Waiting in the tiny Longana airport on the island of Ambae, I look up and find a boy staring. Not just at me, but at all four of us white people reading, each with a different delivery device: Kindle, book, magazine, smart phone.
Everyone around us is talking, laughing, playing with kids.
It was one of the most iconic, don’t-fit-in moments of our visit.
I spend a lot of time reading and writing. Here we were in a place where people hardly read at all.
Vanuatu is the most linguistically diverse country in the world—over 100 languages, spread over the 80+ islands—thanks to 3,000 years as a trading center. Many people speak three or more languages: Bislama, the pidgin everyone speaks; a local language; and English and/or French.
Access to books in any of those languages is rare.
It’s not that literacy isn’t valued. It’s pretty clear to everyone that in order to deal with developers, tourists, climate change, inter-island disputes, strengthen the economy without destroying the ecosystem—literacy will be key.
It’s a challenge though. Many schools are remote, in open-air buildings, in a high-humidity climate. Books wear out quickly.
In 2014, a Peace Corps volunteer issued a plea to help start a library at a school on Ambae:
The effort succeeded. Pretty cool. Here it is:
Vanuatuans’ formal education is often cut short. Families can’t afford the school fees, or kids get into trouble, or families need help at home.
While books are rare, media is less so.
People watch movies, shared via thumb drives. Many have cell phones and kids play video games.
Author/blogger Audrey Kalman recently lamented that westerners’ love affair with the internet has shortened our attention spans, now shorter than goldfish (8 seconds). Many editors and writing coaches recommend catering to distractible audiences with “breathless pacing.” Does this signal the end of long, slow tales?
Audrey’s post is pretty funny—worth a visit.
I don’t think Vanuatuans have short attention spans, though. Kids are outside all the time.
And anyone with the patience to cook a traditional a meal,
Grow, harvest, butcher and sell their own food,
… has an attention span longer than eight seconds.
I set my magazine aside and smiled at the boy in the airport. He broke into a huge grin. Then, as happened so often with kids there, we started in on one of those goofy exchanges between kids and adults willing to play along. He ran away, peeked from behind a corner, made faces, laughed.
Vanuatu needs to boost literacy.
And sometimes we need to set ours aside.
For photos and photos essays on this week’s WordPress challenge: Opposites