This was another pick from Thomas Slone’s storeroom at Masalai Press in California. Charting Sethy John Regenvanu’s memories of his early life, his experience of being the first boy from Uripiv island to go away to school, his work towards his country’s declaration of independence in 1980 and his time as a minister in its new government, Laef Blong Mi (or My Life) documents a key period in Vanuatu’s history. It weaves together political events and Regenvanu’s own story, with the help of the author’s photographs, to reveal the personal and social impact of gaining sovereignty and what it means to build a nation from the ground up.
The narrative brims with cultural insights, particularly in the early sections. From learning the lost art of fishing with black sea slugs to discovering the rituals of a Vanuatuan circumcision ceremony, the reader encounters a whole host of information about traditional life on the islands. Despite having a total population of fewer than 250,000 people, the archipelago is divided into a series of communities that differ enormously from one another – so much so that when Regenvanu went away to school on mainland Efate he was the only pupil there who spoke his language.
However, perhaps most striking of all is the revelation that Regenvanu, having no official birth date and finding himself obliged to ‘pinpoint when [he] had begun’ by the Franco-British colonial administration, plumped for the date 1 April 1945, both from a sense of lightheartedness – because this is the Western April Fools’ Day – and because this is the day the UN was founded.
This sense of the interconnectedness of his own story with national and international events is a theme throughout the book. From a young age, as the possibility of independence beckoned, Regenvanu felt the desire to use his education to help lead his compatriots ‘out of our former status of being non-persons in our own land to becoming proud citizens of the new nation of the independent Republic of Vanuatu’. He writes passionately about his belief in the state and its potential, as well as the importance of holding to the ‘spirit of struggle and unity of purpose’ that fired the early years.
Nevertheless, Regenvanu, who is also a church minister, is clear-eyed about the challenges the new nation faced. Contending with everything from black magic practised by opponents to a widespread lack of self-belief engendered by decades of colonialism – not to mention the interference of the occasional American millionaire set on using his wealth to create his own ‘Utopian dream’ from the fragile, new nation – Regenvanu likens his task in some of the ministerial posts he held to ‘trying to force the negative and positive ends of an electric pole together’. Sometimes this was almost literally the case, as when Regenvanu found himself in a tug of war with the representative of a rebel faction, who was trying to hoist an illegal flag in the midst of an attempted coup.
Inevitably for an autobiography Regenvanu’s views are partial and shaped by his political standpoint and beliefs. Some of the later chapters also get a little too caught up in technicalities that clearly still rankle for the writer but mean little to a reader at this remove of time and distance.
However it is hard not to be impressed by Regenvanu’s integrity and evident desire to work for the good of his people and nation. Coming from a country where politics can often seem to be more about the advancement of personal agendas and careers than about effecting meaningful change, it was humbling to read the words of someone who saw his time in power as a chance to improve the lives of his compatriots. His story is a powerful reminder of what aspiration, education and determination can achieve.
Laef Blong Mi: From village to nation by Sethy John Regenvanu (Institute of Pacific Studies and Emalus Campus, University of the South Pacific, 2004)