As always in the wake of tragedy, especially in the early stages when there is so much uncertainty, it feels somewhat sacrilegious to do or think about anything else.
Part of me is horrified at the prospect of thinking or talking about anything other than Cyclone Pam, the relief effort and the future of Vanuatu – let alone hanging out at a comedy club…doing bits.
I share my experience here because I know so many people around the world – Ni-Van and Friends Of - who are sharing this struggle to go about their daily lives with so much uncertainty.
I also appreciate that any tragedy, natural or otherwise, brings with it its own unique cocktail of concern, grief, lack of sleep, impatience, and any number of secret ingredients into each individual’s Survivor Guilt Special Blend.
But there is something very specific I would like to say about the Ni-Van way.
The Ni-Vanuatu love to laugh.
I think now of when I first introduced improv games and Drama Club to Hiwelo Primary School on Tongoa, and, later, a version for the older teens at Nambagasale. It was shortly after I had moved there.
The first day, when the kids began laughing uproariously at themselves and each other, the teachers would stand at the sidelines trying to control them.
“Stop laughing! Be quiet! Sit down! Show respect! ” And then, in a more hushed whisper, “Do you want her to tell all the Whitemen you’re all savage bushmen? Behave!”
I actually had to take one of the teachers aside and explain, “This Drama Club isn’t really like a…class-class, you know? It’s kind of just a…fun class. It’s okay to laugh.”
The teacher himself broke into laughter then, and was relieved. “I wasn’t sure,” he said, “since you’re a Whiteman and all. But, that’s settled then, it’s okay to laugh.”
Afterwards, whenever I passed by, the kids or even the teachers would scream out, “Is it time for Drama Club yet? We want to laugh!”
I’m somewhat ashamed to recall that at one point I even got frustrated with their eagerness to laugh hysterically at the slightest impetus. “You kids don’t even care about these games or all the exercises! We haven’t even started and you’re all already giggling on the ground! Seriously, why do I even bother preparing anything for Drama Club? We may as well just sit in a circle and laugh for an hour for all you guys care!”
“Okay!” They shouted, “Let’s sit in a circle and laugh for an hour!”
And they did.
They didn’t need a reason to laugh. They just needed a place, a time, and a circle to do it together.
In Vanuatu, everything is fair game for a joke. Everything. You will hear as much laughter erupt from a large crowd at a funeral as you will at a wedding.
Much of the humor I experienced would be considered dark and inappropriate to the average Westerner. In a country with negligible amounts of violent crime, joking about death by murder or suicide is casual and commonplace. And yes, even joking about large-scale natural disaster is a frequent part of daily banter.
One of the worst offenders I knew in this regard was my own boyfriend, who lived in the capital of Port Vila. We first met and became friends during my training program in his North Efate village, before I moved out to my placement on Tongoa.
“Sapos saeklon i kam?!” he might cry out cheerfully, if I was annoyed at him for forgetting to meet me at the airport or being two hours late to something. “And if a cyclone comes?!” It’s a rhetorical question – or the first half of one – and the sentence is never finished, the implied second half being something like, “Then wouldn’t you regret giving me a hard time now?” It’s the type of phrase I would often hear family members fling at each other, both in jest and in admonishment, as a reminder not to be petty or to stop arguing over things that don’t matter.
“Don’t say that!” I’d shriek. “Stop saying stuff like that, it’s so morbid!”
“Okay, okay, sorry, sorry!” and he would compose himself in mock seriousness for a beat. “I’ll just go hang myself then.”
And he would laugh wildly, and everyone around us would laugh wildly, and the kids would gleefully shout “Faea!” or “Fire!” which means “Your fire is out!”, something akin to the concept of ‘losing face’ but in a slightly more casual, joyful way.
(I don’t know if there really is a perfect translation of “Faea i ded” into English, because the very concept is so specific to Ni-Vanuatu culture. Good-natured, lighthearted, public embarrassment is such an integral part of the social framework.)
“It’s not funny!” Now I’d be directing my indignation at the whole group, who would in return roll their eyes, shrug, and go back to whatever they were doing, letting a giggle escape every now and then.
In retrospect, many days of my life in Vanuatu were punctuated by me indignantly crying, “It’s not funny!” to a group who would shrug and giggle back at me in return.
In Vanuatu, if you can’t take a joke, it’s your problem. In fact, if you can’t take a joke, people will worry you are sick. The only socially acceptable reason for lack of mirth is illness, and even then, not always.
An individual's laughter may even be considered as a valid qualification for leadership roles. "That guy? He's always laughing! Let's make him treasurer." Or, conversely, "Her? She never laughs. What about So-and-So down the road? She laughs really loudly. Why don't you marry her instead?"
So...tonight I will be performing at the The Peoples Improv Theater – Underground Stage – at 7 pm.
And it’s okay to laugh.