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In Bislama, the creole language of Vanuatu, go kambak means to leave with the intention to return (go come back). In many ways, this project can be seen as a homecoming for Donnalyn: Sharing photographs became sharing our stories, and revisiting the past allowed her to rediscover the connection she still bears to North Efate and its people. At the same time, "go kambak" is a promise I gave to her family when I left in 2014. Meeting Donnalyn was a special circumstance: We returned to a connected past, experienced independently from one another.
I met Donnalyn's brother Jairus at the harbour of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, in November 2014. He invited me to his family's home near Tanoliu village, in the north of the island. I ended up staying for five weeks, spending every day with Donnalyn's siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunties, nephews and nieces.
Since farming, livestock, fishing, hunting and foraging were the main contributors to their sustenance, I spent most of my time exploring the vegetable gardens and surrounding bush lands with them, while always learning more about the Ishmael family and their way of life at the same time. Unaware of its future relevance, I produced a vast body of films and photographs via DSLR and GoPro, to which Donnalyn's nephews and nieces contributed substantially by, for example, taking the GoPro for bike rides or staging dances in front of the DSLR.
During my stay I got told that the family has been in a legal struggle for their land for years, after a chief from another island had claimed it to be his and sold it to a foreign investor. Everyone anticipated forceful eviction by the police, however during my stay the ministry of lands responded that the matter was to be delayed. A few months after I left, the eviction order was suddenly granted, and the family was forced to take down their houses and burn parts of their crops, give up their livestock and leave the area. In 2015, I produced an emotive short film for social media from the recorded footage, using subtitles in Bislama, to bring attention to the Ishmael's situation (which was also reported on in national news), and to spark discussions in various Ni-Van forums about the Vanuatu land ownership issue in general.
Donnalyn and her husband Chris (who, for personal reasons does not like to be filmed or photographed) met in the late 2000's, after he anchored his boat in Port Havannah - the final stop of his word travel. After having had the second child (Christina, following Edward), they decided to move back to Chris's home, the UK. Soon, Will and James followed. In December 2017 they moved from England to Scotland, where they now live with their dog Winnie and a dozen chickens. After having been in and out of contact via Facebook with Donnalyn for some years, I finally met her and her family in April 2018.
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