There are these places on our lovely planet Earth that just have a weird feel to it, and you can never quite put your finger on what exactly it is. We had cut up our passage up north from Efate to Epi Island into two segments, biting into the wind for the first day and then spending the night anchored on the lee side of Emae Island, a small speck of land with three rounded mountains on it neatly arranged in a line from northeast to southwest. In the vast field of coral where the anchorage was indicated on the charts we only found one narrow strip of light blue sand to put our anchor in. The manoeuvre had to be done with military grade precision, and we did sleep lightly during the night. But still it was way better than bouncing up and down all night long out on the dark and moonless sea. The next day was a brisk downwind sail up along the west coast of Epi, which showed itself full of fantastic rock formations tempered by a very verdant cover of luxurious vegetation. Lamen Island sits just off the northwest tip of the island and shelters a wide bay to the east on the main island that sports the very same name. A sizeable village lies behind the dark grey sand beach with a red painted market hall, a good sized secondary school surrounded by boarding houses and an grassy airstrip from where a worn wind sock was lazily dangling in the tempered trade winds that tumbled down in harmless williwaws from Epi Island’s mountainous interior.
It was a Friday night when we arrived in Lamen Bay and we were told that in the main village of Covo Beach, a couple of bays further to the South, the festivities for the 36th anniversary of Vanuatu’s independence would come to an end tomorrow with a grand closing celebration. The place was clearly too far to paddle to with our canoe and with our painfully gained knowledge of the amazing prices for transportation in the local flatbed trucks we decided to brave the rising mid-morning heat and started out on foot on the dusty two-wheel track. It soon started climbing a rather steep hillside before dwindling back down on the other side. We walked past a nicely manicured village along the bay that followed and walked up two more similar elevations before arriving at the location, where a small stage had been set up to one side of a football field. From there a persistent MC kept trying to enthuse the loosely spread out crowd to congregate. Alas his worthy efforts where mostly in vain, as the locals continued to sit in their clan like clusters here and there around the market square, in the shade of some giant mango trees, where they kept laughing and giggling unabated. We sat down on one side of the market square and dusted off our shoes as best as possible. Two ladies soon entered the covered area and performed a short dance with swinging hips sinuous shoulder moves, apparently with the intention of definitely setting the festivities in motion.
Unlike with other places we have visited there was no friendly invitation to sit and join in, quite to the contrary there was an impression of being sized up by slightly clenched eyes and getting coldly mustered from afar. Right after the initial dancing the honorary guests where invited up to the little stage, introduced with names and their public functions and a group of important looking ladies decorated them with colorful leis made of local flowers. Those honorable men then started an impressive series of political speeches, which unfolded just as it would have at any other place on the planet. Stale ideology squeezed out of clenched teeth, pretty promises were made that will never be kept and a heroic sounding history hurried alongside to cover up the miserable facts of the poor listeners factual existence. I rarely get bored, because boredom only happens to the one who doesn’t see, but in spite of my efforts to listen to the nuances of Bislama and to spot the precise mechanism of indoctrination, my backside soon started itching and we got up to go for a stroll towards the beach. A group of musicians sat in the shade further away from the blaring loudspeakers. They were waiting just as we were for their turn to show off artistic skills later in the patriotic program. Then a group of somber looking youngsters didn’t reply to our repeated greetings at all. In the back of a large concrete building some ladies were hanging up laundry and their happy chatting gained the acoustic upper hand to the slimy speeches that were now dragging their sticky feet far in the distance.
We decided against waiting for the announced string band competition and passed by a food stall on the far end of the football field to purchase refreshments in form of two nicely peeled drinking nuts. A deep fried local donut called ‘kapo’ was tasted alongside. Good for the taste buds it was, but not exactly healthy nutrition. We then set out to walk back towards our home in Lamen Bay in the now scorching midday sun and along the dusty road we met a trickle of additional visitors to the festival who had their timing better arranged than ours.
A couple days later we made the acquaintance of Chief Timothy and his wife, a very friendly couple in charge of Lamen Bay village. They had seen a good bit of the modern world, enough at least to feel soundly rooted in their island homes and gardens. They informed us of a peculiar group of ladies from the Solomon Islands, members of what they described as a marching choir, who had followed the invitation of a local minister to participate in a fundraising event to take place the following day. The chiefly couple had intentions to travel to the neighboring village on the island’s east coast with their children, and we were invited to tag along. Since the Solomon Islands are lying on the planned course of our travels, we were happy to jump on the opportunity of getting a first glimpse at their culture.
On Tuesday afternoon we therefore paddled ashore to our rendezvous with Chief Timothy’s family. A good long bit of island time passed on into eternity until transportation could finally be organized, which left me with lingering doubts about the chiefly authority wielded by our hosts. Once that organizational hiccup had been overcome we hopped onto the back of a growling pickup truck and soon started climbing another rather steep hill. From its top through the billowing clouds of dust raised by the speeding vehicle a splendid view unfolded with white surf crashing shoreward along Epi’s east coast, and in the distance the rugged hills of Paama Island and the even more mysterious 1’400 meters high volcanic cone of Lepovi. The latter sat there majestically shrouded with a sturdy collar of puffy cumulus clouds.
A hair rising decent later we arrived at the village where the festivities were supposed to unfold. We were led to an improvised enclosure, surrounded with a fence of dried palm leaves and bamboo sticks. A small payment was required to enter and we settled down on the lawn amongst our dark faced friends and the ever present pack of bone dry dogs, which received considerable mistreatment by a deranged looking fellow in a rumpled military uniform. This sad character had nothing better to do than sneak up to them and kick them cruelly with his heavy black boots. Part of his sinister motivation must have stemmed from his success in garnering the admiration of the present lady folks, who to my amazement cheered him up with their supportive exclamations. It always sends shivers down my spine to see these manifestations of adoration for the spectacle of violence, so very much engrained in the fabric of the human mind.
Maneuvering past the distraction of this rudely intruding reality a group of local youth stood in the center of the arena nicely divided into rows of separate genders. The boys in jeans and the girls in black knee-long skirts soon started to bounce about to the menacing rhythms of techno sounds overlaid with robotic intonations of a clever rendition of purely Presbyterian doctrine. The boys were moving with considerable enthusiasm, while the girls seemed quite obviously subdued, executing the same routines with only a fraction of the kinetic energy of their testosterone driven peers. In between the performances accounts were given as to the present state of the events fundraising, the climbing numbers promptly being applauded with somber reverence.
After a good while of more and more of the same the main number of the evening was finally approaching. From behind the audience out of a grass house a single column of ladies emerged, all dressed in impeccable white robes bordered delicately with fine red accent lines. They wore speckless white shoes and matching white socks and had their hair tied up in very compact buns. They marched gracefully into the center of the arena, where the one single column split up into four parallel ones, all while marching in perfect synchronization. Once arrived at the center a first hymn was chanted, accompanied now not only by the steadily stomping feet, but also by rhythmic tapping of a stick against a wooden block each of the ladies held in their hands. At the end of that stick a pompom like whip of colored strings protruded, which danced frivolously in the wind to the monotone pulsations of the song. The marching never stopped and the columns turned in different directions, which resulted in elaborate maneuvers, the choir constantly changing its formation, sometimes in the shape of a square, then transforming into a circle, before becoming a moving rectangle. At the end of each number the marching stopped and the choir received a short applause, but almost immediately continued to intone another song. The performance went on for a considerable amount of time, sadly without much variety in the presentation. About half way through it all the director, a stern, straight backed lady with an imposing forehead, grabbed the microphone and provided an explanation for what the different colors of the whips were meant to symbolize. The red color of the Lord Jesus’ blood was duly mentioned as was the white purity of the believer who has accepted Him in his heart. The green belonged to a more universal grammar and simply stood for hope, while the yellow had again a liturgical connotation, as it stands for the gold bestowed on him who has received the gospel (sic!).
The quite obviously good hearted lady soldiers made their way through more and more numbers and I started to suspect that they were repeating the same song over and over. Before I was able to definitely ascertain my suspicion the darkness of dusk began to approach and the final number won the hearty applause of relief. With that the marching choir maneuvered its way out of the public eye. The time had come to start the return journey with our hosts. This again included copious amounts of dust ending up in our lungs along the way. It turned out that this transport once again, in agreement with Vanuatu ‘kustom’ I must suppose, ended up costing a small fortune of money. One is never quite sure, if one is being ripped off or if things really can be that expensive around here.
To sum it up, the strange island of Epi had provided us with two rampant manifestations of indoctrination, the first of the political kind, the second of the so called spiritual realm. Those two must work together, quite clearly with many other poorly hidden strings that behind the scenes of daily living pull the human being through a slump of reactionary sadness, where social injustice and exploitation are allowed to freely flourish and corruption continues to solidify the status quo. Could it be then that most of our misery, economical and emotional, is actually self-inflicted? Is it possible that the key to solving the riddle of human slavery, which continues to thrive unabated into the very heart of modernity, instead of having to do with a dark and somber ‘system’ that clips the innocent wings of our freedom, consists in breaking the chains of my very own attachment to things like comfort and security?