Monday, May 26, 2014

Oh My Vanuatu: Anatomy of a Name

During our recent trip to Southwest Bay, Malekula, I was reminded of an interesting story regarding a nearby off-shore island, pictured here:

The story is told that, during World War 2 when the US had hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Vanuatu (then known as the New Hebrides), Malekula mainlanders who lived close to this small land mass were paid by the soldiers to leave the general vicinity for the day, so that their pilots could test and practice in their aircraft, using the small island for target practice. Of course, the Americans didn't expect the locals to abide by their request without renumeration. Their offer? Ten cigarettes ("sticks" in Bislama) per adult male who took their family away from the village for the day. Thus, the target island became known as Ten-Stick Island and the associated village on the mainland is also referred to as Ten-Stick Village.

...Which reminds me of another "oh my Vanuatu" moment from several years ago. In our travels, we are constantly presented with various Bible questions, often by people who are "sizing us up" with regard to our teachings. I distinctly remember being thrown off by a questioner who inquired "wanem nao Baebol i talem long saed blong lepstik?" (i.e. what does the Bible say about 'lipstick'). Seeing my initial look of confusion, some quickly assisted my understanding by explaining that "lepstik" is a stick that one puts between their lips, i.e. cigarettes!

Live and learn. Oh my Vanuatu ;)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

All Mixed Up 4 - Finance

This post will be the last (I think) in a series on cultural issues in Vanuatu. In the previous three posts we’ve looked at some of the ways in which mix-ups are occurring due to the introduction of outside customs, namely physical adornments, language and marriage. In this post, I want to consider some of the financial confusion that is now being experienced.

In the old custom economy of Vanuatu, the “currency” consisted of pigs, pig tusks, woven mats and kava, among other similar items. As you will note, all of these can be made or grown (kava is a local root crop that is chopped, chewed, hydrated, strained and consumed … having an intoxicating effect). Then, along came pieces of paper and little bits of metal called “money” that supposedly had value. Initially, it would have been French, British or Australian currency, but with independence came the Vanuatu Vatu.

In 2014, there are economies within Vanuatu that are still basically “custom”, while others are purely western. The problem, of course, comes when these two diametrically opposed systems collide. They say that the Vanuatu populace is 80% sustenance farming, which basically means that the large majority of people who live outside the capital city live off of their land - food, housing materials, and in some cases even clothing, are all provided naturally. Contrast that to the “bustling metropolis” (comparatively speaking) of Port Vila, which has internet cafes, public transportation, wireless internet, large grocery stores, rent houses, minimum wage laws, etc.

There are a couple of ways in particular that we see local Christians struggling in this mixed up system. First there is the dowry. Customarily, the groom and his family are required to pay a bride price before the marriage ceremony can take place. This is done because the bride’s family is effectively losing a member of their family (she is seen as leaving her family and joining the husband’s family) and therefore some compensation is expected. Historically this done via the custom economy items mentioned above. Therefore, regardless of how “expensive” the woman was, the price could be paid fairly easily with a little planning and preparation. Fast forward to today, where the bride price is still exacted, but now more often than not in terms of vatu. While the government has set a limit of 80,000 vatu, we have heard of some prices exceeding 200,000 vatu (over US$2,000). Such a sum of money is practically impossible for many villagers to amass, and therefore confusion ensues, usually in the form of the couple starting their life together without being officially “joined in marriage” since the bride-price has not yet been paid. Further confusion stems from the fact that children born under this scenario technically belong to the woman’s parents, since she has not been “paid for” by her would-be husband. Many children are therefore raised by their grandparents. You can read my Part 3 post for more insight into the marriage confusion.

Another area of confusion that stems from financial changes is in regard to school fees. Historically, boys were “schooled” by their fathers/brothers/uncles in the finer arts of gardening, fishing and building, and girls were “schooled” by their mothers/sisters/aunts in gathering, washing and childrearing. However, with the introduction of the western-type lifestyle came the need for western-type education. I am not saying that either one is necessarily right or wrong, but things are certainly all mixed up currently. I believe that the first schools were mission schools brought in by European missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, and from there western education systems spread fairly rapidly. There are now government schools in every region of the country. The problem is that these schools require teachers, buildings and materials, which cost money. Therefore, school fees are imposed on the families … families that have basically no means of income (especially for those fairly common families who have 7 or even 10 children to send to school). All this means that at the beginning of every term (Vanuatu has three school terms per year), families are frantically searching for ways to acquire money to pay their upcoming school fees. We get numerous calls each time, and I really struggle with how to deal the requests (that’s probably a-whole-nother blog post!). A Christian (yes, a Christian) recently asked Shawnda if it would be okay for her to prostitute herself to raise school-fee money if her husband approved of the transaction. The writing on the wall is clear - Vanuatu is headed towards a cultural environment wherein only those with a proper education will be able to thrive, and so it is understandable that families want their children to have a proper education… but at what cost?!? 

In both of these and other instances, we find it difficult to ascertain the right answer to these types of scenarios, all brought on because the country finds itself in the middle of transitionary financial times. We pray for wisdom daily, and invite you to join us in that!

And for a closer look at Vanuatu's custom economy in motion, check out this video...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

OMV: All Mixed Up

This pic is fitting because it goes along with both my "Oh My Vanuatu" series (things that could only happen in Vanuatu) as well as my "All Mixed Up" series (old-world meets new-world and confusion ensues).

When all you know is the use of an outhouse (most all village settings in Vanuatu), you might be a bit confused as to how to use this new-fangled contraption marked "toilet" in town. I saw this sign posted at a restaurant in Vila a few months ago...

Oh, my Vanuatu ;)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A lady had a baby...

We love Vanuatu’s people and culture, and have probably come to feel more “at home” here than in the US (and such is certainly true for our kids). However, try as we might (and, I believe, regardless of our longevity), we will never fully make the jump from our Western upbringing and cultural backgrounds … we will never be ni-Vanuatu. In fact, Shawnda and I are constantly amazed how invigorated we feel after just one evening together with another family from a cultural background similar to our own - it’s still so much easier and natural. One of the ways in which “American Shawnda and Eric” keep our wits about us in our cross-cultural setting is to listen to a lot of podcasts from the States (sermons and sports), and also watch TV programs and movies. In conjunction with my thrifty ways, I usually end up downloading one-off episodes that are available for free on the internet (usually the pilot or season premiere). 
Recently, we downloaded and watched the pilot episode of The Michael J. Fox Show (being fans of his since way back in his Back to the Future trilogy days). The show is designed to be a comedic way to approach the serious disease of Parkinson’s. In the closing moments of that episode, the audience is introduced to a story the main character uses in an attempt to inspire his family and friends, much to their chagrin, to press on in difficult circumstances. He frequently tells the story of a pregnant woman in Mozambique who, when forced to climb into a tree by a flash flood, ended up giving birth. She stayed up in the tree with her newborn until she was rescued. The takeaway for him was, “so, no matter how bad you think you’ve got it, a lady had a baby up in a tree!”
It that same vein, during our recent trip to Tanna Island, I found my own “a lady had a baby” story that will perhaps serve to inspire (or annoy?) my own family for years to come. At the end of our two weeks in the village, we were loaded up in the truck and headed from the village to the airport. Shawnda mentioned that Miswel’s wife, Martha, had gone into labor that morning and was likely to have the baby at any time, and I said that we should give her a ride to town since we had already arranged the truck. She said, “no, she’s just going to have the baby at home.” I inquired as to why she wouldn’t want to make the relatively short trip to Lenekel in order to give birth at the clinic, where she would at least have access to nurses and a (relatively) proper bed. Come to find out, Martha was apprehensive about leaving the house because, during the hour’s walk to town while in labor with their son about a year before, she ended up giving birth right there on the side of the dirt road. Thankfully, her mother-in-law was walking with her and able to provide some assistance. They cut the umbilical cord with a piece of wild cane, cleaned up a bit with some leaves, and walked back to the house. Yeah, that just happened! 
Miswel with his son, Sam, who was born on the side of the road!
So, no matter how bad you think you have it, a lady in Tanna had a baby on the side of the road, then got up and walked back home. ;)

PS - Mother, new baby and big brother are all well after the at-home birth in the village.