When Magdalena Livingstone first arrived in Vanuatu more than a decade ago, she did not know that this was a journey that would entirely change her life. What was meant to be a short holiday became a long-term love affair with Vanuatu and the catalyst that saw her moving over to the other side of the world.
Magdalena Livingstone, a Swiss molecular biologist, disembarked on Vanuatu’s shores in 2001 for a break from her busy life inside a laboratory. During her short stay, she made a connection with the country, spending a lot of time talking and listening to the stories of the local people out in the villages. She was fascinated by the way of life of a country and a culture so different from her own. Upon her return to Switzerland, so great was the mark that Vanuatu had left on her that three months later, she decided to return. Resigning from her job, she landed back in Vanuatu with the simple desire to learn more about the people and perhaps write a book about their lives. “When I came back, I understood that what people really wanted me to do was to record their kastom stories so they will not become lost and forgotten,” she explains. To be closer to Vanuatu, Magdalena moved to Australia and over the following years, with the permission of the VKS, (Vanuatu Cultural Centre) who approved the project, Magdalena started to record these stories, to be compiled into three CDs, now a resource on the archives of the VKS. The stories were told to her first in Bislama and a second time in English, with the help, at times, of a local translator. Wanting to compile these stories into children books, in 2004 she found a local illustrator, Tony Alfred, from Ambae and together they worked to produce the beautiful illustrations and covers for the books. This June, the final version of the three books that mark the start of this collection, were published in soft cover form. The books tell 40 stories from 18 different islands narrated by 32 different storytellers. The first book, ‘The Rat and The Octopus and Other Stories from Vanuatu’ consists of sixteen stories that relate the origins of places, people, animals and things. The second book ‘The Turtle and The Reef Heron and Other Stories from Vanuatu’ is a compilation of eleven stories and the third book, ‘Natopu and Other Spirits of Vanuatu’ encompasses thirteen stories narrating fights and battles between humans and evil spirits. The books have been accepted by the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education as two hard cover volumes for distribution in Vanuatu schools as additional reading material for children aged from nine to thirteen. For Magdalena, the most important thing is the local origin of the stories. “These are Vanuatu stories told and illustrated by Vanuatu people. They have been written how they were told to me and I am very happy that I could help preserve some of these beautiful kastom stories in some form.”
Nature is the focal point and landscape in which each story develops. The relationship between people and animals is woven through the narrative of each tale, filled with colourful imagery. Without the exclusive need for a moral message behind them, the stories sometimes narrate the origins of things, such as how the coconut trees came to be in ‘The Snake and the Coconut’, a beautiful story told by David Livingstone (no relationship but one of those incredible coincidences that reflect more fate than random chaos) from Gaua island. Or how the rat got its tail, as in the case of the ‘The Rat and the Octopus’ told by Daniel MacDan from Malekula. Others are stories of friendship and cooperation, as ‘The Turtle and the Reef Heron’ related by Rocky Tuku of Ambae. Blending nature and human presence in a graciously fluid form in which the line between humans and animals is blurry, the relationship of people and nature is a playful game of give and take existing in a level of supra-reality in which everything is perfectly possible. Beautifully illustrated by an artist of great skill, these books make a great souvenir but they are a lot more than a memento. They are breathing culture, living kastom and a great legacy from Vanuatu to the world. A treasure to have.
Available for sale at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, World of Wonders, Pandanus Shop and the Drug Store. For more information, email Magdalena [email protected]