Island Learning

Michael was buzzing with excitement.  He’d be attending the local primary school here in Aneityum and could hardly wait!   Meanwhile, Elizabeth was fighting off flu-like symptoms (Mark and I still aren’t sure if this was psychologically-induced illness at the idea of having to attend school or if she was legitimately sick).  She didn’t eat much and stayed in her bed all day.

When Michael got to his class, he saw all the snowflakes we’d made with them the past Friday hanging up to decorate.  The teacher told him that the kids had spent the rest of the day that day perfecting their snowflake design skills!  Mrs. Grace started the handwriting lesson on the board, and the kids pulled notebooks and pencils from their schoolbags and started copying the days of the week in English.  (I’m not sure if this is normally their lesson, or if they were adapting everything to English solely for Michael’s benefit.  I’d hoped she would teach in Bislama so he could tune his ear toward translating.  He’s always been a whiz at picking up languages!)

Once she had finished writing on the board and given a brief explanation of capital letters, she handed me a red pen and sent students over to me to “mark” their work.  Ah… back in my old teacher role once again!

I was impressed with how many school supplies this classroom had!  Never had I been in a village school that had scissors for every student or overflowing tables of leveled reading books!  When I asked Mrs. Grace if the government provided it all, she smiled and said, “No.  The cruise ship passengers bring donations for us.”  I was relieved to hear that the tourists who usually handed out cavities in the form of lollies, were also giving items that would help the children.  I decided to keep our school items that we’d brought to donate to villages onboard until we found a village that didn’t get cruise ship handouts.

That afternoon, I was in a class for women.  The ladies from the neighboring island of Futuna have been here all week with a Presbyterian Women’s Conference.  Today, there was an elective class given about Hygiene - food and personal - along with a lesson in making ‘Swit Pinats’ (Sweet Peanuts) and ‘Solted Pinats’ (Salted).  A man who seemed to be a health educator taught the ladies about keeping food fresh (especially important given there isn’t a fridge to be found on the island), cleaning food, utensils, and hands properly, caring for eyes, teeth, nose, mouth, and skin, and ensuring the use of clean drinking water.  It was all in Bislama, so I’m sure I lost some in translation, but I was impressed with the discussion and understanding of how vital women were in maintaining the health of the entire village.

In the end, he asked for questions.  Women asked about how smoking in the kitchen can effect the food and people, obviously her husband had been in the kitchen smoking and she didn’t like it.  Later he asked me if I had any knowledge to share about keeping foods.  Of course, we stored cooked food in the refrigerator, so that didn’t help them much, but I did manage to pass along the cruiser tip of turning eggs every other day and coating them with grease or oil to prolong their shelf life.  The ladies seemed thrilled for this tidbit of info, as one thanked the teacher and asked him to translate just to make sure she fully understood.  He said they don’t have many eggs here, so they are precious items when a cake or other baked item calls for one or two.

Onto the cooking class we walked.  The ladies donned scarves or shower caps and latex gloves to teach about how important food cleanliness is.  The teacher explained that he wanted to empower them with this understanding, not only for their household cooking, but so they could safely make and package foods to sell to others.

These are the times I love most - just being with the ladies during these casual gatherings to hear them giggle together and see them loosen up.  In church, everyone is so quiet and subdued.  Here, though, ladies cracked jokes and laughed at each other in their hygienic garb.  They handed me a pair of gloves and I stood around the table, shelling peanuts.  Then, I told them about the various reactions of the kids in school to the peanut butter we let them taste - re-enacting the boy who wiped his tongue off with the sleeve of his t-shirt.  They all giggled.  Then I shared the peanut butter song my kids love to sing about the peanut on the railroad track that gets smashed.  “Toot!  Toot!  Peanut Butter!”

On the lawn, ladies were sitting on mats grating cassava (manioc) that would be dried, ground, and used as flour - no cake mixes or bread makers here!  It was fun and novel for me to learn how they cook in these villages using open fires, underground ovens, and the sun, but I seriously couldn’t imagine doing these things on a daily basis just for sustenance.  Can you tell me how to get to the nearest Safeway, please?


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