Sunday, January 29, 2012

Coconut Wireless

This week I also attended a more traditional wedding than the previous one I attended. It included an exchange of gifts of mats, meat, and money between the families of the bride and groom. It began with Christian prayers and I was asked to offer a Buddhist prayer. I chose the Turning to the Tathagatha prayer, a prayer that beseeches the Lord of Compassion within all beings to bless us with awakening and loving-kindness. Since it was situated in the Presbyterian side of my village, it also included indulging in kava and tobacco. Being in my village is reminiscent of Prohibition to me, a time when people had to escape to dangerous, Mafia-infested neighborhoods in order to indulge in alcohol, since I cannot consume or purchase kava in the Seventh-Day Adventist community in which I am situated. I have heard stories of a Mafia presence in Vanuatu as well: From China. Mostly in the political and economic capital of Port Vila, I have heard many stories of the Chinese Mafia attacking anyone who competes with their business interests. The supermarket chain Au Bon Marché, despite its French name, is supposedly run by Chinese mobsters who will break the legs of anyone who tries to compete with them. I have also heard of a secret prostitution rink being run by a group of Ni-Vanuatu women who sell fruit, fish, and other produce in markets known as “mamas markets.” (Sometimes even bats are killed and sold there for human consumption, which is considered a Melanesian delicacy.) All these stories circulate the country through a gossip network between islands and villages known as “coconut wireless.” Nothing is too mundane, too scandalous, too petty, or too private to flow through this network, and Peace Corps Volunteers are prime targets, since we are essentially celebrities here. Whenever I do drink alcohol or kava (which is infrequent these days), I find the knowledge of it spreads like wildfire and becomes the latest village gossip. Everyone asks me how much I've had and how inebriated I've become. I find it somewhat invasive and judgmental. Even though nobody outright tells me not to engage in any activity, I find myself wanting to tell them, “I'm an adult. That's none of your business.” However, in Vanuatu, everything is their business if it spreads through coconut wireless. Some of what is included in coconut wireless is not even accurate, and discerning fact from fiction is not always easy. One Volunteer suffered the scandal of a false rumor that he was the father of an illegitimate child about to born to his community. Now I know how celebrities in American tabloids feel!

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