Photo by Marcel Melto. Ni-Vanuatu writer Nicole Colmar explains, "That pinky red candle-like one is actually a seed from a large tree that grows by the sea side everywhere in Vanuatu. The outer pink bit is sorta rubbery-like and helps it to float. The tree is Lantern Tree in English, Bois Bleu in French, and the Bislama name is Nambirbir. If you're confused then you're beginning to understand the impact of colonialism in Vanuatu lol."

“She had spent roughly thirty thousand vatu on a whole cow”: a story about money, set in Vanuatu

Tina was daydreaming as she raked the newly trimmed grass around their house. Beatrice, whom she had not seen for ten years, was coming to visit today. They’d been best friends. Tina wondered whether Beatrice was the same jubilant, bubbly person she was when they were at college. She was one of the most popular girls, but misfortune had struck her when she fell pregnant to one of the boys from her village, and she and the boy were expelled without completing their teacher training. Beatrice had eventually married the boy, whose name was Tim. Tina had not heard from her since, until yesterday, when Beatrice unexpectedly rang to tell her she was coming to see her.

The sound of a phone ringing interrupted Tina’s thoughts and she rushed inside to answer it. “Hallo?”

“Hallo,” echoed her friend. “Tina, this is Beatrice. I’ll be at your place in twenty minutes.” And with that she hung up.

Tina glanced around the living room. She scurried around picking up the Lego pieces her three children had left lying on the floor that morning. It was a good thing that Annie, her sister’s house girl, had picked up the children. Her husband, Leo, had gone to watch the football match at Korman Stadium and Tina had the house to herself. She hoped the children would stay at her sister’s longer, so she and Beatrice could gossip without being disturbed.

Glancing up at the wall clock, Tina realised that any time now Beatrice would arrive. She ran to the bathroom, took a hasty shower and was changing when she heard the dog barking. She ran a comb through her short hair and went to the door to have a look, but it was only someone passing on the road.

Tina wished their house was not so close to the road. She had attempted to discuss this with her husband, but he was too stubborn to listen. She did not pursue the subject, knowing that he had worked hard to save for this house. The last thing he wanted was for her to be fussy about its location. Tina had accepted it and beautified the place with different varieties of hibiscus, crown-of-thorn plants and palm trees on both sides of the pathway.

Tina hummed to herself as she went to the kitchen to prepare snacks for her friend. She realised that there were no biscuits. Her youngest son must have eaten the last packet: he always craved for biscuits. Oh well – juice and some bread would have to do. She longed to have more money for groceries. As a teacher her salary was not attractive. Whenever she could, she helped her husband with their monthly expenses. On certain occasions she was totally broke, such as when there were a lot of extended-family commitments to attend to. Like her cousin’s wedding last month, when her uncle had requested her assistance in purchasing meat for the feast. She had spent roughly thirty thousand vatu on a whole cow, which she’d bought from a well-to-do businessman in her uncle’s village. The man owned a lot of cattle and sold them to the villagers whenever there was a big feast.

She was so preoccupied that she did not hear her friend knocking until her name was called. She quickly opened the door.

“Beatrice,” she exclaimed. “Look at you, you have changed. How are you?”

“I’m fine, and you?” Beatrice studied her friend from head to toe. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “You have not changed at all since we were in college.”                    

Tina invited her into the house and beckoned her over to one of the armchairs. Her friend appeared skinnier than before. Beatrice used to be one of those healthy-looking girls, but now she looked terrible.

“How come you are in Vila?” Tina queried, curious to find out all she could about Beatrice.

“I’m tired of the village life, so I’m here to see if I can find some work.”

“How’s Tim?”

“We’ve separated,” Beatrice said with a shrug.

She told Tina that a few years into their marriage, Tim had started drinking kava excessively. On some occasions he would come home after midnight. This worried Beatrice and she started arguing with him. Tim took the arguments so badly that whenever he went out, he would not come home for two or three days. Only a few months before, Beatrice had learned from one of her aunties that Tim was seeing a girl in the village. She confronted him about the news but he avoided the issue and, shockingly, beat her severely. Feeling betrayed and hurt, Beatrice had taken her four children and gone to her parents’ house.

“So you see, I left the children at my parents’ and now I’m here to look for a job.”

Tina could see sadness in her friend’s eyes. She wondered whether she could find the right job in this small town where jobs were scarce. Quietly she thanked the Lord that her Leo was nothing like Tim. Leo also liked kava, but he was not an addict. “What sort of job?”

“I’m not too sure. Maybe a cleaner or a house girl. Could you help me with twenty thousand vatu?” she added sheepishly.

“Twenty thousand vatu!” gasped Tina, instantly regretting her tone. 

Trying to hide the expression on her face, she got up to collect the snacks from the kitchen. Money was tight nowadays. There were school fees to be paid and the children needed new sandals for school. But she did not want to let her friend down. When they were at college, Beatrice was her only friend. Tina remembered the time she almost ran away from the college after receiving some disturbing news from her maternal grandparents that her father had left her mother and gone to live with another woman in the next village. Beatrice was there for her when she cried uncontrollably the whole night and it was Beatrice who had consoled her and given her advice. Tina successfully completed her teacher-training programme and had never forgotten what her friend had done for her. She had experienced what life was like in a broken home and how her mother had struggled to make sure there was always food for her five younger siblings. She thought of Beatrice’s four children back in the village.

“Here, have some juice and bread. She handed Beatrice the tray.

“Thank you.” After an awkward moment, Beatrice explained that she needed the money to keep her going until she found a job. She knew life in town was difficult but nobody could help her except Tina. As she spoke, tears started to run down her cheeks and she sobbed, letting out her frustrations.

Tina sat quietly, recalling how inseparable they had been at college. Beatrice had helped her when she was at her lowest point and now she would have to return that favour. If only Beatrice had not fallen in love with Tim, and taken heed of her advice back then, she would not be in such a mess. She could have become a teacher too.

“I will talk to Leo,” Tina managed to say. “Maybe you can come and collect the money tomorrow.”

“Thank you very much, my sister,” Beatrice said, and Tina could hear the excitement in her voice. “I know you will help me.” Beatrice stretched her legs. Getting up from the chair, she motioned that she needed to go and said she would return the next day to collect the money.

“Thanks for coming,” Tina said as she followed Beatrice to the door, unable to hide the disappointment in her voice.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Beatrice kissed her farewell and hurried down to the main road.

“See you,” Tina called after her, full of thoughts. In her heart she was happy to see her friend again, even though Beatrice’s request had put her in an awkward situation. She really wanted to help her out but her extra savings had been used up for her cousin’s wedding. Not only that, but the children’s school fees had to be paid by the end of the month, or the children would not return to school.

Her friend’s visit was not what she had expected. She was filled with agony at the thought of her request. She knew that Leo would not have any money to spare. Even if he had some extra, he was always conscious of how it was spent. He went to the nakamal to drink kava only when he had money to spare. Leo had never told her his monthly salary. Sometimes he claimed that he had run out of money, and she was not sure if he was telling the truth. Even though he ensured his family had a good life, he never gave her extra money for her personal shopping. Tina knew Leo would say he had none and that would be it. She did not want to start a fight with him. Their recent disagreement was all about money and she never wanted to ask him for it again, unless she knew he would give it to her willingly. She had to think of another option.

She prayed that somehow she could come up with that twenty thousand vatu. She owed Beatrice that much. Maybe she could ring her cousin Rita, who worked for a private company. Rita was senior staff and on a good income. She would pay her back on her next payday.

Outside the dog started its endless barking again, this time it sounded restless.

“Beatrice’s visit” is taken from the lively and passionate collection Sista, Stanup Strong!: A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen (Victoria University Press, $30). The editors write, “With poetry, fiction, essays, and song, its narrative arc stretches from the days of blackbirding to Independence in 1980 to Vanuatu’s coming of age in 2020. Most of these writers are ni-Vanuatu living in Vanuatu. Some have set down roots in New Zealand, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Canada…The writers in this anthology have chosen to harness the coloniser’s language, English, for their own purposes. They are writing against racism, colonialism, misogyny and sexism.” Sista, Stanup Strong! is available from bookstores operating in Level 2, otherwise known as ABA (Anywhere But Auckland).

Carol Aru, born on Ambae in Vanuatu, worked at the University of the South Pacific until 2019. Her poetry and fiction is included in Sista, Stanap Strong!: A Vanuatu women' anthology (2021).

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