‘Where The Hell Is Tuvalu?’ tells the story of Philip Ells, who spent three years (1993 – 1996) working as the People’s Lawyer in one of the smallest countries in the world. The book is an honest account of his experiences in the South Pacific region.
Philip, a young English lawyer, decides to leave everything behind and seek a new purpose in life. So he quits his job and applies to VOS, the UK-based charity that places volunteers in developing countries so they can share their skills and knowledge with local people. What sounds like a great adventure, turns out to be an even greater challenge.
Soon upon his arrival in Tuvalu, Philip discovers a completely different world. A tiny island with an even tinier population plus hot and humid weather can be quite a shock for someone who has just come from densely populated, foggy Britain. But with a little help from his newly met friends, Philip learns how to cope with the demands of everyday life. He starts to understand people’s attitudes and behaviours, gets used to the largely unvaried diet with lots of canned food, and adjusts to sharing one room with dozen of ants. As the only law man in the country, he deals with a wide variety of criminal offenses, ranging from a pig theft to incest and murders. Every single day brings him something new: a new beginning, a new chance, a new joy, or a new sorrow.
The book is hilarious and will make you laugh out loud from the very first page. The thoroughly compelling story is embellished with the author’s fine, sophisticated sense of humour that reveals his intelligence and sparkling wit. Being British, Philip Ells is not afraid of poking fun at himself. Whether it’s his cultural incompetence or yet another faux pas that he makes, he doesn’t mind writing about it with a healthy dose of self-deprecation.
Of course, not every chapter of this memoir will bring a smile to your face. The book gets a little more serious in its second half, as it broaches the subjects of domestic violence and women’s rights. These parts give readers fascinating insights into Tuvaluan lifestyle and traditions. What’s admirable about Ells is that he doesn’t judge – he describes, he shares his opinions, but he does not criticize. Even though some cases leave him filled with anger, he tries to accept the fact that different cultures have different moral codes, and sometimes a change for the better can take a long time.
The book is written in a casual and mostly light-hearted manner that is engaging and very appealing. Ells, as a narrator, is completely honest and quite straightforward – he shows everything and hides practically nothing. Just read the description of his first date with a lovely Tuvaluan girl and you will know what I mean.
The only thing you should not expect from this account is action. Yes, the pace is rather slow. However, this is a travelogue-cum-memoir, so such ‘laziness’ is perfectly acceptable. Besides, it’s the island time! You should just sit, relax, and enjoy your life.
‘Where The Hell Is Tuvalu?’ is a great read. It is actually the only non-fiction book (apart from travel guides) about this South Pacific country. Certain Tuvaluan customs and practices have obviously changed since the 1990s, but still, you can get the picture.