Her place

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


"Watch out for black ants there."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"How far is it?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Matan laughed. "Make that noise again."


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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