By Peter Dewar
When Hannah’s family moved from Sydney to a remote island village, life became very different. For a start, getting to school meant a 40-minute trek through tropical bushland. And even that was now tricky.
Kind-hearted elders warned of evil spirits if she ever dared to veer off the beaten track, as Hannah’s classmates were inclined – fossicking for coconuts and mangoes amongst lush green foliage, or chasing a wayward chicken.
But thanks to the spiritual know-how of new besties, the problem was solved … a streak of mud across Hannah’s cheeks, special flower behind her ear, and she’d be protected. Carefree time with friends could continue, no matter what supernatural forces inhabited the island.
Full disclosure: Amy and Chris Dewar, and their three little ones: Hannah, Will and three year-old Lottie are family. I couldn’t wait to hear about their exploits when they recently visited.
Emae is a tiny, mountainous dot in the South Pacific, one of 80 islands in the Vanuatuan archipelago. The indigenous language is endangered. My niece in-law Amy is an award-winning student of linguistics. It would be a challenge, and partner Chris’ support critical – but why not devote a doctorate to documenting a language, helping an island’s customs, medicine and farming practices from sinking into the sea?
So in 2018, belongings were packed away in storage, goodbyes waved to extended family. Time had come to board a plane and head off to record a language, now spoken by as few as 155 Islanders.
A hand-painted sign, strung over a makeshift archway of palm branches, greeted the family and read: ‘We are warmly welcome you Amy Dewar’s family in our two community’s. God bless you in your staying with us’. Thanks to university funding, the welcome extended as far as provision of a house: home for the next eight months were rooms for cooking and sleeping with outside areas for pit toilet and island shower – a bucket to wash off the day.
Now the important job of assimilating could begin in earnest, vital if Amy was going to make authentic recordings of a vanishing Fakamae language. If only it were that simple.
Amy’s spreadsheet of appointments turned to mush. To local ears, Monday, 10 am meant sometime in the future, not as we understand it: in three days’ time at an appointed hour; and by the way, text me if you’re going to be more than five minutes late.
With no vegetable garden to grow provisions, the family were hampered when it came to trading. Customary perhaps, but it felt uncomfortable relying on neighbours’ generosity. And the couple were certainly not introducing a monetary system to a community that had relied on gift giving for centuries.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment was communal living. A piece of tin separated the pit toilet from a walkway. See your neighbour is cooking and feel hungry … walk in, share a meal, no questions asked. Better get used to a crowd of inquisitive children peering through an open window, watching as you prepare a meal.
But for a creative couple with the drive to take on such a daunting adventure, it was always a matter of ‘rolling on’. What at first seemed haphazard became the new normal. The family settled into a lifestyle filled with ‘lots of hanging around, doing nothing’. ‘Lots of walking between villages’ whenever Amy had an interview arranged.
The children roamed free, off in the bush or to the beach with friends, and in Will’s case, hunting fish with a wooden spear.
Money was used sparingly to barter. Amy and Chris made sure to represent the exchange as a trade.
Without refrigeration, famine turned to feast. A gift of lobsters meant eating seafood morning, noon and night four days in a row. Meat was a rarity, eaten after a funeral had been held, in which case the grieving family would slaughter a cow for the village to share. Or when a young man had plucked up the courage to hunt down a wild boar.
It took months, but deliberate time spent ‘hanging around’ began to bear fruit. The pasty, white-skinned newcomers were now familiar faces in the village, and opportunities for formal recordings arose from everyday interactions: the language corpus Amy was recording expanded. And Chris had found his place amongst men in the village after joining in on regular kava drinking, unperturbed that sometimes involved chewing the mildly psychoactive root, then spitting remnants into a bowl for ceremonial sharing.
Modernity was a world away, yet all five were remarkably fit and healthy. ‘Once we’d settled in, it was freeing,’ Chris says of the new life they had adopted.
But a return to the culture they’d grown up in was inevitable. At first, the family were excited to be back in Sydney, surrounded by extended family and the comfort of knowing how relationships and social protocols worked. Not to mention warm showers. Even shopping took on a new meaning – a relief that now they understood expectations of a trade.
If only it were that simple.
Amy and Chris were shocked to see how many struggled under the burden of mental anguish. It wasn’t long before they too were gripped by a pervading sense of anxiety: worries over children walking to the corner store, in a panic and unable to sleep over fencing that had fallen down leaving a next door’s swimming pool exposed. It didn’t make sense: they were safe, back in relative comfort, yet they felt more troubled than they’d been since boarding a plane headed east to a remote island village.
‘Anxiety and mental issues clung to us again,’ Chris says, as if he’s describing spiritual malcontents like the meandering demons that lingered in Vanuatuan bushland. ‘We’ve welcomed anxiety in our culture, and now it’s here,’ he reflects.
If nothing else, their sea-change has given the couple an intimate understanding of challenges facing newcomers to Australia. But they are far from making sense of last year.
There’s a long, contemplative pause when I ask Amy and Chris what the experience has meant. Chris reckons it’ll take five more years to come up with an answer. Amy too, seems challenged by the question. I watch my niece-in-law’s face go blank as she draws deep inside struggling for a coherent thought. All of sudden, she looks up in my direction and says, ‘Western eyes aren’t always the best …’