A couple of years ago, May 2013 I responded to an advertisement by the Waikato University called Rethink, New Zealand in our national Newspaper The Dominion Post about volunteering Vanuatu languages as a native speaker to help document the languages of Malekula, an island there with more than 30 dialects. This was a tipping point in my life and career. I was fluent in the dialect, Ninde which essentially translates to What is it? Vanuatu is well known for it's 83 islands with more than 110 different dialects that the natives speak. I learnt that 10% of the world's indigenous languages stem from us the Melanesians in the South Pacific; PNG with an overwhelmingly 700 dialects, the Solomon Islands with more than 70 dialects and New Caledonia with more than a handful including french. Our tok pisin, bislama and pijin are widely spoken by the three nations PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands respectively as they are our national languages across our Melanesian counterparts.
I remembered flying up to the beautiful Waikato, Hamilton well known for it’s hobbiton movie set. The popular movie The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was filmed by Peter Jackson there and it was a very a busy season for tourists and the operators in the Waikato region. I was excited but nervous-I have never met Dr Julie Barbour but I had responded that I could only speak the Ninde language. I had never given any second thoughts to my dialect as it would add glamorously to my CV. I am grateful to my parents who ensured that I learnt throughout my childhood years. It is my true identity and will be something I will embrace forever. It has dictated who I am today and I have big plans for it to try and save it from becoming an extinct dialect. Dr Barbour surprised me with being able to speak a couple of the dialects from Malekula. I felt at home. I felt so connected. I didn’t feel alone anymore in the big world. In a foreign land, nobody else speaks my dialect except Dr Barbour. Dr Elizabeth Pearce was one of those foreigners who could speak some Ninde too from Victoria University, New Zealand. My people were so far away across the Pacific Ocean.
In October 2015, I embarked on an exciting linguistics trip to South West Bay, Malekula, Vanuatu for a month. My field trip was to collect data from the Ninde people. It would be a struggle being a foreigner trying to collect linguist data from these natives. Even though, I fluent in the language and being a village daughter who is now an expat, I knew that it would be very difficult to obtain good robust linguist data. They would not be interested unless I wave my magic wand at them and come up with something attractive and decent to capture their interest. After all, the ongoing regular visitations from the international linguists and anthropologist had made them all weary and disinterested. They do not really understand and see the point of these foreigners wanting to save their dialects from going into extinction for their future generations. I was armed with potentially three options that would enable any villager to listen and capture their interest at heart. Firstly, I could call upon all artists, sculptors, weavers, carvers, etc to come to an Arts and Crafts Competition at a certain date in the village with money prizes. The idea stemmed from seeing and hearing from my own family about the talent of artist who were in the village and had produced world-classed artefacts. Three months prior to my arrival, everyone knew to have something prepared to present it on a special day in October-they would come with their product and present a story in the dialect about their product to be recorded. The other two reasons appeared valid too. Secondly, the local marae in Plimmerton called Hongoeka could potentially look into an artist cultural exchange programme with the Ninde speakers for a period of three months. The villages of South West Bay could potentially host the Maori weavers from the community I reside in. Both experiences would be very enriching. Academically, at a tertiary level Whitireia Community Polytechnic could benefit from these international artists and weavers furthering their creativity, skills and art studies at the local polytechnic. It sounded like a great incentive and do-able long term investment for the future.
The day before the official Arts and Crafts competition in the village, it was certainly an entertaining day with an interesting circumcision ceremony that happened. The rituals were performed by the tribes. Lumete Beach Bungalows generously donated tropical plants and flowers to be turned into bouquets for the winners. There were six monetary prizes to be won with six trophies. That was such a big event according to the villagers. I spoke the dialect fluently asking the women of the village to collaborate and weave me a coconut dress to wear to the event as a host the next day. There was delegation of tasks to the young men of the village to climb coconut palms and bring the best palm leaves. It was certainly a big challenge and I observed women from all over the village coming to support the weaving of the special dress. They discussed, weaved and reattached. Lets face it-who weaves a dress from a coconut leaf? I was very drawn to how they would fit me into the dress too. It was like a mini WOW (World of Wearable) Arts competition. Excitement builds as I hear cameras flashed and snapped as I was fitted into the coconut dress.
The day of the competition arrived. I heard from my father that the women wanted extension of dates. They were not prepared enough. They wanted to be part of the competition. My aunt Jan weaved overnight without any sleep just to be part of the competition. It was a beautiful tropical sunrise morning in South West Bay. Lawa Village was gearing to welcome it’s first ever Arts and Crafts competition from one of it’s own daughters. I was emotional. The conch shell sounded in the distance-there is a public meeting about to take place where the whole village will gather. I fitted the coconut leaf dress with some more minor adjustments. I rearranged and gathered my thoughts for the speeches. The arts and crafts arrived from all over the village. The judges waited alongside me. It was certainly a learning experience for me. There were 15 participants with 6 prizes to be won; however the room was packed with the villagers supporting the great cause. We all learnt so much from the experience. There were so many stories behind the patterns, the crafts, the weavings, the symbolic animals and the personal journeys. We spoke the Ninde language. We connected with our history. We connected with our people. We discovered old significant patterns and their meanings in new light. We heard stories and tales which were never told. We celebrated with our children. We have come to embrace our language again; this time with the true belief that it is truly our identity and our personal stamp on a global scale. There is data to be collected, recorded and stored for our future generations before it becomes too late. As the tropical sunset illuminates the horizon, a flock of birds flew across the sea water, the waves crashed on the seashore-I felt reassured. I had to do something in the long term to save the language. The visions of building a museum is becoming more a virtual reality.