Technology in Paradise: A look at cell phone and internet culture in Vanuatu

Friday night was Vina's last night on Nguna. Vina is my 14-year-old neighbor on the school grounds, the headmaster's niece. She graduated year 8 this school year, so she's attending year 9 next year either in Port Vila or on the island of Aore near Espiritu Santo. We'd been hanging out together all day, trying to make the most of her last day.

She loves Ariana Grande and tween shows and musicals, so I introduced her to Nickelodeon's Victorious to fulfill all of those needs in a single show. We watched a few episodes of Victorious in the afternoon, and at night, we watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with another teacher's daughters, Joanna, Lorina and Shelly. I told Vina we could make s'mores on the beach under the stars, if she wanted to. Her face lit up.

There we were, a few yards from the shore, sitting on some mats on the beach with a bonfire in the sand before us. It was a crowd of about eight of us. I had selected some pop and reggaeton music to play from my speaker as we assembled our cracker, chocolate and marshmallow sandwiches. Since it was night, the usual shame and embarrassment that accompanies public dancing was gone, and Vina and the other kids were standing up and shaking their hips in the guise of darkness. I love dancing, so I was happy to move right alongside them.

With little to no ambient light on the island, the stars in Vanuatu are magnificent. We sat there, talking about school, what we did that day, and what country Shakira is from. It was nice, hanging out together, and it was one of those magical moments that is so beautiful in its simple joy.

Lorina, VV and Vina roast marshmallows

Shelly, Joanna and Meriana roast marshmallows

However, one thing I'm excluding from this scene were the cell phones. There was a moment when I noticed I was the only one dancing. A few feet away, 20-year-old Koli's face was illuminated by the colors of bubbles he was popping on his phone as 10-year-old Nemo looked on. 10th-grader Joanna and Vina were snapping selfies with the phone's bright flash, and 24-year-old Shelly, 12th-grader Lorina and 2nd-grader Meriana's faces were aglow while watching clips of me and Vina dancing moments ago. No longer did the fire and stars illuminate the night.

Coming from American culture, this is, unfortunately, normal for me. There was the time I was in Russia and snapped a picture of my four co-travelers who were simultaneously taking Instagram-ready snaps before any of us were "allowed" to touch the meal before us. I was hungry, but also amused by their behavior. There are countless scenarios in my life which the dining/breathtaking/heartwarming/cute/sentimental experience was not fully breathed in before a picture was snapped on a camera phone.

June, Ihita, and Taylan at White Rabbit, the 13th best restaurant in the world, ensuring we get every angle before we eat. 

I'm a little old school, as any of my friends/family back home would tell you. Back at home I had a flip phone, and I loved it. Prior to Peace Corps, I owned two phones in my entire life. Both were flip phones, and the one I used up until my service in Vanuatu was one I'd had for at least 8 years. It never cracked, it never fell in a toilet, it made calls, sent texts, and had an alarm clock. It's really all I ever needed. Friends with smart phones didn't understand. How do I take pictures (with my Canon camera, if I choose to bring it to an event)? How do I know how to get somewhere (I look up directions before I leave the house, and then text the friend I'm meeting if I get lost)? How do I check Facebook (I stay offline once I leave my house)? What about Twitter and Instagram (I have neither)? How do I check emails (I don't unless I am presently at home or in the office)?

This photo was taken in 2016 with my beloved phone that I got in 2008.

Once friends and family got used to a smart phone world, they knew nothing else. I never knew that world, so I didn't understand the "struggle" of staying in a flip phone world. I could text rapidly on T9. I could read maps and orient myself with cardinal directions based on landmarks. I could survive without checking notifications from all my social networks while I was on the go.

My first ever smart phone was purchased here in Vanuatu (an Alcatel 4049D with maximum 3G speed that cost all of $30 USD). I purchased it because sometimes internet would spontaneously go down at the school (our school is the only source of Wifi in the surrounding North Efate islands) and if I really wanted to check my email or send a message home, I wanted to be able to do so. It came with its own SIM card, so there's no need to transfer the SIMs from my Peace Corps-issued Nokia phone. I usually keep my smart phone in the house, and carry only my Nokia one. Other volunteers had dozens of questions before arriving in-country regarding smart phones and data. But I never called my American phone a "dumb" phone. It was a phone. It made calls. It was all I needed. And this Nokia 105 Classic? It's got a full-color screen and two free games and a radio and a flashlight!!! That's so many more features than my flip phone back home had. Why bother making a switch!?

We (PCVs) put stickers on our phones to discern them since all 40 of us have the exact same one.

It's happened a few times now where I'll be hanging around some kids, I hear the beep of a received text message and look at my (Nokia) phone. The kids will ask, is that my phone? Where's my real phone? I tell them, this is my phone, but I do have another one that is more like my emergency internet access when I need it.

Or, the kids will surround one child who is playing a shoot-em-up game on a smart phone. One will inevitably ask, "Miss Melissa, get out your phone and we'll play games on that, too!" I don't have any games on my phone. "Ok, then put on a song!" I don't have any music on my phone. "We'll watch a video!" I don't have any videos on my phone. They look at me, blankly. Really, all that's on it is a period-tracking app, weather app, WhatsApp, and a note-taking app.

Yet with the prevalence of smart phones and data usage, credit is still considered to be a hot commodity. There are no contracts, but rather, pay-as-you-go credit. I often have to call a Ni-Van instead of texting them because it's possible they don't have phone credit to text me back. A phone call could be precious money spent from the caller, so if someone is calling you, you'd better pick up, because you also may not have credit to return their call. PCVs and PC staff are on a "family plan" paid for by PC, so our calls/texts among our circle are free. Since this is not a thing that any locals appear to pay for, the idea is lost on them. If I leave my phone on my desk while I go to the bathroom and a PCV calls, a teacher will pick it up, and then hunt me down, waiting outside the toilet to pass it to me, because they don't understand that I can just call them later, and it's totally not a big deal if I miss that call.

The school has power from giant solar panels, making it a charging hub for people in the village. There's been countless times when a plugged-in phone will ring and the mood of the room turns to anxiety as everyone panics, shouting out to the owner of the phone that someone is calling. PCV Frances points out, "I've noticed it's too early in cell phone culture here for people to think it's rude to be on your phone during events and stuff. And the way cell phone companies don't cost to pick up but cost to call, everyone understands people answering their phones in the middle of a conversation." Shutting off a phone for a staff meeting? Not going to happen.

Jessica and Timothy say their wedding vows as the village paparazzi take snaps.

Angela receives her end-of-year awards at the school graduation ceremony as everyone captures the moment.

Sebastian and Natasha cut the year 8 graduation cake as everyone gets a photo.

Cell phones are also the most common way for people to take and share photos.  Just like in America, people here love to take pictures of everything. I've even seen "photoshoots" on the beach of a few teens taking posed photos just to put on their Facebook page. However, with the cheap phones available here, most of those pictures are blurry, washed-out, or otherwise low quality. When they see a picture I took on my Canon camera, they wow at the crisp quality and the well-lit faces. But I have noticed at events such as weddings or school graduation that some young women (it's always women...never men...I'm not sure why) own fancier cameras (DSLRs) and will snap pictures at events. Those pictures always turn out fantastic, of course.

Ms. Tatangis and her DSLR as we take pictures of each other

The reverse photo she captured on her camera, of me, my Canon, and my super cool visor

How technology and internet is used in Vanuatu varies, but to make an overarching generalization, a majority of internet use is for Facebook and "blo waj" ie, watching videos. TVL and Digicel (the two service providers in Vanuatu)'s data plans here often have specials for "data + Facebook," allowing Facebook to be its own, unlimited entity separate from the data used for any other website. Facebook is mostly used by locals to...
  • post pictures
  • to read "news" posted by friends or on the ubiquitous Vanuatu FB group Yumi Toktok Stret ie "Straight Talk" (I say ubiquitous because literally half of the country is in this Facebook group)
  • to stori, ie chat with friends in the messenger app (PCVs have commented about how Ni-Vans use the Facebook chat feature just like they chat in'll often be small talk about what you're currently doing, what you did, and who you ran into that day...unlike our American way of using it to ask something when we need it... "Hey what was the name of that movie we watched? Thanks")

Kids will often lurk behind me in the computer lab as I work at my computer to watch me do the most mundane things on my laptop, because they associate computer use with entertainment, even if I'm not using it as such. I've had kids stand behind me as I update my budget spreadsheet or book flights or write emails. I can only assume they think I'll quickly switch over to some music video or something, ha. I am sure there are locals who gossip about my internet use, assuming that I was "on Facebook all day" when that wasn't the case.

Before we (finally) locked the internet at the school with passwords for each staff member, the entire village knew the login. Since the signal was strong, they could be as far down as the banyan tree by the beach or as far up as the bush behind the school grounds and get Wifi on their tablets or phones. That meant yungfala would gather and watch WWE wrestling videos, or sometimes porn, while nearby (yet off of) school grounds. They weren't hard to spot, though, with the glow of the phones upon their faces as they hunched in the darkness. Teachers, during break time and after school will browse Facebook. Teachers' children, who have access on the teachers' phones, will watch the most random Youtube videos, everything from Nigerian comedy web series' to music videos to "how to make a pastrami sandwich" videos to pranking videos.

"Taem blo waj" aka video-watching time

But that is a generalization. Being closer to Vila, my village has a lot more of a Western influence than other villages may have. Internet is also used for a variety of other things, depending on the person. It isn't just limited to young people, either. The school council chairman, an elder in the village, a man most likely in his 60s or 70s, uses his Gmail to contact outside organizations regarding funding or technology development. The French teacher and the year 6 teacher will often use the internet to find worksheets or topic-related activities for their students online. The year 8 teacher will check the Ministry of Education's website to see if there is information on a standardized grading scale. Offline, teachers will use Excel for grading spreadsheets, and elders from the village will come to type up meeting minutes for community and organizations.

In case you were unaware, the internet is spread via underwater tubes around the world. That means that in a remote country like Vanuatu, those are some very long tubes and that makes for some very expensive internet. Without the widespread access to data or internet throughout Vanuatu, local information is not widely available online (why would it need to be, when everyone is used to accessing it in an analog fashion). The Ministry of Education doesn't have the dates for the 2019 school calendar on their website (you have to call the office for that information). You can't check your bank account online (you have to seek out an ATM or go to the bank). The post office website doesn't have information on their updated holiday hours for Christmas and New Years (you have to email them on a form on their website or go to the office and ask). Menus for restaurants aren't available online. And like I mentioned in a previous post, almost every venue has a Facebook page before it has a website (if it even bothers creating a website).

Despite the variety that the entire internet offers, many people in Vanuatu are unaware of the sheer magnitude of information available, and how it does require a discerning eye. I've seen a teacher Google "ways to lose belly fat in 24 hours" and jot down the liquid diet offered in the first Youtube video in the search results. Another teacher told me she read online that Santa is Satan. Some grade 7 students told me they heard a boy on a nearby island was murdered by black magic, and they know this because their dad read it online (where? Facebook). I followed up with the PCV on that island and he said no, the boy had a liver disease for a long time and finally died from it (this was also reported by the newspaper). As many times as I say it, it doesn't appear to stick: not everything you read online is true, or verified, or written by a knowledgeable person (then again, Americans fall prey to this as well). I tell them, constantly, that anyone can write anything, and if they wanted to write an essay about how they are the second coming of Jesus Christ, they can do so, and no one will stop them. Then it's on the internet, so it must be true, right? (Wrong.)

I've shown kids vacation videos or clips I've posted on Vimeo, and they ask if I'm famous, or how I posted that video online. I tell them that anyone can do just make an account and then it's done. Adults are a little more privy to those things, but they can also be swayed by the magic of the internet.

Sometimes friends in the village who don't use internet believe that I am knowledgeable about anything and everything, even if I explain that my knowledge is from the wealth of knowledge online. How did I know there was a meteor shower? How did I know how to make plantain lasagna? How did I know how to sew a dress? How did I make this amazingly designed award certificate from a template not located on the computer? How did I know that it was going to rain on Saturday? How do I know what time the sun will set two months from now? How did I know the way to translate that phrase into French when I have not learned French? How did I know the phone number to the computer store in Port Vila? The internet.

The lack of knowledge creates a craving for it. My friend Loren, who is a teacher and owns a bungalow, is someone to whom I've introduced Pinterest. Does she want to know some phonics activities or ways to incorporate a nursery rhyme in the classroom? Does she want to know a new way to cook with pineapples? Does she want to know how to fold towels to look like seashells to decorate the beds in the bungalow? Pinterest. She went to a class in Port Vila for local bungalow owners on how to create and run an Instagram account, but she still isn't sure what to post, and is always reluctant. I've noticed that about culture here: people are afraid to try something new with the fear that they'll do it wrong. I tell her that she can create her own voice and perspective, and there's no 100% "right" way to do it.

With the unlimited access to Youtube on school grounds, I see teachers' kids and teachers themselves watching a wide range of content. I find it amusing when I see female teachers watching makeup tutorials, when the fact of the matter is that no one wears makeup (maybe lipstick to a wedding, but that's it). Then again, I watch makeup tutorials on "how to make a woman look like Jack Sparrow" when I don't plan on donning a fake beard or contouring my jawline into oblivion any time soon. Little VV was playing in the field the other day, making a sort of hooting sound, which made her mom, Mrs. Nasse, laugh. Mrs. Nasse explained that VV was imitating the hooting noise she heard two Mongolian men make in a video of them building a yurt. I love how Vina is more in tune to pop culture news than I am, often asking me things that she knows for a fact but wants confirmation on anyway ("Shakira has two children, right?" "I have no idea." "She does.").

Students at the school love the typing classes the school offers. They want to type faster and they want to use the computers for all the things Westerners use them for. They want to seek out what the internet has to offer. We (Americans) can often forget how privileged we are when the most widely spoken language from the USA is the same language in which most internet content is available. English is a third, fourth, or fifth language to these students, and they are hungry to see what they can seek online in the English or French websites that they are just now learning to read.

A teacher and friend, Madame Caroline, told me last week about her amazement of seeing her 2-year-old daughter, Vanna, able to pick up her tablet, navigate to a game, and play it. She can't read, Caro explained, and yet she can find the word scramble game and press buttons to play it (despite not knowing what she's really doing). I've had this conversation with my cousin Nicki back home, when little 2-year-old Gracie would do the same, seeking out clips of princess videos on the family iPad. It's amazing how technology is more and more easy to access and use, no matter where we are in the world.

The night we roasted marshmallows, I took only two photos, which I posted above. When I take pictures at events, I don't have people move out of the way, but instead I capture it as-is. I don't prevent people from digging into the beautifully decorated cake...if their hand is in the shot when I take it, so be it. I'm the last person who would shout "WAIT!" before someone does something extraordinary just so I can take a picture...if I miss it, I miss it. I know I have a holier-than-thou attitude with my lack of tech savvy in regards to social media and constant posting. But I know I am also prey to the access and ease of tech in my life, even here in Vanuatu. I sit here on an uncomfortable plastic chair in a computer lab writing this post as the sun shines brightly over the crystal blue ocean nearby. I heavily use Facebook to keep in touch with friends from travel and see their posts from around the world. When it was raining the other day and the rain tanks were overflowing, creating a heavy stream of water off of the back of the tank and the little kids who live nearby were giggling, splashing, and playing in the makeshift shower, all I could think about was how I wish I had my camera to capture it. We all see the internet as a way to share, and when I'm alone, I think about it more. When I travel alone, it's nice to have a stranger to walk through a park with you for 3 hours so you simply have a friend to say "This is a cool thing! Look at this cool thing!" to. Social media is the virtual version of that.

Access to unlimited knowledge can have its drawbacks.  Oversharing can have its drawbacks. The polished "only look at the best parts of my life" postings can have its drawbacks.

But without the internet, I wouldn't know that cultures around the world, while different, can be just like mine. I wouldn't be able to share with you how teens using phones in a remote Pacific nation is not much different than your Instagram-obsessed millennials back in America. I wouldn't have a way to share my experiences via blogs or video. I wouldn't know how to protect myself as a solo female traveler in certain places, and I wouldn't have the courage to travel alone if I didn't know it could be done by millions of women around the world. I wouldn't know about the #MeToo movement. I wouldn't see pictures from my friend's wedding. I wouldn't know that my cousin is pregnant with her second baby. I wouldn't have a way to keep in touch with my family.

As much as technology can be seen as a wall between us and the people around us, it can also be what connects us.


Popular Posts