The ‘nuclear free’ Vanuatu girl with the enchanting smile

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Report by David Robie. This article was first published on Café Pacific


Riding out from Aneityum Island to the grass airstrip for the return flight back to Tanna.

By DAVID ROBIE

She had the most enchanting smile, even though she had lost
her baby teeth. Her toothless grin turned out to be perfect for the role.

The five-year-old girl had her face painted with a black anti-nuclear symbol –
different motifs on both her cheeks.

Beside her was a neatly drawn poster: “No nukes: Please
don’t spoil my beautiful face”.

This was the scene in Port Vila’s Independence Park in 1983
during the region’s second Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement
conference.

It was during the heady days of nuclear-free activism with
Vanuatu, the world’s newest nation only three years old and founding Prime
Minister Walter Hadye Lini leading the way.


I was there that day as an independent journalist taking
many photographs for my series of articles for Pacific and international media.

One person who really stood out was the little girl with the
beautiful smile. But I never knew her name back then.

June Warigini and her copy of Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face with her and her mother, Annie Keitadi, featured
in the cover photograph. Image: Del Abcede


33 years on

Thirty-three years have passed since then and my wife, Del
Abcede, and I have just visited Aneityum (“Atomic”) Island in Vanuatu this week
to meet that girl –
June Keitadi and her family.

She is now June Warigini, mother of three, grandmother and a
Salvation Army volunteer living on her home island. And she still has that
stunning smile.

I wanted to present her with a copy of my 2014 book, Don’t Spoil My beautiful Face, that was inspired by her and she is featured on
the cover.

Not only June, her mother Annie Keitadi is featured there
too. Her father, Jack Keitadi, was deputy curator of the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta
at the time and he later became curator.

It was a delight and a privilege for Del and me to be able
to visit the family on Aneityum and to be treated to a “royal” welcome by the
extended family and tribe.

June remembers that day in 1983 really well. It left a deep
impression on her in later life.

“They wanted someone young who could go on their behalf to
the French Embassy and present a petition calling on France to halt its nuclear
tests in the Pacific – so they chose me,” she recalls.

Symbolic of N-ravages
She remembers her toothless smile was regarded as symbolic
of the ravages of nuclear testing in the Pacific, not only by France, but also
the United States and Britain.

“But the ambassador left in a hurry out the back. I don’t
know why he was afraid of a little girl.”

Faced with persistent protests in the Pacific, France
eventually ended all nuclear testing in 1996, thirteen years after that rally.
But the campaign for full compensation for the victims of nuclear testing
continues.

June feels that her experience at that young age helped give
her an inner strength for the challenges of life today and inspiring her in her
desire to help others in her church work.

Del and David Robie in ceremonial headdress on Aneityum.

Ironically, both Del and I met her by chance on Christmas
Day at the end of last year, but had no idea at that time of her connection
with my book.

While visiting Aneityum for a day, we shared in a “olden
days” traditional food and customs exposure in a model 18th century village on
the island.

When we eventually discovered her identity – after my
appeals on my blog Café Pacific and an NFIP network had failed and Vanuatu Daily Digest came to the rescue earlier this year – and we saw photographs
of her, my wife exclaimed:

“That’s her, the June we have met.”

We realised that the guide “June” we had met that day on the
island was indeed June Keitadi now Warigini.

Idyllic island
Aneityum, the southernmost island in Vanuatu, currently has
a population of 1740. It is not part of Vanuatu’s electricity grid and
islanders rely on solar power. The island has no cars, or even a road.

The air connection is only two return flights a week from
the Tafea provincial capital on Tanna.

There is also no doctor, although a dispensary is now
operating with two nurses and a midwife.

On the other hand, for visitors like ourselves, island life
seems idyllic, a byword for “paradise”.
Aneityum has a wonderful healthy lifestyle for youngsters,
remote from the world’s conflicts and problems.

There are three primary schools and a boarding secondary
school – one that attracts students from other outer islands whose parents want
an education where the traditional way of life is important and free from the
urban ills of Port Vila.

June is assistant bursar at Teruja secondary school.

She tells a delightful story about a recent excursion for
students from Aneityum who went on a “field trip” adventure by island cargo
ship to Tanna to visit the famous Mt Yasur volcano.

The island’s micro economy is self-sustaining and is
augmented by occasional cruise ship visits and tourism days on Mystery Island.
It appears that Aneityum is remote from government services or assistance and
the support of cruise shipping companies, such as P&O, is crucial for the
islanders.

Annie Keitadi, Jack Keitadi and their daughter June with author David Robie. Image: Del Abcede

Thank you June, for your hospitality and sharing your life and family: husband
Ruyben; daughter Letisha and granddaughter Pauline Rose; eldest son Alphonse (away on Efate Island) and
youngest son Ray.

And we enjoyed meeting your parents, Annie and Jack Keitadi,
along with the extended family, your cousins, uncles and aunts, on our all too
short visit.




Tank yu Tumas


June and Ruyben Warigini and their youngest son Ray. Image: Del Abcede 
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