The big men of the North

Nobody had told the headmaster of Atavtabangga Primary School that two government ministers were about to drop onto his playing field.

“I should go and hang up a namele leaf,” he joked. In Vanuatu the spiky namele palm is a sacred symbol of authority. Nobody, not even a helicopter carrying members of the government, would trespass where one had been displayed, at least not until his passage had been straightened out with the local chief. A disgruntled citizen once managed to have a government office closed down by the simple act of laying a namele leaf across the front door.

My phone rang. It was the guy from the National Disaster Management Office to whom I’d carelessly mentioned two days earlier that I might be available to make a visit to Pentecost Island. “Alright matey. How’s it going giving out the disaster assessment forms?”

“We’ve been interrupted. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Internal Affairs Minister are on their way here in a helicopter. Apparently they’re going to tell everyone how the aid will be given out.”

“But they don’t know how the aid will be given out! We’re still working things out now.”

Dicky, the local councillor, appeared at the door of the dirt-floored kitchen where the headmaster and I were having lunch, smartly dressed in his most colourful Hawaiian shirt. Unlike the headmaster, he had been told that the ministers were coming.

“We need to get a message to the Deputy Prime Minister,” I said.

Too late, we heard the hacking of rotors. We rushed outside, along with a hundred children in grass-green uniforms, to watch a small blue helicopter circle the playing field then touch down. Councillor Dicky ran across the field to be first in line to greet the two ministers.

Four large men stepped out, wearing blue lifejackets, and looked around, smiling. The schoolchildren watching didn’t realise why the two ministers were gazing with such pleasure at the trees and buildings of their home island. Unlike people abroad, who could watch on TV, these children hadn’t yet seen the full scale of the destruction that had befallen Vanuatu. A hundred miles away in the capital, Port Vila, Cyclone Pam had shredded the landscape, pulling apart buildings and ripping the leaves and branches from the every tree, leaving the tropical town looking like a winter junkyard. Here on Pentecost Island, further from the eye of the storm, the jungle was a little more touselled than usual but the buildings still had their roofs on, and the landscape was still green.

A set of floral garlands was conjured from somewhere, and a particularly cute trio of children pushed forward to hang them around the necks of the two ministers and the pilot, in a traditional welcome. The fourth man from the helicopter, a bodyguard, hung back, ready to intervene in the unlikely event that the tiny crowd of awestruck seven-year-olds decided to attack. A handful of villagers, some dirty from their gardens, made their way down the hill to join the crowd.

Councillor Dicky, I saw, was not going to pull aside the Deputy Prime Minister and whisper that he might want to make a quick phone call to the National Disaster Management Office before giving his speech. One does not question authority in Vanuatu. I stood at the back of the crowd wondering what misinformation the island’s most powerful men were about to give their people.

I needn’t have worried. These were experienced politicians and they knew exactly what to do in a crisis: go home, smile at your constituents, and make no promises.

“As we understand it, things aren’t too bad here. We’re aware that a few houses have fallen down, over there” – the Minister for Internal Affairs gestured in the direction of a village he’d been told had caught the wind in a particularly bad way – “but at least here it’s still green. Maybe you haven’t seen and heard yet” – communications on the island had only just been restored after a week-long blackout – “but it’s bad in Port Vila. There aren’t even leaves on the trees there any more.”

The schoolchildren stared, wide-eyed.

“Help is on its way. Big countries” – the Vanuatu catch-all term for the mysterious industrial lands that lie beyond the archipelago – “are sending aid. Every day, cargo planes are landing in Port Vila. Military planes, big ones, full of rice and tarpaulins and noodles and other things. Australia, New Zealand, America, China, England, France… they’ve all come. We know you’re worried about what the wind has done to your crops. But for now, we ask you to wait. Eat the food that you still have in your gardens. Support is coming. But there are lots of islands in this country that need help right now. It will take time. Thank you.”

The Deputy Prime Minister produced a banknote from his top pocket – a pale blue one, the highest denomination – and handed it ceremoniously to Councillor Dicky. The crowd clapped and nodded. No words were exchanged but the message was clear.

The field was hastily cleared of small children and the four big men climbed back into the helicopter. As he turned to smile at the crowd, the Minister for Internal Affairs – who also happens to be the owner of a bar that I occasionally drink at in Port Vila – caught sight of me.

“Don’t drink too much kava, Andrew!” he called out in his native language.

The handful of onlookers who understood what he’d said chuckled. In proportion to its tiny size, Vanuatu has more languages than any other country in the world, and the Minister for Internal Affairs was a native of central Pentecost Island, 15 miles away. His language differed from the one spoken here in northern Pentecost about as much as English does from German.

We cowered back against the hedges around the field, as the rotors drove down a blast of wind and debris – a tiny flashback, perhaps, to the storm that had descended two weeks earlier. The schoolchildren were having an exciting term. Until Cyclone Pam most had never seen a helicopter before, and this was the second that had landed at their school in a week. The first had come to extract two of their teachers, gap year volunteers who’d been interrupted the middle of what seemed a normal day in their classrooms to be told that their sunny, green island was a designated disaster zone and they had five minutes to grab their things and be evacuated. People in Vanuatu don’t panic when the phone network goes down – terrible communications are the norm here – but nothing short of a military expedition could have reassured their parents back in Australia that their children were safe and well, so one had duly been dispatched. The teenagers had arrived blinking in cyclone-shattered Port Vila to be feted at the airport by a crowd of waiting journalists as brave survivors of a terrible catastrophe, and hugged in front of the cameras by the Australian Foreign Minister. Meanwhile in Atavtabangga their pupils had sat in their classrooms and quietly got on with their drawings until the bell rang and it was time to go home.


When I reached the coast that afternoon, the local chiefs were already waiting. I wasn’t the only person carrying out assessments in the wake of the cyclone, and the one vehicle in the area had already been hired by a guy from the Ministry of Health, leaving me to walk the four miles from Atavtabangga in the midday heat, hauling enough assessment forms for every household in the district. I staggered into the big, thatched nakamal – the community meeting house – dripping with sweat and mumbling in broken North Pentecost language about how the Deputy Prime Minister had made me late. North Pentecost wasn’t the area of the island I knew best, and much of what I knew of its language had come from the foul-mouthed teenager who once ran my local bar. If I ever needed to question someone’s personal hygiene or accuse them of being uncircumcised, I could do so fluently, but diplomatic apologies were not something I had been well taught. I looked around sweatily at the respectable-looking old men sitting patiently on stumps and coconut leaves around the edges of the nakamal and wondered how they could possibly be expected to take me seriously.

Trying not to sound breathless, I fell back into Pidgin English and asked who the chief of the nakamal was. Though a nakamal is a public building – there is a never a lockable door, and in principle anyone is welcome to wander in, cook on the fire, or sleep for the night – it is also the domain of a chief, and it would not do for a foreigner to walk in without the chief’s permission and start giving people orders.

One of the men stood up and gave a welcoming speech. The chiefs already understood why I had come.

“After the wind came, they sent planes to fly over Pentecost, and they went back and told everyone that the island was still green,” he said. “But what the wind has done to our gardens, you can’t see from a plane.” Though it hadn’t blown the gardens away, the cyclone had whipped at the plants, snapping stems and shaking roots loose from the ground. Some of their crops, the old men knew from experience, would not recover from this. On an island where subsistence gardening is the main livelihood, this meant hardship, perhaps even starvation. “We need to count the things in our gardens. Fill in the forms, put down everything that the wind has damaged. Then the government will see that help is needed on Pentecost.”

I nodded and extracted the pile of assessment forms. The plastic bags containing the forms had disintegrated almost the moment I arrived on Pentecost – travel in rural Vanuatu has that effect on one’s belongings - so I’d stuffed them into an old basket given to me by a friend living near the airstrip. My new basket had long pink tassels, but here on the islands nobody cared about that sort of thing.

“Hold on,” someone said, as I prepared to explain how to fill in the forms. “We’ve already filled in assessments here. Someone from the provincial government came round earlier to give out forms.”

This was news to me.

“These surveys are being done on behalf of the National Disaster Management Office in Port Vila,” I said.

“But who is in charge of this, Port Vila or the province? There’s no coordination.”

“The province aren’t answering their phones,” I pointed out. The provincial capital was a tiny cluster of buildings on neighbouring Ambae Island, and the cyclone had knocked out the local mobile phone tower, cutting communication between the two levels of government.

“But whose forms should we fill in?” There was a lot of muttering around the nakamal, during which I kept hearing the phrase, hala gairua, “two roads”.

“Yes,” I said, “hala gairua. There are two ways to get help. We don’t know yet what kind of aid will be sent, or who will send it.” In the aftermath of Cyclone Pam the National Disaster Management Office had come to resemble a shopping mall, with a dozen aid agencies setting up stalls and whole coach parties of visitors wearing the logos of all manner of organisations coming and going with truckloads of goods. “Maybe aid will come from Port Vila, maybe from the province. It is good for them both to know what you need. Hala gairua.”

An animated little chief with a squeaky voice chimed in. “When we ask the province for things they never come. You know, Andrew,” he turned to me, “how it is with black men. When black men work on something, they talk about it for weeks and months and years, they talk and talk, and nothing happens.”

I looked awkward, and tried to reassure him that plenty of white men work that way too. This may not, in fact, have been reassuring.

“These forms are going direct to Port Vila,” another chief chimed in. “When you want something, you follow the direct road. Then things get done.”

“Yes,” the first chief agreed, “Let’s follow the direct road here! Direct!” Several others nodded.

Relieved that the chiefs seemed to be on board, I handed out the forms and explained how to fill them in. Each community was to list all the things that had been affected by the cyclone: vegetables, fruit trees, livestock fences…

“What about our big pigs?”

“Have those been affected by the wind?”

“The thing about our big pigs is, we feed them.” Pigs in Vanuatu are a symbol of wealth, and particularly valued are the long whorled tusks of old boars, which have to be carefully fed on soft, rich foods as they would break their tusks if allowed to crunch and root around. It has sometimes been said that Vanuatu men value their pigs more than their wives, but this turned out not to be true. “When a man is short of food, he gives it first to his wife and children, and his pigs go hungry.”

I couldn’t imagine that food aid for big pigs was a government priority right now.

“Some of us sell the big pigs to pay school fees,” the chief explained.

Whereas the big pigs were reared in the past as marks of social status, economic life in rural Vanuatu today is driven by school fees. Feeding and sheltering your own family is not particularly difficult for a subsistence gardener in a landscape as fertile as Pentecost Island’s, but since schooling is not free in Vanuatu, educating your children requires cash, and earning that from the land requires serious labour. A boar with a pair of fully-curved tusks, which takes seven years to hand-rear, might pay a child’s school fees for only a term. A villager who had been relying on a particular big pig to pay that term’s fees and had nothing else in his garden that was saleable for cash might have no choice but to pull his son or daughter out of school if his big pig got ill from lack of food.

“Note that on the form,” I advised.


I couldn’t understand a word said to me by the knife-carrying madman who followed me back up the hill from the coast the next morning, but the local schoolchildren seemed to think him harmless. They cheered and waved at him as we passed through the school. The madman gestured and mumbled back. I sped up the hill as fast as I could walk in the heat, hoping to leave the old man behind, but in physical stamina a sixty year-old islander is easily a match for a thirty-one year-old Westerner who has never in his life had to haul sacks of vegetables or a big pig halfway down a mountainside in order to keep family members in school. After a mile or so, thirsty and sweating, I gave up trying to lose him, sat down under a tree and shared a grapefruit with him. At least here, unlike in Port Vila, there was still shade. The madman offered me his knife, a broken-off machete covered in mud. I got out a tiny penknife and tried messily to cut and peel the giant fruit with that instead. The madman watched, clearly thinking me crazy. He then wandered into the bushes, cut some random leaves with his knife, discarded them, and returned to sit beside me.

“We should get going,” I said, after a couple of minutes of rest, as if the madman and I had planned this trip together. He nodded and we trudged on.

As the road climbed onto the ridges of the island, the damage from the cyclone became more apparent. Flattened banana plants lay sorry and trampled across the road, and the vines draped from the trees looked as though they had been combed through with a giant rake. There is no common word for cyclone in the local languages – in most conversations, the catastrophe that had struck Vanuatu was simply “the wind” – but old people sometimes described such events as siritano (or, in the language of a few miles away, siitan), which is literally “scratching the ground”. Though the Vanuatu authorities were describing Cyclone Pam as the worst disaster in the young nation’s 35-year history, the old folks could, of course, recall bigger ones. Cyclone Pam merely stripped the leaves and branches from trees, they noted - their lawns were still green. Back in the old days, on the other hand, there had been winds so strong that they pulled out the grass. In those days there were also spirits and devils and giant men as tall as the forest.

On certain bends in the road the knife-carrying madman would stop, point across the landscape in big sweeping gestures, and ramble incomprehensibly. Maybe he was describing the path of the wind as it tore up the valleys and over the ridges, pummelling some localities yet slipping smoothly over others, each garden’s fate depending on the vagaries of the island’s rugged topography. Or perhaps he was thinking about something else entirely.

One reason why madmen in Vanuatu are usually allowed to roam freely around in their communities, beside the fact that there’s no institution where they can be cared for, is that everyone in the community knows who they are and how to deal with them.

“The way to deal with that man is to lie to him that the police are after him,” the locals told me when we eventually reached the village on the top of the island ridge. “He’s scared of the police.”

One of them took the madman aside and spoke to him, and the poor old man set off hurriedly on the three mile walk home.


One person who was not worried about the effect of the wind on his big pigs was Chief Viraleo, proprietor of the Tangbunia Indigenous Bank.

“All this cargo coming from overseas, I don’t like it. It’s wrong. Big countries sending food. People in Vanuatu shouldn’t need help like that. Our customs teach us how to cope with disasters.”

The chief was sitting half-naked in a rockpool, surrounded by starfish and sea cucumbers. After a hot and sweaty walk down the other side of the mountain, he had brought me for a swim on the shore, where the tide was out and a vast expanse of pools and beaten coral stretched out for miles. A warm breeze fluttered off the Pacific, the forest behind the beach was tinged by the last of the afternoon sun, and out at the edge of the reef the great ocean flicked white and blue. Apart from a couple of small boys, there was nobody else around. From here, Vanuatu looked every bit the untouched paradise that tourists used to come for, back in those almost-forgotten days of two weeks earlier when Port Vila’s hotels and bars were filled with beach lovers in board shorts and honeymooners in cocktail dresses rather than humanitarian workers in aid-agency uniforms. Pentecost Island in that late afternoon was so tropically blue and green that it seemed impossible to believe that we were in a disaster zone. I gazed across the reef and tried to snap back to reality, whatever the reality was here.

“But how can you cope if you live off your garden and that’s been destroyed?”

“People plant special crops that can survive the wind. In our custom it was up to every man to provide for himself when there was a disaster. And people had special foods. Like mara – they filled up breadfruit in bamboo tubes, and put it in saltwater, so it would keep for a long time. But people don’t make mara any more. They just depend on big countries to help them out when a disaster comes. That’s wrong. This country has missed its road.”

Chief Viraleo was Vanuatu’s most enthusiastic proponent of the ‘custom economy’ – the traditional way of doing things based on the trading of big pigs and other local valuables rather than Western money. Vanuatu may have got political independence in 1980, he liked to tell people, but independence had done nothing for “the eighty percent”, the proportion of the population who still lived off the land and toiled in muddy gardens to send their children to school. Only through the custom economy, Viraleo preached, could Vanuatu achieve “economic independence”. What economic independence meant was never well defined, but the desire for it sprang from a sense that the islanders were not yet in control of their destiny. Vanuatu’s tiny economy was at the mercy of natural disasters, foreign aid donors, and fluctuations in the world market for coconuts. It was unclear to me how basing the economy on big pigs would make things any better, but Viraleo was a charismatic leader, and had acquired quite a following. Here on a remote bay in the north-east of Pentecost Island, he had founded his indigenous bank, at which customers could deposit pigs’ tusks and other traditional valuables, hold accounts and even write cheques denominated in units equivalent to the value of a big pig. When this failed to bring economic independence – big pigs perhaps circulated more easily, but people still toiled for school fees - Viraleo had come up with his next big idea. His bank would print banknotes, which would circulate in place of big pigs, and could be used to buy anything the islanders wanted. Whether these bank notes would be backed by real big pigs was a question that his followers were not sufficiently well-schooled in economics to realise the importance of asking.

“The government is planning to send emergency food to everyone,” I said. “Are you saying you don’t need it?”

“We don’t need it. We have our customs.”

“So your people won’t accept free rice from the government?”

Viraleo thought about this for a moment. “We’ll accept it,” he declared, “and we’ll sell it. We don’t need it ourselves.”

Though the pigs’ tusks in his bank vault were, by his own reckoning, worth millions, Viraleo was perennially short of hard currency, and not the type to pass up the opportunity to make a quick buck. With the government giving free food to everyone, it occurred to me, the island’s storekeepers were going to have a hard few weeks. They had school fees to pay too.

- - -

“He’s a stupid man,” said one elderly storekeeper, when I stopped at his store the next morning for a much-needed drink of orangeade on my way back up the hill. “Watch out for the coconut.”

I glanced upwards to where a single coconut, which had survived the cyclone, was now dangling menacingly from the tree right above my head. I hastily moved to one side.

“He knows nothing about economics, nothing about development, nothing.” I was beginning to regret admitting to the storekeeper that I’d spent the night in Viraleo’s nakamal.

 “Before I retired from the government I used to work in public administration,” he went on. “I studied in England. Three times they sent me to study in England.” The storekeeper was speaking to me in real English, I noticed, not the mixture of Pidgin English and North Pentecost language from which I’d been translating every other conversation I’d had since arriving on Pentecost. “I spent a term at Cranfield University.”

Cranfield is five miles from where I grew up. It’s amazing how you can come to a dot on the other side of the world and find connections with people.

“Viraleo doesn’t know anything about running a bank,” the storekeeper ranted on. “He hasn’t studied abroad like I have. He didn’t even finish school. And this business of printing money. I’m surprised they haven’t sent him to prison for it. Doesn’t he know it’s illegal?”

Viraleo, I was pretty sure, had not realised that his scheme was illegal when he first came up with the idea of printing money. Vanuatu’s laws are written in legalistic English and French which hardly any of the country’s ordinary citizens can understand. Last year, I had translated for him Section 17 of the Vanuatu Reserve Bank Act, which states that only the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu has the right to issue notes or coins of any kind. The chief had contemplated the paragraph and, in a manner surprisingly scholarly for someone who dropped out of primary school, declared it invalid on the grounds that it violated his constitutional right to pursue indigenous customs. Vanuatu’s banking authorities disagreed, and had indeed threatened Viraleo with prosecution. The chief, who’d recently watched the biopic of Nelson Mandela, seemed to relish the prospect of being imprisoned for his cause.

“I don’t think they can take him to court until he actually prints the money”, I told the storekeeper. “And I don’t think he’ll be able to find anyone who’s willing to print it.”

Mints, Viraleo was discovering, only accept contracts to print money from central banks, not from tribal chiefs. The chief, undeterred, had told me solemnly that next time I visited he would give me a letter to take to the Queen of England explaining why she, as one of the former colonial powers, had a special duty to help Vanuatu in its quest for economic independence. When I explained how unlikely it was that a letter posted to Buckingham Palace would be read, Viraleo had simply shaken his head and giving a knowing smile, convinced that such an entreaty from one high chief to another could not possibly be ignored.

“Yes,” the storekeeper nodded. “People with real education won’t deal with him, they know his ideas are stupid. You know he doesn’t even pray any more? The missionaries brought us light and now he wants us all to go back to living in darkness. Why did you want to go and see that stupid man anyway?”

“He’s interesting to talk to,” I said. Whereas most people in Vanuatu were enthusiastic recyclers of tradition – following custom, following the chiefs, following the Bible – Chief Viraleo did at least have ideas of his own, even if they were occasionally wacky. “And I wanted to see if his bank had survived the wind.”

“Has it?”

“Yes, it’s fine.” Despite being on the windward side of the island, the coastline around Viraleo’s village had seemed remarkably unscathed.

The storekeeper looked disappointed, as if he’d hoped that Viraleo might have blown away like a character from the Wizard of Oz.

“Oh. Well, it’ll fail eventually. That stupid man doesn’t understand a thing.”

- - -

Higher up the mountain, Chief John was doing his best to look cheerful as he led me round the wreckage of Tanbok Primary School. His tiny grandson, however, had a thoroughly grumpy expression as he followed us around, glowering into my camera as if to remind everyone that the wind had done a Very Bad Thing.

Whereas Atavtabangga School was a solid ring of well-built government buildings, Tanbok was a community effort, a collection of lightly-constructed metal huts one of the highest slopes of the mountain. It had taken Chief John and his neighbours 20 years to raise funds and put together this little cluster of buildings, and in one night the wind had come by and kicked them in like a hooligan. One classroom was now bent double and missing two of its walls; another had been peeled open like a can. The insides were flood-stained - though the staff and pupils had managed to dry out some of the books, Chief John reassured me. A couple of the teachers’ houses were in pieces, and twisted metal littered the grass. It looked as if a plane had crashed into the mountainside.

I shook my head and did my best to look sympathetic. This was the first site I’d visited since arriving from Port Vila that actually looked like a disaster had hit it, and although awful it did at least make my trip feel worthwhile. It was far too easy to get a Hollywood thrill out of Cyclone Pam. The sun was still shining, the people were still smiling, and hardly anyone had been killed: even on the worst-hit islands at least one or two sturdy buildings had survived in most communities, which had sheltered people’s lives from the storm. At this point the disaster didn’t even seem to have caused hunger: people were still living off the windfalls of dropped fruit and uprooted vegetables in their gardens. To a tourist wandering the aftermath, the cyclone appeared to have to done nothing more than leave a trail of great photo opportunities. My grandfather, as a dying old man, had still remembered with a sense of guilt how excited he’d felt at the sight of German bombers razing his home town to the ground. I knew when my grandfather told me this that I’d have reacted the same way, and Cyclone Pam had proved it. The aid workers and volunteers who’d poured in Port Vila in the aftermath of the storm, handing out rice and tinned fish like Jesus feeding the five thousand, knew this as well: being in the middle of a disaster was a real thrill.

The way to snap out of this was to talk to people. You needed to get behind the smiles and ask how the storm had affected their lives. It would take them months of hard work to put back together the buildings and livelihoods that the wind had destroyed, assuming they had the money and materials for rebuilding. In the meantime, on the worse-hit islands families were sheltering their neighbours, a dozen people or more cramped into a room, and although there was still food on the table it was running out. Enterprises that individuals had worked for years to build up – a new garden, a small business, a dream house, a community school – would have to be rebuilt from scraps. So many years’ worth of planning, fundraising, hauling, digging, tree-planting, sawing, hammering and thatching carried out before the cyclone had been, in retrospect, utterly in vain.

Remarkably, Tanbok School was still functioning. In what had been a playground between two buildings, the community had already knocked together a temporary classroom using bits of wood and sheets of metal salvaged from the remains of the old buildings. It didn’t look very weatherproof, and I couldn’t have stood up straight inside, but it was better than nothing. A second ‘temporary classroom’ consisted just of a single sheet of roofing iron supported above the grass on four bamboo poles.

“What happens in bad weather?” I asked. The mountain ridge on which Tanbok sits catches moisture blowing off the ocean, drenching the village in endless mist and four metres a year of rain.

“I think we’ll need a tarpaulin,” said Chief John cheerily. I made a note.

For one class, benches and a blackboard had also been set up in the village nakamal. This struck me as a nice return to tradition – the nakamal was the place where boys in the village had traditionally been educated, before missionaries and job aspirations dictated that every child had to be sent off to school. In those days, though, education had consisted of listening to ancient and meaningful stories at the foot of a wise elder. Reading and writing, on the other hand, are best done in a well-lit room, and like most nakamals the one at Tanbok was a windowless triangular prism of thatch, blackened by soot from the fire and as dark as a cave. The thatch had, at least, survived the cyclone much better than the corrugated metal of the school buildings. Traditional buildings aren’t so vulnerable to wind, people kept telling me.

A bale of rice packets was sitting in the corner of the nakamal.

“Have they started distributing food aid already?” I asked.

“No, these came from our families in town.” Thanks in part to the school Chief John and his neighbours had set up, Tanbok had produced a number of young people who had succeeded in migrating off the island and getting jobs elsewhere. Chief John’s daughter was at university in Fiji, and other members of the community had relatives working in Port Vila. In a time of need, these people had not forgotten their families back in the village.

“Will you sleep here tonight?” Chief John asked.

Before coming to Pentecost I’d made absolutely no arrangements as far as accommodation was concerned, knowing that in every village there is a nakamal and people who are only too happy to offer food and shelter to travellers along the road. This time I had brought food supplies with me, just in case I found myself anywhere that people had been left hungry by the cyclone, but so far I hadn’t. People might be hungry later, they told me, when the wind-damaged food in their gardens had begun to rot, but right now there was plenty to go round. I pulled out a kilogram of rice and added it to Chief John’s pile. I’d carried it about fifteen miles now and I was tired of the weight in my rucksack.

“I’m afraid I can’t stay,” I said, “I have a long road ahead.”

“OK. Just have some food with us, and then you can go.”

We rested for a few minutes under the dusty eaves of the nakamal, and a woman appeared at the door with two plates of rice and cabbage.

“Sorry there’s no meat,” said Chief John. “Not many ships have come lately, and the tins are finished in the village store.”

“It’s OK,” I said, relieved that the food I’d carried might be useful after all, and even more relieved that I wouldn’t be expected to share any of the cat-food-grade tinned meat that is a staple in Vanuatu stores. I extricated a tin of baked beans from my rucksack and offered him half.

“Where did you stay last night?” Chief John asked, as we ate lunch.

“With Chief Viraleo.”

The old man’s smile faltered for the first time, and there was a long pause.

“I sent Viraleo and his men out of this nakamal once,” he said quietly. “They came to talk about their custom economy movement. I told them, I don’t want lies being told in my nakamal. The nakamal is a special place. If you want to tell lies, I said, you stand outside.”

“Then what happened?”

The smile returned. “They stood and gave their speech outside.”

Apparently nobody from Tanbok had paid them much attention. Chief John, it seemed, was confident that his people were well-educated enough to know when they were being misled. His poor, battered little school had done its job.