Pauline Grindley had an idea, a dream that she set out to make a reality with no practical knowledge of the process involved. She thought that the journey would be easy. It was not. But isn’t learning always part of the process? This is the story of how Nabanga Pikinini was born.
Two years after I arrived in Vanuatu, I overheard a comment; ‘Vanuatu custom stories have no meaning.’ I wondered to myself, how can a country have custom stories with no meaning? So I visited the National Library, where I was presented with a number of papers and old stapled books to look through. I was captivated. The stories were magical. I was being taught how to live, how to work, how to love – here was the meaning of life all embroiled in the most wonderful stories …
“But where are the children’s books?” I asked the librarian. In response, I was handed a book which I paged through. This was not my idea of a colourful children’s book.
I then knew what I wanted to do. Mr Naka, a family friend who had translated the history book ‘To Kill a Bird’ into Japanese, advised me speak to Ralph Regenvanu. With examples of my own children’s much-loved books, I set off to find Ralph. I was told this would be easy; “Look for the guy carrying an island bag at the university.” Naturally, there were many island-bag-guys walking around the campus, and none turned out to be Ralph. Ralph and I met at a café in town. After listening to my request and being shown my examples, Ralph asked one question, “Are you going to write about monkeys and lions?” When I assured him I was not going to change the stories and certainly not add any strange animals, he granted permission for me to adapt the custom stories into children’s books and sent me to visit Paul Gardissat. Paul was easier to find than Ralph. He had an office stuffed with the most amazing artefacts including his collection of recordings of custom stories. Paul understood only a little of what I was trying to say, as he had forgotten to put his hearing aid on. But he set up his old tape recorder and we listened to The Mutuama of Ifira on full volume. I heard tamtams being beaten and felt the sun go down as the sounds of a dark night surrounded me. I sat near a glowing fire, listening to the storyteller. Not far behind me loomed a shadowy forest where the matuama, lisepsep, qwat and sangalegales lurked and waited …
The stories were alive and I couldn’t wait to get started. After I convinced Paul that I was serious, he told me I must visit his friend Nicholas Berlanga as he would give me funding. Paul picked up the phone and I had an appointment with Nicholas, the head of the EU in Vanuatu, the next day. Nicholas, with a little prodding from Paul, happily gave me funding. I was ecstatic. My books had no title, and I was back in Paul’s office. Could I use the Nabanga title and logo if I changed it? Could I add ‘pikinini’ because in South Africa, where I come from, we also used the word ‘pikinini’ for a small child? With a shrug of his shoulders and his by now familiar ‘pouf’ sound and waving hand, we agreed on Nabanga Pikinini and Paul placed the nabanga tree silhouette between the two words.I chose six stories from Paul’s Nabanga, and began to adapt them. Then reality hit. Adapting was not so easy; cutting down to the acceptable number of words for a children’s book, writing in a format easily read by children and using a vocabulary that children would understand, without changing the story, became my life. And when I had everything perfect, my editor arrived, ‘No! You can’t write it like that. It’s not grammatically correct!’ Now that I finally had the stories, I needed an illustrator. Paging through a number of small beginner readers at the Education Department, I saw a man with an ever changing expression wading through a book. I had found my first artist, David Tovovour. David had never worked with water colour before yet he produced some wonderful paintings for the first six single stories. Finally, we were ready to print. I had no idea how the printing process worked and the ever-patient printer sat with me for seven days sorting out the book layout.
The European Union Non State Actors Program office had now delegated an aid worker to deal with me. She handed me a wad of forms to fill in. “I will do the adaptations and you fill out the forms. They have nothing to do with me,” I told her. How naïve I was! I went home with the forms and more bad news. To access the EU funding, I would have to find another donor to back me. How was I to know that donors would not release their funds until I had a letter allowing the books into the schools? Or that you were supposed to ask the Education department for ‘The Letter’ before you had the books printed? After many tiring and hot visits to the Education Department, where Helen, the DG’s secretary, and I were by now great friends, I was finally handed ‘The Letter’. I also found my other benefactors. The Australian High Commission kindly donated and Kiwanis generously gave me a large amount to cover the rest. We all smiled and the launch was held on the hottest day in 2007. The project was over, everyone sighed and I could relax as the stories were posted to all the primary schools in Vanuatu. Enjoying a quieter life, I was watching the local news one night when I saw a school Principal from Santo speaking about books. Holding a Nabanga Pikinini book she said, “Yumi nidim plante mo buk olsem hemia.” (We need plenty more books like this). “That’s my book!” I shouted to the family.
And so I was back meeting with Ralph, asking if I could do a collection of stories in a single book this time and asking Paul for permission to adapt more of his stories, together with other stories that were not in his book. The local TV news helped me source funding as I watched a new Ambassador from the German Embassy in Canberra hand his credentials to President Mataskelele and give his speech “… we will fund small scale projects.” That was all I needed to hear. I emailed the Embassy staff member in charge of the Pacific islands and was asked to send more information. I posted the six Nabanga Pikinini books to him with a proposal to write a collection of stories and send five books to each school. I felt I was being very bold asking them to fund 2,000 books. To my surprise, he told me to go ahead and that funding was available to send ten books to each school!
Nabanga Pikinini was gaining momentum. I had a rest and started over. This third project was going to be easy. I knew where to go and everyone knew Nabanga Pikinini book 1. Alas, I was still naïve. The Education department had changed their protocol. Helen was still in her office but a few DG’s and Ministers had moved in and out of office and a whole new table of National Education Commission members were added… David Tovovour, our illustrator was too busy to help with more books. I tried to find a replacement and became desperate. I needed a watercolourist. Finally, one sunny afternoon, I walked into the Espace Culturel Francaise to look at the displayed artwork. I fell in love with a painting of an old man telling a group of children a story. Renowned artist Joseph John was holding his yearly exhibition and I had found my artist. From his village pigs to scary ogres he has given the stories life and colour, transforming the books into more than I could ever had hoped for.
Now, we just needed ‘The Letter”. Months and many visits to the Education Department later, I was told I could finally fetch it. This time, with funding from The Christensen Fund, the German Embassy in Canberra and Kiwanis, Nabanga Pikinini book 1 was revised and republished, Nabanga Pikinini book 2 was added to the collection. Jenny James, the National Preschool Coordinator, convinced me to delay printing and add a Bislama version for the preschools. Sums were redone and money found for the translation. Printing eventually began and over 11,000 Nabanga Pikinini books were printed in all three official languages, but mostly in Bislama. The new Nabanga Pikinini books 1 and 2 were posted to schools (sponsored by Vanuatu Post), all the students at the Vanuatu Institute of Teachers Education received copies and for the first time many ni-Vanuatu families also received copies.
Will there be more Nabanga Pikinini books? Yes. Ni-Vanuatu are proud of their culture and kastom and there are plenty of stories to share. From friends to shop assistants they all ask me to write their stories. Ever careful of keeping true to kastom, I spoke to Ralph Regenvanu who thought the current publications in the National Library should be reprinted and translated to other local languages. The new curriculum will allow the use of indigenous languages for the K3 (kindergarten and first three years of primary school). Thus the next project will concentrate on helping to preserve and popularise the languages of Vanuatu through their stories.
The Vanuatu kastom stories, that gently teach us all how to live.
Story by Pauline Grindley. Photos courtesy of Pauline Grindley and Graham Crumb.