The same little boxes

Filth colonises an empty house rapidly in the tropics. My house's previous
occupants had not been gone that long, but from the volume of spider webs,
hornet nests and dusty grime, it might have been abandoned ever since I was
last teaching at Ranwadi College eight years ago. Or since that week in
September 2001 when the world changed and everyone remembers where they
were: in my case, on my way for the first time to the strip of land on the
very edge of the world map that was first sighted by Europeans on the day of
the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost Island, forty miles long, half a mile high and about a thousand
miles across the ocean from Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is muddy,
malarious, isolated, choked with vegetation, circumsected by ravines and has
rainfall levels that make the greyest parts of Britain look arid. It also
one of the friendliest, most fascinating and most spectacularly beautiful
places on Earth.

Now I was back.

Ranwadi College, my once and future home, was founded in 1902 when an
islander who had been taken away to work on the sugar plantations of
Queensland returned home with a burning desire to teach people about a man
named Jesus. In the old days, islanders had passed on knowledge through
storytelling and sand drawing, and used the island's abundant flora as a way
of passing on messages. A blood-coloured leaf across a path indicated
punishment for anyone who used the path; waking up to find a nettle tree
planted on your doorstep was a sign that you had annoyed somebody. Spirits
and deities were communicated with in similar ways. However, Jesus's
religion came with a long instruction manual, so with Him came literacy and
the teaching of English, and Ranwadi grew into something resembling a modern
school.

Like all secondary schools in rural Vanuatu, Ranwadi is a boarding school -
the local population is finely scattered and no school bus could cope with
the roads. And like all Vanuatu schools, it is an odd mixture of the
primitive and the modern. It runs to a timetable, but the time is announced
with the beating of a traditional wooden slit drum. Students are each
required to come armed with a machete, with which they are put to work twice
a week defending the school against the ever-invading jungle. The school has
a well-equipped science laboratory, teaches that Jesus is the only possible
route to knowledge and understanding, and occasionally uses magic to punish
its students (unlike Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which has a
policy against this). Unlike most settlements on the island, it has
electricity, at least for the few hours in the evening when the generator is
running, and piped water, at least when no clods of leaves or
stream-dwelling eels have blocked the pipes.

Back in the 2000s, Western volunteers comprised about a third of Ranwadi's
staff. We were here mainly for the adventure, but the organisations who sent
us claimed that we were helping to train and build up local expertise, and
surprisingly, it seems like we did. Local teachers, many of them newly
graduated, now staff the school, and one of my former students is now doing
my old job. Sexual assaults and natural disasters drove off the last few
Western volunteers. Pentecost was spared the worst of Cyclone Pam, the
mega-storm that tore up parts of Vanuatu two years ago, but "Visitor Trapped
On Storm-ravaged Island" is too good a headline for news outlets to pass up.

Ranwadi was partially rebuilt with Australian aid money in the mid-2000s,
and the main school buildings, on a breezy mountainside overlooking the
ocean, are among the best constructed on the island. However, since
newly-graduated ni-Vanuatu teachers, unlike Westerners of a similar age,
tend to come with young families, the school had been left perpetually short
of staff housing. The school badly needed a teacher this term, the Principal
had told me, but the only available house was the old school driver's house.
The house isn't the same standard as some of the others, I was warned.

Ancillary staff at Ranwadi are beneath the teaching staff, literally, being
housed at the bottom of a hill next to the ocean. A slippery path leads up
the hill, among tree roots, cassava plants and outcrops of uplifted reef, to
the main school buildings. Unlike the main school campus, the place has the
air of a village, although the houses are constructed mostly of modern
materials and the school's electricity and water supplies just about reach
them. Outside my new house, a broken stump of pipe that once bore a tap
gently squirted water with the exact motion of a man taking a never-ending
piss. A more profusely-leaking pipe outside the neighbour's house served as
the main water supply. The neighbours had taken advantage of the wet patch
created by the continuous water leak by planting swamp taro. Mosquitoes had
also taken full advantage. Broken coral hauled from the shore kept people's
feet out of the mud. Another clump of swamp taro marked the outflow from the
tin shack where everyone showered. The door of the shack looked like it
could fall off its hinges any time, leaving a naked bather in full view of
the students on the school sports field. People spoke of the school handyman
in the same way that they spoke of the devils that haunt the roads at night -
everyone took it as a fact that he existed, and some even claimed to have
communed with him recently, but I saw little evidence.

Up on the hill among the good buildings, the school principal's house was
beautifully decorated, with white and pink streamers dangling from every
part of the ceiling. "Christmas decorations," he explained, as he invited me
in for lunch. It was 31st May.

The principal I'd worked with a decade ago had now left the teaching
profession and spent his retirement fund getting himself elected as a Member
of Parliament. He could now be found travelling around the capital in a
shiny black government car, contemplating the government's response to
climate change and trying to persuade the Chinese to build roads to villages
whose people had voted for him. His were big shoes to fill, but after a
string of 'acting principals', the school council had settled on one of the
senior teachers whom I'd worked alongside in the mid-2000s as a permanent
replacement. Like some of the other faces I recognised from a decade ago,
the new principal had done time at other schools but kept coming back to
Ranwadi, "back in the same little boxes where we keep living our lives".

Like his predecessor, the new principal knew a thing or two about looking
after white people, including the fact that we didn't get on well with
cooking on open fires. A gas cylinder and stove duly appeared in my house
the next day. For connecting the two there was only a piece of garden hose,
twice the diameter of a gas pipe. With bits of tape jammed into the ends,
gas appeared to be coming out in the right place, but a couple of minutes
into my cooking, jets of flame began shooting out of the back of the stove
and up the wall behind. As a gap year volunteer sixteen years ago I wouldn't
have known simple things like how to hurriedly turn the gas bottle off at
the valve.

While I was out that evening, some students sent by the Principal came by
and cleaned the worst of the filth out of the house. I was glad that I'd
hadn't locked the house properly. Since there was no glass in some of the
windows, it had seemed pointless. I hoped that my new neighbours were
intrusive enough to be relied upon for security. The students who cleaned
the kitchen hadn't taken any of the food, but for some reason they had left
the lids off my rat-proof containers. Luckily the local rats didn't yet seem
to have noticed that the house was re-occupied.

A large hornet now buzzed around continuously under the dining table looking
for a place to rebuild its smashed nest.

The next morning, my neighbour the Boarding Master knocked on my door - or
rather, shouted outside to get my attention, as is the more common local
habit - and proposed a house swap. "If you live alone in this house it will
be hard to keep fowl off the verandah," he explained. The fowl on the
verandah seemed to be the least of the house's problems (they certainly
bothered me less than the hornet under the dining table) and he could just
as easily have said "I currently have a family of six jammed into a two
bedroom house, and the house you've been put in is far too big for you." I
readily agreed to the swap. I wondered why nobody had asked the Principal's
permission to move into the bigger house earlier, when it was still empty.
But jealousies are aroused easily in small island communities, and the best
way to prevent them is for everyone to keep following the same routines they
have always followed, even after that ceases to make sense. The driver's
house was the driver's house, even though the driver had decamped to the
neighbouring village, and only when the principal had been forced by
circumstances to allow it to someone other than the driver - and there was
an outsider who could legitimately be claimed to need rescuing from
offensive chickens - could houses be reshuffled without upsetting the
school's delicate status quo.

An hour later, we had both moved house. I didn't even need to make myself a
fresh cup of tea; I just carried a half-full teapot across to my new house.

Shortly before sunset I took my shampoo along to the next village, where a
waterfall thunders into a natural swimming pool. Men on the beach greeted me
in four languages. Where the road rounded the headland, the ocean lapped and
sucked at the reef. Behind and beyond rose the island, draped in mottled
green and dappled along its ridges with wisps of cloud.

I was back.