At 16, I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps. When I was 25, my partner and I got on a plane that took us from Minneapolis to Port Vila, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. We spent two years living in a bamboo hut on the tropical island of Pentecost. We loved it so much that we extended our service for another year in Port Vila, the capital city. Jason, my partner, worked in technology. I worked in a health program.
One phrase that came up over and over in Vanuatu is storian hemi laef blo yumi, which roughly translates to “chatting is our lives.” Storian covers everything from casual greetings to deep discussions of philosophy. The phrase is an acknowledgement that communication and relationships are the lifeblood of the culture.
Vanuatu has one of the highest language densities in the world, although some of it became extinct after British and French colonists engaged in slave-trading with Australia. The country gained its independence 40 years ago (July 30, 1980). There are still more than 100 languages spoken among a population of 250,000.
There were three primary languages in my village: Apma, the language of home; French, the language of school and church; and Bislama, which was created by colonizers to communicate with those living on the island. I had only been trained in Bislama, which meant most conversations were in languages I did not know well.
So, to understand more of the language, I learned to storian — to talk about everything and nothing for hours. Through those hours of storian, I also became a part of my village.
As someone who grew up in the U.S., I was encultured to believe in the individual above all and that one person can change the world. Living and working in Vanuatu made me re-consider both of those assumptions. By myself, I was not going to make any difference.
I began to question the value of the individual to the community instead of the other way around.
I have been back in the U.S. for seven years. When George Floyd was murdered, his death sparked global protests about the root of racism in our cultures.
My neighbors were in the thick of protests. The community organized. We got phone numbers and emails and connected online. We made bucket brigades for fires and set up rotating watches along each block. I sat on the corner until 4am with neighbors I had never met until that week.
When the ash settled and the glass on Lake Street was swept up, my mother and I decided we needed to maintain these new connections. We invited neighbors on the block and across the alley to our front yard for socially distanced cookies and tea. We discussed the previous few weeks. We caught up about who was still employed and who wasn’t. We shared resources for who to call instead of the police.
We engaged in the art of storian. As people drifted back to their homes, our community felt a little tighter — a little more caring. Relationships were deeper. This is the effect of storian.
When I left Vanuatu, I left behind family and friends. I left behind a two-room hut with a thatch roof and a gate that didn’t keep the cows out. I left behind a home.
Returning to the U.S. meant I was again surrounded by a culture of individuals first and community second. I felt lost amid the selfishness that I had grown up in.
Although many things have changed since I returned to Minnesota, my worldview is still influenced by Vanuatu. By myself, I won’t change the course of history. But I can participate as storian brings people together.
In community, I believe we can bend the arc of history toward justice.
Pentecost was hit on April 6 by Tropical Cyclone Harold. The island suffered major damage, including the mass destruction of houses and the leveling of its gardens. At presstime, Vanuatu had no cases of COVID-19. To maintain this, they have locked down their borders and refused international aid workers. If you are able to help the people of Vanuatu recover, please visit Tanbokproject.org to learn more, or donate to Red Cross Vanuatu.