Bryan Webb, an Assembly of God missionary, has been residing in Vanuatu for more than fifteen years. In his two books, ‘Hungry Devils’ and ‘The Sons of Cannibals’, he relates his experiences of living in a foreign land, giving readers a fascinating account of front line missions. Being a very kind man, he took the time and answered a few questions regarding his work and the South Pacific.
Pasifika Tales: You are a missionary so travelling to distant lands is an important part of your life. But how did you end up in Vanuatu?
Bryan Webb: Our journey into the Pacific started while I worked the night shift in a factory to pay my way through college. Many of my fellow workers were Pacific Islanders. Their descriptions of their islands were mesmerizing, and of course everyone invited me for a visit. My wife Renee and I developed a number of close friendships and took them up on their invitations. Once we had visited several Pacific island nations we felt sure the islands would always be our home. A number of factors convinced us to settle in Vanuatu: the people, the opportunities, but mostly friendships.
PT: What was your first impression of the archipelago? What surprised you most about the country and its people?
BW: Renee and I began our Pacific travels in Micronesia, where the islands are tiny, so when I first arrived in Vanuatu I was amazed at the large size of the islands. The thing I found fascinating about the people was the amazing diversity of language and culture. In Vanuatu, Christian and Kastom, stone age and space age exist side by side. My first day in Luganville I was window shopping at LCM, one of our Chinese stores. Distracted by the items displayed in the window, I bumped into an elderly gentleman as I turned to go. I was startled to discover he was wearing little more than a hunting knife.
PT: Was it difficult to adjust to a new culture?
BW: Cultural adjustment is always a challenge. However, we found adapting to Vanuatu to be relatively simple. Bislama, the national language, is easy to learn and most people are very eager to befriend you and teach you about their culture. I think diving in and truly immersing yourself in the culture is the key to a successful adjustment.
PT: You described the peculiarities of living in Vanuatu in your two books, which are just phenomenal. It seems that one of the hardest things you had to deal with was ‘reconciling’ your teachings with the traditional values of Ni-Vanuatu people.
BW: I believe Christ and his teachings are transcultural. The greatest challenge I face is stripping my cultural preconceptions away so that I can present Christ and his teachings in the Ni-Vanuatu cultural context. Often what seems like a contradiction between Ni-Vanuatu culture and Christianity is really a contradiction between Ni-Vanuatu and Western culture.
PT: Do you think those indigenous beliefs and traditions, which are a big part of Melanesian cultures, should be preserved?
BW: Yes and no. Culture is complex. No culture is static, and that is a good thing. All cultures are in a constant state of flux. Culture ultimately springs from environment, and cultures change as the environment changes or as people collectively come to understand and relate to their environment differently. Ni-Vanuatu as a whole live in a rapidly changing world, with those changes some aspects of culture will become outdated or irrelevant, others will prove to be critical to maintaining their identity in this changing world. In the end only Ni-Vanuatu are qualified to guide themselves through this process. I am, however, completely opposed to the idea of asking people to follow outdated and irrelevant traditions, so that tourists can gawk at people living in the equivalent of a cultural zoo.
PT: You’ve been living in Vanuatu for quite a while now. Have you adopted any of the customs or practices?
BW: No doubt I have become a third culture person. I will never be fully Ni-Vanuatu, but I will also never be fully American again. Vanuatu has placed an indelible stamp on my life. I find myself focused on people rather than tasks, and events rather than time. Most of the changes are subtle and really don’t stand out till I visit America again.
PT: And how, in your opinion, has the country changed since your arrival?
BW: Vanuatu is rapidly modernizing. Cell phones and Internet have transformed communications. Women are gaining a voice in the culture. Most of the changes I see are good. The negative would be an increase in drug abuse and pornography.
PT: You wrote two books. How many more interesting tales do you have? Is there a third volume on the horizon?
BW: Vanuatu is so fascinating there is an endless list of stories. My challenge is taking the time to write. I am currently working on a book with photographer Gaylon Wampler. Gaylon is an amazing artist with a camera. Together we hope to create a stunning photo essay of Vanuatu. This project will be very different than what I have written to date. My first two books are focused on my experiences and were decidedly religious. This book will be completely focused on the people, culture, and beauty of Vanuatu. We are doing this as a gift to the children of Vanuatu and 100% of the proceeds will go to providing education for underprivileged children. This book was inspired out of my experience in the story, ‘Warm and Well Fed’ in the book ‘The Sons of Cannibals’. We are aiming for a December 2015 release.