never provided any sort of welfare.

 

"Garden" was the English name that the islanders had given to these hacked-at patches of mountainside. In the languages of north and central Pentecost, they are known as "in the fence", a hangover from the old days when pigs roamed free and vegetable patches were fenced to keep them out (Captain Cook had likened the resulting landscape to the neatly-cultivated fields of England). Today it was the other way round: pigs were kept in fences and vegetable patches roamed free. Taro plants sprouted from the undergrowth, and in an abandoned plot further down the slope from where I was standing, an old man's cassava plants had run wild among the local flora.

 

Here in southern Pentecost, the word for garden was simply the word for "place". One's place was where one's garden was. Gardens tied people to their ancestral lands like the vines strung down the mountainside.

 

In England, a Saturday in the garden had meant tea on the lawn, perhaps a barbecue. My friends on Facebook were posting pictures in shirts and summer dresses. I was clinging to the side of a tropical mountain in the mud, alone except for a young brown woman with bare feet and raindrops in her hair.

 

Like half the girls on the island, her name was Matan.* (The other half are named Mabon, and they are classified as my sisters.) She has more specific names too, but here I'll stick with Matan. I first met her the same way I met my first ever girlfriend, in a Maths classroom when she was fifteen. A decade later, I encountered her again, now a teacher herself and living alone in a village not far from Ranwadi with a two-year-old daughter. Her daughter is also Matan, among other names - children in Pentecost culture are born into their mother's lineage - but in conversation her mother usually refers to her simply as "small girl".

 

Today Small Girl had been left in the village with her grandfather. Matan had decided that looking after one person on this mountainside was enough.

 

I hacked idly at a dead bush with my bush knife, trying not to look useless.

 

Matan emerged from a thicket of plants holding a papaya, and looked at me with the same concern that she would have shown if Small Girl had been the one holding a giant knife. She wiped her own bush knife clean on a clump of rain-soaked weeds, and cut me a slice of the fruit. I don't like papaya, but this didn't seem like the time to be fussy. 

 

"I have another garden we can go and see if you want," she said, gesturing across the diagonal slope towards an edge where the land fell away into a ravine.

 

"How far is it?"

 

"It's like going from my village to my sister's." About a mile.

 

I made a show of pretending to collapse onto the patch of vines, and almost collapsed for real. "If you have work to do in that garden, I'll wait for you here."

 

There was no way Matan was leaving me alone up here. She put the taro she'd been digging up into her basket, padding it with leaves, and buried the cut-off stems under a pile of damp vines for replanting later. We set off back in the direction we'd come.

 

In between patches of mist and cloud, the coastline fell away below. In colonial times this mountain had overlooked a working coconut plantation. Today the coastal plain had been taken over by acacia trees, but a few old coconuts remained, adding texture to the forest canopy. In between them ran a sliver of grey tarmac: Lonorore Airport, its old grass strip replaced a few years ago by a 980-metre runway in the hope of a tourism boom that had only half-materialised. From up here the airport still looked quite small.

 

At this time of year, tourists visit south Pentecost to watch the weekly spectacle of islanders jumping headfirst off tall towers, with only a pair of vines tied to their legs to restrain their impact with the ground. If the length of the vines is judged right, they snap taught at the last moment and jerk the jumper sideways into a bank of loose earth, resulting in mere bruised shoulders rather than fatal head injuries. 'Land diving' was not allowed on the mountain above the airport any more, following the arguments over ownership that had inevitably broken out among communities since tourism had made the ritual lucrative. Which was a shame because right now, tying myself up in vines and just hurling myself down the loose earth seemed like more fun than trying to pick my way back down the mountain.

 

After traversing the slope sideways for a while, we reached Matan's father's garden, and turned downhill, skeetering down a diagonal bank of soil and trying not to uproot the old man's pineapples and shallots. In places, Matan dug footholds with her knife. I clenched my toes in the mud. It was raining hard now.

 

"Aaaawaaaheeeuuu," I said, in imitation of the noises that people on Pentecost make when venting emotion.

 

Matan laughed. "Make that noise again."

 

From the bottom of the garden, a narrow path led back down the mountain. By Pentecost's extreme standards, it wasn't a bad 'road' (other people's gardens were up much steeper hills, Matan pointed out) but today's rain had slicked it with mud.

Matan spied a bush with a long and straight enough stem, fashioned it into a walking pole, and handed it to me.

 

"When we get back to the village, let's plant this a souvenir," I suggested.

 

Most of Pentecost's woody species will set down roots wherever they are impaled; small buildings frequently sprout leaves. Legend recalls that the first islander to acquire a metal axe planted it in the ground and waited for a metal tree to grow.

 

"Bananas," said Matan as we rounded one bend in the path, and she disappeared into the bushes. There were some hacking noises and the soft crash of something heavy falling into vines, and she emerged hauling an immense heavy stem of bananas. She stuffed some of the bananas into her basket, cast some dubious ones aside, offered me one to eat, and slung the rest across her shoulder.

 

As we descended into the river valley, the garden path converged with others, like a network of capillaries nourishing the community. The main artery rain along the valley bottom, and criss-crossed the river, giving a welcome chance to wash the flecks of dirt off our arms and legs and knives.

 

We passed other men and women on their way to or from their gardens. People with cash crops to plant could spend whole weeks in the garden, sometimes building shelters and spending the night there. But for those like Matan who had other jobs in the community (not to mention a small girl who needed either babysitting or carrying halfway up a mountain every time her mother went to fetch food), Saturday was the main gardening day. There was never any point going looking for anyone in his village on a Saturday - he would be almost guaranteed to be halfway up a mountain somewhere.

 

"The first time you go to the garden with a new woman," an older man had once advised me, "give her the heaviest basket to carry. If she complains, do not help her. If you help her once, then forever after she will always complain." Matan's generation expected slightly better from their menfolk than their mothers and grandmothers had, but there was no danger of her expecting me to carry the heavy load today. Up in the garden I had made the token gesture of carrying her flip-flop sandals for her, but she had put those back on now, and was flip-flopping among stumps and roots and sloping mud patches and pools of fast-flowing water with astonishing sure-footedness, heavy basket strap across her forehead, bush knife in one hand, her other hand steadying a hundred bananas.

 

"Black person... double bones," was her usual response whenever I observed that she pretty tough at this sort of thing.

 

For my part, I made it back to the village without falling over or cutting myself. Matan was relieved.

 

-------------------------

 

* Technically the name should be written "Mwatan". "Matan" with a tighter-lipped consonant is a different word, and means "death". If Pentecost islanders were superstitious in the way the Chinese are, they would obsess fearfully over this. However, the finer details of spelling are among many things that the islanders are notoriously laid-back about, and "Matan" is the usual spelling.