Letter from Vanuatu: Peter Inglesby writes home

10 October 2007

In a dilapidated stadium on the edge of town, I watched West Ham play in the final of the Vanuatu Football Association Cup. They were not the real Hammers, who would’ve been fast asleep on the other side of the world, but a team from one of Vanuatu’s islands, who had somehow assumed the name, although it’s possible I misheard it over the rusty tannoy in the ground.This peculiarity is just one example of Vanuatu’s rather curious relationship with the rest of the world.

The first Europeans to visit were Spaniards in search of the southern continent in 1606. Captain Cook also paid a call, and charted the islands exceedingly accurately, leaving behind the name New Hebrides. Various half-hearted attempts were made by Europeans to establish plantations during the nineteenth century, but by the turn of the century the islands were still unclaimed by any colonial power, lacking any useful extractable resources. However, when the Germans began to express an interest, the British and the French moved swiftly to establish the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides – the chaotic arrangement of dual administration that lasted until independence in 1980.

Unlike the French, the British didn’t seem to take a great deal of interest in the country when they ruled it, but they still left a lasting imprint on language spoken here. With over a hundred languages spoken through the islands, a pidgin English known as Bislama is spoken by everybody, as well as at least one tribal language, and either English or French, which are taught in schools. Bislama basically uses English words strung together with Melanesian grammar, and contains a funny mix of the old-fashioned – to help is givhan – and the inventive – vomit is thro aot.

But one of the more bizarre legacies of tribal Melanesian contact with the rest of the world is found in Tanna, an island in the south of the country, whose people have a reputation for fierceness and independence. A belief arose – somehow – during the colonial period that a local god had wandered the Earth and, in England, had become incarnate as Prince Philip. I actually got the chance to meet Chief Jack of Yaohnanen village. He’s the custodian of three photographs that Philip – as he referred to him – had sent over the years, along with a large Union Flag and a number of pictures of the royal family torn from Hello! and OK! His belief that Philip would come to Tanna and bring prosperity was palpable, and his fervour was both quite sweet and rather sad.

Somewhat less strange, but still unexpected, is the prevalence of Chinese who run most of the shops and businesses, even in quite rural areas. Despite its population of just 20,000, the capital Port Vila has a sizeable Chinatown. Then there are the fat French tourists who turn up on the cruise ships, the Australian night-club owners and the missionaries from Fiji.

But one of the biggest impacts on contemporary Vanuatu society is being made by the international aid community. I’ve been posted here with Voluntary Services Overseas, who have less than twenty volunteers working to develop the capacity of civil society and strengthen the institutions of government, as well as on HIV/AIDS prevention projects. But Peace Corps – the Americans – have over a hundred volunteers, and Australian, Kiwi and Japanese organisations also have significant presences here, not to mention the numerous development consultants on lucrative contracts with large aid agencies and bodies like the EU.

The world is changing fast and Vanuatu is changing with it. As an outsider working here, I suppose I’m implicated in this change, but I believe that everybody “working in development” has a responsibility to ensure that something distinctly Vanuatu is preserved through this “development”.

For the record, West Ham won 3-1, and that night celebrated in a distinctly Vanuatu style, parading through Port Vila in the back of pickup trucks, honking horns, hollering and whooping loudly.