My Granny Lehi had a routine for sundays when I was at Primary School. She always had a story to tell before my bed time on sunday evenings. It was called Nitivenbetep. It was set on Nembangahu. Our tribe. Our land.
That was the best treat on reflection. It was very settling. It was life-saving in a different way for my mental health.
Those who knew me during my early years of school as a little girl, remembered the little girl who always cried. I was called “the devils child” while I was at Primary School by my distant cousins. I never knew why. Maybe I was the ugliest child in the class? Perhaps being the smartest child in the class who could spell “earthquake” as no one else could? Maybe I was just the petite child in class that I could easily be called “tetei lapus” meaning “the devils child?” in the Ninde langauge. Or perhaps it was because I was a different village girl who was trying so hard to be accepted into another village where my Granny lived. I felt very ‘split up’ being from another village. But nevertheless, I accepted that norm as I had to gel into a different village to be able to hang out with the cool boys and girls. I accepted being called by that name. My distant cousins all called me by that name. I was never called Leina. We would go hunting for prawns in the rivers. Or go fishing along the coast. Or go gathering fruits and firewood in the plantations. Or fry fish together at their house. For at least three years, I was bullied. Something I was never aware of. Psychologically, it was damaging for me.
I suffered from very bad separation anxiety. My father took me away to go to school in another village. Between the ages of 8 years to eleven years old, I had to live with my aunt Janice and Granny for school. My father believed I would do better going to the District School where the Australian Missionaries were based. It was where my grandfather, the late Elder Isno Betep was serving to the First Missionaries who arrived in South West Bay, Malekula, Vanuatu. I never met my grandfather. He died long before I was born. These days I only got to meet him through the photographs the Australian Missionary Mr Ian Taylor saved for me in Brisbane, Australia. I cherished those photographs so much as they are my only surviving memories of envisioning who my grandfather really was. He was a hardworker. He was the Missionary’s right hand many moons ago.
The separation anxiety was almost debilitating. Pschologically, I sobbed uncontrollably at times. The transition was so tough. It made me very sick. I remembered one time, my father came to the school where I was. He tried getting away from me after he had helped me with my math problems but he wasn’t successful. I sobbed so hard that I had a violent episode of extreme vomitting. It was tough being an eight year old girl then. These days, I wished there was better parenting to teach young parents how to deal and manage separation anxiety better with their children.
Fridays are my favourite days as I would look forward to getting home to seeing my parents. Excitment builds and by lunch time, we would be singing songs in our classrooms for the weekend break. School closes at lunch time and for those of us who have parents out of the area, we would start walking home after our lunch meal. It would take us a few hours especially as young children.
We got used to the long and hot walks home. We used to run too. We would time ourselves jumping through some large boulders safely, and without getting wet from the large waterfall spraying mist at Lamelkise.
We taught ourselves how to husk coconuts so we had sweet drinks to maintain our blood sugars. We learned about the safer tropical leaves instead of the toxic poisonous ones to curve them into little cups to serve water from the running streams along the beachside to quench our thirst. We climbed fruit trees to get fruits to eat along the way home. We would weave little balls out from coconut leaves so we could kick them along the beach or have a wee game of volleyball. We would cut out our arrows for games and carry them when we got back into the village. Sometimes we would change our routes home and try out a new route that would take us through the jungles instead. This is to ensure we can keep safe from the heat of the scorching sun. We used to swim a lot along the beautiful sandy beaches home, always making sure no one was stung by a jellyfish or chased by a poisonous sea snake.
We would look out for each other when one got stung by a poisonous jelly fish or stood accidently on a sea urchin. Sometimes, we would catch octopuses to take home for our friday evening meals. We knew how to entertain ourselves. We celebrated with bonfires and games when we reached home safely on fridays. The bonfires would create little firecrackers from the heated concave stones and they became our fireworks across the ocean in the evenings. The whole village would know that we were home safely as they would see each of us the students heading down to the rivers or the sea for the evening swims. It was such a wonderful time in the eighties. There was also no phone technology. Life was very different then.
Sundays were particularly hard for me after spending the weekend with my parents. My mother always cooked a meal for me and would package it up in my favourite creamy cast iron pot. I would sob so hard come 3pm. It would take a couple of hours walk along the beach, climbing through the big rocks with my pack bag along with the other school children. We would pass through other villages on the way. I would quitely sob behind the big kids through these villages too. It was tough. At times, when we got so tired of climbing the hills, we would try and swim across the big rocks when the high tides are in. Its about taking the short cuts so we don’t have to climb hills in the dark. Little girls like me would swim across in their undies. I would always take my little dress off to swim across the large boulders. Often I was terrified of seeing the large seaweeds on the ocean floor waving as I swam across with my bag and iron pot on my head. Sometimes, I would piggyback onto a larger girl. Other times, I would give my bag to another bigger boy who could carry it for me so I can swim across safely. I would always feel so sick arriving at my aunt Janice and my grandmother. I suffered from separation anxiety too much.
One sunday evening, I ran away from my aunt Janice and grandmother. I missed my parents too much that I made it all the way back to my parents. By the time I got home, I was terrified of the dark. I was sobbing quietly in the dark. My father found me sobbing outside our house.
Through my tears, I begged him not to let me go back to school! I especially did not want to go and live with my aunt Janice and Granny. I missed my mama and papa too much. I never wanted to go anywhere. Not ever. I pleaded my case to stay home and be a village girl. Life was better that way being a village girl.
My father did not listen (These days I am grateful for his perserverance). He wanted me to go to school. The next day he returned me to aunt Janice and Granny. I have never forgiven him since!
My Granny was still my best friend on sundays. She would listen to Radio Vanuatu in the mornings for a childrens story on the segment. Then she would settle me in the evenings with those entertaining, lessons to be learnt stories. I remembered lying across from her in my little mosquito dome and she would tell me stories to help me settle.
But my favourite story still rings out loud-Nitivenbetep. It will be a story that will be ingrained in me forever. It is my tribal story. It has become so real to me. It has really impacted on how I am today. It is one story that I will never forget. Not Ever.
My Granny saved me.
It has truly made me overcome my separation anxiety during my primary school years as a little girl. It nurtured my emotional well being. It comforted me during some very tough years being away from my parents. It was healing. It was connecting. It was meaningful. It was legendary. It was distracting.
It was able to make me believe in another story, just like Mr Pip in Llyod Jones famous book set in Bougainville. It was positively changing. My imagination roared into life.
One day, I hope to capture it by writing it into a little childrens book.
It would be a legacy.