Tanna (Vanuatu) 1984

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Vanuatu is an independent ex-British/still French collection of small islands in the South Pacific, where my aunt lives in a house she built herself on a clifftop overlooking the wide, blue South Pacific Ocean.  My cousins were all brought up here speaking a mix of Pidgen, French and English.

While I was there she had a business selling second hand t-shirts to some of the inhabitants of the outlying islands and a small soap factory.   She had recently made a film documenting a trip she did with some Americans who were trying to trace the remains of their lost relatives, shot down in the islands during the Second World War.  I learnt to scuba dive here, swimming down at night to explore the wreckage of naval vessels and cargo boats.  Thousands of small fish had made their home there and they would swim out from broken port holes and funnels, suddenly appearing in the light of the torch and making you jump.  There were sharks here too.

One of my cousins took me to visit Tanna, a tiny remote island of black sand, mostly taken up by a still active volcano.  We stayed in a village called Sulphur Bay, which my cousin knew well and which seemed populated by people wearing my aunt’s second-hand clothes. We flew over in a tiny plane filled with boxes and chickens. I watched the pilot. It was unnerving being this close to him.  I could see him yawn and put his feet on the controls while he ate his lunch.  I hovered anxiously over his shoulder and therefore got a fabulous view of Tanna as we swooped down to the airport and miniscule runway.

The village was tiny, tucked between volcano and sea.   The black sand got into everything – it was more like grit – in your eyes, mouth ears. We were given a small straw hut, built for an anthropologist ex-boyfriend of my aunt and ate coconuts and small birds. We walked up the volcano to watch it blow fire and soot into the air. It was quite an experience, standing on broken larva peering into the abyss as every now and then fiery rocks would blow into the sky, some landing pretty close.  The village children who took us up left leaves and gifts for the volcano to mollify it

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We were there for one of the monthly village dances. This was a slightly strange affair if you were a woman, although the dressing for it was fun. I wore a brightly dyed grass skirt over my Mother Hubbard, the local dress; an enormous, yellow tent with ribbons on the shoulders. The women stood on one side of the village hall hut and stomped up and down swinging their hips to a guitar that they had borrowed from a nearby village. I kept expecting the music to change or our pattern to move on, but we kept it up for hours in a sort of trance . On the men’s side of the hall hut, it all sounded much more fun. They had taken Kava, the local narcotic, made from the rotten core of a coconut. This drug usually had the effect of more of less knocking you unconscious, but after the paralysis had worn off, you felt very lively. Only the men were allowed this drug, although for some sneaky foreigners, it could be arranged. The men were shouting and laughing and dancing. The women shuffled on, I managed to slink off to my hut and my mat and lay in the dark listening to the men whoop.

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Just before I left the island, I was taken on a very long hike across the island. We were going to visit the island missionary school and a teacher who knew my aunt. It was a walk through thick jungle along a tiny path.  The people of Tanna walked barefoot on tough splayed feet, while I sloped along in fip-flops.   The jungle was full of insects and the kind of vines that tangle around every part of your body and although thrilling was hard work for a teenager more used to trundling to school through the drizzle.  I almost collapsed from the heat and from exertion. I also hadn’t eaten enough of the small birds, as I couldn’t quite stomach having to chew these tiny bones.  We got to the school settlement by early evening and were made very welcome. I was allowed to tell funny stories about the spiders and snakes I had managed to fight off during the walk, which everyone politely laughed at.

The mission school was near the site of the John Frum church. The islands had a type of cargo cult. Years before, during the Second World War, John Frum, an American service man had turned up on Tanna. He had soon settled in and began to teach the people about Christianity. His Christianity was accompanied by a lot of drinking, mainly whiskey, and by tales of all the things he had left behind: the fridges and cars and radios. In the people of Tanna’s mind, Christianity was inextricably linked with tales of material goods. They believed that at some point the cargo would arrive, this was akin to the second coming. They now worship the material remains of John Frum; the Bible, the actual book rather than the words inside, the whiskey bottles, the clothes. 

Its not only an obscure American airman who is venerated but also Prince Philip, who has his own cult here.  A collection of letters, photos and gifts from the prince who the people believe will come again and be reborn as a god.

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