Volume 1 Number 11
Beyond the Wall of the Sky
01 July 1988
Life in such isolation, on a land area less than five miles by one, acquires a certain focus on the essentials, an acceptance of shortage, discomfort and monotony.
By ALAN CHANNER
The constellations gently -lilted in the lagoon's black, quietly-lapping waters. On the far shore the dancing figures were nothing but twisting lines against the light, and strains of their music and jubilation carried only faintly against the ocean breeze. The island was celebrating.
Under a great roof of thatched coconut fronds the community of Vaitupu atoll gathers in feasting, singing and dancing. Beskirted with leaves and wearing flower garlands about their hair, men and women quiver in delight to the rhythms of 'fatele'. And as little girls imitate the dances and some old people snooze oblivious, a few young men will drink so much fermented sap that they won't know it's tomorrow until the falling sun reddens the evening. Then they'll splash into the sunset-glowing shallows with their nets and a song.
The rest of the world, `beyond the wall of the sky', almost needn't exist - and perhaps it would be as well if it didn't.
The ship off-loaded passengers for Vaitupu one midnight moonrise and left us in the last surf of a dark beach, belongings a few yards from the waves. Return voyages were irregular - once a month, maybe - the island's only contact with the world beyond. Life in such isolation, on a land area less than five miles by one, acquires a certain focus on the essentials, an acceptance of shortage, discomfort and monotony.
I had come to the agricultural station on Vaitupu to study the most damaging vegetable pest in the region.
Despite associating daily with Tuvaluans it took three months to acquire some understanding of their mind. Together in the fields under the hot sun or torrential rain, drinking coconuts, eating raw fish, discussing in the station, telling stories in my house, in the village, in the bush, drinking more coconuts, sitting for long hours on the hard straw-matted floor of the meeting hall watching `fatele', taking the floor ourselves for reggae `twists', sweating in church, drinking even more coconuts, fishing on the reef's chasmal edge and swimming in the hazardous waters beyond it - with time these effected an osmosis, so to speak, of the Tuvaluan mind into my own.
This brings freedom from anxiety and calms the voices which shout inside when you're the only foreigner on an island whose people and way of life are completely new. Eventually, with a heart that becomes clear, like ocean over coral, you sleep the good sleep of acceptance - acceptance of the way things are. Ants, rats, flies, cockroaches, headlice and mosquitoes cease to be of concern. Wondering when the ship will return loses its urgency. With nothing to prove or hide, nowhere to go and no-one to impress, no pressure, no stress, with people around you who are relaxed, quiet, friendly and unmasked - you become more peaceful and unmasked yourself.
Not that Tuvaluans are more virtuous than anyone else; their way of life just imposes its own discipline. You learn that paradise is not so much a place as an attitude to life.
The poignancy of island departure is unforgettable: boarding the landing boat; shaking hands with friends wading knee-deep, waist-deep, and then swimming; the shouting, waving, laughing and crying as the boat pulls out, starts to pitch in the swell and then turns with a surge of finality towards the ship, leaving the people on shore to merge into a bright cluster of colours and waving arms - which fades, fades and disappears forever as the ship cuts away towards the sky.
We talked about development and foreign influence on the bridge, as stars rose and fell against the darkness with the fall and rise of the ship on long Pacific swells. How aid experts and expatriates can fail to distinguish between real and unreal needs on outer islands, because they can't risk getting stuck there themselves until the ship returns. How aid may create dependency, encourage people to forget traditional skills, and then dry up, leaving the people worse off. How countries can vie to give aid because they desire more to influence than to assist, let alone understand. How the Commonwealth is appreciated by its smallest member as a link with powerful nations based on more than economics.
I was privileged to hear at length, on the voyage and in the capital, from several in high office about their aspirations for Tuvalu. I could only tell them what a tremendous experience living on Vaitupu had been; how clearly it had taught that Tuvaluans are their own best experts on atoll life; how I, on my own strength, would have sunk - metaphorically as well as, once, literally-without the support of Vaitupu's people. We agreed that foreigners would help most if they could let go, for a time, of their theories, schemes and personal ambitions - so as to understand the local outlook more clearly, and preferably adopt something of it themselves. Then foreign expertise could be successfully grafted onto local skills.
Ultimately, simply being on Vaitupu long enough was important. Suffering, accepting, persevering, participating and enjoying brought rapport, understanding and fruitful teamwork.
Pausing a while in Fiji on my way home, I took a bus and a chance to say farewell to two of the first Tuvaluans I had met. Our exchange previously had been politely formal; now, five months later, it was warm and mirthful. The unplanned reunion was perfect in timing and Fijian and Tongan students gathered round requiring an explanation.
`He came last year to ask us about Tuvalu. Now he's come back. We didn't expect it...'
`Yes,' I said. `They told me Tuvalu was a good place and their advice was right so I've come to say thank you.'
We talked and laughed on the hilltop overlooking cassava plots and taro patches, pink college buildings, coconut palms and clumps of bananas. One of the Tuvaluans walked down with me to the languid river and the road. He bought me a drink, and when the bus appeared, in a cloud of black smoke, dropped the fare in my hand.
As the bus drove away, I drew at the sweet liquid. It was coke now, not coconut, and it was goodbye to Tuvalu - but her islands still float in the deeper, calmer and clearer seas of my heart.
Alan Channer, a British research student in agricultural biology, recently spent fourand-a-half months on the island of Vaitupu in the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu.