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Message in a bottle


I, Mark Collins, have been living here on the island of Vanuaca for the past eight years conducting anthropological studies. During my time here, I have been living with the Narpola family. They have been very diligent in living their lives as normally as possible, even with me watching their every move — up until recently. But it is not the way this family lives which has interested me the most these eight years. What has truly interested me is the entire economic system this island uses.

What makes this island so unique? They use boar tusks as currency, with the teeth as the metaphoric change. From what the Narpolas tell me, the boar tusks, much like U.S. currency, used to actually be backed by something of real value to their culture, rare clamshells. But about one hundred years prior to my arrival, the clams were hunted to extinction in the surrounding waters, so the boar tusks stand alone now.

During my stay here, the Vanuacans have gone through some real hardships, including a war with a neighboring island. The war was due to a dispute over the land rights between the two islands. This other island, Quiroto, is a large provider of wheat, which was introduced by the Spaniards in the 1600s. Please understand that the Vanuacans can grow their own wheat here on their island, just not enough to keep up with the demand of its people. Bread is the main food source of the islanders here, so a wheat shortage is a dire situation for them.

Eventually the war concluded, with the chief of this island, Chief Tanbu, gaining the rights to half of all the farmland on Quiroto. And it is this Chief whom I have truly been studying the past two years. He gained the title of chief by way of death. His older brother was once chief, but died during a freak tsunami. Soon after, Tanbu was named chief until his nephew turns 18 and becomes the rightful successor to the title.

Chief Tanbu has drastically changed the dynamics of the boar-tusk system here. Where tusks were once gathered from the boars who were hunted for food, the boars are mainly hunted for their tusks now. This hunt usually occurred once a year for a feast to celebrate the arrival of spring. Now, Tanbu has made the hunt all year long, due to the demand for boar tusks. And the demand for the tusks now is due to the increased cost of wheat. I have asked the Narpola family if there has been an explanation why wheat is so expensive now that Chief Tanbu owns more farmland. They, too, realize that there should be abundance, but Tanbu tells the rest of the island that the crops are doing horribly on Quiroto because of an insect infestation.

I must admit that in the six years following the end of the war, Quiroto has not had a good growing season. The funny thing is, local bakers have continued to make just as much bread, if not more and larger loaves, since. I am no fool, but I must keep with the traditions of the islanders, and especially the Narpola family, and go along with the puppet show the chief is putting on.

From what I can tell, the chief is trying to make himself the richest man on the island, even after he loses the title of chief to his nephew. I have never seen so many tusks exchange hands as I have in the past year. And most of that is happening just to pay for the bread. This means many other craftsmen and women on the island are struggling. The Narpola family specializes in making pottery for the island. But with so many people seeing their tusks go to bread, they keep whatever extra tusks and teeth they can. I wish I could help this poor family out, but my paper money does them no good here.

Now that I see my study coming to an end as the grant money disappears, I must fear the worst for the fate of this island and its future chief. I have received word that the current chief intends to increase the amount of tusks in “circulation.” Tanbu has proposed to hunt down every adult boar, with the exception of the pregnant females, to gather as many tusks as possible for the islanders. The tusks gathered are going to be divided up equally according to family size, so that buying bread and other items, like the Narpola’s pottery, will be less of a financial burden on the islanders. And as is the custom here, the islanders are obeying their chief.

Although this may seem like a good thing for struggling families like my adopted Narpolas, next year is going to be too much to handle for them. See, it takes five years before a boar truly begins to develop its tusks. This means that Vanuaca, and even Quiroto, will be devoid of tusks for the next half-decade at least. So not only will the islanders have no means of buying their bread, I fear they might take out their frustrations on the new chief. And with Tanbu holding the largest amount of tusks, he is setting himself up to once again be the most powerful man on Vanuaca.

I pray for the islanders and their new young chief. This only makes me realize how truly lucky and blessed I am to be able to leave. I cannot wait to get back to logic and reason, to civilization. •

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