A new volunteer, I clambered into the open back of a truck on my way to a village school on the island of Espiritu Santo. Rolenas, a fellow teacher at the school, greeted me. Playing on a precarious-looking wooden slab beside her sat her daughter, a four-year-old with cherub cheeks and a headful of braids, waving from her head like vibrant tentacles tied with colorful beads. She stared at me from her deep-set eyes. “Hi-hi, olsem wanem?” I sang in Bislama. She continued staring. I ran into a store to buy her a bag of Twisties and some juice. By the end of our two-hour journey into the tropical bush, she was climbing all over me. I clearly remember this as the moment I met Fia, the first person I fell in love with in the island country of Vanuatu.
Over the next two years, Fia spent much of her time with me. Entranced by my strangely straight hair, she spent hours brushing it. I adored her curly braids and called her my little octopus girl. Her boundless zest for life filled what could have been my lonely days with laughter and belonging. Fia’s family became my own. Her aunts were sisters to me, and I spent countless nights talking with her parents. I played soccer with her father and taught alongside her mother, instructing the younger children in phonics and the high schoolers in English, drama, and dance. Rolenas’s patient explanations of the vagaries of Ni-Van culture helped me integrate myself into the community, and her willingness to teach me everything from mat-weaving and traditional cooking to taro-planting and rooster-killing introduced me to skills I never knew I needed. In the lingering shadows of sleepy afternoons, we would wash our clothes together, sharing hopes and dreams that ran through our chatter as suds ran through our hands.
Prior to the end of my service, Fia’s grandfather, the village chief, performed a simple, heartbreakingly sweet adoption ceremony involving a massive conch shell, forever joining me to my island family. The ritual worked: I still return to Vanuatu as often as possible—either in visits, or by listening to the shell.
Fia handed me that very shell, called a bubu, during one such visit. “Mommy Jennifer, this is for you, from your baby, Small Jacy,” she said. My Peace Corps family had named Fia’s new brother Jacy, after my own youngest brother. Holding the hefty shell in my hands. I realized that, in myriad ways, this remote South Pacific archipelago had irreversibly embedded me within its very soul.
Enormous, and polished to perfection, the shell gleams in shades of tan and pink and white, its swirls and whorls beautifully demonstrating the complex patterns of nature. Such shells, symbols of chiefdom, power, and friendship, were once used as money on the islands, and are still used to call people to meetings. Shells this large are are passed down through generations, appearing at ceremonies or as part of a bride price.
The sparkling shell serves as a concrete symbol of connection, bridging traditions and cultures, even oceans and distances. I am now a nurse-midwife who welcomes new lives into my hands every day. The joy in my patients’ eyes testifies to the huge gift I was given in the form of my Ni-Van godchildren, Fia and Small Jacy. In the spring of 2019, they were joined by a third sibling, Baby Jaret, named in honor of my other brother.
Jaret was only a few months old when I travelled back to Vanuatu to meet him. Fia, Small Jacy, and Baby Jaret sat with me on a bamboo mat as I showed them photos of my life in America. Small Jacy, now a mischievous kindergartener, ecstatically pointed out the photo of the huge bubu shell elegantly lording over my dresser.
“Remember when I gave you that?” he asked, curled up on the part of my lap not occupied by his baby brother.
“Of course,” I told him. “It’s my favorite.”
“When you listen to it, can you hear me?”
“Always,” I replied, cuddling him close, with Fia pressed into my side and Baby Jaret drooling into my shirt. “Always.”