Friday, June 06, 2008

Cultural sensitivity in Banam Bay

We've swapped the somewhat roly anchorage with inquisitive turtles and dugongs in Lamen Bay for a perfectly calm anchorage with dolphins and flying-foxes (giant bats) in Banam Bay, Malakula Island.It was difficult to drag ourselves away from the wonderfully hospitable, generous people of Lamen Bay. We left with the potato locker full of assorted varieties of tuber, a big bunch of bananas hanging from the bimini and enough giant pamplemoose to keep us going to Australia.

However in Banam Bay we've also been welcomed by amazingly generous people, and have received gifts of green peppers, cucumber, more pamplemoose, big bunch of "island cabbage", papaya, coconut and some giant beans that resemble long-thin cucumbers.

Today being Sunday we were invited to Church. Here some differences emerged between myself and Charlotta. Although an atheist myself, I thought a Church visit would be an interesting experience and show a degree of respect to the cultural values of the village. Militant atheist Charlotta, appeared to find the idea of church an anathema, but after some persuasion reluctantly agreed to join me (if I was being unkind I'd swear I saw the sulky bottom lip of a reluctant child appear). We were welcomed and given a seat near the front, a hymn book in Bislama and two bibles in English. The service followed the usual pattern; prays, readings, hymns, announcements, most of which we struggled to understand, although we could follow the hymns, and became swept along by the enthusiastic singing. I think Charlotta felt some justification towards her stance when my bible opened at an old-testament passage comparing foreign women to narrow pits and condemning them as thieves.

Afterwards we joined the church elders and a line formed to shake the elders, then our hands. We'd planned to walk to a waterfall after the service, but instead were invited for lunch with the village in which each family had prepared laplap and we were given a choice from each. The selection included laplap made from taro, yam or cassava, with fillings/toppings including, pork, fresh fish, canned fish!, octopus (my favourite), island cabbage and beef.During the feast I asked more about the waterfall and thought I detected some hesitation. Further inquiries revealed that a trip to the waterfall was felt inappropriate for a Sunday. It seems that Ni-Vanuatu people don't want to displease you by giving a contrary answer. We experienced this problem in Lamen Bay when we invited Isabelle to the boat for supper, she readily accepted, but I thought I detected some conflict, and on further questioning revealed that she was also invited to drink Kava that evening with some visiting dignitaries and she gladly postponed our invitation to the next day.

I'm sure my friends will readily agree that I don't always have an abundance of sensitivity, but feel that after experiences in Cook Islands and Samoa that one should adopt a policy of caution toward Sunday activities. Inquires about the waterfall, "is it OK to visit the waterfall today" receive a "yes", however asking, "should we not go to the waterfall today", elicits, "yes better to go tomorrow". It's difficult to phrase a non-leading question. Charlotta concludes that each answer has equal weight, and that our missionary ancestors are to blame for strict Sunday adherence so it's about time we undid some of the damage they did. I adopt a precautionary policy not wishing to cause offence and not go. The same problem applies to swimming in the pool at the falls. "is it OK to swim" gives "yes", asking, "do you take your drinking water from the pool so perhaps we shouldn't swim", also gives "yes", again I would choose not to. Charlotta is looking forward to a fresh-water bath and would prefer not to ask the question which would prevent her from having a wash....

That said, hypercritically we're off to look for lobster tonight with some of the villagers. I'm sure fishing isn't a Sunday approved activity, but I legitimise my act of Sabbath betrayal as I expect only the four of us in the dinghy will ever know. That is unless there is some omnipotent being who takes offence to Sunday lobster snaring....
Banam Bay: S16°20.32' E167°45.45'

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