On be(com)ing happy

A few days after cyclone Pam destroyed his home, a twelve-year-old boy taught me a paradoxical lesson about happiness

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

Yesterday, during an interview for a documentary film about climate change, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the badly affected Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was going to come from. On the southern island of Tanna, which was utterly devastated by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in that part of the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives. Read more “On be(com)ing happy”

An urban kastom story

Wan Smolbag’s new play, Kaekae Rat, is a broadly acted but subtly layered allegory of life in modern Melanesia

Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

‘Really,’ asks the King Rat, ‘how exactly are rats and humans different?’

Out of that simple spark rises a complex allegory of honesty and deceit, selfishness and survival, all found in the least likely places. Wan Smolbag’s newest play—one of three in this year’s season—is the most ambitious yet in terms of its story-telling. Director Peter Walker says the play has a bit of a Cinderella quality to it, but here, it’s the rats are riding in coaches.

Rats and humans have always lived together, we are asked, so how, exactly how do they differ? They have leaders and followers; they all live and thrive surrounded by refuse; they squabble and vie incessantly; and they lust and love—and confuse the two—just as (in)constantly.

So why is it such a big deal then, when the King Rat becomes obsessed with Veronik, a still-pure flower of a girl, living in semi-squalor in Port Vila? At turns charming and menacing, he and his cohort are willing to wheedle, extort, con and coerce anyone in order to win her hand. Despite King Rat’s constant moans of frustrated desire, the solution turns out to be a simple one: Just find enough money to satisfy the girl’s so-called parents, and nothing else matters. Not even the wishes of Vero herself.

The plot writhes from one episode to another as rat and human natures try to come to terms, and as their mutual motivations are unveiled, it becomes increasingly difficult to answer King Rat’s question. And yet… and yet, as Vero’s younger brother candidly confesses, ‘who wants a rat for a brother-in-law?’ Read more “An urban kastom story”

Defending the indefensible

The reason the Nauruan government finds itself quashing essential aspects of its own democracy is because its actions simply don’t bear scrutiny.

A word of advice to Nauru: As the wise man famously said, ‘if you find yourself trapped at the bottom of a very deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.’

A word of advice to Australia: Stop handing Nauru the shovel.

In all honesty, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm required to express an adequate level of outrage following the discovery that the government of Nauru were requiring Digicel, the country’s only ISP, to block access to Facebook. Initially, the blockage was denied, then described as a technical problem. Then, days later, the Prime Minister went on the record stating that it was an attempt to protect the island’s predominantly Christian population from the scourge of pornography.

Then a human rights worker stated that she had been told that the request to block Facebook originated from Australian authorities.

If her reasoning is to be accepted, then cutting off Facebook and social media was never aimed at Nauru’s indigenous population. It was designed to silence security staff and to stop inmates from discussing the pros and cons of accepting exile in Cambodia with people in the outside world.

The dismantling of Nauruan democracy is merely a side-effect of Australia’s failed policy.

As they witness the country’s lurching egress from democracy and social harmony, many Nauruans in public and private life must be asking themselves, ‘how did it ever come to this?’ Cutting off conversation and quashing dissent is simply not the Pacific way of doing things.

Managing this policy can only be a thankless task for those who carry its burden, but the fact remains that the world is watching with increasing incredulity as it slips further and further down that proverbial muddy hillside.

The only way out of this is to talk. To face up to the realities of the situation, to come back to the Pacific way, and to hash things out until there’s nothing more to be said. The lid will not stay on the pot, no matter what measures people may be willing to consider. As painful as the prospect may be, it is better to front up to the situation now than to allow it to fester any longer.