Traces of Tanna

Canadian doctors work with Melanesian population in South Pacific

As we rock along in a 20-seat Twin Otter, my seven-year-old son Sam yells over the whine of the engine, “This is pretty exciting.” My husband Joe laughs and I see the pilot halfturn and smile.

“I see the volcano,” Sam says, jumping up against his seatbelt.

I hug him and look ahead to a blob of an island where a cone the colour of elephant hide rises up and puffs like a cigar. Tanna is one of over 80 islands making up the Y-shaped archipelago of Vanuatu. The islands, outlined in turquoise blue and snow-white sand, dot the South Pacific Ocean below us.

From the centre of the island, grassy hilltops bleed down to a ring of dark, bushy trees at the sand’s edge. As the plane descends, a bald strip appears in the landscape. We hit the runway with a bump. Palm fronds litter the side of the tarmac, evidence of the cyclone that passed through just three days ago. March is cyclone month on Tanna.

My best friend Andrea, her husband Sean and their two girls wave wildly from behind the chain-link fence as we disembark onto the tarmac of Tanna’s open-style airport. They are six weeks into a six-month volunteer mission at the local hospital. Two Canadian doctors for 35,000 people.

Andrea squeals and bear-hugs us. “You’re going to love it here.”

Gud aftenun,” Sean greets us in practiced Bislama, one of the official languages of Vanuatu.

Tanna clings to me immediately: the dust, the fertile smells, and the heat.

We drive through the main town of Lenakel where a hand-painted sign says Blackman Town.

“Why do they call it Blackman Town?” I ask through the dividing window of the truck’s cab.

“Businesses on Tanna can only be owned by locals or ‘Man Tanna.’ They’re saying this place belongs to black men from Tanna,” Andrea answers.

People stare as we drive past, up the hill to the hospital. I don’t see any other white people.

Andrea and Sean live on the hospital grounds in the doctors’ residence, a three-bedroom wooden bungalow with a low-pressure shower, toilet, fridge and stove. The gardener waves a machete at us in greeting then returns to hacking at the ever-encroaching palms, figs and aloe.The hospital staff lives in coconut frond shacks that dot the hospital grounds.

After dropping our luggage, we walk the 100 metres over rutted grass to the cement hospital building where Andrea and Sean proudly show us the delivery room, surgical room, maternity ward, men’s ward and women’s ward. The wards form a larger square surrounding the open courtyard, where several groups sprawl on the grass, eating and laughing.

“When a villager gets sick, the whole family comes to the hospital, even if they have to walk for days,” says Andrea.

One man with an open sore on his back lies on his stomach while his wife holds his hand.

“The medicine man of his village cut his pain “out” using a razor blade. The cuts have become infected,” Sean explains to us as he examines the man’s wound.

A mother and father hold their inconsolable four-year old.

“They came to us for help and now they’ll walk back to their village for kastom or traditional medicine from the village doctor. Most villagers seem to hedge their bets by trying both Western and kastomhealing approaches.” Sean shrugs.

I ask Andrea how practicing medicine is different here from her home in Victoria.

“It’s challenging and rewarding because there are no specialists so we have to be every type of doctor. The more difficult cases we fly to Vanuatu, but if the weather is bad, they are stuck here. Almost always, the patients say, Tangkyu tumas dokta. Even when we have to tell them they are terminal, they appear grateful.”

We make it back to the house in time to watch the sunset, sitting in the garden overlooking the ocean, sipping gin and tonic. This is the time of day when people are most likely to contract malaria and I watch Sam roll and dive in the grass with a dozen local children. A lean girl about Sam’s size, dressed in a simple dirty smock, scampers up a coconut palm, a machete between her teeth. Clinging to the trunk five metres up with her bare feet, she hacks away until several coconuts thump onto the grass. The older kids shove to be the first to grab a coconut and bore a hole in the top. They carefully divide the milk amongst all of the children in plastic cups and Sam sips at his. The older kids crack open the coconuts with a machete and use part of the husk to scrape out the meat inside. One girl puts her hand over top of Sam’s to show him how to properly shave the coconut meat.

The next day at the hospital, Andrea treats an Australian, Ben Dean, with eyes swollen shut and crusted over. For seven months, he has been living in the hilltop kastom or traditional village called Yakel with his wife and two young sons making a film about the villagers.

His eyes had become sore, and, as per kastom, all members of the village lined up to spit in his eyes to heal him. He didn’t want to insult them by refusing their treatment so he tried to keep his eyes closed and wore sunglasses while they spat at him. He developed a nasty case of conjunctivitis regardless.

Ben invites Andrea’s family and my family to visit the village, and we accept.

After an hour of bumpy driving through rainforest and jungle, past fertile villages, the greenery opens to a hard-packed football-field sized dirt clearing surrounded by banyan trees. Ten metres up, in the largest banyan, accessed by a makeshift wooden ladder, is the biggest tree house I’ve ever seen. I notice one of the limbs moving and realize a dozen men and boys are camouflaged within the vertical above-ground roots of the tree.

Sean stops the truck at the edge of the village. He tells us it’s custom to wait to be invited in.

The men, wearing only nambas or loincloths, gather around the truck to have their ailments cured. Some request Tylenol. The grass-skirted and bare-breasted women hang back. The children immediately take Sam’s hand and bring him into their circle to play a version of hacky sack. I can feel Sam’s sense of awe at the differences in dress, language and behaviour. One of the elders tickles him and plays peek-a-boo.

Ben and Janita, the Australian couple, show us their living quarters; a one-room A-frame hut held together with bamboo poles and woven coconut palm fronds, with a raised sleeping platform, a solar panel to charge up their computers and cameras and a water filter called “The Last Straw.” Their two boys, aged two and four, after two months of living in the village, prefer to eat the traditional island cabbage village soup to what their parents prepare. “I figured the boys had fully assimilated when I looked out of the hut window and saw my oldest boy ride past naked on one of the pigs,” Ben said with a laugh.

Janita screws up her face and explains how pigs roam the village eating whatever they can find, including human waste. Although goats are slaughtered regularly for food, killing a pig involves celebration and ceremony because a man’s worth is judged by how many pigs he has. Pigs are so important that women must sleep downhill from men and pigs.

Her naked two-year-old blonde’s curly-headed boy arrives on the hip of a young girl wearing a grass skirt. Her older son darts past wearing the traditional namba. Both are covered in dust.

“Do you worry about them getting sick, or hurt?” I ask.

“I did in the beginning. But the villagers treat them so well. They have so much freedom. After awhile, I gave up trying to keep them clean and I trust the girls to keep them as safe as I could,” she chuckles. “The men even made a namba for my older son. He wore it non-stop, even to bed. Then one day he was in the outdoor loo and dropped it down by accident. He was devastated. So they made him a new one.”

We climb back up to the Nakamal where the villagers have broken into song and dance. Singing and dancing is their exercise. It is like a scene out of National Geographic. Men and boys in nambas circle on the inside and girls and women circle on the outside, trilling and stomping and twirling. One of the more wrinkled women lets loose with a high-pitched song. They laugh and smile. About 150 people live in the village, but some aren’t there because a one-month-old baby died yesterday from dehydration, so many have gone to mourn.

After the dance, men and boys shake our hands firmly, smiling and making eye contact. I ask Ben about taking photos and he encourages me. He says the people of Yakel want to share their lifestyle. I ask what their documentary message is. Ben says they are narrowing it down, but it has to do with living in harmony with each other and their environment. They are proud of their kastom way of life. I come away feeling their generosity and peacefulness and wondering about the patriarchal society and what it means for the women villagers. Do they feel safe? Do they have the same opportunities as men? Do the women believe they are living in peace and harmony with the men?

After three weeks, when we arrive home to Whistler, Sam says he feels “pressurized” and wonders if he misses Tanna. I miss Tanna: the high-pitched squealing of the flying foxes, the sting of Yasur’s sulphur, the singing and dancing in the kastom village. The contradictions cling to me most. Tanna has stunning landscapes, town people who rely on the outside world, community-oriented kastom villages that straddle the old and new, and a hierarchy that seems to leave women at a disadvantage.

Ben returned to the kastom village of Yakel a year later, as promised, to show the very first screening of his film. They strung up two queen-sized bed sheets onto the central banyan tree and showed the film, based on a true story of two villagers who fell in love, but were betrothed to others and chose to commit suicide instead of being apart. The film was shot in their traditional language, Nauvhal, and has won awards at the Venice festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2017 Oscars.

Tanna will be showing at the Whistler Public Library on Aug. 24 at 7p.m.

Susan Oakey-Baker is an author, teacher and a guide living in Whistler. Her first memoir, Finding Jim (Rocky Mountain Books 2013) is available at Armchair Books. Look for her second novel about Mount Kilimanjaro, coming soon. Visit her website at susanoakeybaker.com.