It's a pigpen

Dec 18, 2004

I continue to tinker with the design of, with a new border and a cleaner search box today, as well as a favicon that shows up in the address field of your web browser (a larger version is pictured below). More fiddling and tweaking to come.

[UPDATE: I realize this site looks differently in each browser. At the moment, Firefox shows it best.]

This regular site maintenance is appropriate, actually, because on Paama, keeping pigs meant near-daily attending to the pens and enclosures and fences that kept segregated each family’s pigs. When the pigs did get out, they’d quickly find their way to the gardens on the hillsides, and would easily dig up the yams and sweet potatoes or trample the watermelon vines and spinach-like leaf crops.

(Not sure why I’m talking about pigs on Paama? Read the About page for an explanation.)

Even though I had the means to buy a roll of wire fencing, I recruited a couple of students to help me make a pigpen for mistersugar (the pig, now, not me) down near the ocean and under an orange tree, using small trees and nylon twine, just like the rest of the islanders. My daily routine included an early morning stroll down the path from our home to the pigpen, passing under a lime tree that always gave up a ripe yellow lime that I’d use later on a slice of papaya. Mistersugar would get a coconut, dinner scraps and extra avocadoes. The pits from those avocadoes just loved the manure, and I planted a dozen saplings over my two years.

Mistersugar could smell me coming down the path – because I smelled good and clean, Erin assures me – and would be grunting his hungry greeting. I’d climb in and tickle him on the belly while he ate.

That was the first mistersugar. While I was on Epi Island for a few weeks, mistersugar escaped and fell prey to Kenneth’s dogs, German shepherds that were excellent at cornering a loose pig. One day, those dogs chased a mammoth pig into the churchyard. The men and women kept their distance, knowing the danger of sharp pig tusks. It took them an hour to lasso the hog and drag it back up the hill.

When I returned to Paama, Kenneth presented me with a new mistersugar, but this one was not about to let me touch him when he was eating. Many mornings I arrived at the pen to find him missing, busted through the flimsy fence to forage the way a pig’s meant to spend his day.

Problem is, on an island where families subsist on their gardening, pigs can destroy many meals in a very short time. Chiefly tradition says that a pig that’s wrecked a garden becomes the property of the gardener.

One day when I had hiked over to the village on the other side of the island, Obed, a teenager from Liro Village, met me on the path as I walked home. He said something about seeing my pig running loose, but I didn’t quite understand him. That minor miscommunication, though, created a village crisis.

Mistersugar2 was out, but I couldn’t, or didn’t, immediately round up a group of students and a pack of dogs to chase after my pig. Later that day, Obed went to feed his pigs in their pen, and noticed that Mistersugar2 had joined them. Obed threw a metal rod at him to shoo him out, but the rod speared my pig through the liver as it ran away.

I found Mistersugar2, with the help of our adopted son, Terry, in the underbrush in the hill above the school, and my pig was bleeding and weary. I tried to grab him, but he ran right at my legs and knocked me flat on my ass. I laughed and laughed at that, until I realized I had a dying pig to catch. We got Mistersugar2, and Noel butchered it eight ways.

I shared the meat with Tery and Noel and Kenneth and Chief Louis, but also took a portion to a sheepish Obed. I must have said something indignant to Noel about how I wished Obed had come to tell me about spearing Mistersugar2 (by the way, Ni-Vanuatu don’t name their pigs), and word spread through the village that I was angry with Obed. The next day, Chief Louis beat the tamtam and the village gathered in the nakamal to upbraid Obed. I wasn’t invited to that meeting, and so I sat across the road in my hammock, mortified that my inability to speak the language of Paama and my self-righteousness were the reason a 16-year-old boy, one of the most quiet and polite and responsible on the island, was crying in front of his community.

Obed came to say sorry, and I apologized to him, and the issue was resolved; in Ni-Vanuatu culture, a public sorry closes the books, even on cases of corruption, and the life of the village moves on. I can’t forget this though, and the one true way for me to make amends is for me to give Obed a pig, and so that’s the very first thing I will do when I return to Paama. Perhaps I should also give him a roll of wire fencing, so he won’t ever have to worry about pigs on the loose.

But why wait. There’s an organization that gives farm animals to needy families around the world. Please visit Heifer International and give a pig or chicken or goat today. Do it in honor of Noel, who passed away in 2002. He and Enna, his daughter, loved to take me to their pigpen to admire their filthy pigs. To them, those pigs were golden.

Anton Zuiker

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