The community run by the famous Chief Viraleo at Lafatmangemu is, first and|
foremost, a school. Not a school like Ranwadi, with its computers and
photocopiers and piles of textbooks following curricula designed in
Australia and New Zealand, taught largely by staff born or educated abroad.
Chief Viraleo's establishment was a school of custom. It claimed to be a
place where islanders could come to be schooled not in Western ideas and
Western languages, but in Pentecost's native traditions.
Students of all ages come from all over the island to attend lessons, which
are held during the first week of each lunar month (the Western calendar has
been dispensed with in Lafatmangemu). I arrived on the day before the full
moon - the middle of the month - and the place was relatively empty,
although a few scholars remained. Most were young men. Many were introduced
as assistant chiefs, who had come to Lafatmangemu to acquire knowledge about
traditional customs which they would then take back and share with their
Upon my arrival I was shown the way to school office, which occupied the
upper level of an impressed two-storey building made entirely from local
wood and bamboo (except for the tin roof, and even that was lined on the
inside with a woven bamboo ceiling). I clambered up the wooden staircase and
was met at the door of the office by a bearded scholar.
"Ihaku be Andrew. Nan mai Ranwadi." That was as much North Pentecost
Language as I could manage; I switched into Pidgin English, and asked if
Chief Viraleo was around.
The assistant showed me into the room. It was large, cosy-looking, and
richly decorated with everything from sculptures in traditional patterns to
posters of local wildlife. Many of the notices on the walls consisted of
strange, loopy symbols: Pentecost's native writing system. This was Avoiuli,
the 39-letter alphabet based on designs in ancient sand drawings that Chief
Viraleo had spent fourteen years deciphering (or, according to his critics,
The chief was sitting in front of an old fashioned ledger, filled with his
native writing. He was a younger man than I expected, with a shaved head,
narrow reading glasses and the air of an eccentric schoolteacher. He got up,
walked over to me, and tapped his forehead against mine.
"That's our custom greeting. We don't shake hands here."
I introduced myself properly and explained why I had come. "I've heard lots
of stories about this place."
"Yes, the BBC were filming here a few weeks ago," Chief Viraleo said. "One
of their people was called Andrew too."
I knew - several friends and relatives had forwarded me the news article.
The BBC had come to report not on the school, but on another of Chief
Viraleo's ventures, his 'custom bank'. Instead of dealing in vatu, Vanuatu's
official currency, the bank at Lafatmangemu deals in 'livatu', a novel
currency based on the red mats and curved boar's tusks that Pentecost
islanders traditionally used as money.
A lifetime's education at the school of custom costs 72 livatu. At an
official exchange rate of 18,000 vatu ($180) to the livatu, this amounts to
over a million vatu - a lot of money even by Western standards, and
substantially more than the cost of an education at Vanuatu's ordinary
schools. Some sceptics, looking at the price of pigs' tusks and mats in
their own villages, claim that the livatu is overvalued. However, since
pigs' tusks and mats are not identical and some are naturally worth more
than others, this is hard to prove.
"What if I wanted to stay for just a couple of days at your school, learning
about custom?" I asked. "Do you offer short courses?"
"Do you have any livatu?"
"What do you mean?" Lacking the right currency was a problem I'd only
encountered before when crossing international borders, not when crossing a
five-mile-wide island in one small corner of one small country.
"Do you have any pig's teeth?"
Damn, I left those at home.
"Couldn't I pay in vatu?"
Chief Viraleo gave me a look like an animal rights activist whose friend has
just asked if she'd look good in a fur coat.
"Sorry to corrupt your village with white man's money," I said. "It's all I
have." Surely the chief's bank could convert it for me.
Chief Viraleo thought for a while, and accepted. We negotiated a price.
"You can pay your school fees at a ceremony this afternoon," he told me.
According to custom, it seemed, you can't just hand something over and get a
receipt. I would have to stand in the nasara while a chief walked around
three times, inspecting my cash as if it were a red mat or a pig that I was
presenting for approval, while a speech was given thanking me and welcoming
me into the school.
From outside came the thudding noise of a slit drum: the school bell.
I followed the chief and his assistant down the wooden steps of the
building, across a forest clearing and into the huge nakamal that served as
both the school's classroom and its dining hall. The building had a brown
dirt floor and no walls, just an enormous, overhanging roof, made entirely
from bamboo and palm thatch and supported on pillars made from tree trunks.
Benches of local timber ran along the sides of the nakamal, and an
old-fashioned blackboard stood at one end. A blossoming nakavika tree
carpeted the bare ground outside in deep pink fluff.
A rather un-traditional bank of fluorescent lights had been attached to the
rafters of the nakamal, connected by garish pale wires to a light switch on
one of the pillars.
"We only run the electricity generator on special occasions," Chief Viraleo
An old man entered the nakamal.
"Rantavuha," I said. Good day.
"We don't use that phrase here," Chief Viraleo said. "Here we follow the old
custom: we address people as family. If a man is your father, you greet him
with the word 'father'. If he is your uncle, you greet him as 'uncle'. Or if
he is a chief, you can address him by his chiefly title."
"What if you don't know who somebody is?" This wasn't an issue in
traditional times, when strangers in the village were a rare sight and any
who did turn up were likely to be treated with suspicion rather than greeted
cordially, but Pentecost society has changed since then.
"You should call him 'tua'." The local word for 'brother'.
"We find that using the old system helps make sure we know our families,"
Chief Viraleo explained. "If you just say good day, you start to forget who
Women shuffled into the nakamal and began laying out food. A group of
slightly malnourished-looking children wandered at their feet.
"Here we eat only local food," Chief Viraleo said. "We don't eat anything
that we buy from the store."
"No biscuits, no chocolate, no tomato sauce?" I said. "I feel sorry for
Nobody in Lafatmangemu eats from plates or dishes. Instead, each person's
food was served on a woven, basket-like tray, lined with giant heliconia
leaves. One of the women handed me such a tray, heaped with an absurd
quantity of food. There were pieces of baked tuber in an assortment of
phallic shapes, which were bland and starchy in varying degrees, along with
chewy slabs of grated vegetable that had been mashed up with coconut milk
and baked in a fire to make laplap, Vanuatu's national dish. Some visitors
to the country take to laplap, others despise it; none would choose to eat
it for three meals a day.
A side dish, consisting of a gigantic bean pod that had been boiled down
into greenish-brown mush, was handed to me in a bowl made from a giant
"Try this," said Chief Viraleo, pulling out the inside of an exotic-looking
whelk and handing it to me. It had a green tinge, and tasted as if it had
been plucked straight from the reef at low tide. I swallowed.
After lunch, I was shown to the dormitory that I would be sharing with the
scholars. This was another dirt-floored nakamal, dark except for the grey
light straining through slats in the walls. There were no beds or
mattresses; instead, people slept on woven pandanus mats on the floor, with
coconut leaves underneath them for padding. I lay down and found that
midribs of the leaves dug into my back, making it hard to get comfortable.
The pillows, too, were made from strips of pandanus, hard and shiny, woven
together at the edges and stuffed with crushed-up leaves. Woven mats were
historically used as bed covers, too, but here at Lafatmangemu the scholars
had brought along ragged sheets of cloth to sleep under. Some had also
strung mosquito nets over their beds. There are custom medicines that can
relieve malaria, but people didn't seem to put too much faith in them.
That afternoon, I rested and chatted to Chief Viraleo. Another chief was
introduced, a yellow-haired and elderly man, and I paid my school fees.
After circling me three times, the old man slapped me on the legs like a
prized pig as I handed over the money.
At sunset, the men at Lafatmangemu gathered in yet another nakamal, higher
up the hill, to drink kava while women and children busied themselves in the
background preparing dinner. The nakamal was in the process of being
rebuilt, and half of the building consisted of bare wooden posts, with a
gnarled yet sturdy-looking ladder made of local wood leaning against them.
Bats flapped in and out of the nakamal, and the forest outside was
mystic-looking in the moonlight.
Wood fires glowed under the cooking pots, and one woman held a bundle of
strips from a coconut frond which she used as a flaming torch, shaking it
every time the light dimmed so that it flared into life, scattering glowing
sparks on the ground. Small lanterns illuminated the rest of building.
Paraffin being a Muggle invention, and an expensive one, the people of
Lafatmangemu fuelled their lamps using locally-pressed coconut oil instead
(a very sensible idea that other communities in Vanuatu ought to copy). Some
of the little lights were made with half-coconut shells; others burned
inside tall glass jars.
"We found the jars washed up on the beach," Chief Viraleo told me. "We think
they came from Fiji."
Supper was handed out in individual baskets, which each man took back to eat
the dormitory after he'd finished drinking kava. When I returned to the
dormitory, my companions had already lit a camp fire in the middle of the
floor and were sitting around it on wooden stumps, tearing apart lumps of
pig and taro from their baskets. I joined them, licking my greasy fingers -
there are no knives and forks in Lafatmangemu - and flicking gristly bits of
pig into the fire. The fire died down as we finished eating (which I was
thankful for, as it was rather close to my flammable-looking sleeping mat).
By the time I fell asleep the only light in the dormitory came from red
embers and a green luminous mushroom growing out of one of the wooden posts
in the wall.
I woke at dawn the next day and went in search of a stream or a river in
which to wash. (I knew better than to ask Chief Viraleo where the bathroom
was.) I was shown the way to the village well, a deep, sandy hole in the
forest with slippery spiral steps running around the edge. Constructing a
narrow, European-style well with a winch for hoisting up water would have
been impossible in the days of true custom, I realised. At the bottom of the
well was a black, murky puddle of water, overhung by ferns. I filled up a
bucket (waterproof containers are one concession to modernisation that
you'll find even in the most traditional of Vanuatu communities) and
disappeared into a nearby shack of coconut leaves to have a shower.
Breakfast consisted of more laplap and tubers, with a clamshell of boiled
cabbage on the side. I made a mental note: when visiting custom villages,
bring a supply of chocolate.
"We find we have more strength when we eat only traditional food," Chief
Viraleo told me.
Forget strength - I wanted a sugar hit.
After breakfast, the scholars went to work on various activities, and I
followed Chief Viraleo back into his office.
"So, what do you want to learn?" he asked.
I had lots of questions for the chief, but the thing I had really come to
find out about was language. A while ago, with the help of my students at
Ranwadi, I had begun the daunting task of trying and compile a phrasebook of
all five of Pentecost's native languages (and their thirteen dialects).
Several students obligingly contributed words and phrases, but a problem
emerged: the language of Pentecost's youth today is insidiously mixed with
Pentecost's native tongues are the languages of Stone Age people. In their
original form, they lacked a vast number of words that are necessary in
modern life: not just for technologies such as 'engine' and 'telephone', but
also for the intangible concepts of big civilisation, such as 'association'
and 'government'. Some speakers have attempted to solve this problem the
Icelandic way, by creatively rearranging the words they already had in their
languages: there is a local word for 'plane' that translates literally as
'flying canoe'. However, the main way in which the problem was solved was by
massive borrowing of words from the foreigners who had introduced all these
new things to the islands.
As a means of acquiring terminology for new concepts, there is no harm in
this. After all, this kind of borrowing is largely how the English language
itself has expanded and enriched itself over the years. However, on
Pentecost the mixing of indigenous languages with the national one has
become such a habit that even perfectly good native words, such the terms
for 'blue' and 'thousand', are now being replaced by the Pidgin English
equivalents. Some villagers tell me that the language of children educated
in Churches of Christ schools such as Ranwadi is particularly corrupt.
Some borrowed words have been so mangled in the conversion that people no
longer even realise that they are foreign words. Even native English
speakers have difficulty spotting that 'kolosisi' (toilet), for example,
comes from their own language.
If Pentecost's young people want to alter their languages, that is their
choice. However, it would be immensely sad if there were no record of the
old words - something that my students can look back on in fifty years time
if they wish to reminisce about the language their grandparents' once spoke.
In the phrasebook, therefore, I wanted to try and include as many genuine
native words as possible, alongside their Pidgin replacements. And if there
was one person who was sure to know the traditional words, it was Chief
The chief and I spent the morning flicking through books and notes, and
writing down words. Sometimes Chief Viraleo would scribble down a word in
his own alphabet first, and ponder over it for a while before offering me a
Western transliteration. We pored over pictures of birds and trees. The ones
that the chief didn't recognise from the pictures, we showed to the other
scholars down at the nakamal at lunchtime. I sat in the centre of half a
dozen young men, all vigorously debating the identity of a particular
"It grows deep in the bush; flying foxes take the fruit. Yellow fruit, not
red ones. Maybe they're the same kind. Straight wood, black in the centre.
People used to make arrows out of it. No, that's not the right name, wait,
it'll come to me. This tree is a."
And I would hurriedly scribble down the word as the men smiled and agreed
that this was indeed the correct name of the tree.
I asked a lot of questions at the school of custom, and got answers to most
of them. However, the exchange of ideas went both ways, and during the two
days I found myself trying awkwardly to string together Pidgin English
answers to some very searching questions. Chief Viraleo had one of the most
probing minds of anyone I'd met. In conversation he had a bright stare that
gave the impression he was weighing what had been said carefully, finding
the connections, and analysing how it fitted into his eccentric picture of
"What are you reading?" he asked, arriving in the nakamal after an afternoon
break and scrutinising my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
"A story," I told him. "A story about a boy who fights against people who
use black magic."
"Ah yes, black magic."
"It's just a story," I said. Although it would be hard to find any school in
the real world that resembled Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
more closely than Chief Viraleo's school of custom.
"You're a science teacher, aren't you?" he asked.
"Do scientists believe there is magic?"
"No," I said.
"But what is magic?"
Magic is anything that scientists don't believe possible, I thought, but
realised that this was a circular argument. It was actually a good question:
how do you define magic?
"Imagine if somebody wants to move a stone," I said, giving the first
example that came into my head. "If they move it by touching it, or blowing
on it, or poking it with something, that is normal. But if they can move it
without touching it or pushing it in any way, that is magic."
"Here, stones move without being touched or pushed," Chief Viraleo informed
"Yes. A while ago, a huge stone appeared on the reef down there. Nobody knew
where it had come from. It just appeared. That was magic."
"The sea probably shifted it there."
"But it was a big stone. A really big one. The sea couldn't have moved it.
Nobody could have moved it. It just appeared."
"You believe in magic then?"
"Yes, of course." Chief Viraleo looked at me inquisitively. "But you really
"No, I don't."
Chief Viraleo thought for a moment. "What if a sick person uses a leaf to
make himself better? Is that magic?"
"Not necessarily," I said. "Plenty of leaves are known to act as medicines."
"What if a person uses a leaf to make it rain on a hot day?"
"That would be magic."
"What's the difference?"
"Scientists know how medicinal leaves work," I said. "They can study them,
and find out what's inside the leaf that helps the body to heal. But there's
no means by which rubbing a leaf can cause rain."
"People here use the leaves, and when they do, it starts to rain."
"Perhaps it would have rained anyway." It rains a lot on East Pentecost.
"But it always happens after people do their magic."
"When do people do this magic?" I asked, rhetorically. "They do it after a
hot day. And that's the time when it rains. Scientists can explain that -
it's got nothing to do with leaves. On a hot day, the power of the sun
causes water to rise up into the air. Afterwards, that water falls back down
as rain. That would happen whether you rubbed the leaves or not."
Chief Viraleo was chuckling and smiling. He didn't believe me, but he was
enjoying the debate.
"Do scientists believe in things like gods and spirits?" he asked.
"So those are part of science?"
"What are they then?"
Chief Viraleo nodded. "And not all scientists believe in these things?"
"But how can you explain the creation of the world, if there are no gods and
"Oh, scientists have a very good explanation for that," I said. "Before the
world existed, there were lots of stones flying around in space. Scientists
have another story explaining how those stones got there in the first
place," I added quickly, forestalling a possible objection to my theory.
"Those stones came together, one by one, to make bigger stones. They were
pulled together, in the same way that things are pulled towards the ground."
I demonstrated this by dropping Harry Potter; the heavy book hit the bench
below with satisfying force. "Bigger and bigger rocks came together, and
eventually formed a really big stone - the world we're standing on."
"Yes, someone else told me there are lots of stones flying around in space,"
Chief Viraleo said, interested. "Is it true that one of them could fall down
and kill us?"
"It could happen," I said, "but it probably won't. Most of the stones are so
small that they burn up in the air. When you see a falling star, that's what
it is - a burning stone from space."
Chief Viraleo looked a little confused. In the down-to-earth lives of the
ni-Vanuatu, one of the essential properties of a stone is that it doesn't
"But sometimes these stones do hit the ground?"
"Yes." I smiled. "Maybe that's where the mystery stone on your reef came
from. Maybe it came from space."
We all laughed.
"What about the other stars? The ones that don't move."
"They're like the sun," I said. "Like the sun, but very far away."
"And the planets?"
"They're like the world we're on," I said, "except that there are no trees
or animals or water. Just empty stone, and sometimes clouds."
"How many planets do scientists believe in?"
"There are eight going around the sun," I said. "Eight, including the world
we're on. Scientists used to say that there were nine, but then they held a
meeting and decided that the ninth shouldn't be called a planet. It's really
just another big stone."
"In our custom, we believe that there are ten planets," Chief Viraleo said.
That was interesting. "So your ancestors knew that our world isn't the only
"Did they realise that our world is round?"
"Yes, they knew that."
"They saw it in an ancient sand drawing," he said, crouching down and
scratching a design in the dirt floor. The design was enclosed by a circle.
"This circle," Chief Viraleo said, tracing it with his finger, "is formed by
the wind, blowing around the world."
That made sense. The wind blows across Pentecost largely in one direction -
as the unfortunate inhabitants of the east coast, who are on the windward
side of the island, know well. It would be natural to assume that the wind
was going around in a circuit and coming back.
"So your ancestors invented this drawing."
"No, it was here before them."
That was strange. "Are they any legends about how your ancestors first
arrived on Pentecost?" I asked.
"They didn't arrive," Chief Viraleo told me. "They were created here."
This, too, was strange. I'd heard other stories - from local people, as well
as history books - recounting the arrival of the first ni-Vanuatu in canoes
across the ocean. One local legend puts their arrival on Pentecost at 140
generations ago, which fits fairly well with archaeologists' beliefs.
"So people were created here on Pentecost, and then spread to the rest of
"Yes. They built a ship, and sailed away across the ocean. And I now know
where that ship went ashore," Chief Viraleo proclaimed.
Apart from being on almost exactly the opposite side of the world, I was
pretty sure that Mali is a landlocked country - quite an unlikely place for
a ship full of Pacific islanders to turn up.
"How do you know this?" I asked.
"I was in Brussels once," Chief Viraleo told me. "I went there to attend a
conference on traditional culture. I went out for dinner one evening, at a
restaurant. In restaurants in Europe, you can ask for anything you want, and
they will cook it for you," he added, for the benefit of the assistant
sitting next to him.
In Pentecost food shacks, the choice of meal depends entirely on what the
chef happens to be stewing up that day.
"I ordered a steak, and they brought me a steak. I asked for a glass of
wine, and they brought me wine."
Chief Viraleo's assistant whistled, impressed.
"And then I noticed that there was a sand-drawing design on the wall. It was
exactly the same as the designs on Pentecost."
A lot of Pentecost's traditional sand-drawings are quite simple patterns; it
wouldn't be particularly surprising if somebody else in world had arrived by
chance at the same design. I knew it would be useless to try and suggest
"I asked where the design had come from. The chef said it had come from
Mali. So I know that the ship from Pentecost went to Mali."
"Mali is a desert country," I said. "It has a lot of sand. Maybe the people
there invented sand drawing for themselves."
"But this design was exactly the same as the ones on Pentecost."
Try looking up 'coincidence' in the dictionary of Vanuatu Pidgin English -
it's not there. The word doesn't exist in the islanders' vocabularies.
I tried a different argument. "How do you know that the design wasn't
invented in Mali, and then taken to Pentecost later?"
"Because our ancestors understood the meaning of the design. They knew what
it symbolised. That proves that it started here."
Five minutes earlier I'd felt as if I was in a Harry Potter story. Now it
seemed like I'd strayed into the Da Vinci Code.
"The Bible doesn't say anything about Man being created in Vanuatu, I said."
Citing the Bible is usually a fail-safe way to win an argument with a
"No, but in custom, we believe that's how it happened."
"So you don't follow the Bible?" Hearing a Pentecost islander contradict the
Bible was like hearing a Scotsman praise the English - refreshing,
provocative, and unsettlingly strange. "Do you believe in God?"
"I was schooled as an Anglican," Chief Viraleo said. Exactly the same
evasive response that I give when people on Pentecost ask my religion.
"Is there a church here?"
"There's one in the next village." Evasive again.
Chief Viraleo, I realised later, was reluctant to tell me his beliefs for
fear that I'd criticise him as a sinner. Over shells of kava that evening,
the other scholars were more open.
"Back in our villages, there are people who don't want anything to do with
us, because we no longer pray," one told me. "But we're not living without
religion - we do have gods."
"In custom, there are two gods," another explained. "Everyone else in the
world says there is one god. It is only here on Pentecost that we believe in
"Plenty of cultures believe in many gods," I said. "But having exactly two
gods - that is unusual."
"There must be two gods, because there is two of everything in the world,"
the scholar explained. "Look at yourself. You have two eyes. Two ears. Two
hands. Two legs. People are divided into men and women - two kinds. It's the
same with animals - two of each kind. So there must be two gods."
I wanted to explain that there are species of micro-organism that have
dozens of different sexes, but my Pidgin English failed me.
"What if the two gods disagree about how to run the world?" I asked.
"They don't. They work together."
"Then how can you be sure that there are two of them?"
"Look," one of the scholars said, "The Bible talks about God and Satan,
"God and Satan - there you are. Two of them. Two gods - just like ours."
"Satan isn't a god," I protested.
"Why do you say that?"
I thought about this, and realised that Satan does in fact have all the
attributes of a god.
"You see," one of the scholars said. "Our beliefs aren't really that
different from the Bible."
God-fearing islanders don't all see it that way. A couple of days after
returning to Ranwadi, when I told the men down at the nakamal about my trip
to Lafatmangemu, Old Zaccheus the Principal's father was visibly angry at
what he heard.
"You see this," he said, wavy a chubby finger at the candle illuminating the
nakamal. "This is what the missionaries brought us. Light! The light of God!
Before they came, we were down here, in darkness." He pointed at the shadow
cast by the wooden stump on which the candle stood. "People were fighting
each other. They were killing each other. They were eating each other! Then
the word of God arrived, and we rose up into light." He illustrated this
progress with hand gestures directed at the candle. "Now they want to drag
us back down into darkness again!"
I stared thoughtfully at the darkness underneath the candle.
"I've spoken to people from villages where people have gone and joined the
school at Lafatmangemu," the old man went on. "There are no pigs' tusks or
red mats left in those villages now. The people have given them all to
Viraleo. All of them. What will happen if one of them wants to get married?
How will they pay for the ceremony? All their pigs and mats are gone! And
for what? It's. it's. all just a."
I think the word that Old Zaccheus (and several other people I spoke) to
were skirting around, or perhaps didn't know, was "cult". Vanuatu, with its
deeply spiritual, tribally-minded and intellectually isolated people, has
always been a rich spawning ground for cults. The arrival in the past
century of European sailors and American soldiers laden with fabulous
foreign goods spawned cargo cults, some of whose followers actually built
roads and wharves in preparation to receive the miraculous cargo which they
believed would be delivered if they prayed hard enough for it. Elsewhere in
the country, the idea that the British royal family are of ni-Vanuatu
ancestry (an improbable belief that is surprisingly widespread throughout
Vanuatu) has reportedly given rise to a cult of people who worship Prince
Philip. Could Chief Viraleo's quirky establishment be just another cult, a
group of followers bewitched by a persuasive yet self-serving leader?
But it was natural for Zaccheus to be angry at the developments at
Lafatmangemu, I thought: he is an elder of the church. And some of the more
evangelical church ministries that find eager audiences in Vanuatu have
cult-like qualities themselves.
I remembered Benny Hinn, the multi-millionaire American faith healer whose
begging letters addressed to poor students continue to pile up in the inbox
at Ranwadi, even after I returned one of them with a letter of my own
explaining to Mr Hinn and his colleagues that the people they are writing to
are struggling Third World schoolchildren and pleading for the poor kids to
be removed from his mailing list. If the people of Pentecost are going to
put their money and faith in the hands of a questionable leader, it has to
be better that they throw in their lot with Chief Viraleo - who has never
threatened anybody with hellfire and who promises his followers nothing more
than a thought-provoking education (a promise that he capably fulfils) -
than with the likes of Benny Hinn.
"Another thing," Old Zaccheus continued, "is that the idea of using only
custom money doesn't make sense. What if I want to order something from
town? They will want cash - they won't accept red mats! And what if the
Japanese lend us money for a project? They won't want to be paid back in
This had occurred to me too. I've heard too many comments - not just from
Chief Viraleo, but also from Western journalists who have reported on his
banking scheme - implying that the 'custom economy' somehow offers the
islanders a means of relief from poverty. Their logic seems to run something
like this: in an economy based on vatu and dollars the people of Vanuatu are
poor, because they have little money, but in an economy based on pigs and
red mats they are rich, because those things are plentiful here. You don't
have to be an economist to spot the flaw in this. Vanuatu's economic problem
is an external one: there is a 3 billion vatu difference between the money
that Vanuatu spends on foreign imports and the money that it earns with
which to pay for those goods. Unless the Australians and Taiwanese develop a
sudden desire to own highly-curved tusks, custom currency cannot possibly be
used to make up the shortfall.
Of course, traditional money can and does play a role in the internal
economy of islands such as Pentecost. However, apart from its cultural
cuteness it's hard to see why it's better than Western money, and it does in
fact have some disadvantages. As I pointed out to one scholar at
Lafatmangemu who tried to tell me that coins and banknotes were a pointless
invention, you can't put a pig in your wallet.
"Chief Viraleo isn't the only one promoting the custom economy," I told
Zaccheus in his defence. "The Vanuatu government is into it too. After all,
they've just ruled that only traditional items such as pigs and mats - not
vatu - can be used in ceremonies."
This caused a murmuring around the nakamal. The villagers, it seemed, hadn't
been aware of this.
"There was a wedding down the coast yesterday," somebody said. "The bride
was paid for with vatu."
"It's a free country," said Old Zaccheus defiantly. "If people want to use
vatu in their ceremonies, they have the right to do that. What right does
the government have to stop them?"
"There are already plenty of laws and customs that control how people use
money," I pointed out. "Both here and in countries like mine, there are
certain things that it's perfectly legal to give someone, but utterly
forbidden to sell for money. Political influence, for instance. Or sex."
In fact, I realised, those are exactly the two things that are generally
bought and sold with custom currency - the former at grade-taking rituals
where the slaughter of pigs allows a man to rise through the chiefly ranks,
the latter at weddings. It wasn't really surprising that the government
objected to the use of cash in such ceremonies.
"But what if somebody who wants to get married has a lot of vatu, but no
"Then he can use his money to buy pigs and mats from someone who does have
them." Chief Viraleo would do nicely out of the whole business. Perhaps the
guy did understand economics after all.
However far-fetched his ideas may have been, Chief Viraleo was
unquestionably a thinker - and he was the kind of thinker who inspires the
people around him to think too. At the end of the day, I liked and respected
him for that.
"On my trip to Europe, I went to England," the chief had told me. "I was
really surprised at what I found there. I had been taught that England was a
great country. It used to lead the world. Yet when I arrived there, I found
people begging on the road. People with no food and no money. It was the
same in the other countries I went to. Big, rich, powerful countries. It was
a real surprise to go there and find people who were hungry."
"I know," I said. It's a paradox that Vanuatu, which is among the poorest of
the thirty-two countries I've visited, is also the only one in which nobody
begs on the streets.
"And yet the people I saw in the restaurants threw their half-eaten food
into the dustbin. The ones who were hungry on the road had to come and eat
it out of the dustbin. Why couldn't the people in the restaurants just have
given their unwanted food straight to the people who needed it?"
I had never really thought about this before. Perhaps they couldn't be
bothered, I mused, although I didn't say this out loud. Sharing food is an
important way in which ni-Vanuatu show their friendship, not just with their
friends and neighbours but also with visitors and strangers, and I was
frightened of what Chief Viraleo would think of a society that allows the
person on the other side of the road to go hungry simply because the person
with food to spare cannot be bothered to go across and hand it over. My
second thought was that restaurants nowadays would probably be frightened of
being sued, if their generosity happened to inadvertently make somebody ill.
I didn't share this idea either; my ni-Vanuatu companions would have found
it too ridiculous for words.
I said nothing. Chief Viraleo stared at me quizzically. I suspected I knew
what he was thinking. It isn't always our customs that are the crazy ones.