On July 27th, the renovations to the Health Center in Melsisi were considered complete, it was re-opened for use and deemed a Mini-Hospital. To make all that happen, there was a 5 hour ceremony with enough dignitaries to sink a bathtub. Seriously, there were more dignitaries there than I think I’ve been near my entire life. There was the French Ambassador to Vanuatu; a French General and his traveling sideshow; the Vice President of New Caledonia; two reporters from New Caledonia and a few from Vanuatu; the Vanuatu Ministers of Health and Justice; the New Zealand High Commissioner; New Zealand’s top military liaison to the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF); one of the VMF’s top brass; Vanuatu’s Police Commissioner; an officer from Unelco, the power company in Vanuatu; an officer from the Vanuatu Rotary Club; and number others who we have forgotten or never managed to find out about.
Because Pentecost is a rustic place, the dignitaries were flown in on Friday morning. They flew by troop transport to Lonorore Airport where they were met by a helicopter. They were helicoptered to the football field and then walked or were taken by truck up to the health center. The football field proved to be a bit problematic since there was supposed to be a tournament going on there. The helicopter’s arrival interrupted the first game in the morning. They finished it in the afternoon along with the last game while the other two had to be postponed so everyone could stand and gawk at the helicopter. We all probably got more of a kick out of the helicopter than we would have out of the football, really.
Because of all that transport, the ceremony didn’t start until about noon. It was scheduled to start at 11, so 12:30 was pretty good time. The men from Gun did a kastom dance which led the dignitaries up the last stretch of hill to the main gates of the health center. They were met there with salusalus given out by students from the school.
The health center is shaped like a T. The top of the tee faces the ocean and is where the main gates puts you. The left side opens onto a steep hill and the right side has a small flat space and tiered hills going up to the convent. The ceremony was in that space. The soldiers were all kitted out and lined up at the top of the hill while the dignitaries sat in the shade under the veranda of the health center. There were a bunch of speeches. Some of them happened in English, some in French and a few in Bislama while the MC occasionally flipped over into language when making announcements that affected the mamas or the students. I think there was probably 5 people there who could actually understand that whole ceremony. I definitely wasn’t one of them.
After the speeches, there was gift giving. It must be good to be a dignitary at these things. They showed up for an afternoon and got given a chief staff and a red mat. The value of those things in kastom is HUGE. I’ve only seen a handful of chief staffs because they are so rare and so rarely used or given. On top of those things to the VIPs, they also hung baskets on all the marines from the ship, all the dignitaries, the chiefs who came as chiefly representatives, the other invited guests, the random white girl from north who followed her auntie down for the day, the volunteer from Ranwadi and Jason. Basically, anyone they saw, they hung a basket on.
Then there was kava. No ceremony in Vanuatu is complete without kava. I understand that if one has say, a fine wine at an opening, it is only polite to sip, swirl and get a good understanding of the flavor of the beverage. Kava smells like mud and tastes like mud mixed with pepper. The ambassador has done this before but no one warned the rest of the French. They were sipping their kava shells, swirling it around in their mouths and generally savoring the beverage. We were trying not to giggle and mostly failing horribly. They all did a very good job of not looking disgusted by it, too.
After the kava, we had food. The mamas made another feast. There were chicken wings, pork and beef for the carnivores and really good salad for me. They actually put dressing on the salad, which was awesome. Then there was a giant cake. The boxed cakes here are growing on me. I didn’t find them sweet enough at first, but now I rather like them. The surprise treat for all of us was champagne. They brought real champagne, the good bubbly. We got a glass each, though Jason missed it because he was taking pictures. I shared a bit of mine.
The dignitaries slipped out while everyone was distracted by food. They had to get 4 loads of people back on the helicopter and back to Vila by dark. The rest of us followed the soldiers down to the beach to say our goodbyes.