Monday, June 02, 2008

The Happiest Place in The World

The South Pacific country of Vanuatu has been voted the happiest place in the world so what makes its inhabitants such a happy lot?
The twin pillars of a classically happy life - strong family ties and a general absence of materialism - are common throughout this island nation
Jean Pierre John is living the dream. That popular fantasy of owning one's own island, complete with swaying coconut palms, coral sea and tropical forest, is his for real.
On the island called Metoma, in the far north of Vanuatu, Jean Pierre can look around and truly say that he is master of all he surveys.
This single fact would put Jean Pierre in an exclusive club, you would think, one made up of billionaire businessmen, royalty and rock stars.
But Jean Pierre is none of these things. In fact, he could not be more different.
On Metoma, Jean Pierre and his family live in thatched huts.
They have no electricity or running water, no radio or television, and their only mode of transport is a rowing boat, which pretty much limits them to trips to the neighbouring island.
On top of that, they have little money and few opportunities to make any.
No money?! Suddenly their island life does not sound all that glamorous. But here's the thing, the Johns really are happy.
This may sound surprising but living on their island they want for nothing.
Local produce
All the family's food comes from on or around Metoma. Coconuts, yam, and manioc - their staple diet - are all grown on the island and then, of course, there is a sea full of fish to harvest.
And if fish protein gets boring, there is always the occasional fruit bat, from a colony that roosts on the island.
Indeed, food is so easy to gather that the family appears to have a lot of relaxation time.
When the Johns do have money - perhaps when they sell one of the few cows they own - they will buy soap powder and kerosene for their lamps.
But if not, they are just as happy to make do with island solutions - sticks which can be crushed to make soap and coconut oil in place of kerosene.
Some useful items are even washed up onto their island - buoys from boats are cut in half to make bowls and old fishing nets are recycled as hammocks.
It may sound like a Robinson Crusoe existence, and in many ways it is, but the Johns are not castaways. They live on Metoma out of choice.
Jean Pierre had not heard that Vanuatu had been voted happiest country in the world but, when I told him, he nodded in a knowingly happy sort of way
It is not as if they have not experienced some of the trappings of a more modern world.
Jean Pierre grew up on one of Vanuatu's larger islands and still makes the occasional visit. His eldest son, Joe, even went to school in the nation's capital.
In fact Joe, a very easy-going 28-year-old, had recently returned to Metoma to live full time and he told me that the only thing he missed was hip hop music, but that it was a small price to pay for living on the island.
No money worries
Jean Pierre had not heard that Vanuatu had been voted happiest country in the world but, when I told him, he nodded in a knowingly happy sort of way.
So what is his secret of happiness?
"Not having to worry about money," he immediately replies, while picking his nose in an uninhibited way.
If you asked the same question in the UK, you would probably get the same response. The only difference is that, in Jean Pierre's case, it means not needing any money, rather than having bundles of it.
We can all repeat the mantra "money can't buy you happiness" until we are blue in the face, but deep down, how many of us in the West really believe it to be true?
But I can see that Jean Pierre's happiness is more than just a question of money. It also comes from having his family around him, and there is undoubtedly an enormous respect between them.
Absence of materialism
His children - and this includes those of adult age - do anything their father asks, not out of coercion but because they genuinely want to please.
Forget the Waltons, the Johns are the real McCoy: one happy family.
While talking to Jean Pierre, I find myself wondering whether he is the most contented person I have ever met.
But he is keen to know whether I am having a good time on his island too. Every day he asks me if I am happy. When I tell him things are great, his eyes light up and he replies in pidgin, "Oh, tenkyu tumas."
Whether happiness can truly be measured is a debatable point, but there is no doubt that Metoma - or indeed Vanuatu as a whole - has the ingredients to encourage a greater sense of happiness.
The twin pillars of a classically happy life - strong family ties and a general absence of materialism - are common throughout this island nation.

Britain's Duke of Edinburgh may be planning a quiet birthday celebration at home this weekend, but there will be feasting and flag-waving in an isolated jungle village in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where he is worshipped as a god.
The islanders associate Prince Philip with a mountain spirit
The Land Cruiser ground up the rough dirt track, pitching and rolling like a boat. The trail was so severely eroded that it was more like a river bed, with miniature canyons gouged out by the monsoon rains.
I had been drawn to this poor excuse for a road by a story so unlikely that it sounded barely credible.
It was one I had wanted to investigate for years.
Legend had it that there was a clutch of villages on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu which - as bizarre as it may seem - worshipped Prince Philip as a god.
How and why they had chosen the Duke of Edinburgh, I had no idea. I fully expected the story to be either false, or wildly exaggerated.
Distant adoration
After an hour's drive we pulled into a jungle clearing shaded by giant banyan trees.
A short walk led to the village of Yaohnanen, a collection of sagging thatched huts, banana trees and snotty-nosed little kids.
With the help of my driver-cum-interpreter, Lui, I was introduced to the chief of the village. Jack Naiva was a bright-eyed old man of about 80, with grey hair and a faded sarong wrapped around his wiry body.
I felt deeply foolish telling him I had come to his village to ask if he worshipped the Queen's husband.
I wondered if it was all some sort of elaborate joke.
Jack Naiva, chief of the village, has an official portrait of the Prince
But the look on Chief Jack's face told me it was not. He dispatched one of the villagers and a few minutes later the man returned from a hut with three framed pictures.
They were all official portraits of the Prince.
The first, in black and white, looked like it was taken in the early 1960s.
The second was dated 1980 and showed the Prince holding a traditional pig-killing club - a present from the islanders.
The most recent was from seven years ago.
They had all been sent from London with the discreet permission of Prince Philip, who is apparently well aware that he is the subject of such distant adoration.
Ancient legend
Chief Jack squatted on the ground as he told me how the Prince Philip cult had come about.
It seems that it emerged some time in the 1960s, when Vanuatu was an Anglo-French colony known as the New Hebrides.
For centuries, perhaps millennia, villagers had believed in an ancient story about the son of a mountain spirit venturing across the seas to look for a powerful woman to marry.
They believed that unlike them, this spirit had pale skin.
Somehow the legend gradually became associated with Prince Philip, who had indeed married a rich and powerful lady.
Villagers would have seen his portrait - and that of the Queen - in government outposts and police stations run by British colonial officials.
Their beliefs were bolstered in 1974, when the Queen and Prince Philip made an official visit to the New Hebrides. Here was their ancestral spirit, resplendent in a white naval officer's uniform, come back to show off his bride.
"He's a god, not a man," the chief told me emphatically, pointing at the portraits.
Response to colonialism
None of the cult followers can read or write.
Prince Philip gave permission for portraits to be sent from London
They told me - somewhat amazingly - that it was only this year that they learnt the date of the Prince's birthday - 10 June.
As Philip turns 86 and they are planning to mark the occasion with a feast and ceremonial drinking of kava, an intoxicating brew made from the roots of a pepper tree which makes your mouth go numb.
They have even acquired a large Union flag which they are going to run up a bamboo flag pole.
It is easy to see all this as so much South Seas mumbo jumbo.
But that would be a grave mistake, anthropologists told me.
Millennial movements like this were a highly sophisticated response by islanders in the South Pacific to the arrival of colonialism and Christianity.
By combining the fundamentals of their ancient beliefs with new elements gleaned from their contact with the West, they were able to preserve their culture.
There is, of course, a delicious irony in all this.
Prince Philip, after all, is a man who has a reputation for making politically incorrect gaffes, often about foreigners.
He once advised British students not to stay too long in China for fear of becoming "slitty-eyed".
And he asked a group of stunned aborigines if they still threw spears at each other.
The villagers of Tanna may live a life far removed from the splendour of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral in far away Britain. But they are as firm in their beliefs as Prince Philip is in his.
I suspect that if they were ever to meet, they would get along rather well.

Thanks Diana JP

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