The White Man
“They just came to our islands and stuck a flag in the ground, claiming it suddenly belonged to France or Britain. Did they not see our homes? Did they realize our islands were already claimed… by us?” The older woman sat on the grass with her ankles crossed, a plate of steaming taro root, rice, and manioc bread (läp läp) in her lap lap (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’d plopped down beside Jennifer (her dummied down tourist name, I’m sure) to say hello. She’d become a quick friend days before when she’d led us up and down 3 mountains, through 8 rivers, and along slick footpaths on the 4 hour hike from church. Now, she always greeted us warmly, and I clung to her in a sort of new-kid-at-school way. The woman was seated next to Jennifer, and surprised me with her clear English and extensive knowledge about the history of these islands. I sat fascinated as she talked of the battles between France and Britain over this land, the enslaving of the native people, and the pride the Ni-Vanuatu had in reclaiming independence in 1980. I say reclaiming, because before the “white man” came along, independence was already theirs. I asked how the independence was won, imagining bloody battles such as the American Revolution or a better comparison maybe - the Trail of Tears. But she shook her head. “Just meetings with the chiefs.” Huh. These ‘cannibalistic, custom-keeping savages’ obviously had been underestimated. “You mean they didn’t war?” She said that the chiefs got together and organized a meeting with ‘the white man’ to petition to become an independent country. Now, don’t misunderstand, between the time the British and French came poking their flags in the volcanic Vanuatu soil and Vanuatu had its very own flag to fly, blood was shed, dignity was taken, sandalwood and resources were stripped, power was abused. But the chiefs of the villages that dot these 60 islands managed to come together and form a united front against the superpowers that were joint-governing them. Britain and France had formed separate governments, separate ruling languages, separate flags, separate currencies, separate postage stamps, and separate educational systems. (info from “Getting Stoned with Savages” by J. Maarten Troost) The effects of this tug of war can still be heard when walking from one English-speaking village to a nearby French-speaking one. Their dialect depending on whether Presbyterian English or French Catholic missionaries established the church there.
I took the opportunity to also ask her about the recent introduction of the cell phone and internet to village life. Was it a good thing, bad thing, or a bit of both? “Bad. All bad,” she said with a scowl. Then she told me how the phones and texting connect the teens too easily and bring things to them that tempt them. She spoke about how this new technology has increased the number of teen mothers and orphaned babies who must be cared for by aunts or mothers of the young women. I nodded knowingly, recalling conversations and concerns of moms in the US about precisely the same things. With more access to bandwidth and data, though, the American teens now sent explicit photos to each other on Snapchat or posted reputation-crushing videos on Youtube or Facebook.
As I lay in bed that night, my mind meandered through the recent sound bytes. Was ‘the white man’ like those cell phones? Only bringing destruction and immorality and temptation and greed? A recent blog post by my friend, Deanne, on SV Exodus, entitled “Generosity vs. Charity” further muddied the waters - did ‘the white man’ think he was bettering the island people? Did the island folks need bettering? Did they require progress? Did they need religion? Did they need help at all? With the exception of religion and medical aid, I would have to say no, and I know many people who would argue those two exceptions.
Then the rivers of thought deepened further… I am ‘the white man’. My ancestors were ‘the white man’. When I step ashore on these islands, what do they see? A threat? An annoyance? A handout? Another person coming to tell them how to live? I sincerely hope that I enter these islands with absolute respect and a clear desire to learn about their lives and culture and families, not an arrogant attitude of needing to help them or change them. Just a listening ear and my own story to share.