Bonus: If you get all the way to the end, there’s a picture.

When I sent text messages from Vanuatu or on returning showed people my sketches, I was asked, more than once and with a particular tone of voice, “So, did you get much work done?” The less arduous aspects were, I admit, overrepresented, but that is for the very good reason that it was very difficult to send humourous text messages or draw little pictures while I was working. So, to forestall that response, and because it was a work party (any excuse), I am going to tell you about the work first, before I get to the colourful stuff.

As I said, this was a work party, a working bee. Wycliffe Associates runs these regularly, whenever work needs to be done, whether rewiring, construction, maintenance, post-cyclone repairs, home schooling, stop-gap administration work, etc. Of the eight of us on the team, J and S (from the USA originally but now based in Australia) ran WA in this part of the world and have been on many work parties, PG was the coordinator of WA Australia and had been on many such trips, in groups or solo emergency missions, PW had been on trips previously although this was his wife D’s first, and R and M (from the USA) were going into full-time service with WA. I was the youngest and least experienced in such matters, and also, as a consequence, the most likely to be talked into going off to visit volcanoes on her own, but I digress. We were based at the SIL/VBT headquarters in Port Vila on Efate and most of the work was there.

The Work

We constructed a carport and enclosed a veranda, retiled and painted an office and carried out much maintenance, repairs, conversion of rooms, replacement of doors, etc. Full disclosure: I only painted some carport posts but since a large proportion of even my time was taken up with feeding the people doing the actual construction, I think we can all claim to have taken part.

D, who is a school librarian, cleaned, sorted, culled, categorised and catalogued the children’s library and resource centre at another SIL property up the hill. It took her most of three weeks (with breaks to pull up tiles), and she would come back for dinner with such interesting exhibits as a paperback drilled completely through by termites. Most of the SIL linguist’s children are home-schooled for at least part of their schooling, and used resources end up at the library. M and I spent an afternoon up there cleaning and spraying bookshelves, and on a top shelf I found a box with a genuine vacuum-packed foetal pig, which I put back.

M and I made curtains. Melody pinned and I sewed. This was the hardest physical labour that I was involved in, and my tongue is not in my cheek. It’s a horrible job. It hurt more and more weirdly than just painting posts in the sun. We were crab-walking all over the floor pinning and measuring (we had to borrow a set-square from the construction site downstairs) and cutting, and the fabric for the first set was very heavy, rubber-backed curtaining which stretched (10cm over 2m), and the stitching had to be unpicked and then we had to find ribbon to buy to put on the seams to stop them stretching, and when I sewed it I had to deal with great heaping swathes of this stuff which stuck to itself and dragged and had to be moved onto the table with one arm while sewing with the other. And then there’s so much to iron that it all wrinkles again on the floor while it’s being ironed. Theoretically, curtains are easy. Only theoretically. The second set, out of light cotton, was much more pleasant, although still unwieldy. But M and I talked a lot, and when all the pinning was done and she went downstairs to make banana bread and peanut butter bread to be frozen and transported for the big dedication of a new translation a few weeks later, I sang to myself.

I got to draw! L (R and L were translators in PNG and are now the SIL directors in Vanuatu) wanted some pictures to put on notecards for correspondence from their office. She was also getting all the SIL kids to write a bit about their families and missionary families who had been there before them and compiling it into a book called Histri Blong Yumi (Our History), and so I drew a cover design for that. It was exciting to be able to do that and also because the illustrations were the first time I had used one of my sketchbooks as reference as well as record. And because I got to take my bag of pens and paper down to Nambawan Café and draw while looking out over the harbour and drinking bush lime juice.

And then there was cooking. I grew up knowing that cooking and dishes and cleaning were as proper and legitimate a work as any other, particularly when there are people doing heavy physical work who need to be fed. I had forgotten this – cooking and housework for me are almost luxuries now, or at least something that needs to fit around ‘real’ work, and even if I cook breakfast and do the dishes, I still have to be at the office on time. It took me a couple days to realise that just because work started at 8, that didn’t mean breakfast needed to be cleared away before then. Cooking started before work, and before people stopped for lunch, and we had to go to market during the day, and after work stopped dinner started, and then dishes had to be done, and cooking and dishes happen on weekends as well. And we were feeding eight people plus guests for dinner and sometimes lunch. S coordinated most of it (and when she left, M took over) and did most of breakfast, and all the women either directed meals or were kitchen hands.

And it was fun! I liked cooking best of all. It was constructive and convivial and got people fed and mostly they seemed to like it, although M had to rescue my gravy. Don’t put Smoky BBQ Sauce in gravy – it tastes good in meatloaf but in gravy, all the BBQ disappears and you are left with just Smoky. I made meatloaf and pavlova and self-saucing pudding (well, self-saucing brownies: the pan was a bit large) and satay beef and chocolate chip cookies and flourless peanut butter cookies and tortillas (not the filling) and beer bread with golden syrup and dried pawpaw, and that was just the few meals I had responsibilities in. But I think my favourite part might have been when I was in charge of a full meal, and got to direct everyone else as kitchen hands. I liked that even more than eating.

We were certainly very well fed, but one of the SIL employees working on the construction remarked to L that the men kept looking at their watches, and would stop work at ten and go eat sweet things, and he thought they only brought the women with them to make sweet things, and it wouldn’t be any good for their teeth.

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(If you’d like to be able to actually read this, the large version is here).