My name is Amanda Russell. I recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and, for my very first job, will be leaving for Vanuatu in October to serve as an English Literacy volunteer with the Peace Corps for twenty-seven months.
My first response to finding out where I was going involved stunned silence and something very articulate along the lines of: "So, uh, Vanuatu? Huh. Um. How 'bout that? Um... Where is that?" As my brother and sister-in-law can testify, I was absolutely convinced that I was going to serve in either Eastern Europe/West Asia or in Africa, and hadn't even thought about the South Pacific as an option, so learning that I was going to go to Vanuatu was a total shock. We quickly settled a few questions (they don't eat spam; they occasionally eat dog; they sorta maybe kinda speak English; it's a hike and a half to get there), but the more I read about Vanuatu, the more excited I am -- it seems like I really lucked out. The Peace Corps packing guide told me to pack my own snorkeling gear, after all.
So where is Vanuatu? And, uh, what is Vanuatu? If you go to a map and find New Zealand, then look a little northwest, you'll run right into it. It's a tiny nation composed of 80-odd islands (60-some of which are inhabited) with about 220,000 people and roughly 100 local languages. Until 1980, it was known at the New Hebrides (or les Nouvelles-Hébrides, si tu préfères) and was jointly ruled by the French and the British as a Condominum. (Yeah, it's a little mysterious to me, as well.) After independence, during which the islands were renamed Vanuatu (meaning something like independent land), and the people started to go by the name Ni-Vanuatu, or people of Vanuatu. Theirs is a long and complex history, featuring everything from blackbirding (forced slavery on Fiji and Australia), missionaries, kastom, and cannibalism to sundown towns, liberty (and land redistribution) and tourism, and hopefully sometime before I go I can write a post that outlines my understanding of it.
Until I leave for staging in Los Angeles on October 5th, I'm going to be packing and getting ready for my trip. This is probably a sign that I am A) a reader and B) something of a horrible control freak, but one of my main ways to prepare for serving as a volunteer in Vanuatu has been to do obsessive research. In addition to reading blogs of current volunteers, I've been reading books on the country to try and get a feel for where I'm going. Earlier this summer, I raided the Houston Public Library for every book I could get about Vanuatu--being the Lonely Planet, Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, and The Shark God by Charles Montgomery, as well as a couple of others that were just generally about Melanesia. Troost's book had a dumb provocative title but was a good read. The Shark God, though, was really great -- it was all about an atheist from Canada retracing his English great-grandfather's footsteps as a missionary in Vanuatu, and talks all about the history of the country (via the lens of missionaries and others) and the tension the author feels as a non-believing outsider in what seems to be always described as a wholly religious land, whether kastom, Christian, or six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other. (More about that later).
I've also been trying to get a head start on learning Bislama, which is an English-based creole, and, along with English and French, one of three national languages in the islands, but that's been a bit of a drag. I've found a website that hosts a copy of the New Testament in Bislama, but other than that and a short podcast that the Peace Corps sent us, there doesn't look like there's anything else in that language online. It actually looks a great deal like English, so I hope it's as easy to pick up as it sounds, but it's still very interesting to look at. As an example, the first verse of Revelesen (Revelation) starts: Long buk ya, mi Jon mi raetem ol samting we Jisas Kraes i soemaot long mi. Hemia ol samting we God i givim long hem, blong hem i soemaot long ol man blong hem. Ol samting ya, bambae i no longtaem, oli kamtru. Mo Jisas i sanem enjel blong hem i kam, blong i soemaot ol samting ya long mi, we mi mi man blong wok blong hem. When you say it out loud, it actually makes some sort of sense in English, but it's still a little different. I mean, it's a book written by John about something Jesus Christ something something something God given, something something came true, something Jesus and angels ... I've read that Bislama can be described as English vocabulary with an Oceanic grammar, and since I know nothing about Oceanic grammar, that sounds good to me!
But yep! The next month and a half, I will be saying good bye to my friends and family while reading up about Vanuatu and trying to decide if, say, a solar charger for my laptop is a fantastic idea or a colossally dumb idea. (Point in favor: I presumably will be able to watch TV on my computer when my village completely shuts down for the Sabbath. Point against: solar chargers don't work when it rains. And it rains a lot.) But I'll keep you all posted. Lukim yu!