6-29 What I Learned this Week: Black Eyes and Domestic Violence

If you block the bottom, the top looks like a bad eyeshadow job.

Warning: This is not a humorous post. This is about some ugly things, not just the current state of my face.

The real story goes like this: I went to Judo training. We were learning a new throw. My partner was having some problems and couldn’t get the throw right. The teacher came over and corrected him. He got the throw right and I fell, correctly and without damage to myself. Because he’d tried the throw a few times and failed, it was surprising when he succeeded. He lost his balance and fell on top of me. The strongest place on the human skull is the ridge of bone running vertically down your forehead. His ridge collided with my eye socket. The collision split the skin above my eyebrow and gave me a nice black eye.
(Side note, eye sockets are genius. Unlike shoulders, knees and ankles, eye sockets are effective at their job, protecting the eye and taking significant damage without long-term consequences. Well done, evolution. Now, will you work on the shoulder?)
The story people think happened goes like this: I have a man in my life. I did something that irritated him, or maybe he was drinking, or maybe he was just bored. He hit me. He blackened my eye and nearly caused me to get stitches. I’m still with him.
I’m not saying “a few people think this.” I’m saying that nearly everyone I’ve talked to assumes that Jason hit me. I work in an organization that discusses domestic violence and I have been a strong voice advocating for other forms of conflict resolution, and my colleagues still assumed Jason hit me. Even the staff in the PC office, people who work with Americans and personally know Jason and I, immediately asked if he hit me. So many people have asked me, that I am becoming embarrassed to go out anymore. I’m sick of giving the same explanation, over and over.
Spanking Husband ad, circa 1950s
This says something disturbing about the culture. Maybe disturbing isn’t the word I’m looking for. Disgusting, might fit better. The general assumption was that Jason hit me, because that is the most common reason women here have bruises. There are two things wrong with this statement.
The first and most obvious, is that no one – woman, man or child – should be hit. The banal attitude toward domestic violence is a warning sign to the entire culture of the disrespect towards women. The effects of a lack of gender equality effect every strata of society. (I’ll write another entire blog post about that at some point.) Though I think the culture is beginning to change, domestic violence is still a joke here. It isn’t something treated as a cultural illness, its treated as a cultural norm. I’ve been teased about my black eye, I’ve had comments made about a “different sport” and I’ve had people tell me I’m lucky I have a Man American because Man Vanuatuwould have done it himself. It makes me think about the “spanking husband” ads in the 1950s, and how they are now socially unacceptable in the US. I hope that the culture in Vanuatu will follow suit and create a taboo around hitting anyone, especially your family.
The second issue is more subtle. The idea that women have no other way of getting a black eye is concerning. It means that women don’t have hobbies or other social outlets. In the US, I and my friends got bruised playing sports. We twisted ankles at dance clubs and had occasional injuries from “alcohol induced vertigo.” We also learned new skills, tried new things and had fun. We learned things that proved to us we could learn and that bolstered our self-esteem. The process of learning involves failing, and failing, sometimes, means bruises. Women here do not have activities outside the house, so there is no other excuse for a black eye. That, in itself, is something that is damaging to both self-esteem and the cultural equality of women.
I was witness to the aftermath of domestic violence in the village. I couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. This week has brought that awareness to a whole new level. (One could say it opened my eye about it, if one wanted to make a terrible pun.) When I am feeling the weight of eyes as I walk down the street, I can’t imagine what it is like for a ni-Van woman who’s husband did hit her. I’m used to being stared at, I’m used to being different, I’m confident in myself and I know that I have a black eye for a healthy reason.
This is an issue that needs to be discussed. Both sides of this issue, the side of domestic violence and the blasse attitude towards it. We need to talk about it so that we change the expectations and create a culture where women and men are safe and equal.

4-10 Gender expectations

As we’ve mentioned a few times, the gender gap here is HUGE.  One of the most important aspects of this is the expectation gap.  In the west we see it in the expectations of working women to “do it all”.  Articles about them always mention their family life and often cooking.  Men are praised for their work and their home life is barely, if at all, mentioned.  Women are expected to do more.  On the islands, the difference is even greater.  I’ve often joked that this country runs on adolescent girls’ labor.  Because it does.  They are the hardest working people I’ve ever seen.

An 8 year old girl is expected to help get her younger siblings up and fed.  She walks with them to school before going to her own classes.  In the evening, she walks them home and then helps prepare dinner, look after the other kids, and get them to bed after which she can finally do her own homework.  On the weekends, she helps out in the garden, weaves, and continues to look after her other siblings.  On average, the girl will still out perform the boy in school.

An 8 year old boy is supposed to run amok.  He may be asked to do one-off tasks around the house or collect some firewood.  At school, it is expected that he will be somewhat rowdy and bother the girls.  In the evenings, he may be expected to prepare kava for some of the men.  On the weekends, he will be expected to help out some in the garden.

Those of us in the feminist world see these discrepancies and chafe at their unfairness.  “How can so much be expected of the women?” we ask.

I think that’s the completely wrong way to ask the question.  Instead we need to ask, “How can so little be expected of the boys?”  Women are amazing and capable of doing so much.  Why?  Because they are told from an early age that they are supposed to.  We should be telling our boys the same thing.  We should be telling them that their worth is measured not only by their career, but by their family too.

We do not get better by lowering our standards so that we can step over the bar.  We get better by building ourselves up so that we can get over a reasonably high bar.  Yes, there is such a thing as unreasonably high expectations and those are defeating, but it’s not our current problem.

Humans are capable of AMAZING things.  There is so much cool stuff in the world because we’ve made it. We can do more cool stuff if we expect ourselves to be awesome.  So lets even up expectations by expecting the best of everyone!

6-23 workshop

When my friend Nancy came to visit, she asked to run a workshop with me. She is part of the Gender and Development Committee who just rolled out a gender-based violence workshop. They have been working on this idea for about a year and have given it to all the second-year volunteers to pilot in our areas. Because Nancy is based in Vila, she doesn’t have a community to pilot it on, so asked to use mine. I thought that was a great idea and did the leg work to get it going.

The workshop started around 9, which is about an hour earlier than any of the workshops I’ve run before. (I told the women that I’d sell bras afterward, so they were chomping at the bit.) We did the “dot game.” I put a sticker on everyone’s back and they have to put themselves in groups according to their sticker without speaking or looking at their own sticker. Then we talked about communication and the different ways we communicate. That was just the warm up.

From there, we played “clay man.” In partners, one person is the clay and the other one is the artist. The artist can make the clay do any position it wants and the clay can’t object. It opens up a discussion of control within relationships. We asked how the clay felt while it was being made to do awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing things. From there we talked about who is clay and who is the artist in our relationships: child and parent, teacher and student, minister and congregation, auntie and uncle, husband and wife. Interestingly, in a group of women, they all agreed the man should be the artists and the woman the clay. I asked if they would make laplap the way their husbands said to, even if they were wrong. They didn’t give me a strong answer on that one.

The committee has developed or stolen a skit that I really like. Jason and Nancy did the skit. Jason offered Nancy a glass of water, she said yes. She held the cup while he poured but rather than stopping when she said enough, he kept pouring. He’d pause when she pulled it away and then just keep pouring until he emptied the bottle he was pouring from, the whole time Nancy was telling him to knock it off. Afterwards, Nancy asked him why he kept pouring and he said she’d asked for the water at first, so he’d given her water.

It is, obviously, an allegory for rape and consent. The women really seemed to get this. They thought what Jason did was ridiculous, since Nancy had said stop. We asked them about rape and they followed the message through to say that Nancy said no and Jason should have listened. I consider that a victory. After a long (and slightly boring) discussion of the Family Protection Act of Vanuatu and the difference between a right and a responsibility, we got on with the next game.

We played relationship jenga. Its like all those drinking games you used to play in college, except all about bad relationships, so still maybe like those drinking games in college. I read off an action within a relationship. The participants had to decide if it was “building up” or “breaking down” the relationship. Each “building up” added a piece and each “breaking down” removed a piece. For example, “Papa takes the school fee money to go buy kava,” breaks down the relationship so they had to take out a piece. “Mama and Papa go together to shell out copra to pay school fees” built up the relationship, so they added a piece to the top.

The main problem with this game is how steady-handed the ni-Vans are. In a culture where the vast majority of the population work with their hands, the hand-eye coordination is ridiculous. It took ages to knock it down. Even with the too-good-at-it problem, it makes a good metaphor, or as they are called here, parable. The relationship starts out nice and solid and before long it has holes in it. As it gets worse and worse, it gets harder to find safe places to touch until eventually it falls down. A nice, tidy parable to end a workshop about communication and respect within relationships.

Then we had a bra sale. That was more interesting.

6-19 Teenagers are Dumb

It has been an eventful week, which more or less boils down to, “Teenagers are dumb.” Especially boys. Let me explain.

Jason’s host family consists of Mama Marie-Jospeh, Papa Ronald, Sisters Colette and Tari, and Brothers Kevin and Etienne. (Don’t ask me why Tari goes by her kastom name and no one else does. That is in the great mystery of naming around here.) The oldest is Colette who is in 11th grade, the next is Kevin who is about 14, then Tari who is 11 and Etienne who is 9. They are fairly well spaced and their parents made the choice for Ronald to have a vasectomy afterwards, which I think is awesome. Hurray, family planning!

Back in January, Kevin and I had a conversation about condoms. Due to the imprecise nature of Bislama – all of the pronouns are covered up in the word “lo” and all the possessives are covered in the word “blo” — we had a bit of a misunderstanding. Rather, I misunderstood how inappropriate he was being. What I heard as, “May I use your condoms?” and interpreted as a request to go get condoms from the Aid Post, was actually, “May I use condoms with you?” That is a very different question, to which the answer was a very firm “No” and a discussion of appropriate behavior.

Let me sidetrack for a moment. The word tawi means ___-in-law. Calling someone by their title is more respectful than using their name and, if you follow strict kastom, your direct tawi of the opposite sex should never use your name. So, Tari can call me Lala or Tawi but the boys can only call me Tawi. The same goes for me speaking to them. Furthermore, a man or boy is not allowed in the house of his sister-in-law without her express permission, they are not to look directly at each other and really shouldn’t speak to each other outside of a large group.

So, aside from the utter ridiculousness of being asked to have sex by a 14 or 15-year-old-boy, Jason’s brother was also breaking a huge cultural taboo. He and I agreed that if he didn’t say anything inappropriate again, I would let it go. I believe in second chances and he’s just a kid. Since then, he’s come by to get help fixing his bike tire and things have been fine, I just make a point not to be alone with him. I don’t need to invite the awkward, I have plenty of awkward as it is.

Last week, we had visitors. Nancy, another PCV from my intake group, and her friend came to visit and watch landdiving. The first night they came, she and I were sitting on my front porch chatting. Kevin went running up to the nakamal and five minutes later running back down to come story. No surprise there, visitors are a huge draw.

He hung around while we cooked and he and Jason had a conversation about Nancy. Kevin was “romantically interested.” Jason said that it wasn’t going to happen and that his approach was not appropriate. He asked point blank if he could have sex with Nancy. He continued to hang around as we ate, took turns bathing, brought in the laundry, did the dishes from dinner and were getting ready for bed. Finally, it got to the point where we couldn’t ignore him anymore. Jason and I agreed that I would go deal with him, this time.
He and I sit on the veranda and chat. The conversation started like this,
“Is Nancy married?”
“No, she has a boyfriend.”
“Can I have sex with her.”
“No.”
“Because she has a boyfriend?”
“Yes and No. That is an inappropriate question and you can’t have sex with her.”
“So, can I have sex with her?”
“No.”
“Because she has a boyfriend.”
“No, because I said no.”
“So, can I have sex with her?”
“No.”

It kept on like that even after I asked him if he was deaf, I pointed out that his continuing to ask this was shaming me and him and Jason and finally I said that I was going to get mad if he asked one more time. We got onto the subject of how to ask appropriately. My mistake. I tried to explain that sex is not the first thing that happens in a relationship. First, you should story and get to know each other, then you start to fool around and finally when you are very serious about the person, you start having sex. (Personally, I’m all for pre-marital sex, but for a 15-year-old in a country with a 60-80% STI rate, I’ll tell him sex before commitment is bad.)

He then twisted my words around on me. He said we were storying now, to which I agreed. Then he asked if he could “hold my breast.” To which I said No. And lectured him about inappropriate questions. I went inside and told Jason, who quite rightly got mad at him. Looking back on it, if I were trying less hard to be a good teacher and educator, I would have told him off and probably should have. As it was, Jason yelled at him and kicked him out of the house with the injunction to not come back until he is invited.

Five minutes later, he was at the fence singing out to Jason. Teenagers are dumb. He asked Jason to not tell their papa because he would, “slit his throat.” Beating as a common form of discipline here, but I don’t think their papa would go as far as slitting his throat. Still, the point was made to Jason and I that he would probably get beaten, which puts us in a really uncomfortable position. Do we tell people and know that Kevin will get beaten for it, or do we let Kevin get away with completely inappropriate behavior?

When all else fails, ask someone you trust. Jason went to Lalbateis to get our friend Wata at 6 am the next morning. He explained the situation and asked for advice. Wata said they needed to go to the chief, who was one of their papas. They went. They explained the situation again. The chief said they would fix it in the nakamal that night.

We went about our day and in the afternoon found out that Jason’s papa’s boat had broken on a stone in the night. The seas were rough and the drive shaft snapped when the motor came off the boat. He got the motor working again but still has to buy a new drive shaft. He was not in a good mood. They decided he should drink a shell of kava before they told him.

Before we even got to the evening, three young men and two women had come to ask us what happened. We were stubbornly sticking to the line that we would fix it in the nakamal in the evening. They were disappointed that we wouldn’t gossip.
In the nakamal, everyone was waiting for things to happen. Jason’s papa was late but finally had a shell. Then he came over to tell Jason about the boat. Then he told me about the boat. Then he had a moment in which it was only he and I on the bench and he immediately asked me who did what at my house last night. He tried extremely hard to get me to tell him, going so far as to say that if I didn’t say who it was, then next time no one would listen. I think its like the “boy who cried wolf” thing. They wanted to know who to shame to keep it from happening again.
Finally, Wata and the chief took him to the side and explained the situation. By that point, I was done with kava and back at the house but Jason stayed in the nakamal. Once the whole thing was explained to him, he came and talked with Jason and Kevin for a long time. Jason talked him out of beating Kevin over it, but Kevin get yelled at for about an hour by his papa and yelled at for awhile by two of his other papas. He also has the tawi rules fulled invoked for me. He isn’t allowed even inside the fence without my express permission and he isn’t to speak to me. I’m ok with that.
Really, my community came down hard on him, given that all he did was talk. I think that is good and sends a very clear message. I wouldn’t want to see him beaten for being a stupid boy, I don’t think that’s fair, but he also can’t get away with things like asking over and over and over or being inappropriate to me. In my mind, the greater issue was not respecting the initial “no” about Nancy, not his asking to grope me.
Boys are dumb. I’m becoming only more convinced there is only enough blood to power one head at a time.

2-27 Maorip, take 2

Disclaimer:  The detail of this may not be of interest to you if you don’t train.  The gist is, we’re trying to breath new life into the “Tae Kwon Do Karate Klub” in the bush on Pentecost.  Wish us luck because we need it.

This weekend we went back up to Maorip to actually start training. 

It took me like five minutes to line up this shot.
We started on Friday afternoon.  Not having directly talked to the guys antap, we weren’t sure if someone was coming to get us or not.  We decided to wait until it was cool enough and just start walking.  We were pretty sure we could get back, the road isn’t that complicated.  Fortunately, this worked out and we didn’t get lost.

 
We got up to the nakamal around 4:30 and found one of the three main students.  He went and found the other one who was around, who brought sugar cane for a small refreshment.  The third was at a dead but would be there Saturday.  We rested and storied small.  Then we decided that it was not kava time yet so we might as well do a bit of informal training.  These guys do have previous training but I’m not sure how much of it has been with their various instructors, let alone how experienced those instructors have been.  There are some stylistic differences as well as some bad habits.  They definitely have even more experience using their bodies than most ni-Vans.  We practiced some basic kicking, punching, and blocking.  I will be spending a lot of time telling these guys to relax.  One of them bruised his forearm with an overly hard-style block and did not participate in grinding kava that night.

After a quick rinse, the guys convened in the nakamal for kava and storying.  Gaea spelled from kava in favor of going to story with the women.  We are trying to make a point of showing that it is possible to be a woman but still train.  The other guys were still up drinking when I went to sleep.  Moderation is another example we are trying to set.

Training started the next morning in typical Vanuatu fashion.  Slightly late and with people trickling in for the next few hours afterwards.  We actually started much more on time than most things here.  At the beginning, we had the three primary students and one who had never trained before.  By lunchtime we had four more actively participating, which was as many adults as we were going to get for the rest of the day.

White belt form, first pass

The morning started with white belt material.  The three with previous experience picked up the movements quickly, though their form was the same blend of previous experience and bad habits of the day before.  Once we had a few more students, I moved the trio onto partner techniques while Gaea worked with the beginners on basic kicking and punching.  Then I started the beginners on blocking drills while Gaea practiced fancier kicks with the trio, including an introduction to wall kicking.  We finished off the morning with a review of the material and then broke for lunch.

The whole time we were up there, we were being fed by the family of the lead student.  The food mostly consisted of taro and laplap.  They did make a point to cook lots of elapmet, a delicious fern we both really like.  I went back to the nakamal to spell with the guys while Gaea was stuck with the children who consider sleeping to be a spectator sport.

After lunch, we started with another review of the material.  Then we invited the pikinini to join in and introduced everyone to acrobop.  We were once again reminded of the daily physicality of life here.  All of the adult men could do an assisted handstand, a somersault, and a cartwheel or shoulder-roll on at least one side.  They weren’t necessarily pretty ones, but they could do it.  The kids also picked up on the things quickly.   The mamas had a great time watching and translating, even if we did have to apologize for the wash they were going to have to do.  The children were sent to change and wash up while we moved on to grappling. 

Grappling was new to everyone.  The basic hip movement drills were as exciting as ever when a bunch of people learn them for the first time.  We managed to avoid anyone being kicked in the head.  Explaining those drills involved mostly demonstration because the Bislama went something like this. You start four-leg.  Right leg stands up, left leg goes here like this, then you turn yourself.  You do it again on the other side.  Two legs jump through.  Your butt goes up in the air, then your right leg goes under and you turn yourself.  (Then you do the hokey-pokey? Is that what it’s all about?)  As usual, there was a lot of “Put this leg here, like this (tug the leg)” and “No, roll this way and face that wall.”  Then we introduced them to sitting on each other.  Most of them are pretty serious about training but there were a few giggle fits. 
The more promising of the students

After they were good and dirty, Gaea took over for a bit of strength training.  Ni-vans do not like to show discomfort so it is sometimes hard to tell how hard we are working them.  The difficulty with which they got through (or didn’t quite) all the exercises indicated that they were feeling a little sore by the end.  As active and generally strong as they are, strength training isn’t done much at all.  Once everyone was good and tired I wrapped up with a toktok asking them to think about why they are training.  Violence is something of a problem here, especially domestic violence, and we are both attempting to address the problem as a couple who uses other methods and yet trains openly.  For me, talking about the importance of not using these skills to hurt people has become one of the most important aspects of training.  Finally, we ended with a brief meditation.
Jason remains dignified

As we were all sweaty and dirty, after training finished we went down to the river to swim.  After trekking down a hill through the mud, we came to the river.  The nice pool right there was not sufficient, however.  We walked up the river to a small waterfall with a very deep pool in front of it and climbable rocks on either side for jumping off of.  Flying side-kicks had various degrees of success.  Everyone had fun and got cleaned up.  As usual, we finished the visit with drinking kava in the nakamal that night.  Gaea did join us to story with the guys but we both went to bed earlier than most everyone else.  More demonstrations of moderation.

It was a successful trip.  One of the mamas told Gaea that they were interested in training but afraid to do it in front of the men.  Next time we are hoping to have a training time for the women while the men are busy with their own training.  The klub already has some demonstrations that have been requested around Pentecost that we can work on putting together.  For a first trip, it was largely successful.  We will be going up for these seminars monthly and hopefully having the guys come down every so often for more training.  There are still concerns about domestic violence but overall, it was a positive trip.

1-1 Bouncing a ni-van party

My papa was really excited about the chicken
As Gaea mentioned in her blog post, Christmas is one of the few times to drink alcohol here. Leading up to it, I had a big debate with myself as to whether I should drink or not. Drinking here is not done responsibly. They drink so infrequently that they do not have a chance to build up a tolerance. They also do it in volume when they do. I ended up deciding to drink with them largely so that I could try to provide a good example. It was largely successful, though I don’t know how much good it will actually do.
Being at my papa’s house helped. I was talking to him about it as we started by sharing some Victoria Bitter. He seems to have had a similar introduction to drinking heavily wherein the people he is with insist on maintaining focus. Then my cousin and some others joined us. They brought Pastis (it’s french, that’s about all I know), Whiskey (Johnny Walker Red Label as opposed to the normal crap), and some mixers.
My papa’s house seems to be something of a “safe house” for the women. One of the other guys in the village was already drunk and hit his wife, then chased her to another house and kept hitting her. She jumped out a kitchen window and got to my papa’s house where he didn’t follow. I get the feeling that my papa disapproves of some of the antics. Other than coming in to mediate things, he generally stayed out on the porch and avoided the drunks.
For a while, the men were out on the porch drinking, storying, and watching videos through the window. Then a few decided that they wanted to dance. Unfortunately, one of them was quite drunk by this time and was being a nuisance to the women and pikinini. I started off trying to just corral him but as he got a bit drunker I just started blocking him from coming inside. I had the backing of my cousin and papa to do so and it generally worked. Eventually, he was told to go home.
He was also excited about taking pictures and the alcohol
Things went pretty well for a little while. Gradually, more and more of the guys wanted to dance. They were also getting more drunk. I took up a line through the room to try and give the women space to dance or sit. Eventually, my papa came in to draw an official line and authorize me to maintain it with a couple other guys. I was generally able to dance the other guys back to their space. Sometimes this required a little bit of physical redirection. If I gave them a little push to another guy they would get distracted.
As the night wore on, more men showed up with more alcohol. One of the other “responsible” guys disappeared and the other was getting too sloppy drunk to actually help me keep things more under control. He was more likely to stumble another guy further into the women than help guide them back. The guys who had alcohol were pouring it into each others mouths. I took the tactic of ducking outside and spitting it out rather than get myself sloppy drunk.
At one point, my uncle (who is known for at least physically abusing women) was dancing over my sister (his niece, who I noticed had a tendency to leave the room when he stumbled in). I was already getting tired of the guys’ crap and pushed him off just a little harder than I meant to. He stumbled into the wall just enough to run into it. He got mad as did one of the other youngfalla. I had to apologize and it was quickly forgotten. Once I get a chance to talk to my papa, I’m going to ask him why the other guys didn’t have to apologize to the women and how he feels about his brother dancing on his daughter. We’ll see how that goes.
Shortly thereafter, most of the women who were still around left. I stuck around a little longer and then exited myself. As I was walking back up to the house, some of the women sang out to me and said thanks for my work.
I am so completely fed up with misogynistic attitudes and domestic violence in particular. Meeting violence with violence is not going to fix anything but I’ve seen way too much of it here not to want to.
There is only so much we’re going to be able to do in a culture where it is so pervasive. The most effective tactic we’ve found is getting people to see that there is another way. Everyone grew up getting hit as kids and hitting a woman is not discouraged. Domestic violence is defined as hitting your wife “too hard,” not just hitting your wife. When Gaea and I talk about how we resolve conflicts in our relationship, we get confused looks. The idea of discussing both sides of an argument and coming to a mutual resolution is almost as foreign as the idea that the man may not be right. Fortunately, some of them do obviously think about it more and come back to us with further questions.
Serving as a couple also gives us some amount of authority on the subject. The single volunteers are told they don’t get it because they aren’t married. No one can use that excuse on us. We obviously have experience and are harder to dismiss. Not that they don’t sometimes chalk it up to “fashion blo whiteman.” I hope that we reach a few people on this issue through the last year of our service. I hope to be the proverbial American butterfly helping to create a cyclone of change on the other side of the world. This attitude will not change all at once but will take gradual improvement over the generations.

10-14 Further Evidence that Homosexuality is Universal

There are no gays in Vanuatu. That is the official line from the church and from the general populace, at least in public. The reality is slightly different. There are some out gay and lesbian couples in Vila, though they are few and far between. In fact, the only ones I know of are ex-pats. There is no access to “gay culture” here, the movies they watch are things like Jet Lee and Terminator, which rather lack in gay characters and they don’t have the internet on the island.
There is a boy near me who would be FLAMING in the States. He falls directly into every stereotype of flaming teenage boy you can find, even ones that don’t fit the culture here. For instance, here, talking to someone of the opposite gender is grounds for mockery and marriage. He hangs out with all the girls. He has a soft, high pitched voice and is totally limp wristed. During sport time, he plays volleyball with the girls instead of soccer with the boys. He runs like a duck. (Jason and I help teach sport.)
Let me relate a few stories from the other Western teachers. They were marking papers in class and as a treat for good behavior, the teacher told the students that they could mark with any color pen (normally, they are limited to red, blue and black ink). He immediately whips out a hot pink pen and starts waving it around the classroom.
They are working on persuasive essays in English class at the moment. This is both a challenge to their English and to their ability to think outside the box. One of the topics given was, “Students shouldn’t have to wear uniforms.” His opening to his essay went something like this, “The question is not whether or not students should wear uniforms, it is what color the uniforms should be.” (I cleaned up the English.) The color he wants the uniforms? Violet.
On a less happy note, he also wrote an essay about how England is better than Vanuatu because you can be who you really are and not have to hide anything. We knew what he was talking about, but I’m not sure about the other English teacher. He is the nephew of a nun, the kind of nun that asked a Jew what her religion forbids her from doing. She would not take kindly to being told he is gay.
I am more convinced than ever that not only is being gay or straight not something we as individuals have control over, we don’t even have control over the cultural expression of our sexual orientation. Where else would this kid come from? He is just so flamboyant, I can’t believe they think he’s not gay.

5-30 Kamp GLOW/BILD – What is it?

In the week before coming into Vila, Gaea and I went to Ambae to learn how to run a youth leadership camp. These camps are a Peace Corps wide thing but organized and run by different committees in each country. For the last four years the Gender and Development (GAD) committee in Vanuatu has run a Training of Trainers (ToT) for the new volunteers to get some experience running these camps. The participants in the ToT are individuals that the PCVs have identified as leaders in their communities. When they go back to the island, they are expected to work with their PCV to run a camp. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World and BILD stands for Boys in Leadership Development. They are often run in tandem with a few joint sessions and meals together but if resources are short, we can run them one at a time. The idea is to get youth between 12 and 18 to participate but we’ve heard of camps that included 9-year-olds and 25-year-olds. The length can vary from a two or three day weekend camp to a week-long one. We are hoping to do a week long GLOW/BILD combo camp at Melsisi and another one at Ranwadi.

The ToT was supposed to be a week long. We had a lot of sessions to do with them plus the added sessions on how to run a camp. Every day started with 6am sport for an hour. Then we’d bathe and go eat breakfast. The “academic” sessions started at 8:30am, at least theoretically. The first day of sessions start with talking about qualities of a leader and moved to good communication, including public speaking skills. We finish the academic sessions with another round of sport, usually things like capture the flag or Ultimate Frisbee. After dinner, is a more relaxed and social activity. The first day we played “props,” the game where you have a pile of objects and do improv skits to use them as another object while your teammates guess the object. The next day focuses on decision making and goal setting in the morning and trust and teamwork in the afternoon. The evening activity was watching a Wan Smol Bag (One Small Bag) movie and making friendship bracelets. (Wan Smol Bag does TV shows and movies about sexual and reproductive health. They tend to be really entertaining and educational.) The third day, we went down to the beach and talked about adolescent and reproductive health while roasting lunch then came back to the classroom to talk about HIV/AIDS and other STIs. That evening, we painted the camp banner and had a dance party in the dining hall. By dance party, I mean a few PCVs danced while everyone else watched or laughed. The fourth day we spent the morning on relationships before moving into the mini-camp planning. The participants planned the camp with almost no input from the PCVs. In the evening we relaxed around a fire and sang songs. The next day, the participants ran a mini camp for younger kids in the community. It was amazing to see how well they ran their camp and made us all very proud. The Camp wrapped up with awards and a talent show. We even got a few of the participants to join a martial arts demo as I had been running classes for morning exercises.

Leadership is really not something that gets talked about in this country. There is such a culture of shame around standing out in any way that it’s hard to be a leader here. From what we’ve seen, most of the leaders here have been either chosen for a position or “made the mistake” of putting a toe into a power vacuum and then get treated as a leader. Nobody talks about public speaking or non-verbal communication. Even for the well-educated teachers in the group, a lot of this seemed to be new concepts. Even less talked about is anything to do with sex and reproduction. I was very pleased to see how interested all the guys were, even when I went through how the menstrual cycle works. We had so many good questions that we dropped one of the planned activities to answer more. I got the impression that they were really excited to have a chance to ask about these things in a safe environment.

We are both very excited to go back and run our own camps. Hopefully we will also have opportunities to join other volunteers when they run their camps. We are both fully convinced that the week-long camp is the way to go. There are just too many topics that need to be covered to actually work in a weekend. We also want to create a safe space for questions, which didn’t start to happen until day three at this camp. After that they really opened up and were willing to ask about some touchy subjects. We had to use a question box to get some of them anonymously but that they were willing to ask at all is great. Watching our participants come out of their shells and gain confidence was awesome to watch. This definitely the kind of work we are both passionate about.

1-30 Gender divide from a male’s viewpoint

You’ve all probably read Gaea’s rundown of the gender divide from her point of view so I figured I’d put up my take on things.
I think that one of the other volunteers put it very well during our training when he said that men here are rock stars. Basically, it’s true. To be fair, just being white makes us both celebrities. We walk around and are known everywhere. It’s actually strange being in Vila where I am relatively unknown. Even here I can get a bit of the celebrity treatment just by talking in Bislama and telling people what island I’m from. On the island, everyone knows who we are and wants to chat with me, usually over a shell or five of Kava. When I say everyone, I do mean the men. The women mostly want to chat with Gaea and don’t really want the kava. Of course, the kava happens in the Nakamal, which is also where the business of the village is discussed. Not that I can understand what’s going on, everything being in language but I can be there.
I do get a good deal of enjoyment from pushing their ideas of gender roles. I wash clothes, I cook, I clean the house. I do all these things publicly. It causes confusion. Of course, I’m white and expected to be strange. I also take the opportunities I can to discuss with people that Gaea and I share all the housework. I really don’t know how much mind-changing I’m doing but I like to think I’m at least opening windows if not doors. Not everything about the culture is 100% divided, especially in our area. Kastom dictates that the young men go live in the Nakamal where we are told that they’re expected to cook and clean their own clothes as these are important life skills. Once they get married, they’re not expected to keep doing such tasks but they do learn and if their wife is sick or visiting family they may have to take care of themselves. They are also expected to help their wife raise their grandchildren.
Domestic violence is acceptable here but hitting your wife or kids hard enough to injure is not. Of course, there are only certain people that can actually tell someone to knock it off unless the woman goes to the authorities, be that the chiefs or the law. Hitting someone else’s wife, especially your brother’s, has been demonstrated to carry a pretty hefty fine. Rape is being dealt with more harshly than I understand it has been in the past. Enough so that a chief was stripped of his position and banned from the Nakamal for it. Being banned from the Nakamal is a HUGE deal. It means you aren’t even allowed to witness ceremonies and you aren’t included in community business. That this happened to a chief says something to me.
I don’t excuse some of the behaviors I’ve seen here. It’s incredibly frustrating to see some of the attitudes here. On the other hand, I do feel like progress is being made. I feel like the society as a whole wants to change. Is it moving fast enough? No, but these things take time and I have hope.