When you put Ni Vans into a group, laughter becomes something of a song. Together they chant 'ha ha ha" and then finish it off with a seemingly random word, like 'hey' or 'zeus'. To us it seems entirely unpredictable, but somehow they always know what word is about to be said. There's a rhythm behind it, I just haven't figured out its beat yet.
In some ways, that's all that learning about a new culture is, finding the rhythm they move by. Vanuatu seems so sporadic at times but its only because I sometimes don't know where to clap. Two weeks ago my village had just finished picking lice out of my hair and my school was preparing for a big fundraiser. My headmasters wife asked me to go into town with them to shop for some food and new soccer and volleyballs. I spent the day running around with my upbeat and energetic headmasters wife. A women who sometimes has driven me to madness because she always spots the constant mud on my feet and legs and forces me to wash them- despite the fact that my village is notorious all across South Santo for being a muddy village (my legs are rarely clean these days).
When we finally got back to site we realized we had left the balls at one of the stores. Vanuatu is not like the US, you can't just turn around and go back to get something you forgot. The headmasters wife, Leena, made a few hasty phone calls and found a truck that hadn't headed back yet. The fundraiser was saved.
They knew I hadn't charged my solar lights that day and that I'd be sitting in the dark, so they invited me to eat dinner with them (tuna on rice). I storied on with them for a while about America and the space station and whether it would rain on the fundraiser. All while the kids listened intently and fought, like siblings do, almost relentlessly. And then I went back to my pitch black house and curled up to sleep (at 8 o'clock).
I'm not sure what woke me. At first I thought it was this weird smell that was in the air, scented faintly like the coconut oil I kept putting in my hair to try to get rid of the lice. But then I thought it must be the kids laughing in the headmasters house. But that couldn't be right either. It was three in the morning, that was early even for them. And then I heard the headmasters wife crying out, "Ahh woaaa" (oh my goodness) over and over again. Her voice was loud and desperate and for one wild moment I thought she might be doing a rain dance to keep away the rain for that days fundraiser. But then I realized that the laughing kids were crying and that the desperation in Leena's voice was plagued by grief.
Terrified, I lay paralyzed until the sound was right outside my window. "Jessica?" She asked, pausing in her cries. "Yes?" I asked tentatively. "Oh, sorry," she said. "Trevor is dead." And then she began to cry again, the "ah woa"s broken up only by occassional wails of "Trevor", the name of her son. I lay, even more paralyzed than before. I had seen Trevor not 6 hours earlier, laughing with his siblings. The 14 year old boy that always wore a shy smile and wanted to be an engineer when he grew up. Dead.
Some boys carried him to a truck and he was taken first to a health clinic and then across the water to Tangoa (the families island, just off the coast of South Santo). Custom here dictates that the first ceremony, the dead, as it's called, takes place that day. I found my host mom and went to it with her, we walked down to the shore where we were pushed across the water in a traditional canoe. All the while moving in a slight haze. Unsure what had happened, or why.
We were late and the mamas had already crowded a small room, Trevor's body lay in the middle, covered by calico. His mom, Leena, and his siblings sat close to him on one side. When my mom walked in she fell over the body and began to wail. Leena fell into rhythm alongside her, tears streaming down her face. I knew that, had I been earlier, I would have heard them all wailing like this.
Sure enough, Trevors older brother, who goes to school on the east coast, finally arrived and fell at his brothers head, his face in his hands. And then the wailing was all around me, and his mother was reaching her hands towards the ceiling, tears running rampant down her cheeks. Trevor's six year old little brother was sobbing, clutching the leg of his father, who stood leaning on a door frame, one hand covering his mouth like he was trying so hard to push the sobs back inside of him.
I couldnt look at his two sisters, whose faces were wet and eyes were red. I closed my eyes and thought to myself that if you could bottle grief it would be this sound that you scooped up, the wailing of these women and the upraised hands of a grief stricken mother, who, when I spoke to 5 days later- and then again 10 days later- had a voice so hoarse from crying that it cracked on every three words.
We did a small simulation in training to prepare for what this might feel like but it wasn't enough. The sound cuts deep inside of you and holds you there. And yet, it frees you too. I had a knot somehwere deep inside me since I had woken to his mothers cries, but somehow the wailing scooped that knot up and stole part of it out of me, and I felt a weird release, like the world had been slightly righted. This part of the Vanuatu rhythm I could finally hear. The part that came when grief struck.
The next week I found myself facing a very different Vanuatu custom. The wedding of one of G24s volunteers to his girlfriend from the states. A grass archway dangled with flowers followed the bride and groom as they walked, their backs sprinkled by baby powder. A string band brought them to the church and a big cake, sloppily decorated by frosting preempted the feast, which was mostly a long table piled by an endless amount of taro. The groom, Calvin, is just finishing up his second year of service and walked barefoot down the aisle, his feet caked in dirt.
It was the opposite of what the dead had been. And for a minute I was able to pretend that nothing was off. For a moment the wedding trumped the dead. But then the illusion was gone and the momentary joy had put a hole in my armor. I felt broken.
When I got back to my village I found my house had been raided by rats. There was poop on my sheets, on my pillow, on my desk. The headmasters house was still empty and my own house made me restless. I packed up some things and headed to my host families house.
After a quick dinner (maniock and ramen mixed with capsicum and egg), we went to the weekly devotion. Everyone sat in a circle in a dimly lit room. One of my uncles was playing guitar and everyone was singing. Depending on the song they would use a different clap rhythm. I had no idea what system they followed for it. Like much of a culture you haven't grown up in, a lot of the movement of these people was said in a language I do not understand and that they are unaware they are even speaking.
Part of me realized, as they each were asked to pray for something different, and their murmured voices formed different words to the same soothing chant, that this was the thing that I had always admired about Vanuatu. There is a certain way, a certain constant drumming that Vanuatu strolls along by, a rhythm we have long forgotten in the US, where no one leads a life exactly the same as the next person. We have lost this. We don't know how to match the clapping of our neighbor, nor end laughter with the same random word. We don't have a set process for dispelling our grief. Our independence leaves us rhythmless.
I've been attempting to teach creative writing to the older kids and it is borderline impossible. Creativity is seemingly nonexistant here but in truth has just been supressed by the habit and rules the people live by. It took me until I sat in this circle, a baby curled up beside me with his fingers wrapped around one of mine and a chorus of music humming around me, for me to realize that the lack of creativity stems from the unity and consistent rhythm of the people here, a rhythm which suggests that there is little alternative.
I don't know which way is better, this sense of unity or the freedom of individuality, but I do know that the people in that circle around me had something I rarely found, a feeling of content. And they were happy, where I could still feel the faint, lingering pulse of that knot in my chest, born from the dead boy and his wailing mother. And I do know that, as an outsider, I could see the heap of beauty in this music they were playing, that they were playing without even knowing that they played it. I could feel it in my bones in a way that they, who followed it by memorization only, never could. Is having the rhythm worth it if you can only ever dance to one beat? I'm not sure it is.
I am sure that I want to keep doing this, keep finding new dances to dance and rhythms to clap and laughs to synchronize. And maybe if I keep dancing and dancing, spinning and spinning, the world will blur the grief and only the beauty of the music will linger. And that will be my own rhythm, that mesh of all the music of all the world and all its people.