World without books

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.

The National Public Library is in Port Vila, on Etafe, and has about 15,000 books.

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:

Library at Simon School, a joint project by school staff, village leaders and a Peace Corps volunteer.

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.

Bypassing age of print, straight to the digital age? Just like many in the U.S.

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,




Weave walls,


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


  • Such a gorgeous post, with some fabulous photographs, too. You inspired me to go on Wikipedia and learn more about this nation. Your daughter is doing volunteer work there still, right? I was surprised to hear of the shortage of English books, given how many publishers are swimming in overstocks. Have they asked for donations?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Donations of books in English make it there sometimes. It’s expensive to ship!

      There are very few books published in Bislama, the national pidgin, and virtually none published in the languages people actually speak. Hard to justify publishing books in languages understood by only a few hundred. Also makes for great debates about what languages should be focused on in schools.

      Our daughter has another year, and is considering signing on for an additional year after that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the kava.

      Thanks for the visit H. What are you reading? I’m on to black holes and Jung this month.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aha, I think I’d somewhat misunderstood the degree to which English was spoken on the islands, but still, I daresay the French publishers are equally burdened with overstocks. If I was after donations for the library I’d make the big publishers feel bad if they didn’t offer to pay the shipping, but I’m sure it’s easy for me to say these things and far more difficult to make them actualities. I do know that publishers regularly give overstocks to good causes, though, and they have overstocks of almost all the titles, not just the duff ones.

        Reading-wise, I’m spending far too much time on blogs! [No disrespect] I must say, as a retiree I do really appreciate the interactive nature of it all, and I find I’m introduced to subjects I’d not think of exploring of my own volition, which is great. You can hear the ‘but’ coming. Then, I go and read a book and realise how much I’m sacrificing to the blogosphere. You made me think the other day I should read some more Lisa Randall, for example. Anyway, I’m currently on a rather dated sociology book from the fifties by Irving Goffman called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, as well as translations of Lao Tzu by Thomas Merton and a book on the life of Ospreys which I won on a blog competition to name a newborn Osprey – I suggested Lady Cawcaw. Not terribly witty, and chosen, rather than on merit, by each suggestion being tied to a dog biscuit and the blog site owner’s pet dog selecting one biscuit. I’ve since asked if the dog can choose me some lottery numbers as I never win anything when I do so myself.

        Liked by 2 people

        • That is funny about the dog and Lady Cawcaw! You do know that spelled differently, Cawcaw means poop. Sorry. I took a big break from reading blogs, for the same reason, and here I am again. Thomas Merton did a translation of Lao Tzu? OK, won’t ask more questions, so we can get on with our day, but intriguing…

          Liked by 1 person

        • Aha, I see. ‘Shit’ remains the preferred term over here, though there are colourful alternatives in abundance. The book on ospreys is . . . full of pictures!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Call me a cynic but I’m not completely convinced as of yet that Brexit (naff neologism) will happen. British governments do fudges just as well as the EU does. Take the Euro. A few years ago, Gordon Brown, the then chancellor of the exchequer (treasury) said Britain would adopt the Euro instead of Sterling once certain conditions were met. He then set a list of terms, several of which were readily movable goalposts, thus giving him and the Labour Govt. the possibility of always claiming the terms had not been met fully. So, a pledge was made to adopt the Euro so as to keep our European allies happy, but in the full knowledge that it was totally disingenuous. I don’t see the Brexit vote as being primarily an economic issue, Julie, but more as acting as a catalyst for social unrest via the rise of the Far Right, which is happening across Europe, as you know, I’m sure.

          Liked by 1 person

        • On donating books to Vanuatu: a huge commitment. First, you need a village already looking for books. When it’s a foreigner’s idea, people seem to get passive. Collecting books in English or French is easy. Then there is shipping, and someone local or foreign to accompany the boxes because the mail system is not very reliable.

          Picture: you arrive in a jumbo jet in the capital with boxes of books. Now you have to get them onto a tiny, overcrowded plane (schedules not reliable) to whatever island is the destination; or book passage on a cargo ship. Then you arrive on your island, arrange transport on somebody’s pickup truck. If it’s a village close to the airport, no big deal, but if you want to get to a more remote village (where books are most needed), the roads are bad, so you end up hiking in and carrying. You hope that whoever wanted the books is ready with a clean, dry space, and prepared to follow up by getting people to read them, which might mean organizing lessons in English or French. A local chief or teacher at the helm, or a really, really motivated volunteer necessary.

          On Brexit: Thanks. That was my across-the-sea sense. A social protest with big, unanticipated economic consequences. I thought Hollande and Merkel would offer bribes for a revote, but that was off. Scotland and Ireland might arrange a delay. Or, as you say, the UK, through bureaucratic maneuvering.


        • Hmm, I see. Not so simple as getting donations. Am I being hopelessly naïve in asking about internet access on the islands? It sounds as if a donation of 100,000 eBook readers might be more practical – preloaded with educational material. Call Jeff Bezos? 🙄

          Liked by 1 person

  • What an incredible trip to a far removed country. I love shopping in farmers’ markets and the one you show is incredible. So much bounty from a small place. I’d never thought about the effect humidity has on books but it makes sense that they wouldn’t last.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Yes, I guess we can’t really say that they need to increase their literacy when people worldwide are always on their devices. Wonderful pictures!

    Liked by 3 people

  • Thank you so much for sharing your experience–I especially treasure the photos. It’s such a good reminder for those of us in societies that cannot wait even a few minutes for water to boil or food to cook or walk anywhere because it takes too long. Thanks also for linking to my blog post!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Look at that Market! Everything looks fresh and beautiful. And as always, your pictures help tell an amazing story. You’ve been privileged to enjoy some wonderful adventures Julia. Thank you for sharing them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel very, very lucky, especially to have gone as a guest to this island, which two years ago, I knew nothing about. Life is funny in what it gives, and what it holds back.


  • What a lovely reminder to be present – thank you. Nice interpretation of the theme. We do indeed seemingly live in an opposite world. Enjoy your weekend and the fourth. Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Thanks for sharing your observations and insights,Julie. If only it were easier to share books with Vanuatu – and for Vanuatuans to share more time laughing with children with us. Looking forward to hearing more about your time there when we see you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Book literacy is helpful for an island nation protecting a way of life and a spectacular ecosystem. Nature literacy is wisdom that island nation can help the world learn. Cheers and tangkiu!


  • nye’sss (nice ice): your portrayal/&/recog(ig)nition of the seeming dichotomy. good balance, good pixures, nice (did I say that awlreedee?) short story seemingly (to me) telling both sigheds of the ~

    Liked by 1 person

  • Thank you for the nice post about Vanuatu. The thing about Vanuatu is that we have other things that are more valuable to us than just reading. Its true literacy is poor in Vanuatu because we don’t have access to books but in remote islands and around Vanuatu, our books are everything that is around us. Everything that has life in it are our books. The trees, the wind, the seas, the weather, etc… are books to us. We learn from the nature around us better than ideas from people we do not know or have never met. Books are dead, there’s no life in them unless you read them. Nature is all life, even if you don’t read them, they are alive and have been for many years already, before books were actually made. I think that’s why here in Vanuatu, people believe more of nature than of books. So its true that Vanuatu might not have the resources to get more books from outside into the country, but life is full and all smiles in the country. (smol tinktink) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gud blo mitim yu! Thank you for this wonderful comment. Of course! One problem with blogging is that there is so little space to say so much. I completely agree and hoped to convey that very point. You made it much better than I did. Vanuatu is full of smiles, and has a lot to teach people like me who live indoors most of the time. It is critical for Vanuatuans to protect the natural wonders they live in. It will take education, but also lessons you’ve learned from nature to accomplish this.

      So much to say.

      I am working to condense stories from Vanuatu into a blog series. I appreciate locals who chime in, and correct what I miss. Ale!


  • —Amazing photos.

    I’ve always imagined a place without books is like a kind of HELL…

    but after reading Vancy R. Brown’s amazing comment above, I wonder.

    ***Everything that has life in it are our books. The trees, the wind, the seas, the weather, etc… are books to us.****

    Those sentences took my breath away. Seriously.

    Exquisite post. Love from MN.


  • Woah, wall weaving! It’s amazing what native people are capable of without all the sophisticated accoutrements that allow us to get away with ignorance. If only they had the opportunities we’ve had in learning and literacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The coming years will be challenging for the people of Vanuatu, with changes in weather, economics, pressures toward and desires for the comforts that western technology offer.


  • I really enjoyed this post and you make an excellent point about concentration span and in conjunction the differences and contrasts between what we westerners consider “first world” and the developing world. It is also interesting when one compares the topic of what we consider problems in the first world and what the problems are in a developing world.

    I lived for six years in Granada, Nicaragua where books in schools and homes were also on the sparse side, for the most part. An expat started a library and it has grown and is impressive, but faced many of the difficulties with shipping and delivery of books as you mention, although in contrast Vanuatu sounds even more challenging. However, one book at a time, a library can and will grow.

    Thanks for the interesting post.


    Liked by 1 person

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