Wednesday, September 2, 2015


photo courtesy of British Red Cross
Almost but not quite last and least, but very definitely at the low end, comes Vanuatu. Until 1980 these eighty islands were known as the New Hebrides, and were parts of the British and French empires. Most are inhabited, but not all; several have active volcanoes, all are mountainous, and most are densely covered with rainforest. Women have low status in the traditional social structure, and are generally excluded from education, let alone politics or the economy. Some income from money-laundering, some from tourism, some from foreign aid (mostly Australian), but the levels of income are so low that Vanuatu does not bother with income tax. The United Nations list of the world's least developed nations includes Vanuatu, though in fact, according to Global Finance Magazine, based on GDP, Vanuatu comes 123rd in the league table of riches-to-poverty, a middle position.

None of this was helped when Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the islands in March 2015, bashing it at around a hundred and fifty-five miles per hour - they call it a tropical cyclone in the south Pacific, a typhoon in the north-east Pacific, a hurricane everywhere else: different word, same damage. In Vanuatu's case the damage was worse than Katrina in New Orleans or Andrew in Miami, but not quite as bad as Sandy in Haiti in 2012. Around seventy-five thousand people were left in need of emergency shelter, and ninety-six per cent of food crops were destroyed, though only eleven people died in the storm, a paradoxical consequence of the islands' extreme poverty: most houses are made of bamboo, with perhaps a little bit of timber to hold up the roof, so the hurricane simply blew them all away, but the people had gone to the nakamals, the communal buildings which serve as above-ground shelters, built with roofs that come down to the ground like coconut shells and can't therefore be lifted up by the winds, and with materials so cheaply porous the wind can't create a pressure-vacuum inside and lift them that way either. If Vanuatu had been built using the "hurricane-proof" materials they employ, say, in New Orleans and Miami, scarcely a building would have been left standing, people sheltering in them would have had no chance, and the destruction of the buildings would have added a second method 
of annihilation to whatever lay in its wake.

So there are some good things about poverty, in a world of hurricanes and other of God's more intelligent designs. And speaking of God, and of good things, there is also the nation's motto, which is "Long God yumi stanap", a Bislama expression which, sadly, in English, lacks the poetry and mystery of the original - it simply and most banally means "in God we stand" (it ought to be "against God we stand" don't you think; when God blows the hurricane and citizens of Vanuatu refuse to yield, staying upright no matter what?). 

And then there is the national anthem, which I sang as a child without knowing I was honouring the "Ripablik blong Vanuatu", indeed simply thought I was acknowledging the presentation by my mother of a plate of cheese cake, or ice cream melting with chocolate sauce. Yumi, yumi, yumi I sang. Apparently yumi may mean "delicious" in English, but it means "we" in Bislama. I do like the idea of a country which celebrates the "we" rather than the "I". Another lesson from tiny, impoverished Vanuatu to big, brash, narcissistic all-the-rest-of-us? Perhaps.

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