Report from Tuvalu
Personal Reflections John French
On this somewhat battered Air Marshall turbo prop we arrived in Tuvalu. The sun was beating down from a clear blue sky and waves of heated air wafted up from the roasting concrete. To say we suffered from culture shock would be a grave understatement.
We crossed the tarmac and were greeted by David, secretary of the education department. David escorted us to the hotel and saw to it that we were taken care of and hung around until we were settled in. The hotel rooms were clean and well situated with a view over the lagoon and the staff were happily service minded and went out of their way to see that we got all that we needed. The only thing that was not to our liking was that all the rooms are infested with giant cockroaches and a myriad of other insects.
Yasha (my wife’s child) quickly became one of the local kids and was out from morning to night swimming and making toy boats from discarded Coca-Cola cans. Carina and myself spent the next three days wandering around Funafuti, making friends and examining the sounds and sights of this exotic island. In retrospect one can say that these were days of innocence and wonder for us, we spent hours talking to the shell sellers, handcrafters, fishermen and government officials. We went and looked in at the post-office, the telecom centre (one telephone hanging on the wall), the airport lounge, the borrow pits, and all else there was to see.
Our three days on Funafuti were soon to an end and it was time to take the
boat (The Nivaga) to Viatupu and begin working for a living. We left in a cloud of euphoria. We had made new friends and seen the happiness that for us in Europe is just a lost dream. We had seen proof that poverty is not synonymous with misery. We were too new on the islands and too enchanted to feel the underlying tensions that may one day split this culture into combating factions.
We boarded the Nivaga and set sail across the endless Pacific Ocean followed by flying fish, dolphins and an occasional whale. The Nivaga was chock-a-block with kids on their way back to school, islanders with chickens and pigs, and young inexperienced sailor boys from the naval school on Funafuti. We were offered a cabin, but one look at the peeling walls, dirty beds and the cockroaches was enough to put us off of the luxury treatment. Though they are an island people almost all the passengers and sailors on the boat were sea sick and soon the smell of the filthy decks, the overflowing toilets and the sick passengers was unbearable. The only way to stay anywhere near sane was to spend as much time as possible on the open deck away from the suffering crowds. After 81/2 hours we arrived at Viatupu and were loaded into a tiny boat and shuttled through the reef to the island proper.
The sight of Vaitupu was truly amazing, we were overwhelmed by Funafuti but at least there were some things we could easily relate to, the hotel, the stores, the bank, the post-office. Vaitupu was the end of the world as we know it. At first glance it seemed to consist of nothing but a coral reef covered with palm trees bowing in the wind. As we neared the quay we noticed that the islanders had gathered en masse to greet the Nivaga, their lifeline and their communication between the islands.
After being greeted by the assembled villagers we loaded our belongings onto a tractor wagon and made away to the school. So many impressions, so jumbled and confused. Dirty unkempt classrooms, broken glass, wonderful beaches, beautiful young people full of joy and respect, howling packs of wild dogs, half completed buildings, sand, salt, coral, constant singing, rats, water shortage, gas shortage, no musical instruments, cockroaches, geckos, hardly any birds, mosquitoes, dolphins, the lagoon, fish of every size and colour known to man, coconuts, corned beef cans, how to make sense of ít all ?
We were quartered in the best house on the island because we were a family and we did our best to settle in. Two days of cleaning the house (it was truly disgusting) then two days of acclimatisation and it was time to meet the headmaster of the school. Namaliki is not just the chief of the school he is also an Aliki (tribal leader) so it was quite an experience. He clutched his laptop computer under his enormous arm and welcomed me in a resounding voice that boomed from his gigantic chest. After the welcome speech I was issued with two pens, one black (it didn’t work) and one red and then shown around the school.
After being shown around I returned to the house and prepared myself as best I could for the start of school the following day. No one had given me any advice or any pointers to help me get ready so I was really in the dark.
3. The School.
The school is run on the lines of a 1950’s English boarding school, the students are shipped from their home islands to live in barracks and have all of their belongings in travelling cases stashed beneath their bunks. Here they live (over 600 of them) a term at a time, segregated by sex and by house (4 teams called houses) on an island that one can walk around in about an hour. They are awoken at 6:30 every morning and lights out is at 21:30 every evening except Saturday. The study regime is tough and only 5-10 each year go on to further studies. The rest return to their islands to become fishermen or fishermen’s wives. First thing every morning the bell (an empty gas tank beaten by the bell boy) rings and all of the kids have to wash and then go to church services in the Maniapa (meeting house), lessons begin at 7:30. until lunch at 12:00 and then from 12:30 until 17:00. After lessons there is homework and washing clothes cleaning up the school compounds and the beaches and extra jobs for those that are under punishment.
The classes are on average 30 students except when they are doubled and then one has the unenviable job of trying to teach 60-65 students in a small room without enough chairs or tables or books. The saving grace of this system is that there is no violence and the students have a great respect and love for their teachers. No job can give the satisfaction that can compare with teaching these children that love to learn just for the sake of learning. The teachers work 12-18 hours a day preparing lessons, teaching both their own subjects and those that do not have qualified teachers, watching over the evening work parties, attending the sing alongs, and marking the books of 8-10 classes, besides the extra duties involved in being a guru and father substitute for ones own class and helping students with their projects. On top of this one has to attend the bi-weekly teachers meetings and any extra that are called to take care of any special circumstances that may arise during the week.
This is a touching and speaking culture so one is followed everywhere by students who reach out and touch one constantly and the noise level in the class rooms can rise to unprecedented levels if one is not careful. One of the most difficult cultural adjustments one must make is their idea of truth. Truth to the Tuvaluan is what makes you happy. If you are longing for the Nivaga to arrive they will tell you that it has arrived because that will make you happy. Added to this is their well developed mythical reality in which the world is populated not only by all the angels and spirits of Christianity but also by the giants and spirits of traditional Polynesian culture. These are not easy adjustments to make for Europeans as my ex-wife found out. For myself I am quite willing to believe in anything they desire, for as Wittgenstein pointed out, truth is for the public to decide and in Tuvalu the Tuvaluans are the public.
Unfortunately the students, and for that matter the islanders as a whole, are beginning to suffer from undernourishment and several diseases caused by the influx of sub quality foodstuffs from Europe, Fiji and Australia which are replacing the traditional eating habits. The students eat corned beef several times a week and when they eat fish it is mainly tinned even though they live on an island. Luckily enough these foods are often combined with coconut which is a high quality dietary staple.
It is a sad fact of Tuvalian life that the colonialism now practised there is of the economic and cultural type. They are literally drowning in a flood of unneeded, unwanted and generally harmful products and so called services from countries that see no further than their own desire to exploit the tuna rich ocean and/or foist some stupid and inappropriate political and cultural ideas upon an ideologically defenceless nation. They are being buried in an ever growing mountain of cans and bottles and other rubbish because they have no method of reclaiming or reusing any of it, and by the same token they have been colonialised mentally by Christianity, capitalism and democracy while their own Polynesian roots recede ever further into the mists of forgetfulness. My attempts to incite the students to throw off the yoke of inappropriate western thought patterns and regain their cultural heritage were met with hostility from other teachers, or in the best case, a total inability to understand what I meant.
As it was anyway my duty to teach English (and economics) I did the best I could with the resources at my disposal. I found that not only was there a shortage of the the most fundamental teaching tools (pencils, books, chalk, chairs, tables, rooms) but the methods employed and the content of the lessons was sadly deficient. They were (and are) being taught, with little or no success, skills that upper class schools in England deemed necessary in the 1940’s and 50’s. How to behave and order complex meals in expensive restaurants, methods of address to dignitaries and royalty, archaic phrases that have long since changed or lost their meaning. It is my belief that the basic reason for learning a language is to communicate and to this end it is important that the kids learn the style and content of English today. The result of the methods employed to date were that the students had a language almost devoid of adverbs and adjectives and consequently a sorely limited range of expression.
They also lack the fundamental conceptual resources that any child using ESL (English as a Second Language) in any other part of the world is equipped with. An example is that they have never heard any blues music and in fact have never heard OF the blues. They do not know anything about trains, trolleys, skiing, skateboards, inlines etc etc. the list is endless. They have no television (only videos) and so are cut off from the possibility of hearing everyday language as it grows and changes. This means that the duties of the teaching staff are enormous and because they don’t understand this and seldom talk to the kids outside of the teaching environment they are showing a nonchalance in their teaching skills.
The Polynesians are a family based culture and the kids must be treated in a familiar way, they do not understand the military style and attitudes of the staff and tend to believe that Palagi’s (white people) lack the most basic social skills. Their attempts to copy this form of social behaviour leads to frustration, misunderstanding and, in the end, will lead to violence. Penalism is already an integral part of this school system and even though it goes completely against the grain for Polynesians it has been adopted from the archaic English system. There seems to be a lack of understanding of the basic principal that one can only teach as one learns and to teach worn-out English ways while suppressing the cultural heritage of the islanders is counter productive. One must do all one can to be integrated into the society of Tuvalu and at the same time try to increase the communicative talents of the children in ones care.
4. Daily life.
Here in the Pacific the days begin early, the sun rises at about 6:00 every morning and by 6:15 is a blazing ball in the sky. The earliest rising students gather on the beach outside my house and begin morning exercises before going to wash. The noise is beyond belief, they shout, sing and whistle with an amazing gusto. They run up and down the beach oblivious to the burning sun, in and out of the waves in a celebration of life. From the beach to the washing area then to the Maniapa, from there to the classroom. English, mathematics, economics, handicrafts, science, social science, the days are full of lessons from sun-up to sun-down. To get to the class rooms they must walk through building sites and across compounds strewn with glass that has blown out of the slats on the class room windows.
Each lesson begins with a roll call and those that are late or do not attend are put on fatigue and must do extra work in the evenings such as cleaning the latrines or picking up rubbish from the compounds. The level of knowledge amongst the students varies to an enormous degree and this makes teaching very tiring, one must help the weakest and at the same time encourage the strongest without increasing the already obvious differences. For most of the kids this is the only time in their lives they will get away from home and live in a different environment for a while and it behoves the teacher to see that it is a memory for life in a positive sense. There are rarely enough teaching aids to go round so group work becomes a necessity as does a huge dose of humour. The absurdities of the system must be laughed at to preserve ones own sanity. To give an example: Each student is issued with one pencil each term and one exercise book for each subject, these books can be replaced when they are full. If they are lost or stolen (the concept of theft is not the same for Tuvaluans as it is for Europeans) then they are not replaced and many students do not even have an exercise book or a pencil a lot of the time. When I attempted to solve this problem by buying pencils and exercise books from the Fusi (the Co-op) and giving them to my students I was told by one of the other teachers that I was "undermining the disciplinary roots of the system and encouraging the kids in laziness and nonchalance". When I invited the kids into my home and started a choir I was told that it would detract from the basic seriousness of their education. Here we clearly see that the idea of communication and education for the students is a secondary consideration after the career of the teachers (working in an underdeveloped country is a merit) and the cultural imperialism of the nations that send volunteers. This trend must be broken and the first step is to understand that the Tuvauans have a totally different conceptual framework from Europeans, they have never seen a hill, their eyesight and their mental stretch is not confined by buildings, wherever one looks one sees the sea and the horizon. There is nowhere to go and no limit to their sight. This makes for a non-linear thought structure which can be a great asset for the teacher if it not combated but instead used to illustrate examples and at the same time to instruct in cultural differences.
Most of the organisations, teachers and other volunteers in Tuvalu take for granted at an unconscious level that they are equipped with a superior conceptual understanding of ‘reality’, that their moral code is worthy of export, that the European culture is the highest reached by man, and that linear thinking is more constructive than non-linear. It is of weight to realise that Tuvaluans cannot change their social group and must make the best of the world around them. One cannot just walk away. This means that they are open minded and tolerant of others and always willing to help anyone that needs it. Egoism is almost unknown, as is greed, violence, rape and thievery. With the influx of self centred nations, organisations and volunteers this is changing for the worse.
For the teacher (no matter which subject) it is vital to help the Tuvaluans preserve their own values and cultural reality while, at the same time, educating them in the basic tenets of the taught subjects without filling the learning experience with morality and cultural superiority. My aim is to educate the kids in the communicative use of English as it is spoken and growing in today’s world, in contrast to the attitudes of my fellow teachers I want the average kid to be able to use the language, not just see that the more gifted get a pass to further education and, in so doing, reflect glory on me and further my career.
At the moment the school days are stressful for both the teacher and the students they run from lesson to lesson in a never ending round of mixed subjects, lost books, overcrowding and heat. To lose a pencil is to lose the possibility of making notes or completing a project, marks decrease and possibilities are reduced. I believe that they must return to their own attitude of "it will be OK" "we will make it work" and combine this with a learning experience based as much upon joy and laughter as their daily lives are.
The days fly by until one morning we hear on the radio that a hurricane is heading our way. Suddenly the whole style of Viatupu changes, everybody watches the sky in taut anticipation, the rains are so hard that school is put off and we all stay indoors waiting for the storm to arrive. When it arrives it arrives with a vengeance, trees are uprooted, glass slats fly through the air threatening to decapitate anyone in their path and one of the dorms is ripped from its foundations and thrown into the boiling sea. For two and a half days the storm rages and we cower in the house while stones, coconuts, trees, roofs, glass and clothes rage past the windows. The aftermath is horrifying to behold the whole of the school area looks as if it has been bombed and reduced to rubble.
The Tuvaluans clean up the mess, happy that this time there were no casualties, and pretty soon we return to normal. Teaching resumes and the beating sun and drizzling rains return. Later in the term two of the senior boys have been sold beer by a Palagi in the village and have got drunk. They are caught by the duty teacher and a furious round of discussions begin in the teachers pavilion. These are two of the top students and, according to me, intelligence is incomplete without a touch of rebellion. The problem is complex, to expel them will reduce the chances of the school enhancing it’s reputation by sending them to Fiji for further studies. On the other side there are hysterical outcries of spreading disregard for discipline and demands that these boys be made an example of. Finally a decision is made, the boys will be publicly beaten with a rod and expelled, they are humiliated in front of their peers and their lives irrevocably changed for the worse. After years of study they are cast back to their homes in disgrace with no chance of redemption. They are bitter and confused, the Palagi brings alcohol to their islands, the Palagi makes the rules, they behave as the Palagi and suffer degradation as a result. These boys have lost their faith.
Report from Tuvalu
Motufoua Secondary School
The Teaching Staff.
1. Tools and aids in teaching.
The first thing one notices after arrival and settling in, is that the head-master of the school owns a lap-top computer which never leaves his side. This computer is a gift from an organisation to an Aliki (tribal chief) and although representatives from the organisation talk about him sharing it with the school and "forcing him into line", this just shows how little they understand Tuvaluan culture. One must be absolutely clear when presenting articles of worth to Tuvaluans. This computer is not a computer, it’s a symbol denoting the Aliki’s position vis-à-vis the Palagi, to change the rules would render him incapable of doing his job in the school and further the idea that Palagi’s have no concept of civilised behaviour.
The school computer is a 386 that has a disc unit that does not work and a printer that does not work. When I went to Funafuti to get spare parts so that I could repair it, I was told that the school was number 27 on the spare parts list and that the wait would be about 18 months. This means that all reports, project descriptions, letters, flyers, information sheets etc. must be written by hand, with the result that they either do not get written or the teachers have to spend many hours writing and designing by hand when they could be doing more constructive work. This problem could have been avoided if the computer room had been equipped with a simple air-conditioning unit to keep the sand and salt out of the machinery.
It took three months for me to get a diary so that I could annotate my lessons and plan my days. The school administration seemed to think that two pens (only one in working order) and an old exercise book would be enough for the everyday planning of my work load. The beaurocracy is deep rooted in the traditions of Europe but multiplied by the fact that the Tuvaluans have moved so far from their own culture that they have copied the rigidity and have not yet seen, as we have in Europe, that it does not work. To replace a deficient pen is two weeks work and a mountain of forms to fill in.
The library is a mish-mash of old discarded books left behind by previous volunteers, outdated text books and rotting magazines. Many of the books are utterly beyond the horizon of the students ‘The Intellectual Roots of Marxist Economic Thinking’ and just as many are an insult to their capabilities ‘The Peek a Boo Flower Book’. To find books that are useful is a possibility but usually there is only one copy and this makes it impossible to use the book for teaching purposes unless one has time to sit and copy the relevant sections 60 times by hand.
The basic need of this school are not a great flood of machines or equipment, but a well thought out strategy to supply fundamental tools of time saving and quality teaching and a method of combining the best of western culture with the needs and wants of the Tuvaluans.
2. The Students Situation.
The students lack the most elementary requirements of learning. They are issued with one pencil per term and one exercise book per subject, when the pencil is worn out they can be issued with another and when the exercise book is full the same applies. Quite often there are books and pencils in the staff room stores but the rules are so rigid that they seldom come to the advantage of the students.
The text books used in teaching are old fashioned and old, often they are stories written with little or no literary merit and far from the needs of a person who needs a vocabulary to communicate in the modern world. Added to this is the problem of water, salt and sand, most of the books are in a deplorable condition and are missing covers and/or pages. It is very difficult to capture the imagination of a child when the standard of literature one uses for teaching is of such a low quality that even reading it aloud pains the sensibilities.
The text books concerning grammar, mathematics and economics are pedagogically pathetic and totally devoid of humour and lack interesting examples that could stimulate the interest of the students. A great deal of time is spent by the more ambitious teachers inventing examples, writing stories and digging through the library to find ways of stimulating the students. This of course adds to their burden of work and, as usual, the ambitious and concerned teacher risks being burned out and leaving the onus of teaching on his lazy and self serving colleges to the detriment of the children.
In the more practical subjects the deficit is just as marked, the science labs are beneath criticism as are the handicraft workshops. To see students attempting to do the most rudimentary experiments, or to make a simple utensils in handicrafts without even the lowliest of tools or equipment is shameful and should be remedied without fail.
3. Culture and attitudes.
Motufoua Secondary School on Viatupu island is home (for most of the year) to upwards of 600 students between the ages of 13 and 21, the students are segregated by sex c:a 350 are girls, and by house. There are 4 houses in the school, Toumu, Taui, Nasali and Tolipi and they are in competition with each other. The competition is based upon a point system and the whole of the students school life is coloured by a hunt for pseudo pondus for themselves and their house by the gathering of points. This form of competition is in direct contrast to the traditions of Tuvaluan life where co-operation is the key to existence, and until recently there was not even the concept of organised sport. Plus points are awarded for good behaviour and minus points for bad. As the school is run on the archaic principals and value systems of English boarding schools this means that the Tuvaluan student must radically change their modes and patterns of behaviour to conform to a cultural pattern imposed upon them by outside forces. This often leads to traumatic experiences during the adjustment period (3 to 6 months) and sows a seed of confusion in the mind of these young children.
Because of the chronic lack of pencils and exercise books the loss of one or the other means not only a drop in the ability of the student to follow the lessons but also minus points as a result. This in turn means that one has injured ones house and consequently one must suffer the scorn of ones peers, and often penalistic punishment at their hands as well. The students are forced to march to and from the dining room and the class rooms and this is also a chance to gain or lose points. In many ways the school is a parody of ’Tom Browns Schooldays’.
As with most educational systems the students at Motufoua have their love of learning critically hampered not only by lack of learning aids and utensils (I’ll come to that later) but by a lack of understanding of their needs. Most of the teachers are Palagi and fall without question into the regime of para-military discipline imposed upon these innocent souls, and the so called ’native’ teachers are the first to experience power without the sanction of the society and so misuse it.
Another of the problems is that the teaching methods are far behind the times. The main tool for teachers is still the blackboard and just as old fashioned is the mental attitude of the teachers themselves. My use of the electric guitar and stereo record player as teaching aids was loved by the students but looked on as dangerously innovative by the teachers. The main thrust of the teaching is towards the more talented students to the cost of the average and the communicative realities of language. This is a strange attitude when one considers that the amount of students that qualify for further education is around 1%. Many of the staff discussions focus upon ways to improve this statistic and very few upon how to increase the basic skills of the average student to improve their communicative abilities.
In summation, the children are expected to learn a range of subjects from an elementary to a fairly high level in an environment of para-military penalism where their own culture is devalued or ignored in favour of a culture that they will almost certainly never meet on it’s own terms. Their needs are largely ignored in a situation full of stress and competition that is in direct contrast to their own background.
The low quality of the buildings, the beurocracy, insufficient books and tools for the students, combined with the lack of pedagogic direction, archaic attitudes and careerism of the teachers and political leaders, are major stumbling blocks in the way of improving the general competence of the majority of students.
4. Some Suggestions for Improvement.
It is my contention that a strategic plan must be developed with the needs of the students as it’s guiding principle. This means that there must be a concentrated effort to see that the teachers have the possibility to fulfil their administrative chores with as much speed and as little hassle as possible to increase the time that they can spend in teaching and familiarising themselves with the students. To this end it is imperative that the teachers sent from Sweden have at least a basic idea of the cultural background and history of Polynesian thought as well as a pedagogic direction. It is totally counter productive to send teachers who are only interested in using the Tuvaluan experience as a stepping stone for the furtherance of their own careers. They must be open minded and willing to stand up against the conservatism of the ‘native’ teachers as well as the Australians, New Zealanders and British. To pacifically accept the imperialistically imposed penalism of the present system will just not do!
There must be an effort made to see that the students are supplied with the fundamental tools needed to pursue their education. The restrictions on exercise books and pencils must be done away with and there must be a vast improvement in the quality and quantity of text books and other learning aids. A course in cultural geography should be instituted to give the students a wider knowledge of the outside world and to anchor the language in reality.
On a more practical level certain simple tactical moves could be initiated to alleviate many of the negative currents at work in the school. The cost would be little in comparison to the results and the improvements would be seen almost at once. A sum of money should be set aside for the buying of new text books, a slide projector and a slide library, learning aids (see Montasori, Waldorf et.al.), a computer to improve the teacher’s productivity and a specific amount could be deposited with the Fusi earmarked for each student to use for the buying of pencils, exercise books, pencil sharpeners, erasers etc.
Suggested aids and approximate prices:
Text books 10,000
Slide projector and slides 5,000
Diverse learning aids 10,000
Students grants 20,000
The Tuvaluans have a three thousand year old oral history that is liberally mixed with myths and legends and it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction, mainly because for the Tuvaluans themselves this distinction is meaningless. The frozen (written, linear) history of Tuvalu begins with the slave trade that flourished in the early and mid 1800s. Tuvalu, or as it was then known, the Ellice or Lagoon Islands, was a slaving post in the 1820s and was decimated by Palagi diseases between 1850 and 1875, during which time the population dropped from 20,000 to 3,000. In 1877 the islands were taken under British jurisdiction and administered from Fiji. In 1916 they were incorporated into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and ruled as a British colony.
In 1923 the first school was founded on Vaitupu by Kennedy who was a brilliant innovator and administrator but unfortunately also a militaristic sadist who beat his students with a cricket bat. The influence of Kennedy can still be felt in the running of Motufoua Secondary School to this day. During World War II the United States stationed troops on Tuvalu and built an airstrip for their bombers to land and take off from. This airstrip has developed into the grossly oversized Funafuti International Airport.
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were granted self government in 1972, independence from Britain in 1976 and the Ellice Islands split from the Gilberts (Kiribati) and became Tuvalu in 1978. Tuvalu is the second smallest sovereign state in the world (Nauru is smaller) with its 26sq km land mass. A treaty of friendship was signed with the USA in 1983 and a referendum held in 1986 rejected the idea of becoming a republic and retained their status as a constitutional monarchy under Elizabeth II of England
2. Immediate Problems
Tuvalu imports almost everything they need including building materials, cars, motor-cycles, bicycles, oil, petrol, all kinds of minerals and metals, glass, machine parts, videos, radios, computers, enormous quantities of soft drinks, beer, wine and spirits in bottles and cans and also canned food and fish. There is no organised refuse collection, disposal or recycling so the rubbish is strewn over the islands, thrown into borrow pits (pits dug by the US forces in WW II and never filled in) or into the sea. The rubbish, cans and bottles strewn about the islands is causing a catastrophic rise in the amount of infected cuts that the medical staff have to take care of as well as an increase in insect bites and fires. Children are in particular danger from this rubbish as they spend much of their time building toy boats from cans and suffer many cuts on their hands, and are not too careful about where they put their feet so they often tread on glass slivers and metal fragments.
One of the bars that adjoins the airstrip has covered an area as big as a football field with discarded beer cans and the pile is growing continually. The borrow pits are a grave danger to the health of the Tuvaluan people, as they fill with stagnant water and discarded trash they become breeding grounds for all kinds of insects as well as a home for rats. They are also the favourite meeting places for the packs of wild dogs that roam the islands.
As the amount of living space decreases on Funafuti more and more Tuvaluans build their homes near, or even on top of the borrow pits, increasing still more the risk of disease. Of primary concern here is that the Tuvaluans do not realise the dangers that lurk in these pits, (children often play in them) because they have lived for three thousand years in a situation where a thrown away article disappeared almost at once. In their culture everything was organic.
They are now being brutally used by their neighbours as a dumping ground for sub-standard food stuffs packed in cans made of metals no longer allowed in their own countries. To give some idea of the enormity of this problem, consider the school on Vaitupu, with a student body of around 600 and a staff of maybe 50 they eat corned beef on average three times a week. This corned beef is delivered in small (250 gram) tins, approximately one can per person, this amounts to somewhere in the region of 100,000 cans a year on one island with no refuse collection. Add to this cans of mackerel, beans and other foodstuffs, all the wrappings of articles purchased from the Fusi, (co-op) discarded clothes, machine parts, refuse from building sites etc. and the problem assumes almost insoluble proportions. At the same time that the borrow pits fill there is a growing danger from the discarding of rubbish directly into the ocean. This is leading to an increase in diseased fish and a contamination of the seabed around Funafuti, a problem that is only now beginning to be understood by the Tuvaluans. As the Tuvaluans have a traditional diet of fish, and coconuts this can be one of their biggest problems in the future. The attempts by the developed nations to supply (with their own gains in mind) a series of modern buildings and wharves is also leading to serious problems, problems that have yet to be acknowledged or understood. The sand used in the making of cement and concrete is taken from the beaches and this man-made erosion is seriously reducing the protection from storms and tides and, at the same time, because of the reduction of space generally, is eating into the amount of arable land available to the Tuvaluans. Arable land is a very scarce commodity on Tuvalu and should be protected at all costs. This problem would seem to be insoluble as the Tuvaluans have been convinced that they are in need of modern buildings and an infra-structure development program, at the same time as their traditional values and life style are more and more pushed into the background. Many of these buildings that are constructed on lines laid out in the so-called developed countries could in fact be built upon traditional Tuvaluan models, thus giving more protection from storms and at the same time preserving traditional building skills. There are no immediate solutions to these problems and, by necessity, all suggestions for solutions are discussed from all sides by self interested factions, politicians pulling in different directions, volunteers and advisors who see all modernisation as progress and building companies that see enormous profits for themselves and the economic advantages to their countries by opening up the possibility of acquired fishing rights. There seems to be little or no interest in the improvement of the lives of the Tuvaluans themselves.
Social and Cultural
The introduction of alcohol, ready made cigarettes and sub-standard food products into the Tuvaluan society has created serious and dangerous currents in the area of social relations between both Tuvaluans and Palagis on one hand and between Tuvaluan and Tuvaluan on the other. The Tuvaluans that have increased their wealth by contacts with the Palagi spend a great deal of time in the bar of the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel drinking and socialising with the (comparatively) rich visitors while the majority of Tuvaluans are still living on a sustenance economy. This is creating, for the first time in Tuvalu, social unrest that is reflected in a growing bitterness towards the Palagi, and their own representatives. This is most marked in the youth that see the growing social differences separating them from unevenly distributed wealth.
One of the side effects of this uneven distribution is that many diseases, (diabetes, heart and lung diseases etc.) until recently unknown here, are growing at an alarming rate as the Tuvaluans reject their traditional foods in favour of canned imports. Simultaneously the traditional Tuvaluan values of altruism and family bonds are being eroded in favour of western values of egoism and conspicuous wealth.
The amount of violence at the hotel has, according to the staff, increased catastrophically in recent years as has the rate of crime (burglary and petty thievery) that a few years ago was totally unheard of. The Tuvaluans are in no way prepared for a western style society, they do not have the infra-structure to deal with the prostitution, crime and violence that are the natural results of the corrupting influences of the western world. While the elders of the society and the youth crave a return to traditional values they are fighting a losing battle (the status of women has improved hardly at all) many have accepted the western model as their own and become more rigid in their beliefs as their wealth increases. One of their most constant demands, cheered on and supported by the Japanese and Australians, is the opening up of Tuvalu for the tourist industry. Unfortunately they do not realise, or choose to ignore, the negative effects that the enormous influx of charter tourists would have on their society. Not only does the tourist industry lay the grounds for prostitution, crime, drugs, alcoholism and violence, it will also reduce the Tuvaluans to a nation in servitude to the rich Palagi and undermine their traditional pride and social structure even more. The sight of tourists from Japan, Australia and Europe invading the outer islands, demanding service and facilities and corrupting the young and innocent Tuvaluan population is a vision of horror to anyone with normally developed sensibilities
The opening up of Tuvalu to the tourist industry would also mean extensions to the hotel, bathing and swimming facilities, postage and banking etc. This would mean more buildings, more physical erosion of the islands and more erosion of the traditional culture. In conclusion one can see that the problems facing Tuvalu are closely combined with the wishes and desires of the nations that supply goods, expertise and volunteers and what they demand in return for their so-called assistance.
Tuvalu must now work out a clear strategy for the future if they are to have a chance of retaining any semblance of their traditional culture and mores.
Environment and Weather
The weather in Tuvalu is tropical, windy, hot, humid and rainy, the Islands are being slowly reduced in size by erosion and the effects of global warming. The hurricanes that are increasing yearly are a large factor in the widespread coral death that the islands are experiencing. Their close neighbour, Australia, has refused to reduce Co2 outputs and is actively contributing to the impending demise of the Tuvaluan islands. The weather is far from conducive to the reparation and maintenance of computers and other machinery, the sand, rain and wind are factors that hamper any attempts to keep a machine park of any size running efficiently. Another factor that hampers the smooth running of any form machinery is the fact that the Tuvaluans have never really had to maintain anything in their traditional society, they have always been surrounded by, and used, organic materials.
It is amazing to see that people whose own countries are suffering the results of unthinking technical development and rampant capitalistic greed are still willing to export to Tuvalu the attitudes, ideas and machinery that they presumably know will mainly cause misery and social unrest. This behaviour is at best blind, and at worst, a bottomless cynicism fired by self interest and nationalistic jingoism. There is as yet no end in sight of the cultural imperialism that has replaced the physical imperialism of bygone days. In many ways the new style is more dangerous, it is destroying the country and the culture and at the same time posing as generosity and social improvement. The Tuvaluans need to reassert their own cultural values and Polynesian roots at the same time as they are pushed into the future. Their attempt to increase the national wealth by setting up a deal with Asia Pacific Telecom for the use of unused off-shore telephone numbers seemed to be a good idea until it was realised that the numbers were being used for telephone sex.
This was morally abhorrent to the Tuvaluans and just goes to show to which depths western cultural imperialism is willing sink for a buck or two. Now there is furious bidding going on for the use of the Tuvaluan Top Level Internet Domain .tv. There could be a lot of wealth generated for Tuvalu by selling this domain suffix and it would be wealth unencumbered by ugly buildings or the influx of great quantities of machinery and foreign man-power, but there is no doubt in my mind that in the end the Tuvaluans will get the short end of the stick.
This tiny string of beautiful pearls in the Pacific ocean is turning into another rubbish tip for outmoded western products and ideas. It is our duty to do all we can to reverse this tide of events by seeing that the people we send, be they teachers, environmental scientists or doctors are equipped with a basically humanistic attitude and a desire for the Tuvaluans best interests.
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