Duviara Village, Ambae Island - September 2005
If you have ever read the book (or have ever seen the movie “South Pacific” based on the book) Tales of the South Pacific, by James Michener, the mysterious island of Bali Hai sits off in the distance with clouds of mist always covering the island. The story describes how some Military men stationed on a nearby island decide to go visit the island to explore its land and discover what lies underneath the mist. The island that is known as “Bali Hai” in his book is actually the island of Ambae, located in Vanuatu. This month, our team had the opportunity to teach and preach the gospel on “Bali Hai,” or known today as Ambae. Here is our story.
I have been planning this trip to Ambae (pronounced Ahm-bae) for about 2 months - off and on. Obviously as it grew closer, planning was more ‘on’ than ‘off’. As this was our first experience going deep into the jungle, I wanted to make sure I was as prepared as possible, not only to teach and preach, but also prepared mentally for what we may encounter. I mean, cannibalism has been extinct in Vanuatu for at least one hundred years…right?
Our trip was scheduled to leave early on the 9th and to return on the 12th of September. Though this trip was short, it was all we were able to schedule. One Christian in Duviara, named Paul Vuhu, is a school teacher in the village of Lolowai and I coordinated our trip with him to come teach and preach in Duviara. The main reason for the brevity of our trip is due to Paul only being free on the weekends. The culture in Vanuatu is such that you need an invitation in order to go into a village. You cannot just go where you want, as you do not have the right to do such. Needless to say, being from the US where we really don’t have anything in our culture similar to this, I have learned to accept and work with this fact. So, Paul and I had been discussing when to come and he recommended a weekend trip to be the most beneficial. I made my plans and on Friday the 9th our team headed for Ambae. On this trip Eric and Shawnda Brandell, Mike Olson, and Aaron Baker were able to go, though unfortunately, Cindy and Kaela stayed at home to “hold down the fort.”
Friday, September 9th, 2005
Our flight left Port Vila at 7 AM, so check-in was at 6:30. We had no problems with our flight until we reached Espiritu Santo (known just as Santo). We deplaned at 8:15 in Santo and we were ready to hop on another plane and head for Ambae. However, we found out that the previous day there was a problem with one of the planes and several flights were cancelled. Our flight was then delayed until 12:30 in the afternoon. I tried to call Paul and tell him about our delay as he would be waiting at the airport in Ambae for us, expecting our arrival at 8:50 AM. I could not reach Paul and just had to hope for the best.
Once we finally left Santo our flight was only about 20 minutes to Ambae. As we approached the island, I could see the base of it off in the distance, but the top was covered in clouds, just as in the book/movie. As the plane banked into the wind to come in for a landing, I saw a grass airstrip ahead. I was a little nervous as the plane touched down, wondering if the brakes were really going to help on wet, slippery grass. However, my fears subsided as we landed and bounced down the runway, slowing to a stop near the end. We got out of the plane, grabbed our bags and met Paul, who had been waiting for us since 8:50 that morning even though it was now about 1 PM. We walked through the “airport” (I say airport, but it was more like a pavilion) and put our bags into the back of a truck. Shawnda rode in the front of the cab and the men in back with the bags. We headed from the airport towards Lolowai, where Paul teaches.
The trip took about 30 minutes, going over dirt roads that were not too bad all-in-all. In Lolowai, we bought some food supplies, ate lunch, and set out for the village of Duviara. From Lolowai to Duviara is a 45 minute drive. However, instead of following the coastline as we traveled from the airport to Lolowai, now we would head up the mountain to Duviara. We put our supplies into a different transport truck and were ready to head up the mountain. The truck really caught my eye, mainly because it was in fairly bad shape and I was not sure if it was going to be able to haul us up the mountain. The tires were bald, the driver’s side door was held shut by the seatbelt tied to the frame, the seats inside were worn down to the foam, the steering wheel could be turned one full revolution without actually turning the wheels, and the gear shift danced around as the truck was put into gear. This was quite a truck. Paul assured me this was the right truck and off we went.
The first 30 minutes of driving was not too bad. We were headed up hill, but the incline was not too steep. The road was nothing more than deep ruts in the road, surrounded on either side by tall grass and random jungle plants. It started to rain on us, which made me less confident in the truck as we began sliding into the ruts in the road rather than steering around them. Then the road got worse.
The last 15 minutes of the drive up hill was interesting, to say the least. I held on for dear life as we continued to slide back and forth into the ruts as we moved along. Shawnda’s hair was flying around inside as the rocking of the truck threw her around. The driver slowly pressed on and went places I NEVER thought a truck with bald tires could go. If a ravine was too steep and we got stuck, we would reverse and try it again – this time a little faster – until the momentum carried us up the hill. It was quite an experience just riding in the truck.
As we drove we talked with Paul. He is a good man, dedicated to God, his family, the culture, and to Ambae. He shared with us how Robert Martin, a former missionary in Fiji, and Rocco Pierce, a preacher who travels worldwide to evangelize, came in years prior to teach, preach, and encourage them. He talked about how he loved, missed, and appreciated them so very much. This helped pass the time as it helped take my mind of the fact that my bottom was sitting on a thin rail of the truck, continually “tenderizing” my hindquarters.
Once the truck went as far as it could go, we unloaded our stuff. We were greeted by many women and children from the village, as well as Paul’s family who helped us carry our belongings. We trekked another 20 minutes uphill to the village of Duviara, which means “last stop” because it is the last village on this trail up the mountain. Upon arriving in Duviara we met his family and put our belongings into his guest house. Paul operates a sight-seeing tour available to tourists in which he takes them on a hike into the jungle. He let us stay in his guest house which had a tin roof, bamboo walls and a concrete floor. It was not a bad place to stay, with beds that had a 2” foam mattress for padding. We got settled in and unpacked some of our stuff by about 4 PM.
A little background on Christians at Duviara:
Paul was converted in Papau New Guinea by a missionary who studied with him while he was in college. Paul obeyed the gospel and has been a Christian for several years. With the help of Robert Martin, Paul was able to build a building in which the church could meet on his land. Paul had requested a generator from our team that would enable them to hold Bible studies at night. With much thought, saving and prayer, our team was able to purchase a small, portable generator which we brought with us to Duviara. We were glad to help them and to give this generator to the church of Christ in Duviara.
Back to the story:
Around 5 PM we hung the fluorescent lights we brought and strung the electrical cords in the building. We were called to dinner and walked over to the outdoor table which was actually two long planks of wood, with a piece of bamboo laid lengthwise which served as a seat. By this time there were several people gathered around the table. It was growing dark and one small lamp barely lit the faces of those present. Paul had all of us stand for the prayer and welcome talk. He then informed us that we were going to have a special custom ceremony.
I discovered that one of the men I had just met was a Chief named Harry Vuti. Paul gave a welcome talk saying how grateful they were for us to come to their village, and that in honor of our coming, Harry was going to adopt me (Aaron) as his son! Boy was I surprised!
In the Vanuatu culture, this is a big event. I mean, this doesn’t happen every day. Harry had made a special kind of laplap (a food that is dense, thick, and hard to eat) and wrapped it decoratively in banana leaves. At the top of the leaves were flowers tied tightly to give color to the ensemble. Paul shared with us how this special kind of laplap and its decoration was very special – usually reserved for presentation to a high Chief, or even the prime minister of Vanuatu!
In addition to the presentation of the laplap, I was presented a special mat. It was about 3 feet wide and 8 feet long. It was colored purple with a design on the inside that is specific to the island of Ambae. It was a beautiful mat and I was honored to receive it. In fact, these mats are usually presented at custom weddings as part of the payment by the man for his bride. So, the value of the mat was very high and was an honorable gift for me to receive.
After Paul explained all this, I accepted my laplap and mat by bowing, shaking hands with the Chief, and taking my seat at the table by the Chief. In their culture, the laplap presented is special, in that only the one to whom it is presented may eat it. However, this was a lot of laplap. So, since the laplap was mine, I offered it to our team and we all ate quite a bit of laplap, which by the way is not an easy task since eating laplap requires acquiring a taste for it. This ceremony was a big honor to me and I was grateful for their generosity, and humbled by their willingness to give something so valuable to me.
Following my ceremony, we had yet another surprise. Since Shawnda Brandell was the first white woman to come to their village for the purpose of teaching the women, one girl took her as her sister. Loleen (low-leen) is related to Chief Harry. Loleen was so grateful to have Shawnda come that she made Shawnda a special laplap and also gave her a mat similar to the one I received. Loleen gave Shawnda a custom name of Metalovuti (pronounced Moo-eta-lah-futi), which means woman of Vuti family. Vuti is the name of a Chiefly family and so Shawnda is also now related by name to the Chiefly family of Harry Vuti. This was a great honor for Shawnda to receive.
After Shawnda passed out her laplap, it was time to eat. The meal consisted of plenty laplap, rice, ramen noodles on top of the rice, and chicken. I was handed a chicken leg to gnaw on and I was glad to get it as it was freshly cooked and tasty. I worked my way through the laplap and ate the chicken and had a full stomach – that is until the Chief offered me another piece of laplap. I graciously accepted it, although I was too full to eat it. Out of respect for him I forced another piece down and gave a big smile of thanks. Maybe this is what Paul partially meant when he “became all things to all men.”
Following the meal we went to the building for our study that evening. Paul wanted us to teach on the topic of church growth. Our team prepared lessons based around this theme. Mike Olson spoke on Friday night about 1 Timothy 3:15 and how the church is the pillar and support of truth. He did a great job and there were about 12 men and women present. Mike started at about 8 pm and ended at around 9.
We were glad to have brought the generator as this was a great tool to use in our teaching and preaching. Previously, all teaching would have to be done before the sun went down, but now, classes can be held at night thanks to the lights available.
As we said our thanks for their hospitality and greeted the Christians and visitors alike, we headed for bed. We were all beat as it had been a big day. The guest house where we were sleeping was a short walk from the building and was pretty nice by local standards. Entering the door, there were two beds in the main room. The one on the left was where Mike was to sleep. Two doorways, lead to two more bedrooms. The room on the right had a double sized bed which Eric and Shawnda slept in, and the one on the left had a single bed which is where I slept. That night it was chilly as the wind and rain were both strong. We were all tired and quickly fell asleep, soothed by the sound of Mike’s chainsaw-like snoring.
Saturday, September 10th, 2005
I awoke at about 5:45 to the sound of roosters competing to see who was the loudest. I wrote for about 30 minutes, read my Bible and prayed. At about 7 we all went to breakfast which consisted of local bread with peanut butter, bananas and hot tea. Interestingly the bread was made in a pan. They put the pan with the dough inside on top of hot rocks. Then they cover the pan with and put hot rocks on top. After about an hour the bread is done. It was a heavy bread, but was very good.
After breakfast we began class at 8:30. There were 17 present, not counting about 20 kids. I taught first on the topic of “Improving the work of the church.” All were attentive and eager to learn. Following my lesson we divided up the men and women. Eric taught the men on “Responsibilities of men in the church,” and Shawnda taught the same topic, but geared towards women. The women were thoroughly excited to have a white woman come teach, especially since she could speak Bislama. Over and over they continued to thank Shawnda and tell how appreciative they were that she could come. Our teaching ended about 11:30 and we broke for lunch.
We ate lunch at about 12:30. We ate rice with ramen noodles and island cabbage on top. Half an egg and small pieces of yam decorated the side of the plate with a nice tomato on top. I am not a big fan of tomatoes, so I quickly traded Eric my tomato for his egg while nobody was looking. We began eating after the prayer and I noticed that everyone else was eating just rice with a tiny bit of noodles and cabbage on top while our plates had mounds of food. I tried to share my abundance with some of the men and boys, but none would take any of it. They really respect and honor us and wanted us to have the best food they had to offer. Again, I felt guilty for eating, but knew no matter how hard I tried none of them would take any of the food off my plate. So, I ate.
In the afternoon we relaxed and talked with the men. We walked through the jungle and toured their gardens of taro, manioc, yam and bananas. They grow all of their food and only buy small amounts of food from the store back in Lolowai. Paul took us on a tour of the village. We would walk through the jungle and then suddenly come to a clearing and there would be a grass hut where someone lived. It was hard to believe that people lived literally in the middle of nowhere.
We came to a Chief’s Nakamal, which is a meeting place for the Chief. One may not enter until a gift is given to the Chief in exchange for the rite to enter. Paul had brought a mat with him, worth about $10. He paid the price for us and we were allowed to enter. The Chief was not present, but his son was there and able to grant our entry. Once inside it was apparent that much work was required to build a Nakamal. The floor was dirt and the posts holding the roof were from a black palm. The walls were bamboo that had been split, flattened out, and woven together to form the walls. The roof is a Natangora roof, which means that each section of the roof is hand-made from leaves woven together and fastened with vines. Each section of the roof is laid on top of the previous, as shingles on a roof. A Chief’s Nakamal may only be constructed by the sons of the Chief. It is a very sacred Nakamal, not in the sense that they worship it, but in the sense that it takes much time, energy and hard-work. In addition, a woman may not enter the Nakamal as it is considered taboo.
In the Nakamal we looked around and large drums especially caught our eye. These drums, called tam-tams, laid horizontally on the ground. They are also known as slit gongs, as they have a long slit in them in which the noise echoes out of when played. Tam-tams were originally used for communication with the Chief if he was out in the garden or away from the Nakamal. These drums were struck with a distinctive beat which could tell the Chief to “come to dinner,” or “get ready for battle.” There are about 30 distinctive beats which the Chief’s son knows. As an honor to us, he played the tam-tams. The drum he played was resting on the ground and was about 10 feet long, hand-carved, and was next to two other smaller tam-tams. They played about 5 different beats for us and it was amazing how loud the sound was coming from these hollowed-logs.
We left the Nakamal and returned to Paul’s house. His boy, about 8 years old named Len, offered to take us to a pool of fresh water where they swim. Knowing we had the afternoon free, Eric, Mike and I agreed to go. We changed clothes and began our 20 minute hike up the mountain to this swimming hole. Half way through the hike I noticed a vine, much like I would expect Tarzan to be swinging on. I asked Len if they swing on it, and he replied, “Yes, of course.” Len went swinging on the vine and offered it too me. I told him that it wouldn’t hold me, but he insisted that it would. After Len prodded me to swing on it, I lifted my feet off the ground and “tested” the vine. It held – that is until I tried to actually swing on it. Once I put my full weight on the vine it snapped, and I fell down in the mud. Of course all the kids thought this was the funniest thing they had seen in a long time. Eric and Mike didn’t mind laughing a little too. I was not injured and had to just laugh at the whole ordeal and continue the hike towards the swimming hole.
The swimming hole during the wet season would normally be covered by running water, but being the dry season it was a great place to swim. The rocks were moss covered and slippery, as Mike found out twice, falling to the ground only injuring his pride. The kids immediately jumped into the tea-colored water and yelled at us to follow their lead. I climbed a rock overlooking the water and dove in. The water was fairly cool, yet refreshing. The boys especially thought the cannonball into the water was the neatest thing they had ever seen. They quickly encouraged Mike to try one. So, Mike climbed the rock and dove in. The splash was big enough to reach every side of the swimming hole and the kids thought that was the neatest thing as they whooped and hollered. We swam for about an hour and headed back to the village.
We rested for a few hours, preparing for the teaching that evening. At about 6 pm we ate dinner, which consisted of rice, island cabbage and canned meat all mixed together. It tasted much like fried rice and was a good meal. After dinner we started the generator and began teaching. In the evening we had about 15 adults in attendance with another 20 kids present.
Our topics for the evening session were on the theme of Personal Evangelism. We brought handouts for all and wanted to give them a study so they could sit down and teach anyone the Gospel and how to obey it. The three of us men taught until 10 pm and then answered questions following the lessons. Everyone was glad to have such a study period and especially grateful to have us present the material in their language of Bislama.
Following the teaching we headed for bed. It had been a long day and we were all ready to “hit the hay.” That night it was fairly cool and rained off and on. I slept great as it was nice and cool and again had Mike to sing me to sleep to the gentle tune of a chainsaw.
Sunday, September 11th, 2005
I again woke up at 5:45 and read, prayed and wrote for a while. At about 7:00 Paul came and asked us to go to a reconciliation ceremony. Of course we were glad to go anywhere Paul wanted us to go. Evidently, a local Christian named Mark had been having some troubles with his brothers. There had been a long conflict that resulted in one brother cutting much of Mark’s garden, killing many taro plants. In retaliation, Mark went and destroyed some of his brother’s house. Mark realized he should not have retaliated and wanted to put everything behind him.
We walked about 25 minutes down the mountain to a nearby village of Ambanga. The paramount Chief of Ambanga was present to oversee the ceremony in which about 30 people were present for. The Chief sat down at the head of the circle and motioned for the ceremony to begin. Mark presented a pig to his brother and told his side of the story for 15 minutes. I have no idea what he said as Mark was talking a local language that is different than Bislama. After Mark spoke, his brother presented some mats to Mark and described his side of the story. Following the exchange of goods the Chief spoke for 20 minutes followed by two more men speaking for 20 minutes each. After the talking, Mark and his brother were told to accept each others gift to symbolize peace. The brothers stood up and each touched the other’s gift, symbolizing their acceptance of the gift and agreement to peace. To end the ceremony the Chief asked me to say a few words of encouragement to the men. I thanked them for their desire to set things straight and to be at peace. Following my brief talk, Eric offered a prayer and we ended the ceremony. We shook hands with everyone present and hiked back up the mountain.
On the hike back up we stopped while Paul met a nearby neighbor. A lady talked with Paul briefly in their local language and we were ushered into a small hut. Inside was a man named Benuel Garae, who was a Christian, but physically very sick. His body was weak and was just skin and bones. He remained seated as we entered and could hardly lift his hand to shake ours. This man indicated that he was glad that we had come to teach and preach and was sorry he could not come to hear our lessons. He stated that he wanted to take Mike as his brother as an honor to us all. It was a humbling request and the man gave Mike a mat as a gift and said he was sorry that he couldn’t make laplap for us. Benuel gave Mike the custom name “Malaliu” (pronounced Mala – Lee – oo,) which means the bird to which all other birds turn for food. [We teased Mike later and told him his name basically meant Big Bird.] Mike was extremely glad to be given so much respect and told the man that this was something that he would never forget.
We returned to Paul’s at about 9:30 and changed clothes to get ready for worship. We began at about 10 am with 20 or more adults present, again accompanied by 20 plus kids. I was glad to see the Chief that presided over the ceremony, Chief James Anga, as well as the Chief that adopted me, Chief Harry Vuti, present for services. I finished our seminar on church growth by giving a lesson on “How to grow the local congregation.” The lesson was well received and they are eager to grow the congregation in the village of Duviara.
Following services we changed clothes and packed our bags. We ate a small lunch and then gathered by the church building for our last goodbyes. Paul spoke on behalf of the congregation and said how grateful they were for us to come. They were especially glad that we could speak Bislama, glad that a woman came to teach, and glad that we donated a generator to them for use in holding Bible studies at night.
Paul began a farewell ceremony by giving a laplap to the team. Like the ones given previously, this one had the laplap wrapped in Banana leaves and tied at the top neatly decorated with flowers. I accepted the laplap for the team, bowing slightly and shaking Paul’s hand. Next Paul announced that they had a gift for Cindy and Kaela. While the two of them remained in Port Vila, the people of Duviara still wanted to honor them. Paul’s mother, about 80 years old, gave a hand-made mat to me to give to Cindy. It was dyed purple and had a design on it specific to Ambae. It was a real honor to accept this from someone who put so much time and effort into this mat.
Shawnda had asked her sister to spell her new name for her. So to help Shawnda remember it, and as a goodbye gift, her new sister Loleen gave her a mat with her name dyed into it. Loleen made this mat by weaving it and dying the color into it at night, by the light of a fire. It was a special gift and one that honored Shawnda greatly. In addition the ladies expressed again how grateful they were to her for coming and teaching them how to teach their children and how they are important in the growth of the church. They really wept together and showed their love and respect for her through their words and gifts.
Mike was then called upon by Paul to accept a mat that the church wanted to give to him. They thanked him also for coming and were glad for his visit. Eric was told that he had a gift that would be presented to him down the mountain at the village of Ambanga.
I was then called upon by Paul to come accept my gift. I was given a laplap by Chief Harry who adopted me. He gave me a custom name of “Vutilolo,” which means “higher mountain with plenty of good things.” I was honored for coming and shown great respect by the kind words spoken. After I was presented the laplap, I had a special surprise. The paramount Chief of Ambanga, James Anga, gave me a walking stick. This was more than just a walking stick, as this is a type of stick that only Chiefs could have. Since Chief James was a paramount chief, he had the right to give the stick to me. He explained how it would support me when I was tired and would help me on my journey through life. I was honored by the gift and gave a small speech thanking them for all their love, respect, and honor shown to us.
After the farewells we gathered our bags and walked downhill 20 minutes to where the truck had dropped us off. We loaded our stuff into the truck and Paul, Mike, Eric and I walked down to Chief James’ Nakamal while the women stayed behind and gathered the kids who were going to ride in the truck. Since we had not entered James’ Nakamal before we again had to give a gift for the rite to enter the Nakamal. Eric gave the chief about $10 and he gladly accepted the gift and we entered. Boys were seated at the tam-tam and were waiting for their signal to play. We sat on a wooden bench just big enough for Eric, Mike and I. Chief James announced that his son wanted to adopt Eric as his son. This was a huge honor and one that required yet another ceremony.
To begin, Paul translated the local language into Bislama and told us what was happening. He talked about how this was a gift of honor and respect to us as well as Eric. The chief sat down in front of a banana leaf spread over the ground. He signaled for Eric to sit next to him. One of the Chief’s youngest sons brought Kava over to the chief and to Eric. Kava is used in the culture of Vanuatu to “seal the deal.” It is a sign of respect to be invited to drink Kava with a chief. The Kava was poured into a coconut shell and placed in front of Eric and the Chief. The Chief gave the signal and Eric picked up his shell and raised it above his head just slightly, and then drank. In the ceremony, one must drink the Kava until the shell is empty. There are no “breaks” in drinking as it would be considered offensive to the Chief. Eric and the chief drank down the brew, which tastes like grass and dirt blended together. The Chief then stood up and introduced Eric to his new father who then presented Eric with a mat as a gift.
Following the ceremony, the boys at the tam-tam were given the signal and began to play. For about five minutes the sound of the wooden drum filled the Nakamal and echoed in our ears. At the end of the playing we clapped for the boys, shook hands with the men, and exited the Nakamal. Outside we took pictures with the Chief and with Eric’s new father, said our goodbyes and hopped in the truck to head down the mountain.
After a 45 minute ride in the back of the truck down the mountain, we stayed in Lolowai with Paul and his family. The school in which Paul teaches provides housing for him and his family. Paul put up a tent and let Eric and Shawnda sleep there while Mike and I stayed in a room inside. The room was small and plain with plenty of cobwebs on the walls and ceiling. We slept under mosquito nets which helped prevent getting bitten throughout the night. Oh, I forgot to mention, remember all the laplap given to us back in Duviara upon our leaving? We ate that for dinner.
Monday, September 12th, 2005
Today we left Paul, his family and the island of Ambae. It was a trip none of us will ever forget. Culture, tradition, and respect for all people are still a strong part of the lives of those on Ambae. We arrived at the airstrip and waited for our flight to arrive. Once the plane landed we stood back as some men helped unload a woman who was sick with cancer. She had made the flight lying down and was unloaded in the same manner. She had been to the doctor and was told that they did not have the medical facilities and equipment to help her, so she was returning to her home village on Ambae basically to die. It was sad but there was not really any way we could help her.
We loaded our things onto the plane and headed for Santo. The flight was only about 20 minutes before we were on the ground again. We had a 5 hour layover on Santo before returning to Port Vila.
Once back in Port Vila Cindy was at the airport to greet us. She was bent over doing something near the floor. As I got closer she told me that Kaela had been sick and just vomited all over the two of them and the floor. I held Kaela as Cindy worked to clean up the mess. Next thing I knew, Kaela had given me a special “welcome home” by vomiting on me too. Needless to say, I just wanted to head home, change clothes, and take a shower. What an odd end to a great trip.
In September 2005, Eric, Shawnda, Mike and Aaron all traveled to Ambae island.
We landed on the grass air strip at Lolowae airport, and then traveled for an hour in the back of a pickup to Duviara Village.
We all four stayed in "The Last Stop Bungalow" which is owned by a local Christian, Paul Vuhu.
The children were such a joy...most of them were all weekend because they "wanted to see the white people" (a direct quote).
Shawnda was the first female missionary ever to visit Duviara, and the ladies loved having her there to teach them.
The locals treated us wonderfully, and each of us was adopted by one of the locals.
Aaron, Eric and Mike taught a series of lessons on church growth.
Loleen adopted Shawnda as her sister and presented her with a custom mat she made especially for her.