Across the divide - a cultural history of two schools

The secondary school at Ranwadi sits on the edge of an invisible divide. The primary school at Lalzadet, a few minutes' walk up the hill from Ranwadi, sits on the other side. The two schools are physically so close that you can hear the shouts of children playing. People walk freely between the two, and they appear to serve the same community. There is no racial or socio-economic difference between the two, and no bad feeling between them. The pupils grow up speaking the same language. Yet none of the pupils who graduate from Lalzadet will ever be able to attend Ranwadi.

Even outside school, Lalzadet's pupils rarely meet Ranwadi's. They attend different churches and different social events, and only rarely attend the same weddings and funerals. Their parents farm different patches of land, and do paid work in different workplaces. It is not inconceivable that a given pupil from Ranwadi might grow up to marry someone who graduated from Lalzadet, particularly if they meet somewhere far away, perhaps in one of Vanuatu's two towns, where the divide will count for less and coming from the same island will count for more. But it is far more likely that they will settle down with people from their respective sides of the divide, and bring up children who go to the same schools as their parents, extending the divide to the next generation, like an ever-lengthening crack in a growing tree.

Rural Vanuatu is crazy-paved with hundreds of these invisible divides. They are a legacy of the country's unique colonial history, in which for nearly a century the island chain was ruled jointly by the British and French. Every single aspect of government and society was duplicated: there were British and French governors, British and French schools, British and French hospitals. At an early stage in the territory's development there were even British vehicles driving on the left hand side of the road and French vehicles driving on the right. (When traffic growth made this unsustainable, the territory was forced to choose at random between the two, and the French won the draw. To this day Vanuatu, unlike most neighbouring countries, drives on the right.) British and French citizens were subject to separate laws, policed by separate police forces. Lawbreakers were tried in separate own courts, and sentenced to separate prisons (citizens of other countries could choose whether to be British or French for legal purposes). A single unified institution, the Joint Court, arbitrated as necessary between the two sides. Natives who stayed out of the way of the British and French were stateless and not subject to any law or justice at all other than that meted out by their village chiefs.

At independence in 1980, these duplicate systems of law and government were replaced overnight with a single national administration. Yet as colonialism receded like the tide from a drying shoreline, it left a network of cracks and fault-lines in the substrate, superimposed over older cracks that the tides had blurred but not fully washed away. The new divisions were not straight lines drawn by administrators on a map, like the mid-western states of America or the new nations of Africa. They had grown organically, where slabs of identity re-crystallised out of the rich but violently stirred-up cultural soup from which the two colonial powers had just withdrawn their spoons.

The seed crystals around which these new identities grew were church missions. Ranwadi, and most of the villages along the coast for several miles south of it, belong to the Churches of Christ, a mildly evangelical association of worshippers that found its way to Vanuatu via Queensland, where many Pacific islanders had been transported to work on plantations at the end of the 19th century. This is a region of loosely-organised, clappy, spiritual village churches with tin rooves and fenced lawns, which organise a rotating programme of combined events and sing about casting out the devil as they share out biscuits and fruit cordial. They read the Bible in English, and preach in Bislama, the company language that came back along with the church from the plantations of Queensland.

On the other side of the divide, elaborate concrete crosses commemorate the arrival in the 1890s of French missionaries. Here one finds Catholicism in all its grandeur, images of the Virgin Mary peering from rock faces and village chapels, a huge central church in Melsisi to which the eleven surrounding communities gather for Sunday and holy-day masses, white-frocked priests and blue-robed nuns, soulful Latin-style chanting and real wine forming the blood of Christ.

The doctrinal differences between the two churches matter little to most people here. What matters is that, in communities whose social calendar is dominated by the church (people count weeks here by counting Sundays), the two groups do not regularly mix. The church boundary also coincides with an administrative boundary - the Melsisi area is in the lower half of Central Pentecost for local-government purposes, the area beyond Ranwadi is in the South - so the two groups attend different workshops and awareness meetings and liaise with different local councillors too.

The separation is far from total: there is no Berlin Wall or Demilitarized Zone here. People know, and mostly get on perfectly well with, their neighbours on the other side of the divide. They travel between areas for the bank (which is in Melsisi), the airport (which is in the Churches of Christ area), medical treatment (which is best at the French-built Melsisi hospital), refuelling trucks (wherever one can find diesel), and numerous other practical reasons. Yet at the events which really bring out the community - weddings, funerals, school open days, fundraisers, and of course anything to do with the church - the divide is striking. People from one side attend en masse, but you can count on one hand the number of people who have crossed from the other side, and some of those were probably just passing by on their way to drop off a carton at the airport or find a drum of diesel. A century of this has had an enormous impact on friendships and family relations. A family tree of the two areas (everyone is related here), or a social network-style graph of personal connections, would resemble two dense balls of wool with just a few assorted threads joining the two.

The difference most striking to foreign visitors is the one that affects local villagers least in their everyday lives.  Ranwadi College and the associated primary school at Ranmawot teach in English, while the Collège de Melsisi and associated primary schools such as Lalzadet teach in French. Yet while this profoundly affects anyone seeking employment as a schoolteacher or tour guide, or wishing to transfer their child between schools, these languages are so little used outside the classroom that they do not create a noticeable barrier to anyone seeking to make friends, marry or do business across the divide. The Ranwadi and Melsisi areas are not divided by their two educational languages any more than Westerners who elected to take Spanish classes at school are socially divided from those who elected to take Japanese. What matters is social ties, and the church, and the subtle but noticeable ways in which these have now infused into the two areas' traditions.

The Catholic mission at Melsisi put down very deep roots into the area's traditional culture, from which it became inseparable. Pre-Christian habits were tolerated as they didn't obviously contradict Jesus's teachings: pigs continued to be killed in elaborate grade-taking ceremonies, and big church occasions were celebrated with kava-drinking and traditional dancing after mass. Early in its history, the Melsisi mission even participated to some extent in the age-old inter-village warfare that occurred in its mountainous hinterland. In 1942, after an escalating spiral of violence between Christianised villagers (armed and supported by the mission) and their non-Christianised neighbours had culminated in a chief being killed, the priest was brought before a French court and accused of inciting the natives to murder. He was acquitted on the grounds that murder among the natives was not actually a crime, since it fell outside both British and French jurisdiction. In response to incidents such as the 'Melsisi Wars', the following year the two colonial governments introduced a native law code to northern Vanuatu, adding a third legal system alongside the British and French ones. By the 1950s, when the huge Melsisi church house was constructed, everyone in the Melsisi area had converted to Christianity and the warfare became a thing of the past.

French missionaries at Melsisi all learned Apma, the predominant local language, and had prayers and hymns translated into it. One particularly well-loved foreign priest, Père Durumain, continued to visit Melsisi every year, long after he had retired from the priesthood and left Vanuatu. I met him there a few years ago, and since my French is abysmal the locals were treated to the spectacle of two white Europeans conversing in the area's tribal language. I encountered Père Durumain again in Melsisi last year, being lowered into the mission ground in accordance with his final wishes. Being a Catholic priest, he had no children to mourn him, but a crowd of hundreds - all from the Melsisi side of the divide, of course - had gathered around the ornate mission cemetery to mourn him as they would a respected chief. Père Durumain had lived and worked in many places but Melsisi was the one where he wanted to stay.

No funeral could have had a more stunning backdrop. While Ranwadi is beautiful in the manner of a postcard Mediterranean village, with brightly-painted buildings and verandas and flowers and rocks and climbing plants, Melsisi up close is shabby at times, too much peeling cement and cow manure and half-rusted corrugated iron. Zoom out, however, and Melsisi is awesomely beautiful, a great panorama of green mountainside and deep ocean which afternoon sunbeams and showers and the wind racing over the island fill with watercolour and swell to the heavens with light and air.

The area of South-Central Pentecost centred on the Ranwadi side of the divide historically had a unique culture, intermediate in some ways between Central and South Pentecost's, but with some distinctive features of its own. (The old cultural boundary did not correspond with the modern divide: historic South-Central Pentecost extended north-west to Melsisi River and north-east to Salaba, where deep valleys created natural barriers to the movement of people in the days before the establishment of the coastal road.) South-Central Pentecost had a pair of related languages, Sowa and Ske, intermediate in evolutionary terms between the major languages of Central and South Pentecost but fairly incomprehensible to speakers of either. The region's people dressed sometimes in long red mats, as in Central Pentecost, and sometimes in penis wrappers and grass skirts, as in the South. They killed pigs in rituals similar to, but subtly different from, those performed elsewhere. Some claim that they practiced land diving, but in a different style to that now performed in the South. They had their own beliefs, their own special places, their own stories, their own words for things and their own histories.

There is no evidence that the Churches of Christ missionaries who came and went in this area ever noticed any of this. Integrating into the local culture was not what they had come for; nobody needed any of that when they were with Jesus. The dancing stopped, the sacred pigs were relegated to the status of mere livestock, and the kava-making platters and drinking shells were thrown into pits and buried. (There are numerous stories of renegade kava-lovers secretly digging them out again.) To my knowledge I was the first foreigner to attempt to learn either Sowa or Ske, and that was over a century after the first white teacher arrived from Queensland. Population movements helped wipe the cultural slate clean. Epidemics of newly-introduced diseases hit this area hard - its modern population of several hundred can trace their ancestry back to only a couple of dozen men - and the survivors regrouped in new and modernised villages along the west coast, where long beaches provided easy landings for cargo ships, and the flat coastal strips were transformed into coconut plantations.

When the population recovered and became culturally self-confident again, those still interested in traditional customs had to import them from elsewhere on the island. Leaders who felt they ought to kill pigs did so with the help of relatives from Central Pentecost, across the divide, and in accordance with that area's customs. Pigs and mats still changed hands at weddings, but in smaller numbers than in the Melsisi area. Kava-drinking made a comeback, but coexisted uneasily with the churchgoing side of the region's new culture. Whereas at Melsisi, drinkers gather convivially in crowded bars and nakamals at sunset in a haze of leaf-tobacco smoke and begin the evening by asking God to bless their traditional drink (bars customarily give a free shell-full to the person who says the prayer), in the Churches of Christ area, the handful of ramshackle and meagrely-provisioned kava bars are tolerated by the community's elders in the same spirit in which cities tolerate red light districts. Lively, sweary men with 1.5-litre plastic bottles and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths hitch rides on trucks up and down the area's one main road in search of a bar whose kava bucket isn't yet empty, and do not say grace.

With the arrival of imported wives and customs from further north, Apma became South-Central Pentecost's most widely-known vernacular. And with the spread of Bislama, now graduated from a plantation pidgin into a national language, people in the Churches of Christ area are increasingly abandoning vernacular languages altogether. (In the Melsisi area, by contrast, Apma remains almost universally spoken, even among individuals and communities who did not ancestrally speak it.) Sowa died out as a living language at the end of the 20th century, and judging by how few children can be heard speaking it today, Ske will follow at the end of the 21st century. A linguist, with funding from organisations that seek to preserve endangered languages, came and worked with Ske speakers on the tedious task of trying to document the language, went home and got awarded a PhD for her research, but nearly a decade later the community is still waiting forlornly for the schoolbooks, videos or other materials that they were promised in return for their hard work. Parents and grandparents still do their best to speak to their children in Ske, but their children no longer answer them. Infants who know no better will happily repeat words of the old language, but ditch them in favour of Bislama words as soon as they become old enough to figure out which is the language of the past and which is the language of the future. A generation of toddlers has collectively decided that the time has come to chuck out the last substantial surviving piece of old South-Central Pentecost culture, and there seems to be nothing their elders can do to stop them.

In place of historic traditions, the Churches of Christ missionaries and their congregations built new ties. Whereas the Collège de Melsisi serves almost exclusively the local community, Ranwadi College is cosmopolitan, with students and teachers coming and going from Churches of Christ areas in other parts of the country, and a few from non-Churches of Christ areas too. This creates further differences between the two schools. Teaching at Melsisi starts on Day 1 of every new term - there is no excuse not to, since although it is a boarding school most students can walk there from home in a few hours - and every fortnight the students are sent home for a weekend. At Ranwadi, the first couple of weeks of every term are spent waiting for ships and planes to bring the students back to school (nobody is in a hurry), but once the students are there, they are stuck there for the term. Ranwadi's students get a richer experience in some ways, but pay for this through malnourishment (kids eat better in their villages), homesickness and missed lessons, not to mention ship and plane fares. Melsisi is a little more straight-laced than Ranwadi: parents and community leaders are close by and watching, and well-salaried teachers are set apart from their relatives in the villages solely by how professionally they behave. Ranwadi has more of a college campus vibe, inhabited by students who are keen on study but laid-back about actually attending classes, overseen by knowledgeable but slightly erratic dons who create the air that if you spend long enough there, you'll absorb a certain amount of wisdom just by inhaling the smell of old books and the breeze.

White missionaries no longer run Ranwadi, but volunteers and church groups come regularly to build new classrooms, donate books or help with teaching. The first local principal to run the school maintained ties with the Queensland churches from which Ranwadi had sprung, and visited England too. He came back with ideas and visions of what the new South-Central Pentecost could be like, built firmly upon what was left of the old one. Dance on special occasions if you want to, he told the pupils - it's part of your culture. With toolboxes and church donations, foreign volunteers and local recruits now busy themselves while they wait for the Kingdom of God by rebuilding little bits of Queensland on the island they know and love. People sing songs of praise, go fishing together, do what they can to make use of newly-donated drills and screwdrivers before local hands can break them, enjoy the waterfalls and beaches, share out more biscuits and fruit cordial (now chilled in newly-installed solar-powered freezers), and find friends and even family members in faraway places. One missionary's daughter married into the community and is still there. Another overseas teacher built a house in the local village and started an annual programme of summer camps that was so successful it even expanded to take in pupils from across the divide.

It was Ranwadi that brought me to Pentecost. I was in no sense a church missionary, but the old principal had prayed for as many people as possible to participate in fulfilling whatever plan God had for his school and his community, and warm-heartedly welcomed support in whatever form it came, even from people who had yet to acknowledge their sender. But he also seemed to understand why I continually crossed the divide, clocking up hundreds of miles back and forth on the Ranwadi-Melsisi road, what experience I was seeking that I couldn't have found in either area alone. The old principal later spent time tramping that road himself, after politics forced him to retire from Ranwadi, and Melsisi needed somebody to help teach English as an additional language. Ranwadi, for its part, has employed plenty of ex-Melsisi students and teachers in its French department. I also recently joined the short list of teachers who have done time at both schools. If Vanuatu's future professionals needed both English and French, then Ranwadi and Melsisi needed one another.

Even in politics, the most divisive force in Vanuatu, it is possible to bridge the divide. It goes without saying that the two sides have always voted for different politicians. On the Ranwadi side, the former principal succeeded last year in getting elected to Parliament, with the highest vote share on the island, trading his walking shoes and English textbooks for a black suit and shiny government-registered vehicle. He represents the party founded by Walter Lini, the English-schooled Anglican priest who led Vanuatu to independence, whose obituary in The Economist began, "one of Walter Lini’s minor pleasures was to get the better of the French". On the other side of the divide, Melsisi is the alma mater of Vanuatu's current Prime Minister, who leads a party that grew out of the French-backed movement which had opposed independence under Lini (believing that the time was not right, or fearing marginalisation from those poised to lead the new republic). The two politicians' home villages are a mere three miles apart, on opposite sides of the divide. Under Vanuatu's odd electoral system, in which voters think in intensely local terms but big islands function as single giant constituencies whose multiple MPs and voter groups are left to themselves to hash out who truly represents whom, it is unusual for two politicians to get elected from the same area: two high-profile candidates would merely split the local vote. The co-existence here of two big political beasts in the same patch of jungle is made possible by the divide, each drawing votes from his own side. Yet the former principal serves under the Prime Minister in the same coalition government, and although their supporters have sometimes scrapped, outwardly at least the two big men seem to work well together. Any account of Vanuatu politics that describes it as being fundamentally divided between English- and French-oriented sides is increasingly out of date.

Just as the fragmentation of political parties and interminable 'crossing of the floor' by opportunistic politicians slowly broke down the independence-era English/French divide in Vanuatu politics, a proliferation of new churches and social groups may yet break down the social divide between the Ranwadi and Melsisi areas. Already there are breakaway groups in the two areas who adhere neither to Catholicism nor the Churches of Christ. Defining people is becoming harder and harder, and when you keep dividing and dividing again, down to atoms, eventually all that is left is unity.

The division between English and French languages in the Vanuatu's schools will persist for the foreseeable future: that divide is written firmly into the country's constitution. (Walter Lini and his colleagues had contemplated making English the sole language of education in the new republic, but backed down after the French-educated population, fearing that their most important skill might suddenly be made redundant, took to the streets in the largest protest the country has ever seen.) But the French schools may increasingly become French schools only in name. With two colonial languages, a national language (Bislama) and at least 140 indigenous vernaculars, Vanuatu is overburdened with languages, and since English is the major international language of the Pacific region, Bislama is needed as a lingua franca and the vernaculars are each valued by those who speak them as an important part of their cultural heritage, French educators have long been painfully aware that theirs is the language the country can best afford to lose. Their response has been to embrace English alongside French. Send a child to an English-speaking school in Vanuatu, and they will learn English, the idea goes, but send a child to a French-speaking school, and they will acquire both English and French. The English-speaking schools find it hard to counter this offer. Their pupils and graduates struggle hard enough to figure out where to put -s and -ed on English words. (On my last trip to town I broke down at the sight of the third or fourth "sorry we're close" sign - I was wasting my life trying to teach English in this country – and without saying a word, grabbed the shopkeeper's marker pen and amended the sign.) Getting pupils to also master French, with its dozens of identical-sounding 'terminations' and its own irregularity-ridden spelling system and grammar, is just too much. Schools try, but the average Ranwadi graduate's command of French is comparable to that of a holidaymaker who picked up some catchphrases and learned a few items on the restaurant menu during his two weeks in Paris. French-educated pupils, by contrast, have a head start in the other language because of its similarity to Bislama, which evolved out of Pidgin English. The debate about the status of French in Vanuatu might be revived in a generation's time, when the country finds itself with an educated class who all now know English regardless of what school they attended, but that is a concern for the future.

At Melsisi today, the posters on the classroom walls are in French, but the graffiti is largely in English. Like Ske speakers' children, the pupils here too are capable of making their own choices about which is the language of the future. In the system the Collège de Melsisi uses for totting up a pupil's overall grade, Anglais is the third-most important subject on the curriculum. (Ranwadi ranks subjects less systematically, but when its pupils choose what to study in their senior years, French is nearly everyone's last choice.) The English written in the Melsisi students' cahiers is mistake-ridden, but not drastically worse than that of Ranwadi students of the same age. (Melsisi students' work differs from Ranwadi students' in that it has random bits of French thrown in - "the coq call and the dog suivre the farmer" - but this is actually rather helpful from a teaching point of view, as the teacher can see exactly what concept the student was hoping to convey.) A French-speaking university donated a dozen computers to the school, but they are set up in English. When the computer teacher asked me write some worksheets to help the pupils with their informatique, it bothered nobody that they were not in French. When introducing adult Melsisi-educated friends to English-speaking visitors, I'm often asked to interpret, but if I go off to the toilet or disappear to fetch something it's likely that I'll come back to find them conversing adequately without me. Discussion on social media forums in Vanuatu is overwhelmingly in English or Bislama. When I once asked why, several French-educated ni-Vanuatu replied (some in good English) that it's because only half their countrymen would understand them, whereas the other two languages are at least partly accessible to everyone. Some also commented that whether someone in Vanuatu speaks English or French is not important to them anyway; those two foreign languages are not part of their identities.

At Ranwadi, the school bakery - a smartly-painted concrete building by the main road across from the beach, built in memory of a foreign volunteer - turns out daily batches of big, square loaves, just as the Queensland missionaries liked them. At Melsisi, the bakery is a big, dark old building, more traditional in style, with a spectacular view off the edge of the precipice behind the mission. Its staple is French-style baguettes, though in response to local demand, it also does a sideline in English-style loaves. That sums up the difference between the two schools. Both sets of bread are produced in the same sort of old wood-fired ovens from the same brand of flour, and taste pretty similar. They are delicious when you get them at the right time, fresh from the warmth of the fires, but do not keep particularly well. I sometimes carry bread across the divide - Melsisi's bakers keep to a more predictable schedule, and I can't be sure of finding the Ranwadi bakery open. People on the other side are mildly surprised to see Melsisi bread in the kitchen, but they eat it quite happily. Nobody even associates 'stick bread' with the French any more. It is simply a variant on a common theme.

The emptying of an island

I turned up in Waterfall Village expecting to see the Prime Minister with an enormous pig, and instead found a truck parked on the beach next to a set of giant batteries.

"They're for the new tower," the driver explained. A new mobile phone mast had already been built on the mountain above Melsisi, but several months on, the communities underneath it still had no network coverage. Perhaps this explained why: someone had forgotten to put the batteries in the transmitter. The tall black batteries stood like chess pieces on a bank of shingle just above the waterline. (Tides are never very high in the South Pacific.) The giant trees along the shore shaded the beach from the morning sun, but the ocean beyond shone with an energetic blue. Seeing so much electrical power next to so much saltwater was faintly alarming.

I sat down and tried to check the news on my phone. The tower above Waterfall did have its batteries in, but only on good days would it bother to transmit useable amounts of data. Like the village stores that continually run out of goods, all you could do was check it every time you passed by, hope for the best, and quietly seethe with frustration when it failed to do its job. There was nobody worth complaining to. In developing countries, when the weather is bad or someone gets ill, there are holy men and traditional healers who can try to put things right. But when basic services don't work reliably, that's just a fact of life, which nobody has the power to change.

"When do the big men get here?" the driver asked.

"I heard 8 o'clock," I said. "But I guess that plan has changed." It was past 8 o'clock now and nobody was hanging around with any particular sense of expectation. Some children were sitting under the trees playing with beach detritus, and a couple of other passers-by were idly contemplating the batteries and some other bits and pieces that a ship had evidently dropped ashore during the night. Further along the beach, a bulldozer that had been sent to resurface one of the roads up the mountain was shovelling sand and gravel.

"Any news on the fire?"

"I can't get data on my phone today. But you can still see the smoke." I pointed to a small cloud just visible over the headland. With its base obscured by the slope of the island, it didn't look much different to the other clouds on the horizon, but from further along the coast, where I'd just walked from, you could see what was causing it – an island slowly exploding from within.

Speakers of the local languages don't use complicated nouns where a simple one will suffice. The cyclone that tore across Vanuatu two years ago was referred to by nearly everyone as "the wind", the giant cascade and natural swimming hole that give Waterfall Village its name was frequently just "the water", and in the right context volcanic eruptions were simply "the fire".

Pentecost Island itself is a rather lacklustre component of the Pacific's Ring of Fire. There is a hot rockpool beyond the airport which would just about suffice to cook a lobster, but that is as much geothermal activity as the island can muster nowadays. However, Pentecost sits in between two great islands of fire. To the south is Ambrym, a picture-postcard volcano, dark with ash, crater-topped and smoking. The pools of lava bubbling in its two great vents up-light the clouds above with a red glow that can be seen on clear nights all the way from Pentecost, tens of miles away. Like the luminous mushrooms in the forest that glow ghost-green on moonless nights, the light is barely bright enough to capture on camera, but to human eyes gazing under starlight it is a magical thing to see.

Ambae, to the north, is a different sort of island. From a distance it is as smooth and featureless as a giant sand bar, a lenticular silhouette disappearing into mist. This far-off, blue-grey silhouette inspired James Michener in Tales of the South Pacific to write about the mythic paradise of Bali Ha'i. The smooth dreaminess is an illusion, however. Up close, the island is sharp, black, ash-ridden and pockmarked with craters. Its curved rim conceals a giant caldera, part-filled with sulphurous lakes. Ambae too is a volcano.

"Last night I heard strange noises," Matan had told me over breakfast a few weeks earlier. "It sounded like someone starting a war."

"Ambae," said her father, a man of few words. He had gone down to the shore on hearing the thunder, and seen a new red glow in the sky.

Volcanic fireworks are nothing new in Vanuatu, and indeed are something of a tourist draw. Tanna, a film drama set on the best known of Vanuatu's volcanic islands, recently won an Oscar with its scenes of tribesmen falling in love and clubbing each other against a background of spattering red-hot lava; no special effects needed. Every sunset, tour groups gather around Tanna's crater rim, like spectators in a giant stadium, to watch the pyrotechnics. But as the outbursts of smoke and lava got worse, it became clear that something serious was happening on Ambae. Though the eruptions that had occurred on the island in recent memory had all been minor, oral history and the geological record told of village-destroying mudslides and on one occasion of lava shooting out of the side of the island towards what is now a major population centre. Local spreaders of 'coconut news', who had until now kept conversations going at the kava bar by telling people that nuclear war might have started already between North Korea and the United States, were now telling people that government scientists were predicting that in a few days' time the entire island of Ambae would blow itself in half, or drown beneath the ocean. Like all the best coconut memes, this was far-fetched but not impossible. Two of Vanuatu's major islands, Epi and Tongoa, are the remnants of a larger island that was blown in two by an exploding volcano in the 15thcentury. Even if Ambae didn't blow itself in half, if a fissure opened up between its boiling magma chamber and one of the geochemical-tinted lakes sitting on top, the result would be a gigantic, poisonous explosion that might well blow a chunk off the island.

11,500 people live on Ambae. Ash was starting to rain onto villages and gardens, volcanologists had little idea what the volcano would do next, and the islanders were frightened. A month ago, the government had therefore announced that it planned to do something that had probably never been done in the three millennia since Ambae was first settled: empty the island of its entire population.

- - -

On Waterfall Beach, the driver's phone rang. "Are you at the field?" he asked. That usually meant the airport – simple nouns again. "What's happening? They said one now? OK."

"The big men aren't arriving until 1.00?" I surmised, after he'd got off the phone. He nodded.

I trudged up to the nakamal – the village meeting house. The villagers had only found out the previous afternoon that the government delegation was coming, but they had managed to decorate the roadway to the nakamal like a resort entrance with huge red flowers and leaves. The bulldozer came past, nearly flattening the decorations, and trundled up into the bush behind the village. As payment for the sand that the construction company were extracting from Waterfall beach, the community had asked if a new road could be bulldozed to their gardens. Industrial earth-moving equipment didn't show up on Pentecost very often and the villagers wanted it put to good use.

The village chief was standing outside the nakamal rigging up a loudspeaker. "The event is starting at one o'clock now, right?" I asked. I had nothing to do in Waterfall all morning, but going home and coming back later meant a five-mile walk in the sun, which I wasn't doing purely because of what I'd overheard from a random stranger.

"Uh huh." The chief, like Matan's father, was a good man but not a talkative one.

I turned and wandered off, watched by a crowd of unfamiliar faces. After years on Pentecost, I had become accustomed to recognising most of the faces I saw. This is not to say that I knew everyone by name, but there was a sense of familiarity and recognition, helped by the fact that nearly everyone was related to nearly everyone else – Pacific island communities have small gene pools. But the majority of the people in Waterfall village this month were new.

When the government had ordered the evacuation of Ambae, an assortment of rusty local ships and tiny planes had headed for the island and transported its people to neighbouring islands, to await further instructions. Two-thirds of the evacuees had ended up in Luganville, Vanuatu's little northern town, nearly doubling the town's population. The remainder had been distributed among the rural harbours of Ambae's two neighbouring islands, Maewo and Pentecost. There was talk of establishing proper evacuee camps at one or two centralised locations on Pentecost, and then, when it became clear that this would be impractical in the short term, there was talk of dispersing evacuee families among the island's hundreds of small villages. But the evacuees found the coastal villages in which the ships had initially dropped them surprisingly likeable. Whereas most of Pentecost is rain-soaked, muddy and precipitous, the south-west coast has grassy plains, scattered with ageing coconut palms and small thickets of beach hibiscus, with fresh running water in abundance and billowing sea breezes. It also made sense for the evacuee communities to keep together, and in places where aid could reach them easily. So the evacuees stayed more-or-less where the ships had put them. Waterfall village ended up with 115 new arrivals, and nearby Baravet got 172 – twice these villages' existing populations. The Melsisi area received a similar number, who were temporarily housed on the Melsisi mission grounds. The communities surrounding the mission set up a committee to discuss the distribution of evacuees among villages. It did what committees in Vanuatu do most effectively, which is to quietly put off forever a task that nobody wanted to admit wasn't really worth doing anyway. The evacuees remained on the mission, which was perfectly well equipped to host them.

All along the island, residents and community leaders gave the new arrivals an enthusiastic welcome. They gave up their nakamals and church houses to the new arrivals, constructed new toilets and shelters, stacked communal kitchens with firewood, and prepared meals. Some of the savvier members of the host communities realised from the start that they weren't going to have to shoulder the burden of looking after the Ambae islanders alone. Immediately, aid began arriving – government disaster-stocks of rice and tinned fish, a Red Cross boat full of tents and medical kits, and an Australian warship carrying all manner of supplies. Communities elsewhere on the island, having missed out on this bonanza, were openly bitter about it; one group of chiefs posted a letter on Facebook effectively accusing the Waterfall community of stealing evacuees who should have rightfully have been theirs. Rumours were put about that the Ambae islanders were not being well looked after. Two representatives from the Ambae islanders' association in Port Vila came to find out if their fellow islanders were OK.

Actually, life is pretty good here, they were told. The host villagers had helped the visitors put up their Red Cross tents, taken them to the gardens to fetch cabbage when they got tired of government-issue rice and tinned food, and shared kava with them in the evenings. Evacuees who had initially been disappointed at missing out on a trip to town, where thousands of evacuees were now crowded into church houses and an open-air stadium, were starting to feel like they had got the better deal. Luganville is uninviting and mercilessly hot, and there is nowhere good to escape the heat there, apart from a couple of hotel swimming pools and a brackish rockpool near the wharf that briefly became Vanuatu's most popular bathing spot after a woman claimed that the waters there had cured her of cancer, but had now faded back into obscurity. South-western Pentecost's beaches and rivers had never been claimed to have healing properties, but the water was as clear as rippled glass and the stone underneath was as white and fresh as bathroom tiles. Some of the three or four metres of fresh water that rain-making magicians and the tradewinds drop annually onto the island's upper slopes is channelled down the mountains in pipes, providing an ample supply of clean tapwater, a rarity in developing-country villages. For those escaping Ambae, which is notoriously short of fresh water even when volcanic ash isn't raining into people's water tanks, it wasn't a bad spot for an enforced camping holiday. And in town, as the islanders remind each other all the time, "everything is money". On Pentecost, if the aid agencies hadn't budgeted for enough wooden poles to prop up the tents or enough leafy greens to go with the rice, the island would provide.

However, no amount of good hospitality could mute the periodic explosions coming from the island across the water. Ni-Vanuatu smile admirably in the face of disaster, but there was no concealing the fact that the evacuees were worried about their crops and livestock, which had been abandoned to fend for themselves in the evacuation and were presumably now eating each other, and for their property. One of the small group of soldiers posted on Ambae to keep an eye on the island and round up anyone resisting evacuation had shared a picture online of a huge pig savaged to death by hungry dogs. The island's wild ghosts and devils were also assumed to be running riot. Worst of all, the evacuees had no idea when, if ever, they would be going back. They felt for their home island. An Ambae band wrote a song about the disaster, which was passed from phone to phone and was soon everywhere. "From wanem yu ronemaot mifala?" it asked the mountain whose slopes had nurtured their ancestors for over a hundred generations. Why did you drive us away?

Ambae and Pentecost are separated by about as much seawater as England and France, and their languages and cultures differ to a similar degree. Whereas Pentecost is an island of tall traditions, with chiefs wearing pig tusks and decorative leaves and the telegenic ritual of the land-diving, Ambae islanders are stereotypically more outward-looking, intellectual and bookish. (Given the nature of the only book that's widely read in Vanuatu, this also often means highly religious.) During and since Vanuatu's independence, it has been Pentecost that provided some of the most grandiose national leaders, but Ambae that provided a good number of the senior civil servants who helped to build the new nation. Like English and French, Pentecost and Ambae's languages are at times similar on paper, but their intonation differs markedly. Whereas the speech of North Pentecost, just across the strait from Ambae, is a melodious language that rises and falls like waves, adjacent East Ambae language has a clipped and business-like sound; the language actually has a grammatical rule prohibiting melodiousness.* Industrious and mobile, Ambae islanders also contributed disproportionately to the building of Vanuatu's national language: many pidgin words that have local-language roots, such as nakamal, are immediately recognisable on Ambae. Most impressively, Ambae islanders seem to have successfully avoided the reputation for violent sorcery that bedevils inhabitants of Vanuatu's other black volcanic islands. Pentecost boys used to tell me to avoid Ambae girls because "their island is dry so they don't bathe very often"; older men warned me on a more serious note that Ambae women wouldn't tolerate their husbands spending every night drinking and smoking with the other men at the nakamal, as is the custom on Pentecost. But that was pretty much the worst that anybody had to say about them. Well-organised, outgoing and more interested in reading the Bible than in bewitching people, Ambae islanders made pretty nice visitors.

- - -

Arriving back in Waterfall at 1.00, there was still no sign of the Prime Minister and his delegation. Down on the beach, the bulldozer was towing out a construction truck that had got bogged down in the gravel. A ship laden with water tanks and piping was putting more cargo ashore. The batteries were still there too. The decorative flowers lining the road had been taken away and dumped for now in a stream, lest they wilt in the heat. Evacuees and locals were sitting under trees and tarpaulins outside the nakamal.

Plastic chairs had been brought out, and the chief was sitting with a group of villagers under the beach hibiscus, looking at the time on their phones and discussing last-minute arrangements. The local MP's wife, who also ran the local guesthouse, was trying to find out who exactly were the fourteen visitors she'd been told to expect that evening. (Was she catering for government ministers? Provincial leaders? Civil servants? The same saucepan of stew and plastic jug of cordial would do for anyone, but it was nice to know.) A middle-aged man from Ambae, who had been nominated to give a speech on behalf the evacuees, was sitting with a pen and pencil listing the dignitaries whom he needed to remember to thank.

A big, thick-set man wearing a smart shirt and trousers strode up and sat down on one of the plastic chairs.

"Everyone welcome the government minister," someone said.

The others laughed.

Michael, the roguish former school cook from 2001, was the first person I ever got to know on Pentecost. Since then, he had drifted to and from the island; a couple of years ago he turned up in Port Vila, where he claimed to have been spending time "feeding short-legs for a white man". (The short-leg is a dumpy emerald-and-grey pigeon that bobs around on the forest floor. Villagers would occasionally stone them and chuck them on the fire at the nakamal for a snack, and they tasted pretty good, but I'd never heard of anyone rearing them commercially.) The short-legs and other temporary occupations couldn't keep Michael busy forever, and he returned to Pentecost to a bare garden and a rather hapless existence, until the former school principal got elected to parliament, at which point Michael reinvented himself as the MP's right-hand man in the village. Now he spent his time striding around telling people what to do, keeping an eye on everything, and running all manner of obscure errands, telling anyone who asked what he was up to that he was working for the MP now. He wore shirts nowadays, and addressed me gruffly as "my son". We were "brothers" back at Ranwadi, I pointed out to him. But it was still fun having him around again.

Since it didn't look like anything was going to start soon, I headed for the waterfall behind the village for a swim. Anticipating delays to the programme, I'd brought along my swimming shorts. The last time I'd had time to spare in Waterfall I'd managed without; there had been nobody around and if anyone had seen me, I could have told them, truthfully, that I was skinny dipping on Michael's advice. But with the village full of people and the Prime Minister on his way, this didn't seem like a good time to be caught naked in the river.

I passed a group of people hauling the decorative plants out of the stream and putting them back in place. A couple of the plants had got left behind; I carried them to the nakamal myself. They smelled faintly of pondwater but still looked fresh.

"Is that all of them?" the chief asked as I passed. Like most chiefs in Vanuatu, he was the type who wouldn't have hesitated to muck around in the stream himself if a decorative plant needed rescuing. I nodded, left the plants with the others by the roadside, and headed off for a swim.

In the gorge behind the village, two parallel plumes of white water were pouring out of the jungle and cascading down a rock face. The water struck with immense force against the rock at the bottom of the cliff, which bore the jet steadily. The river swirled wildly in a shallow pool, then poured through a gap between boulders into a second pool, expending the last of the fall's energy in a stream of bubbles. The water in this second pool was clear and fresh, chilled by the shadow of the cliffs and jungle overhead, and tinted like dilute ink. Swiflets skimmed the water, and vines draped from rocky heights. I left my things on a boulder in the sun, picked my way past the rocks at the entrance to the pool, and dived into the cool liquid.

When I got back to the nakamal, the Prime Minister and his entourage had arrived and the speeches had begun. (I'd taken my time at the waterfall: no political speech could compete with the enjoyment of sitting by a beautiful river reading an interesting book while being slowly dried by a tropical breeze.) The plastic chairs had been lined up under an awning in front of the nakamal, and a group of large, well-dressed men (politicians in Vanuatu are nearly always men) were sitting in the afternoon heat with welcome garlands around their necks and a slightly snoozy look on their faces. A small but very brightly-coloured Vanuatu flag flapped from a bamboo pole. The evacuees' representative was speaking, giving his thanks to the government and host communities for looking after his people during this time of disaster, in a characteristic high-pitched Ambae accent that reminded me of the myna birds that chatter by the roadsides in Port Vila. From Ambae islanders, caught between their languages' vowel-wrenching rules and a studied desire to speak good English, the phrase typically comes out as thenk yeu.

A couple of hundred onlookers had assembled themselves around the grassy space in front of the nakamal. As was usual at public events in Vanuatu, the audience was not seated in neat rows, but had gathered on tufts of grass, coconut stumps and other suitable perches, like a flock of big birds eager for breadcrumbs but shy of coming down from the bushes to get them. A dopey-looking dog hung around in the middle of the proceedings, oblivious to everything. A row of six vehicles – probably the most traffic I had ever seen on Pentecost at one time – was parked on the sandy road below the nakamal. The Melsisi hospital truck had been commandeered as the Prime Ministerial vehicle, a little Vanuatu flag attached to its bonnet.

Under the beach hibiscus, near the rumbling generator that was powering the microphone, a group of villagers were feeding kava into a meat grinder, ready for the evening's refreshments. The roots went into the grinder yellow and neatly chipped, and came out looking like grey, narcotic cat litter.

"What do you think they're thinking about?" one of men grinding the kava asked, gesturing to the big men in front of the nakamal.

"The MP is probably wondering who is going to drink kava on his behalf this evening." Vanuatu's kava-sharing culture was hard on teetotal politicians – to refuse a ceremonial cupful would be an insult to tradition – but asking a family member to drink on one's behalf was an acceptable get-out.

"Don't worry," one of the others smiled. "Michael is always ready and willing to perform that service for the MP."

The Ambae representative's speech finished, and it was the MP's turn. He was seated at the edge of the row of chairs, where the sun was getting under the awning, and looked hot in his dark-blue shirt and black trousers. Michael stood silently behind him, next to one of the Prime Minister's security guards, looking every bit his equal. A couple of the other guards had given up pretending to be necessary and were loitering in the shade by the trucks enjoying the sea breeze.

The MP spoke much as he had always spoken during his twenty-five years as school principal, an optimistic speech about overcoming challenges and building a better future and working together with Jesus by our sides. He also spoke of how the evacuation had brought together the three islands of Penama – Pentecost, Ambae and Maewo – as one province. Penama Province was a crude bureaucratic creation drawn up only in 1994 (under colonial-era boundaries, Pentecost and Ambae were not in the same part of the country) and its provincial government, which had now decamped from its Ambae headquarters to Luganville, seemed to do little that couldn't have been done better at local or national level. But opportunities for identity politics in Vanuatu were never to be missed, and after two decades of being lumped together in the same workshops and sports tournaments, what was at first a highly artificial identity had started to take a more genuine form. And the islands' peoples had plenty of real connections: despite the old folks' warnings about cultural differences, many happy marriages had taken place across the straits, and numerous Pentecost islanders, including the MP himself, counted their in-laws among those displaced from Ambae. In his time as school principal at Ranwadi, the MP had welcomed many hundreds of Ambae students who had proven either too good or too naughty for their local schools, and had in turn dispatched a number of students who had fallen foul of the discipline policies at Ranwadi to make a fresh start at schools on Ambae.

After the MP's speech, and a brief introduction by the director of the National Disaster Management Office, the Prime Minister stood up to take the microphone. He wore a lightweight shirt of cool blue, and his sunglasses were perched on his nose like reading glasses, giving him a serious air, even though his speech was unscripted. The evacuees gathered around the nakamal listened eagerly, because there had been meeting of the Council of Ministers the day before and rumour had it that the Prime Minister would be making a big announcement about when they would be going home. The announcement had in fact already come out in the daily newspaper, but printed copies of that seldom reached Pentecost, and almost nobody read the news online, except in Facebook news feeds where plausible articles competed for space with photoshopped images of anacondas the size of Underground trains and predictions of the end of the world. And even that depended on the ever-unreliable network. When someone started telling me that Kim Jong Un had unleashed a giant nuclear-armed anaconda against the United States, if I was near the tower that did have its batteries in and the network was having a good day, I could call up BBC News Online and prove him wrong. The rest of the time I could do nothing but tell the coconut newsmongers that I found their story implausible, which made no impression. To functionally-illiterate islanders the world was without facts, everything was just one person's word against another's. But if the Prime Minister took the trouble to come and say something, his word was probably better than most.

There was no cheering or applause when the Prime Minister announced that, after consulting with volcanologists and disaster-relief agencies, it had been deemed safe for the islanders to return home. Partly this is because one does not show enthusiasm during this type of event in Vanuatu, one listens politely. Partly this was because no return date had been set – the National Disaster Management office was still assessing the situation on the ground, transport was still being arranged, and even when disaster-ready logistics teams were on the case it was foolish to bet on what date a ship would turn up in Vanuatu. And partly it was because the evacuees were uncertain of what they would be returning home to. Although the volcano had now been deemed unlikely to blow Ambae in two, or blast anything deadly within range of the island's population centres, it was still letting off explosions and blasting out unpleasant-looking clouds that could be seen and heard from the other side of the province. Teams had already visited the evacuee camps handing out leaflets full of newly-coined Pidgin terminology, telling the evacuees what to do if ashes, acid rain or 'hot flows of sand-beach' descended on their villages. Basically stay indoors, don't panic, and do what you can afterwards to clean up the mess. And try your best to keep all the erupted shit out of your drinking water. It didn't sound like fun.

While the Prime Minister was talking, the local councillor and one of the Prime Minister's aides were spreading long red mats – ceremonial money – on the grass in front of the nakamal. The breeze blowing down from the mountain threatened to roll up the end of one of the mats; Michael came forward with a stone and triumphantly weighed it down. A giant black pig with prized tusks had already been tied to a stake in front of the nakamal, and a small heap of taro had been laid out. This presentation of gifts was the main thing the government delegation had come for: the formal ceremony at which the host communities would be thanked for hosting the evacuees. No act of significance could be allowed to pass by without such an act of 'custom' taking place. By this ceremonial settling of an account, the natamata – the interwoven threads of social fibre that bound together the islanders' communities – would be strengthened and maintained, and the evacuees would be free to return home in a state of harmony with their neighbours and the world.

The Prime Minister took up a ceremonial stick, left the microphone and the shade of the awning, and stepped forward into the centre of the clearing. He began speaking the native language, no longer a politician now but a high chief, reciting the sort of words that had to be recited every time an act of custom was being performed. The sun shone down, and drops of rain were flicking out of the blue sky, blown over the ridge from the wet side of the island by the strong wind. No chief would balk at standing in rain or wind or sun to perform custom, and neither did the Prime Minister, but the possibility of his MP's most important guest getting slightly hot and damp was intolerable to Michael, who stepped forward with an umbrella, a big multi-coloured one with its owner's name scrawled onto it in five or six different places in permanent marker. As chiefs from each of the host communities circled three times, ceremonially accepting the gifts, Michael stood in the centre of the proceedings with the Prime Minister under the umbrella, grinning heroically.

The transaction complete, the Prime Minister returned to the awning, and the provincial president took to the microphone to give a speech. I half-listened with disinterest, and watched the councillor fold up the mats. The pig, still tied to its stake, became agitated. Nobody seemed sure whether customary protocol in a volcano-evacuation situation required a pig to be killed or merely handed over, but the pig decided not to take the risk. It broke free from its stake and walked off. The provincial president continued talking. The pig passed unhindered through the group of chiefs and councillors, none of whom wanted to interrupt the speech by trying to wrestle the giant pig in front of the assembled big men, and disappeared among the soursop bushes behind the nakamal.

Pigs with curved tusks are exceptionally valuable, because they have to be hand-reared on soft foods for several years and kept penned up so that they don't break their tusks. It slowly dawned on some of the onlookers around the nakamal that letting this pig wander off into the bushes wasn't a good idea. A group of villagers, led by Michael's brother, silently followed the pig into the bushes. One of them held a machete, another wielded a length of rope. I followed too.

The men cornered the pig by a stream behind the bushes, and would have made a quick recapture, if two of the dogs hanging around hadn't suddenly realised that the pig was fair game for a chase, and begun barking at its heels. The frightened pig plunged through the stream and made off into the plantation behind the village, with five or six men now running after it. The pursuers caught up with the pig at the edge of the village, at the point where the plantation began to slope steeply up the mountain; the villagers were nimbler than the huge pig on this terrain. Two of them grabbed the pig's hind legs, while its squealing front end vainly tried to bury itself in a bush. The men flipped the fat animal over on its back, like a baby having its nappy changed, and tied a rope around its leg. However, the pig wasn't in any mood to go back to the nakamal, and was far too heavy and obstinate to drag by force. From one side of the bush, men yanked the rope, and from the other side, they poked at the pig's fat bottom with a coconut leaf, but the animal was immovable.

"Maybe it's hungry," someone said. A pig this size must be used to being well fed. The person with the machete hacked open a coconut and waved it in front of the pig. The pig looked up and grudgingly allowed itself to be hauled down the slope and back into the village. Michael's brother led the prized animal triumphantly back towards the nakamal, where the provincial president was still talking.

"We're done with the pig now," the chief hissed. "Take it away."

The pig was tied up in the shade under the beach hibiscus, and stood contentedly there eating its coconut, satisfied that it was now safe from being murdered by the Prime Minister's delegation.

"I'll sell it later and divide up the cash with the other chiefs," the chief told me later, when I asked what would become of the pig. People in Waterfall didn't perform big rituals with pigs very often any more – the local church didn't care for custom, and with easy access to roads and ships, the village's inhabitants had better things to do for a living than rearing huge porkers for the sake of community diplomacy. But people from more traditional parts of the island who had accounts to settle occasionally came looking for pigs for sale, politicians needed them from time to time, and there were plenty of special occasions everywhere that called for pork. The pig had been spared today, but its time would come.

- - -

For the evacuees from Ambae, the end came sooner than anyone had anticipated. Only two days after the Prime Minister's visit, news came that a ship was on its way to take some of them back home. There had been talk of village-by-village assessments, of prioritising the strong and fit, and of publishing a detailed logistics plan over the course of the next fortnight. But once the government had given the go-ahead, all anyone really wanted to do was get the evacuees home. Once again, a Vanuatu committee tasked with organising something appeared to have quietly accepted that it wasn't really worth doing at all. Within a week the evacuees had all gone home.

I have only unreliable news about what happened when they got back to Ambae. Some wrote on Facebook that they were hungry, left hanging around at harbours with no transport back to their home villages, or went thirsty with centimetres of ash in their water tanks. Others wrote that they were thrilled to be home. Some people praised the government and supporting agencies for their handling of the evacuation; others complained that the islanders had been mistreated by the authorities. I do not know whether these differing perspectives reflect different experiences, or just different political allegiances. Everyone agreed that the evacuation had taught those involved in disaster relief in Vanuatu a lot about how to handle such incidents. And if some future disaster ever rendered Pentecost temporarily uninhabitable, its people would surely find friends on Ambae.

Nobody yet knows what will become of the volcano. I cannot even see if it is still spitting out clouds of smoke and ash. The evacuees had enjoyed a month of unusually cool and dry weather on Pentecost, but the week they left, the weather turned sultry and a hot haze ascended over the ocean, curtaining off the other islands from view. Perhaps the volcano has gone dormant again. Or perhaps it is just now priming itself ready to blow the island apart. It is a risk that the people living on the mountain's edge accept as the price of their homes.

The day after the last of the evacuees left, Pentecost felt just as it had before the evacuation. Ordinary island life resumed like an automatic movie player: people went to their gardens, sawed up timber for their fence posts, gathered firewood for their kitchens, pinned together lines of thatch for their houses, shovelled sand and gravel into sacks for community building projects, and organised marriages and funerals. Those heavily involved in looking after the evacuees had lost a month of their working lives. Nobody complained about that: time is a free resource here, like falling coconut leaves and the water in the river. Cattle mooched and shat on the dry grass where the evacuees had packed up their tents. Sheets of corrugated metal that had been used to make temporary shelters were taken down again, and rubbish was burned or left to be scattered away by the wind. Kava drinkers, who had temporarily relocated their habit to a variety of half-disused huts and shacks while the evacuees slept in the good buildings, were restored to their old nakamals. The faces by the roadside were few and familiar again.

Looking out across the ocean at the luminous mist that disguised the horizon, you could no longer see that Ambae island was even there. Maybe it actually wasn't there any more. But if so, we would probably have heard the bang.

- - -

* Specifically, the rule in Ambae language prohibits the 'low' vowel 'a' from occurring in between the high vowels 'i' and 'u'. This combination has a nice exotic ring – think of Bali Ha'i – but anywhere it might occur on Ambae, the language automatically converts the 'a' to 'e'. Thus, for example, vanuaku, which in the prototypical local language means "my land" (and inspired the name of one of Vanuatu's first political parties) becomes vanueku on Ambae. Had James Michener's Ambae-inspired paradise been linguistically true to life, it would have been called Bali He'i, and probably wouldn't have inspired a song in the South Pacific musical. And if Vanuatu had been led to independence by an Ambae islander rather than a Pentecost islander, it might well have ended up being called Vanuetu.

"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.