Friday, October 7, 2011

Less Than 3 Weeks Left

With less than 3 weeks left, it is hard to believe that my time on Tanna is really coming to a close. Every conversation with folks here usually starts with a “oh sorry…yu stap go now” or the equivalent in local language. Talk about drawing out the goodbye. Yesterday, two sixth grade girls brought me something I thought I wasn’t going to get to enjoy this year: a ripe mango. In fact it was the first ripe mango they had seen. They said they were walking along and talking about how they wished they could bring me mangoes when the first mango of the year fell from a tree beside them. They rushed to bring it to me (and also I’m sure to overcome the temptation to eat it themselves, being typical mango-obsessed children). It was a delicious mango. Hopefully there will be more to come in these last few weeks, but judging from the small size of the fruits growing now, I think that one was a special prize and also a reminder of the change that’s coming. We also just had the first major rainfall (nearly 48 hours of nonstop heavy rain) after a long, relatively colder, and incredibly dusty few months. Everyone is glad that their gardens have been “washed,” and that the yams can grow now. Kids were glad to have the rain cancel afternoon classes, even though there were already 2 scheduled holidays this week. The weather is changing, the mangoes are growing, and I know I am so close to leaving.

In terms of the work I have been doing at the school, it is great to see teachers starting to take on responsibilities of the library. It has been my main concern that once I leave this place the library will “break down.” It turns out that a year (which is about as long as the library has been functioning, having taken a good six months to be assembled) is not nearly enough time to fully develop, from scratch, the concepts of book exchange, book care, and regular use of the library among students, teachers and community members. The students continue their enthusiasm for exchanging books, regularly coming to my door at 7:00 in the morning wanting to go to the library. And thankfully there is one super-enthusiastic teacher who has agreed to be the “open-hours librarian.” And all teachers are now coming once a week with their classes, and facilitating regular book exchange. And thankfully, there should also be a replacement Peace Corps Volunteer coming to take my place here at the school in December, which gives the school here a good month to try and manage the library on their own, without leaving it alone entirely. It also gives the community at least another 2 years to have reading and the library play a more significant role. Aside from the library, I have had an amazing time teaching reading, phonics, and English this year. A lot of kids who knew less than half of their ABCs in February are now actually reading, albeit pretty easy books. I love learning how to teach. And I love teaching these kids.

For every thing that is hard to see and hear about here on Tanna, especially in terms of violence against women, there are so many more things that are truly wonderful. There is so much I will always love about this community. And for the next two and a half weeks, I will continue to enjoy every day. I will continue to make my rounds and visit different kitchens, the very best place to “storyon” and enjoy island food. I will even savor every piece of laplap!

I will enjoy every moment with little baby Sam, whose family has finally been reunited after so much trouble.

And I will definitely enjoy all the wonderful things the kids do. Every coconut tree that gets climbed.

And of course the way that the pikininis are in some ways more comfortable with a knife than with their own clothes onJ

So I wrote that last blog post two days ago, and thought there was a good chance it would be my last. But THEN yesterday morning I learned that my host brother’s wife, my “tawi” Selina, had gone to the hospital to have her baby. I have been hoping I would get to see the little baby before I left and so I was thrilled yesterday to venture up to see what action was happening at Lenakel Hospital. When I got there Selina was still having contractions. And so for the first time in my life, I watched this amazing birthing process. Selina's mother and her mother-in-law (my mama) were beside her the whole time, massaging her lower back with every contraction. I could tell Selina was in an incredible amount of pain, but the only sounds that ever escaped her mouth throughout the whole 14 hours were small little moans. I have heard it said that Ni-Vanuatu women have babies in almost near silence, but I was still pretty blown away to witness it. I know if it had been me I would have been screaming my lungs out. I could see the pain on her face. The midwife was a great guy who came barging into the birthing room when Selina had just started to push. I was startled by what seemed a gruff demeanor, but could see the relief on the mamas’ faces when he showed up. They call this guy “frend blong all mama,” and of the 4 midwives on Tanna, he is the one all the mamas want present to “born” their babies. And less than 20 minutes after he showed up, sure enough the little baby boy was born. I was completely in awe. I still am. And afterwards, when he and his mama Selina were taken back to the maternity ward, and my mama and I bathed him (because apparently there is a whole lot of blood and other fluids involved in child birthJ) the family all turned to me and said that the next day everyone would be asking what his name was… and while I had joked with them in past months about naming him “Fernando” if he was a boy, after the Spanish soccer player Fernando Torres (who last year everyone here thought was my boyfriend), once I saw the little guy I wanted him to be my namesake. So I named him Lauren, which I thought was less girly than my own name. One of my PCV friends here assured me that was fine, since she even knew a little girl in her community with the name David. Little Lauren weighed in at 3.1 kilos and is just a beautiful little Man Tanna. And I am so grateful for this week, which started with this awesome mango and ended with the incredible birth of my nephew Lauren.

Celebrate this Day!

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Little Bit of Louse

Ever since the 5th grade when my teacher supposedly found lice in my hair I have had this ridiculous fear and paranoia around it. But like a lot of things that have changed in my life since moving out to this itty bitty world of Tanna, so has my reaction to this pervasive little parasite. First of all, it is the most wonderful thing to watch women affectionately wrap their hands around a child’s head in search for lice. It is so obviously a sign of endearment. A sign of love. And the kids in turn learn this skill so early. Even 2-year-old Gabriella knows how to look for lice. So a week ago when I felt extra itchy on my scalp, I knew just who to turn to. I corralled a small group of kids who proceeded to systematically search my head. Quite a nice head massage on top of their finding 5 louse and perhaps a dozen eggs. Then my impulse got the better of me and, much to the horror of the kids, I hacked off my ponytail. They insisted I was ruining my long hair. But once again, my young friends knew how to make the most of the situation. They immediately started claiming sections of my dispatched hair to make small “rostas” (= small braids attached to their own hair). They wisely instructed me not to leave any bits of my hair around on the ground, lest someone take it and put “nakaimas” (= black magic) on it. And then I proceeded to make the first weave in my village with my very own hair:

I was lucky enough to have a bottle of lice shampoo on hand, which I also put to good use throughout this week. But more than that, I am lucky to be surrounded by people who could daily (or multiple times a day) search through my hair. I’ll admit that I even went so far as to on one occasion, after being handed the louse, properly dispose of it by eating it…. May sound gross until you’ve seen it done a thousand times over and bother to try it on your own louse. The bottom line is, just like any problem a person can face here, lice may be annoying, but Tanna has taught me well to manage it with the sensibility of those around me in addition to my own sense of reasoning. And I’m happy to say that a week later my head lice is gone. However, I will probably continue the daily head massages for some time just to be safe J

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Service not Slavework

Today (Wednesday June 21st) as part of the 3rd and 4th grade “agriculture” lesson, the teacher asked the students to all bring stems/branches of food plants to school. After lunch they gathered in front of my house and proceeded to create a garden. To call it a lesson isn’t really fair… These kids already know everything there is to know about gardening on Tanna. They went straight to business. I figured they might as well make it how they wanted, since they know more about this stuff than I do. I took pictures. They cleared the grass with their “big knives” (machetes) and dug up bigger weeds and unwanted plants with the school’s spade. The kids without knives disposed of the “dirty” (the English word that gets overused thanks to the Bislama language). Then they took their cassava branches, island cabbage stalks, and pineapple tops, and put them properly into the ground like the very good gardeners that they are, all with a fair amount of ordering each other around. They put some logs around the whole thing to hopefully keep the pigs out of it. (We’ll see how that goes tomorrow morning…pigs can do so much damage to gardens around here). The whole process took about an hour. They did great work and were so proud of themselves.

My little garden, or rather the work these kids did creating the garden, had nothing at all to do with learning how to garden. It was more about the collective service the kids were doing together…for me-ha! The fact is, these kids have the concept of service engrained in them. It’s so strong in their culture, where family and community absolutely comes first and foremost. You take care of each other here. You share. If you have 2 oranges in your basket, you give one away. And If you only have 1 orange, you give half of it away. If you’re a kid, you contribute to the meal. Maybe you go to the garden and get some island cabbage. Or maybe you gather the firewood. Or grate the coconut, or cook the rice, or do the whole thing all by yourself. You help your family. And if you don’t, well, you’re probably gonna get a whipping… But these kids learn fast how to take care of themselves and each other. Sometimes it may look like slave labor when every Friday the students participate in “working parties” in which they weed the school grounds, collect firewood and coconuts for the teachers, sweep the classrooms and clean the windows. But the students are helping to serve the school community. That’s the point of working parties, that the kids help the school. They do a great job of it too. They don’t complain. If anything, they hide, or forget their knives at home as a way of avoiding certain kinds of work. But they will get singled out later. What matters is the community, and the service they provide for and with each other. I think back home kids and everyone else could really benefit from a culture more rich in service. In the meantime, every day I hope to have a nice reminder of the easy community service potential of an 8-year-old right outside my door, in the form of a beautiful little vegetable garden.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gabriella, Talap, and a Happy Mama's Day

(2-year-old Gabriella has taken over my wash, with a lollipop to sweeten things up)

I have seen time and again the wonderful opportunities that children have here, to grow up in a place not only free of all the electronics western kids are so accustomed to, but a place rich in physical and mental stimulation. It’s a tropical playground afterall. One of my most entertaining young friends is Gabriella, the 2-year-old daughter of a fellow teacher at the school. She is quite the precocious little lady, and in addition to showing me that at the age of 2 she is quite capable of washing clothes, sweeping, cutting vegetables with a knife, and even looking for lice in my hair, I think she has decided that I am perhaps a little on the slow side. She yells at me when she catches me wearing shorts rather than a skirt. When she tries to order me around, and I don’t understand all of her mother-tongue language, she swears at me in her language and scowls. She walks around her mother’s classroom with a broom and threatens to hit kids who are off task. And when students answer incorrectly she yells at them. In short, she is the smallest little mama around. But of course she is still a precious little girl, one who notably likes to control her mother’s breasts, demanding to have them both popped out of her mom’s dress for her to breastfeed on(“titi” in the Bislama pigeon) while her mother teaches lessons before the 4th grade class. Gabriella’s command of the world on this small island at her young age is not only a daily source of entertainment for me, but a reminder of what young kids are capable of when really immersed in their natural environment. And of course Gabriella is also blessed to have the most loving mama one could hope for, and a whole family that looks out for her well-being. While Gabriella stands out with her charm, it is true that most of the children here get the same early start on sweeping, washing, cutting, and manipulating the world around them in general. Just like Gabriella, most kids here have a whole slew of mamas keeping track of them, feeding them, loving them, and also “talking strong” to them as the expression here goes. And perhaps it is because most of these kids have all of these things going for them that it makes it all the more disheartening to hear of the kids who don’t. Like Talap.

(Talap in the first photo; Talap and her sister Jenny join the Easter Camp games)

Talap is a sweet 2nd grade student who started the year knowing only 2 letters of the alphabet. Because this year I take all the 2nd grade students in small reading groups, I noticed right away how frequently she is absent. She walks over an hour each way to school, and any time I ask her why she was absent she will tell me “kakai ino gat,” which means she had no food at home. I was puzzled by this. Why did she have no food? This is Tanna. There is not a food shortage here. If there’s no food in her home, why doesn’t she get food from another mama? No one goes hungry here. So what was the deal with Talap? Over Easter weekend, when she followed a distant relative down to my village to join a 4-day church Easter Camp, I found out more of Talap’s story. It turns out that not only did her real mother leave her and her 3 siblings behind when she ran away to Port Vila (in fact trying to find her own escape), but there is no one in their community that looks after them, aside from their father. Their grandmother lives with them, but because she is so old, she is unable to take care of her grandkids. And just to be clear, fathers here do not raise children; that role is left entirely to the mamas and grandmothers. So Talap and her older sister Jenny (a 6th grader) do all the cooking, washing, and naturally have to see themselves off to school in the morning. When they have no food, they really have no food, and Talap and Jenny have to go look for food in the garden. To earn a few dollars, sometimes Jenny even has to take food to sell at the market (on school days). The thought of being a kid on this island with no mama is actually heartbreaking. Especially when there seem to be so many mamas around. I just want some other mama to take these kids in, something that often happens, but for some reason never happened with Talap and her siblings. So in the meantime, I’m trying to do my small part to help Talap (letting go of my impulse to take her in myself). I’m trying to teach her the letters of the alphabet in her small reading group (she’s up to 15, a significant jump in 2 months considering all her absences). And I now give her a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day, since the only food she eats at lunch is what the other kids happen to give her, and obviously no one at home is cooking for her. (Today she showed up at school with 6 mandarins for me! Even the little kids here have the concept of giving back so engrained in them.) But at the end of the day, I know that what Talap needs more than anything is a mama at home to take care of her. It’s what all kids need. Back home maybe a daddy will do, but here it definitely has to be a mama. And I wish Talap was as lucky as Gabriella. I wish she was as lucky as me. I wish she had a mama. And as mother’s day comes this weekend, I am reminded again of how important our mamas are. Especially here, in what feels like the kingdom of mamas. If you are a mama reading this, I hope you find your realm in the kingdom of mamahood this mother’s day weekend. And if you are my mother reading this, I want you to know that right now I feel like the luckiest person alive, to have had and still have you as my mama and I wish you the happiest of Mother’s Days J

****Update on Meriam… Meriam, who at the lure of a banana cake was finally convinced to go to school, started 1st grade in February knowing just 6 letters of the alphabet and is now the ONLY 1st grader to know all 26! To say she is enthusiastic about learning would be an understatement. The girl is amazing.

****I just heard today that there is a Baby Dodd on it's way today! So a special HAPPY MAMA'S DAY goes to my sister-in-law Kristy!!! Can't wait to see photos!

Friday, April 8, 2011

From Sea to Sea, and Sam to Sam

I have just named my first baby. He may not be my own genetic child, but here in the village I am technically his mama, as his “straight” mama is one of my many sisters. This beautiful little boy was born before dawn on Sunday, April 3rd at the island’s Hospital that incidentally had temporarily run out of water. People speculated that the little boy came out extra clean; he obviously must have known about the water situation. His mother was not thrilled at his coming out a boy, as she already has 3 boys and no girls to speak of, but after screaming it out (as she reminisces to me 5 days later) she decided he was still a blessing. Even his grandmother, a nurse, who attended the mom and baby boy at birth, expressed her regret at him being born a boy. I just found out about his birth Wednesday, and followed his big brother home from school today to visit the baby and mom and give a small present. The custom here for women who have just given birth is to remain inside the home with the newborn for the first month of the baby’s life. Sure keeps lots of germs away. The mamas also get visited by all the other women in the village at one point or another, with gifts of baby items or meals, throughout that first month. So today I made my visit. This particular mama, who I call sister, has a very special place in my heart. To say that she has faced challenges in her life and in particular, her home, would be an understatement. I have literally been brought to tears by some things she has told me. In spite of everything, the details of which I won’t write here, she has remained one of the most fantastic mothers to her children. She is one of only 3 mothers I know of in my community (the other 2 being certified teachers at the school I work at) who asks her children regularly about their school work, who reads to her kids, and who I have witnessed even to guide her children with words rather than with the whip of a coconut broom. (This latter one I no longer take for granted!) While so many women here can at times seem so intensely jealous, she has never once seemed that way. She is just one of the sweetest, most gentle women I have met in my life. And even when the culture she lives in appears to have ostracized her and limited her opportunities, she maintains an admirable respect for that very culture. And thankfully there are finally some of her extended family members who are treating her well enough to help her with food (as circumstances have left her with no ground of her own), and she even has her own small custom home. And so I went to go visit her and her baby. And because the baby still had no name after 5 days, I “put a name” for the baby, as the expression goes. And because the best sort of name you can give is the name of someone important to you (giving your own name and having a “namesake” is one of the most affectionate gestures), I “put the name” of my recently born nephew, Samuel. So now my nephew in Scotland has a namesake on Tanna Island! So cheers to the 2 little Sams, 2 oceans apart J
(Little Samuel and his Mama, from Tanna Island)
(and little Samuel in Scotland)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Changing lives, one banana cake at a time...

My happiest moment of February 14th, the first day of the new school year in Vanuatu was when I saw 9-year-old Meriam show up for 1st grade. It was my reminder of a Happy Valentine, since the holiday is not actually celebrated here. I had been talking to Meriam’s family every time I saw any one of them, which was basically every day since this village is so small, for the 2 weeks leading up to school. Meriam is the only kid in the village who hadn’t been going to school simply because she didn’t want to. (There are some areas, some even close to here, where tons of kids are running around free on school days.) Meriam would cry and cry, her family told me again and again, when they tried bringing her to school in years past. So that was it. Meriam didn’t want to go to school, so she didn’t have to go. Why would anyone force her? Anyway, I tried the best trick I know of on this island to get someone to do something. I bribed her with a banana cake. I told her that if she came to school every day for the first week, that first weekend afterward I would make a whole banana cake just for her. At first she just stared at me and didn’t say a thing. I can’t say she looked convinced. In fact, she looked like she wanted to cry. But I KNOW she wanted a banana cake, because EVERYONE here wants my banana cakes. So I kept bringing up the banana cake to her family, mixed with small “toktok” about why I thought this was so important, whenever I passed them during the 2 weeks before school started. And as discouraged as I was by the impression I was getting (Meriam still wasn’t agreeing to come, they would tell me), I kept at them with this banana cake temptation. And to my pleasant surprise, come Monday February 14th, there was little Meriam sitting with her mom inside the school grounds, waiting for the school bell to ring. And every day that week she came to school! I was so happy. And of course I made her a delicious banana cake that weekend. Which naturally meant I got something as well in return—delicious fish and sweet potato soup, 2 cucumbers, and some fabric. Her family was so thrilled, with the cake of course, but mostly with Meriam. Meriam’s father wanted me to give Meriam another name, because, he said, I had changed her life. And after another 2 weeks, Meriam is still coming to school every day. I’ve promised her another cake if she’s still coming to school when I leave Tanna at the end of October. And I hope I have to make it for her. Amazing what a banana cake can do here. Amazing that a banana cake is sometimes all it takes to change someone’s entire life.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A fish and a fowl

There are some things about living on an island in Vanuatu that are as surprising as they are simple. The small things are the things that never fail to catch me off guard and remind me of what my life actually is here, on Tanna Island. For example, recently I started my morning off in the same way I have been starting many of my mornings off for the past year and a half that I have been living in Vanuatu. I went for a run. It was a very regular run, with lots of people calling out to me as I ran along, as they do every time they see me running. They especially love to call me fatfat (bislama for fat), which makes me feel just wonderful, but I have learned to smile and return the favor, calling them fatfat too. Nothing seems to bring more joy to a conversation than a little roundtable fatfat talk. Anyway, I was in the final stretch of my run, along the beach, about a mile or so from my village when a guy called out to me from the sea, greeting me in local language as most people do. The next thing I knew he was yelling “Becky” over and over again, which I’m assuming comes from my given custom name “Nasweyu Becky,” even though most people either call me “Nasweyu” or Laura. I’m still not sure who this guy is. He then proceeded to run out of the sea waving a dead fish over his head. So I stopped running and stared at him, since staring is the natural response to any sort of situation here. He then came up to me and told me to take the dead fish. It was a foot long “flying fish” with a good amount of meat on it. I had to accept it, as it is extremely rude to deny something someone gives you, and also because it was a fine looking fish. So I thanked him and then ran the rest of the way home with a dead fish in my hand. There was just one little string attached. In taking the fish I was accepting something from a youngfala man, which means I might as well call him my boyfriend now. It is customary that when a guy gives a girl something, or takes out her trash, or carries something for her (my host family still jokes about the time my tawi/cousin named Jeff carried my taro about 20 yeards from the road to their house my very first week on Tanna), that the two could one day soon be married. Just like that. One day you get a fish, and the next you find yourself married. A pretty simple process that I won’t be adopting into my own lifestyle anytime soon. And I won’t be calling the fish guy my boyfriend. I’ll just think of the fish as a great reward for an 8 mile run! And after scaling and gutting the fish, a fellow peace corps volunteer and I made a great, high-protein meal out of it.

The other animal I was given this week was a live chicken. I went to visit 2 teenage sisters who had babies a month apart last year. I never gave presents to the moms or the babies during the babies’ first month, as is the custom here, and so was a little behind by giving gifts to the babies at 5 and 6 months old. But of course the family was more than enthusiastic and grateful, as they handed me one of their chickens in return. (If you receive a gift here, the custom is to give something back.) Then we agreed that they would look after the chicken, which they insisted belonged to me, until I wanted to come and roast it. We then planned to eat the chicken together when it was coming close to my time to leave, which sounded like a pretty good deal to me. And so, I’ve been living here a year and a half and yet the simple things like swapping baby clothes for a fowl, and getting a fish handed to me during my sweaty run, are still surprising me and reminding me that this place is truly a special place. And I am reminded of how often there are strings attached to our actions. And how the basic actions of giving and receiving are so important in any place. But especially in this place, this special little world in Vanuatu.