Tag Archives: Vanuatu

‘NEW FLAGS FLYING: PACIFIC LEADERSHIP’ BY IAN JOHNSTONE, MICHAEL POWLES

‘New Flags Flying: Pacific Leadership’ is a book edited by Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles. It documents the political history of fourteen Pacific Island nations.

NEW FLAGS FLYING

Summary

After ruling the Pacific Islands for a hundred years, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA decide to grant independence to most of the states.

The change from being colonial subjects to self-governance turns out to be harder than anyone could have predicted. Local politicians try their best to lead their countries into this new chapter in history. 

Review 

Politics is not an easy subject to broach. It is often mundane and not very ‘accessible’ to an ordinary person not particularly interested in affairs of state and diplomacy. But this book deals with it in the most engaging way possible. Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles created a gripping read you, quite honestly, are not able to put down.

First and foremost, I have to praise the language, which is simple, uncomplicated, and easy to understand. The authors could have used fancy (and rather mystifying) political jargon and inundated us with professional terms and expressions, but then the book wouldn’t be intelligible to all people. It would be a title addressed exclusively to experts. I am glad that Ian Johnstone and Michael Powles chose a different path and decided to aim the volume at general audience who simply would like to familiarize themselves with the political history of the region.

‘New Flags Flying’ provides considerable insights into a time when Pacific Island states were undergoing colossal changes. Recounted by leaders who were a main force in shaping the events, the book is a scrupulously honest depiction of the countries’ journeys to independence or self-government. Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, Tofilau Eti Alesana, John Webb, Sir Tom Davis, Dr Ludwig Keke, HM King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Hon. Young Vivian, Sir Michael Somare, Hon. Solomon Mamalon, Sir Peter Kenilorea, Hon. Bikenibeu Paeniu, Sir Ieremia Tabai, Fr Walter Lini, Kessai Note, John Haglelgam, Sandra Sumang Pierantozzi, Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, and Dame Carol Kidu share their personal experiences of taking their people into a very uncertain, at least at that time, future. The stories they tell – very emotional and thought-provoking – disclose not only the hopes and ambitions they had but also the struggles they had to face. Because no other part of our globe is more vulnerable to challenges and difficulties than Oceania; just as no other part of our globe demonstrates more resilience and ability to cope than those little islands do.

The interviews are accompanied by comprehensive commentary, background information, chronological summaries of significant events, and old photographs, which make the book even more interesting to delve into.

Now, although the title will be a fascinating read for every person who loves the Pacific Islands, for the Islanders themselves it should be of extra special value, as it contains lessons they can and ought to draw from. Why not use the past to improve the present and shape the future? Pacific policymakers should have this book sitting on their desks.

‘New Flags Flying’ is a great piece of literature. I can only congratulate the editors on the job well done and tell you that their work is definitely worthy of your time and attention. I could not recommend it more!

‘THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA: PADDLING THE PACIFIC’ BY PAUL THEROUX

‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ is Paul Theroux’s memoir-cum-travelogue that documents his journey across the Blue Continent.

THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA

Summary

What does a man do when faced with a failing marriage and the possibility of having skin cancer? He starts his fight. He’s determined to win the battles. Or he gives up and does nothing. Or – just like Paul – he runs away; as far from his home as he can. Is there a better destination that the alluring islands of the Pacific? Absolutely not.

Beginning in Australia and New Zealand, he gets his first taste of Oceania. The mysterious Blue Continent and an overwhelming need to be alone in the wilderness makes him grab his collapsible kayak and venture into the great unknown. Trying to immerse himself in the indigenous cultures of the region, he travels from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Archipelago, from Vanuatu to Fiji, from the islands of south Polynesia to heavenly Hawaii. Each of these places lets him escape his bitter reality, until – finally – he rediscovers the flavor of life anew.

Review

Have you ever had a love/hate relationship with a book? I have. And this is THE book.

Yes, I absolutely love it. This is one of the best titles in the travel genre, hands down. It’s funny, engaging, and it shows rather than tells. But it also annoys me beyond words. Literally, it makes me utterly mad. As it is quite rude to commence with the downsides, let’s start with the positives, shall we?

It cannot be denied that Paul Theroux possesses the literary genius. His prodigious talent with words captivates readers, compelling them to devour page after page until they swiftly reach the end of his more or less irritating yet extremely intriguing story. And even though he states at the end of the last chapter that he is not a travel writer, this personal account proves otherwise – it is the very epitome of the ‘been there, wrote the book’ genre; and a terrific one at that!

It is impossible to miss his flowing prose that is thoroughly appealing, impeccable language, or the authentically funny (at least more often than not) sense of humour. The author doesn’t bother readers with detailed and vivid descriptions of the places he travels to. Instead, he devotes his attention to people – mainly native inhabitants – and their ways of being. He absorbs everything that surrounds him – from the atmosphere of the so-called paradise to the idiosyncrasies of the cultures he encounters. He explores, he observes, he draws his own conclusions. He is not afraid to ask even the most personal questions, and the more honest the answer the more happy he seems to be. Because the islands clearly cheer him up. What started as a great escape, turned out to be a great and often amusing adventure. Which, by the way, should surprise absolutely no one – when in paradise, you can’t help but beam with sheer happiness. Even if that paradise sometimes uncovers its darker side.

Yes, let’s be frank here, no corner of this globe can be given the label of ‘a wonderland’. But if there is one place on our planet Earth that can be regarded as the slice of heaven, this is Oceania. With its kind, smiling, welcoming people it is the closest thing to paradise you’ll be able to find. And yet Paul Theroux failed to notice that. Throughout the book he proudly displays his sardonic attitude, throwing around disgustingly subjective comments about the locals that are genuinely hard to read at times. He writes, for example, that the prettiest women he saw in the Pacific were in Tonga; only to add in the very same sentence that they were also ‘the ugliest, hairy things with bad skin’. Additionally, you may learn that the people of Tanna were (I consciously retain the past form; after all, we don’t know if this viewpoint still holds true for Mr Theroux today) ‘small, scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet’. Samoans – on the other hand – are lovingly described as ‘rather gloatingly rude’. It seems that only the inhabitants of the Cooks deserved some compliments. In Theroux’s eyes they weren’t ‘greedy or lazy’; actually, they were ‘hospitable, generous, and friendly’. I can understand having your own opinions. But I can’t understand being a xenophobe.

Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Absolutely. It is an outstanding piece of travel literature. It is entertaining and…well…very informative. It lets you discover that one may be a terrific writer, but a not so terrific person.

A CHAT WITH… BRYAN WEBB

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.

BRYAN WEBB

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.

‘THE SONS OF CANNIBALS AND MORE TALES FROM VANUATU’ BY BRYAN WEBB

‘The Sons of Cannibals and more tales from Vanuatu’ is Bryan Webb’s second publication regarding his missionary work in the Melanesian archipelago. Although a separate book, it is a continuation of his previous memoir, ‘Hungry Devils’.

THE SONS OF CANNIBALS

Summary

Having spent over fifteen years living in Vanuatu, Bryan is practically a local. Familiar with the area and armed with a wealth of knowledge, he is no longer bewildered by the unusual customs or seemingly odd behaviours of the islands’ native inhabitants. Together with his family, he heartily carries on with his mission to preach the gospel.

However, his work is not always easy. Certain cultural idiosyncrasies still prove to be an obstacle Bryan needs to surmount. Well, how do you share your faith with the followers of the Jon Frum Cargo Cult who await the coming of their prophet and his divine gifts in the form of TVs, cars, and refrigerators? You can only try. And this is exactly what Bryan does. He tries; every single day. And he surely gets his rewards. Because when the sons of cannibals labour together to build a church, he can’t help but smile.

Review

This book is no different from its informal predecessor, ‘Hungry Devils’. It is just a second volume that delivers another batch of short stories. And this is why it’s worthy of your attention. Webb’s tales are, again, phenomenal. Strikingly engaging, they will take you on an incredible adventure, revealing the secrets of Vanuatu that only the locals know.

Despite obvious similarities between the two memoirs, this one is a little more focused on the country’s enchanting culture. Ni-Vanuatu way of life serves as an underlying theme that runs through the entire book. In a few of the chapters, however, it is especially prominent. The author delightfully describes and explains how the natives give directions (left, right, right, left, left is right, right is left, up, down, toward the ocean, away from the ocean, generally: till you get to the tree), what ‘storian’ is, and how long one needs to wait to have something – anything – done. He also compares Melanesian traditions with their Western counterparts, analyzing the patterns of behaviour in both societies. These detailed, in-depth delineations not only give you a better understanding of the aforementioned culture but also make you aware of how diverse our world is.

Of course, Webb doesn’t write exclusively about the archipelago’s folkways. The narratives wander from his missionary work to the indigenous communities he meets, from the country’s geography to its rich history. Once more you are provided with a thorough and very enlightening tour of the islands, where the past coexists with the present in almost perfect harmony. You can’t blame Bryan for falling in love with the land of smiles, can you?

The Webbs’ experiences are recounted in a graceful, light-hearted manner with the necessary pinch of gentle humour. The author’s fearless self-reflection and ability to laugh at his own failings make this book brim with emotion and honesty. Sharing your successes is easy. Sharing your failures and mistakes, not so much. But Bryan Webb doesn’t seem to care. He is truthful and thus very inspiring.

Every single story in this compilation is a winning read. The writing is excellent, the content insightful, the Melanesian country unusually vivid. You couldn’t ask for more. Simply perfect.

‘HUNGRY DEVILS AND OTHER TALES FROM VANUATU’ BY BRYAN WEBB

‘Hungry Devils and other tales from Vanuatu’ is a collection of short stories about modern missions in the South Pacific, penned by Bryan Webb – a long-term resident of the islands.

HUNGRY DEVILS

Summary

Vanuatu is a challenging country for a missionary. With its many tribes, distinctive cultures, and over one hundred local languages, it tests even the strongest-willed of men. But Bryan feels right at home in this tropical Melanesian paradise.

Day after day, despite many adversities, he preaches the word of God to the native inhabitants, trying to incorporate his teachings into local traditions. At the same time, he gets to know the islands, absorbs the Ni-Vanuatu way of life, and immerses himself in everything the archipelago has to offer. He laughs and cries; he struggles; he fails and succeeds. But he survives and, so it seems, thrives.

Review

What a wonderful book this is! Thoroughly captivating, insightful, revealing, thought-provoking. Bryan Webb writes about Vanuatu with a fierce, uncompromising passion he doesn’t even attempt to hide. In the opening sentence of the first chapter he declares: ‘Vanuatu is the land that I love, my surrogate home, the land of my calling’. After such forthright statement, you just know the next pages are filled with some incredible tales. And you can’t wait to read them.

The most impressive feature of this account is its remarkable completeness. Everything – from scenery to people to customs and traditions – is described in equal measure. The author doesn’t confine his attention to one element only, but rather portrays the country as a whole. In some of the stories he takes readers on a guided tour to remote villages, painting a vivid picture of the lush tropical settings, while in the others he delineates cultural practices of indigenous and often forgotten tribes, providing an insight into their distinctive folkways. These different subject matters form a cohesive unity that makes the memoir an immensely interesting publication. But, not only is it engaging, it’s also very informative. This may have something to do with Webb’s extensive knowledge of the archipelago. As a long-standing resident of the islands, he demonstrates an unusually high level of familiarity with the Ni-Vanuatu culture and way of life. His narratives are characterized by accuracy and precision of an insider’s eye. Although from a distant land, Bryan Webb is a local; a local foreigner, you can say. His genuine affection for the Melanesian country couldn’t be more evident. He respects the natives, at all times. He never condemns them, even when their actions elicit his rage. But most importantly, he doesn’t judge what he sees and experiences. Not once does he suggest that something is worse, strange, less worthy. Whether it’s cultural relativism or the effect of his missionary kindness, I don’t know. It might be both.

Speaking of which, religion – or, to be exact, the author’s pastoral ministry – is as much of a prominent topic as Vanuatu itself. Webb outlines the peculiarities of his day to day work, offering you a glimpse into the world of twenty-first century Christian missions. Moreover, every chapter is laced with biblical citations that beautifully complement each tale. Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: that’s too much religion for one book. Well, even if this particular subject is beyond the sphere of your interests, I guarantee the author’s adventures will draw you in.

Especially taking into account that the memoir is incredibly well written. Despite the fact that it often broaches very serious issues, Webb maintains a light tone that is breathtakingly delightful. His style is concise yet detailed and descriptive – his words, which evoke a profound sense of ‘being there’, let your mind travel. And, I must say, this is an amazing journey you wish could last a lifetime.

All in all – I will be straight and to the point here – if you read ‘Hungry Devils’, you will be hungry for more.

‘REACH FOR PARADISE’ BY ANDREW RAYNER

‘Reach for Paradise’ is Andrew Rayner’s chronicle of his eight-year-long voyage through the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

REACH FOR PARADISE

Summary

Andrew has always dreamt of visiting the islands of the South Seas, so much celebrated for being a slice of paradise on earth. When the opportunity to fulfill that dream finally arises, he buys a boat and eagerly starts his great journey of discovery.

The Blue Continent makes an enormous impression on the Englishman. As he travels from bay to bay, he immerses himself in everything the region has to offer. From romantic Tahiti, to the islands where time begins, to the place in which money grows on trees – each and every corner exudes irresistible charm that Andrew finds impossible to resist. The breathtaking beauty that surrounds him, the fascinating cultures he encounters, and the wonderful people he meets make his adventure a truly unforgettable experience.

Review

I have never seen a more beautiful book. And by ‘beautiful’ I mean ‘aesthetically pleasing’. ‘Reach for Paradise’ simply delights. From the moment you lay eyes on the cover, you are completely mesmerized by the stunning design. Andrew Rayner’s words are embellished with photographs, exquisite colourful illustrations, and maps created by his wife, Robin, who herself is an enormously talented person. Her paintings – which you’d want to see framed and hanging on a wall in your house – wonderfully convey the magical allure of the islands, helping you imagine their tropical scenery. Each and every page of this publication is a celebration of art, literature, and – of course – the great Pacific.

Just as the book is beautiful, it is also difficult to categorize. You may now start wondering what genre it belongs to. I made an attempt to solve this mystery. With no success. It’s not entirely a travelogue, nor is it a personal memoir. It’s a mix of both, and more. The author’s reminiscences and anecdotes are combined with insightful, often anthropological observations that offer you a rare glimpse into the folkways of indigenous societies. It can be noticed that Andrew Rayner went to extraordinary lengths to keep his representation of the islands and their inhabitants accurate, faithful, and objective. He didn’t just travel through the Blue Continent, he studied it. He cared enough to explore its history and acquaint himself with the nuances of its cultures. Having analyzed numerous works devoted to the subjects, some of which make a guest appearance in the book, he wrote his account with a fullness of knowledge – dare I say – few men possess.

Now, if you think that is all you’re going to find in ‘Reach for Paradise’, you couldn’t be more mistaken. The volume is a well-researched guide – a mine of useful, valuable information that may come in handy for those who plan to set sail for the South Seas. By no means is this a cruising manual with tips and advices regarding nautical excursions. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth keeping onboard…as a source of great inspiration. Vivid and comprehensive descriptions that reveal Oceania’s hidden marvels will give you a good enough reason to go there. You don’t intend to travel? Well, after reading this book you’ll feel the overwhelming temptation to embark on your very own voyage to the isles of paradise.

Andrew Rayner created a beauty that is a sheer joy to hold in hands. His stories – brilliantly written and thoroughly absorbing – stir the imagination, igniting your inner wanderlust. This is travel literature at its best and, without the slightest doubt, one of the finest publications regarding the Pacific Islands. If this blue corner of our globe holds a special place in your heart, do not hesitate to buy this title. It is a must-have!

‘GETTING STONED WITH SAVAGES: A TRIP THROUGH THE ISLANDS OF FIJI AND VANUATU’ BY J. MAARTEN TROOST

‘Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu’ is an account of Mr and Mrs Troost’s sojourn in the Blue Continent. It is a follow-up to the author’s first book, ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific’.

GETTING STONED WITH SAVAGES

Summary

After returning from Kiribati and landing himself a job at the World Bank, Maarten leads an ordinary, uneventful, and extremely boring life that doesn’t quite suit him. Surprisingly, he misses the serene islands of the South Seas and dreams of nothing more than trading his ridiculous uniform for a pair of comfortable flip-flops. Luckily for him, his wife Sylvia is offered a position in Vanuatu.

Immediately upon landing in Melanesia, the couple starts to absorb the local culture. The not-so-remote country turns out to be a delightful yet slightly odd mix of British and French influences with an indigenous twist. In between struggling against typhoons and battling giant centipedes, Maarten discovers the ‘muddy nectar of gods’ and – as a writer who might pen a book – goes on a mission to investigate cannibalism. And when he thinks he has found his slice of heaven (finally!), Sylvia announces she is pregnant. The Troosts decide to decamp for just-a bit-more-civilized Fiji.

Review

Let me tell you one thing. If you happen to lay your hands on a book – any book – with J. Maarten Troost’s name on the cover, buy it without thinking, because you can be sure it’s going to be absolutely fantastic. This man is a master storyteller; one of the most engaging and intriguing travel writers of all time.

At first glance the memoir resembles Troost’s previous work about the Pacific. The format of the chapters, the general concept, the writing style are indeed very similar. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that this is actually an entirely different publication.

Although the author doesn’t skimp on humour, this book is definitely not as uproarious as ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’. There is a plausible explanation for this. As we all know, the very first cross-cultural encounter is always – ok, usually – the funniest. When everything around you is new, unexpected, strange, and so foreign, it’s quite easy to amuse people with anecdotes of your adventures or misunderstandings in an exotic land. But when you become a culture-conscious traveller, for whom that ‘alien world’ doesn’t remain a complete mystery anymore, certain situations and behaviours simply fall into the ‘normal, not necessarily shocking’ category. This is exactly what happened to J. Maarten Troost. Over the years spent in the Pacific, he grew accustomed to this corner of the globe and stopped treating it like a planet from another galaxy.

So yes, Troost may not be hilarious this time, but his travelogue is still a marvelously entertaining piece of literature that doesn’t disappoint. Yet again, his wit and jocular personality shine through every page.

The story itself is thoroughly charming but also quite revealing. The author’s experiences in Vanuatu and Fiji introduce readers to the islands of Melanesia, giving them a chance to discover the fascinating peculiarities of both countries. Troost doesn’t focus on local customs and traditions – kava ceremony is the exception to the rule – but rather concentrates on daily life, which in Pasifika is never mundane (bugs, insects, mudslides, active volcanoes… Pure fun, isn’t it?). He also throws in little snippets concerning the region’s history and its often inglorious past.

Of course, as you would expect, the travelogue is exceptionally well written. Light-hearted in tone, it is characterized by fairly straightforward narrative, lively pace, and vivid but not overwhelming descriptions. It’s clearly visible that Troost matured as a writer. But don’t worry – his frolicsome manner may have disappeared somewhere beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean, but he’s still the same lad.

This candid, often sentimental memoir will make you crave the tropics. You will want to escape to one of those islands and live surrounded by friendly people and giant centipedes. You’ll want to indulge yourself with kava and maybe talk to the natives about cannibalism. You’ll want to enjoy what life has to offer. Well, what can I say… Blame J. Maarten Troost, not me.

A CHAT WITH… RICHARD SHEARS

Richard Shears is not only an award-winning journalist and photographer but also the author of more than 30 books. His highly engaging account of the rebellion that occurred on Espiritu Santo in 1980, ‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’, is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the history of the Pacific Islands. Here’s what Richard had to say about Vanuatu’s past, his book, and the Blue Continent.

RICHARD SHEARS

Pasifika Tales: Are you aware of the fact that you witnessed one of the most important events in the history of the Pacific Islands?

Richard Shears: The importance of that period, in the build up to the New Hebrides becoming independent, actually became clear to me as the months passed by after ‘Vanuatu’ came into existence. For me, initially, the Coconut War, which was a name I’d adopted, was a news story that had to be covered and I was not paying particular attention to the historical significance of what I was witnessing. Now, I look back thrilled at the knowledge that ‘I was there’!

PT: If you could describe the Coconut War in one sentence, what would it be?

RS: Bizarre, crazy, dangerous, desperate – in fact you can throw any adjective at it and it will fit, for the war had everything, particularly the unexpected.

PT: The war has often been called ‘unconventional’. What’s the strangest, most unusual thing you saw or experienced during your stay?

RS: The moment I stepped from a bush path on Santo and found myself in a clearing with not a soul in sight – and then from all sides men wearing loin clothes and carrying spears and bows and arrows stepping out silently from the bush to stare at me in amazement, just as I was staring in amazement at them. This was the headquarters of Jimmy Stevens at Fanafo and I’d been allowed in through a padlocked gate, before the ‘guards’ disappeared into the bush. Then, further down the track I came to the clearing where I found myself surrounded. Jimmy Stevens emerged from a hut and invited me in, where he sat on a radio and started calling up other villages, gathering support for his fight for independence for Espiritu Santo.

PT: And what’s your clearest memory from that time?

RS: So many clear memories… My second journey to Santo on board a cargo ship, travelling part of the way by canoe, sleeping with the mosquitoes in grass huts, hiding in a doorway in the main street of Luganville as shots were exchanged between police and Jimmy’s men, and, bizarrely, finding myself in a night club in Luganville, the only customer at 10 o’clock at night, until a strange little man came up to me and asked me to dance with him. That was when I decided it was time to leave – quickly.

PT: Ok, so let’s focus on the islands for a while. Imagine… It’s 1980. Vanuatu is called the New Hebrides. You’ve just arrived… What do you see?

RS: I see a curious place, where everything is mixed up. I was like a male version of Alice, arriving in Wonderland. The road signs were British, but the cars travelled on the right-hand side of the road as in Europe. The main street was a run-down place, yet it had a certain charm about it, mainly due to the French influence. I recall so well the old Rossi hotel, where diplomats gathered for lunch under whispering fans, or called in at Ma Barker’s restaurant for their famous coconut crab.

PT: You are an acclaimed journalist. You have covered stories all over the world. Why did you decide to write a book about Vanuatu and its struggle for independence?

RS: I didn’t set out to write a book, actually. I went to the New Hebrides as it was then to cover the tense stand-off between Jimmy Stevens and the central government for London’s ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper. But the story ran on and on and there was so much happening each day, particularly following the arrival of British and French troops who couldn’t stand the sight of each other, that I decided there was too much to write each day for a newspaper, so I started compiling the book, literally writing it each evening as the crisis continued to be played out. I knew at the time that the book would ‘work’ because it was such a crazy, but important, story.

PT: Why should people read your account?

RS: I think people who read the book will enjoy its ‘pace’ because I wrote it as events were progressing so that they were clear enough in my mind to give readers a true blow-by-blow, up-to-date record of all that was happening as they did actually happen. I tried to give the impression for the reader that they were actually there, experiencing it with me.

PT: Have you had a chance to come back to Vanuatu? If yes, how has the country changed?

RS: I’ve been back to Vanuatu several times since then, as, true to the bizarre nature of the event, I married a part ni-Vanuatu whom I met while covering the war. Isobelle and I are still together after 34 years, too! As for what has changed – well, I think Vanuatu has lost much of its culture. The town has been smartened up, but somehow for me it’s lost much of its old charm. However, there are still traces of those bizarre elements to be found in the outlying islands. For instance a few years ago I visited a tribe on Tanna who worship the Duke of Edinburgh and who hold a photograph of him with great reverence. My story had a big showing in the ‘Daily Mail’ because it was so, well, ‘different’.

PT: The last question… Would you like to visit any other Pacific country (and perhaps write another book)?

RS: In fact, I’ve already been to most islands in the Pacific in the course of my work as a journalist. The most memorable and recent visit to a Pacific island was to the Marshalls where a Mexican fisherman ran around after drifting across the Pacific for a year. His story made international headlines. Other stories I’ve covered in the islands have been the coups in Fiji, the exodus of islanders from Ocean Island, a crazy Englishman living in Western Samoa, cyclones in Tonga, a so-called ‘Black Jesus’ in New Guinea, yet another crazy Englishman living on Mog Mog island (now there was a great dateline for my story) and… well, maybe that’s enough for now! I’ve catalogued quite a few of these in a book published two years ago called ‘It’s OK, I’m From the Daily Mail!’.

‘THE COCONUT WAR: VANUATU AND THE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE’ BY RICHARD SHEARS

‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’ is an account of the rebellion that took place on Espiritu Santo in 1980. It was written by Richard Shears, an award-winning British journalist.

THE COCONUT WAR

Summary

Richard, a journalist working for ‘The Daily Mail’, is sent overseas to cover the war in the New Hebrides, where an ageing village chief called Jimmy Stevens, supported by a mysterious group of Americans, has taken over Espiritu Santo and declared the island independent of the central government.

Despite dramatic headlines carried by newspapers, Richard can’t see the slightest sign of unrest. At least in Port Vila, the capital of the country. Determined to deliver a good and plausible story, he attempts to get to Santo in order to assess the situation and maybe have a little chat with the leader of the rebellion. Unfortunately, none of these is easy. But the Englishman refuses to give up. He seizes every opportunity that comes his way, and when his patience is finally rewarded, he not only meets Jimmy Stevens but also learns the truth behind the uprising.

Review

What are the first three adjectives that come to your mind when you think about a history book? Mundane, dull, boring. I do believe this would be the most probable answer to that question. Somehow, literary presentations of the events of the past fail to grab our attention. Well, this is not the case with Richard Shears’s work. ‘The Coconut War’ is not your ordinary history book; it’s a history book-cum-travelogue-cum-memoir. Quite an unusual mix; I admit. Unusual, but oh-so extremely engrossing!

The account reads like a novel. A very good novel, may I add. It is constructed in a manner that makes you want to turn the page. There’s suspense, a mystery to solve, and plenty of action waiting inside. All of these drive the narrative, keeping you riveted from the beginning to the end. Of course, one cannot ignore the story itself: extraordinary, a little bizarre, at times highly amusing. As the author describes, Vanuatu – or, using the colonial name, New Hebrides – was a land of many contrasts. That ruled by separate British and French administrations country was one place divided into two universes. With two police forces, two jails, and a traffic system that combined the best (or worst) of both worlds, the islands were in a state of pure chaos. Add to this a rebellion and a Duke of Edinburgh-worshipping tribe and you have all you need to create an exciting tale.

Apart from being a fun book to read, the title is also an impressive piece of war correspondence. True to the facts and revealing, it gives readers a better understanding of Vanuatu’s past as well as culture and traditions. Being an insightful observer, Richard Shears paints a nuanced, balanced picture of the archipelago during the time of crisis, focusing not only on the uprising but also on the clash of Western and indigenous values. For this reason alone, ‘The Coconut War’ should be compulsory reading for everyone interested in history, politics, or the Pacific Islands.

If you let Mr Shears take you to one of the most incredible countries of the Blue Continent, I can assure you, you won’t regret it, because this skillfully written, seasoned with wit and gentle humour book does not disappoint. It is an astonishingly brilliant publication.