BACKSTORY…After being a FIFO consultant for the Tuvalu Australia Education Support Project in 2000, I was asked to become the in-country Long Term Advisor for the Project. These are my postcards home describing my adventures!
Two days and counting until I take off for the 39 hour journey to the UK for Christmas……just enough time to write another postcard!
Life in Funafuti, Tuvalu for the last 2 months has been a continual struggle against the elements and the ‘new improved’ road system. When I got back from Brisbane, it was to find that the road to my office ‘up north’ at Lofeagai had become almost impassable on my bike due to the new road surface. In my absence the guys from the New Zealand company Vochsich and Borisch (hereafter known as the “road gang”) had laid a loose covering of blue metal chips…sure there were no more potholes to avoid but in the first day going to the office I nearly came off twice, almost got run over by excitable Tuvaluans in trucks three times (they’ve never been able to go this fast before and the police did not know how to deal with the new possible road speeds). I narrowly avoided 1 pig, 2 chickens, 1 child and a couple of dogs….and to top it off I got caught in a massive rainstorm – by the time I got home I was soaked and a nervous wreck. I decided that I would have to forgo the pleasures of riding my bike to the office and would have to settle for the Project Van. Thus started the Mystery of the Disappearing Project Van. Each day when I came back from the office I would park it outside my place ready to leave the next morning and each morning I found it 50 metres away outside the Director’s house. The logbook showed no other mileage on it. What could this mean? Was there a mysterious van fairy in operation? I came to learn an important cultural lesson – the ‘status symbol’ of the Project Van was such that it had to be parked where everyone could see that it belonged to the Director.
But enough of the whingeing…what about the fun stuff? The endless round of parties? Well, the day after I got back I was invited to the Seamen’s Ball (no wise-cracks please!). It was a charity event in aid of the biggest export in Tuvalu. Out of a population of 10,000, 1,000 Tuvaluans are trained mariners and 500 serve on overseas (mainly German) vessels at any one time. They bring in about $5 million a year, which is a huge amount for this country. So Friday night I went to the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel to enjoy the homegrown rock and roll of the Moana Drifters. Tenene was playing – he’s my friend who played guitar in “my” band Coconut Wireless. Being a Friday night most of the seamen were ‘tired and emotional’ as was one of the road gang who got up to dance during the Prime Minister’s speech and was very nearly thrown out. After that the parties and social functions seemed to dry up for a while and it was up to the Navy guys or the road gang to provide the odd evening of entertainment, food and drink.
During this time, every available road surface was being covered by the loose road chippings and it was becoming impossible to ride my bike anywhere. To top it off –there were streetlights springing up everywhere. The airport road now looks like the Brisbane South East Freeway! Just can’t wait for the 100 speed bumps to be installed!! And on top of that the road digging has dislodged most of the telephone cables so my phone was cut off. One day it would be on, and the next off. Interestingly enough, last time I ran a workshop BR (Before Road) I asked the participants to consider the positive and negative impacts of the new roads – they all thought it would be great and couldn’t think of any negatives. In this last workshop just finished, I gave the same exercise and they moaned…about the kids getting run over; about the dust; about the trucks rushing past; about the numbers of new cars and motorbikes….etc, etc. Hmmm, maybe no-one did an environmental and social impact assessment?! As it is the roads are more dangerous now in their half finished state and have mostly flooded, washed away or reverted to potholes due to the recent spate of rainstorms.
But to cheer my spirits, [drumroll] my desktop computer arrived (the last one having blown up after 2 days). Yeah, brand spanking new computer – I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it – it only took 10 months to get here! Hmmm, what’s this? Windows 2000 and I’m locked out, as I don’t know the administrator password? Something tells me the uni have sent me another network computer. Strange! The CD ROM drive doesn’t operate and I can’t load the software for the printer or scanner? Ahhhhhhh! I have now been working on getting this computer going for 4 weeks. Putting in many hours after work time, wiping the hard disk, reinstalling windows 98 and various drivers and still the thing doesn’t work properly – I guess it will be ready when I come to leave!
As you can see by the postcard so far the saga of the van, the weather (which has been pretty shocking) and the computer has made me yearn for a well earned break this Christmas. I have also been battling the plumbing problem at the guesthouse where I am staying. One evening I arrived home to find a very nasty smell and 2 inches of brownish water lingering in the shower cubicle. Without waiting to investigate further I moved out for the evening until it was fixed. The other constant problem I face is the water being switched off – most inconveniently in the middle of a shower causing me to have to get dressed, go out to the restaurant and yell out for the water to be switched back on! So you can imagine I have been dreaming of hot showers and crisp, cold snow for a few weeks. Anything but the high temperatures and high humidity of Tuvalu…..life here is beginning to lose it’s novelty.
As you can imagine I decided one weekend that I really I needed to get off island. So one Sunday I managed to get invited on a jaunt in the new navy recreation boat. A very flash machine by Tuvaluan standards. We set off early onto the lagoon, which was the flattest I had seen it, heading down to the south towards Funafala. It is the only other inhabited islet in the lagoon, and it was here that all the residents of Funafuti were evacuated during the war when the Americans took over Funafuti. There is still a guesthouse on Funafala run by the Minister of Finance’s father. There are a couple of other shacks there but overall the impression is of great silence compared to the hustle and bustle of Funafuti. Yes, I know it will sound strange to the big city dwellers, but the number of cars and bikes on Funafuti has doubled in recent months in anticipation of the new roads. Anyway, after nearly getting stuck on the coral reef, we abandoned our attempt to land at Funafala and headed back out to deep water for the other islets. The water was so clear that we could see 50 meters to the lagoon bed. Doing a clockwise circle of the lagoon we came to another islet called Te Fala and decided that it was the place for a picnic and swim. We walked around the island in about 10 minutes and then spent 30 minutes swimming in the clearest, warmest water I have ever experienced. It was like being in the movie ‘Blue Lagoon’ (well, not the plot obviously but certainly the seascape!). We continued on our clockwise circuit right around the lagoon, slowing down at the coral reefs surrounding each islet to snorkel, spot the tropical fish and colourful coral. The last islet on the circuit is called Amatuku – this is where the Maritime Training School is located. By 3 o’clock we were back at the Navy fale, having shaken off the “FUNcity” blues (FUN being the airport code for Tuvalu!) in the best way possible. I just hope that we get another day of weather like that and I am able to do the trip again before I leave.
During the week after the lagoon trip I was busy preparing for the 2 week workshop that I had to run for the teachers. My colleagues were also arriving from Australia to give me some moral support and news from home. On the Friday before the workshop, we all went to the Nauti Primary School break up party and prize giving. Imagine 700 kids from age 5 – 13, all wearing fou (flower head garlands) packed into the Tausoa Lima (main falekaupule), and singing the national anthem in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, the ceremony made no concessions for the age of the students as we all sat through hours of speeches. I watched with amazement as they wriggled and whispered and tore at their fou, but at no time did they become really unruly. However, as soon as the ceremony was over they all leapt up and ran around, squealing like crazy, leaving the floor covered with the remains of their fou. It looked like a cyclone had struck the place!
The next day I was invited to another wedding (actually, I was invited to two weddings at the same time and had to choose). This time I went to the church ceremony but could not get to the feast, as I had to work. The Vaiaku church is right by the lagoon and it was, for a change, a beautiful clear day. As I was rushing back from some shopping to get changed I spied the bride being ‘shown off’ around the village. The bride was wearing traditional wedding garb – a bit like strips of red, yellow and green crepe paper all over, covering legs, body, face and arms. The bride walked along the roads of the village accompanied by the female members of her family and friends. They held a makeshift shelter over her and sang songs. I managed to catch most of the parade on video along with the bridegroom arriving also wearing a skirt of crepe paper before heading into the church. Inside the church the choir was in full voice – the typical, very pacific harmonies. Most of the ceremony from there on seemed very western, but the light inside the church, the lagoon through door way and the sounds were definitely not. After the ceremony we were invited next door to a small falekaupule to eat and drink and listen to speeches – fortunately (and most unusually) they were not long speeches.
So I began the 2 week workshop with the teachers. I won’t bore you with the details but I did ask the participants to make up a new fatele about social science to perform at the closing ceremony. In the end they made five new ones…and one in English. They enjoyed this activity so much that at the closing ceremony they turned up in full force to perform it. We had a great time and also decided to recreate the ‘we are going shopping at the fusi’ song that one of the teachers did during her demonstration lesson. Atabi (the only male teacher in my workshop and who took the part of the naughty boy very well throughout) unfortunately split his shorts during the skit and the roof came off with laughter. As is usual at these education department functions, Siuila (a real character) “pretend flirts” with Sotaga (one of the school supervisors) – this time she sang a cowboy song to him and as usual I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on but, with everyone around you literally rolling around the floor in hysterics, it’s hard not to join in.
One night during the workshop weeks, I ended up at the Matagigali nightclub with the road gang. Most of the Education Department were there and there was a bizarre episode where one of the women got very drunk (she kept asking me “Am I really drunk? They keep saying I’m really drunk”). Well, she was but I wasn’t game to say so. However, when I got up to leave she grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. The Tuvaluans (even the women) have very strong grips and I couldn’t get away. One of the road gang thought I was being attacked and came over to rescue me. But the first woman thought he was coming to attack me so another female colleague came to the other side to pull her off and another woman caught hold of my other arm. The whole of the Matagigali crowd stopped when they thought there was a “rumble” going on and we all got dragged outside like a string of sausages! Once outside the entire road gang and the education department staff were in a big melee…….I think I was the only one who knew it was a misunderstanding but there was so much shouting going on I couldn’t make myself heard. Eventually it broke up and I wondered what the coconut wireless would say the next day. As it turns out…nothing!
Oh no, I nearly forgot another event – the Miss Tuvalu contest. Hundreds of people turned up one night at the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel to watch the five participants sing and dance in front of the judges. During the preceding week there was a sort of unofficial ‘spot the Miss Tuvalu contestants’ as they were whisked from location to location around Funafuti for photoshoots. In deference to Tuvaluan culture, the swimming costume parade though was held on one of the lagoon islets away from the eyes of most people. The street parade was the final event – causing roadblocks. One contestant was on the back of a truck sitting behind a computer and another was pulled by a tractor – only in Tuvalu! I have no idea who became Miss Tuvalu but needless to say hundreds also turned up for the crowning.
So that’s it for now except to put the record straight one on the recent Australian media stories about Tuvalu. The ‘Tuvalu in political turmoil’ story. Yes, a vote of no confidence was held and four ministers crossed the floor and the government fell…but turmoil??!! Life went on and the so called “turmoil” consisted of eight government ministers sitting in the falekaupule calmly deciding who would be the next Prime Minister! Unfortunately, the story about Australia asking Tuvalu to take refugees for processing is true and has caused a great deal of embarrassment for the ex-pat Aussies here. We can only shake our heads in amazement and wonder where they would go. On second thoughts the disused school at Fetuvalu that houses my office already looks like an abandoned refugee camp…..