on August 31st 2011
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How does a young City lawyer end up as the People's Lawyer of the fourth-smallest country in the world, 18,000 kilometres from home?
We've all thought about getting off the treadmill, turning life on its head and doing something worthwhile. Philip Ells dreamed of turquoise seas, sandy beaches and palm trees, and he found these in the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu. But neither his Voluntary Service Overseas briefing pack nor his legal training could prepare him for what happened there.
He learned to deal with rapes, murders, incest, the unforgivable crime of pig theft and to look a shark in the eye. But he never dared ask the octogenarian Tuvaluan chief why he sat immobilised by a massive rock permanently resting on his groin.Well, you wouldn't, would you?
This is the story of a UK lawyer colliding with a Pacific island culture. The fallout is moving, dramatic, bewildering and often hilarious.
Philip Ells was a lawyer in London and he was burnt out. He decided to escape his high pressure job by volunteering with Voluntary Service Overseas. He was sent to Tuvalu to be the People’s Lawyer. That job is basically serving as a defense attorney for anyone who needs one. There aren’t native lawyers available for people. The prosecuting attorney was also an ex-pat.
This job came with some problems that he hadn’t expected. In Tuvalu there just isn’t much crime. It is also customary to go to the police and write out a full confession immediately if you commit a crime. Everyone pleads guilty. That makes life for your defense attorney much harder. His main job was to try to get the sentences as short as possible for his clients by whatever means necessary. This led to most of the island residents calling him “The People’s Liar.” He filled out the rest of his time by writing threatening letters to government officials of behalf of citizens. That can get awkward when you then meet the officials socially or over tennis.
He also inherited Laita, a secretary/translator/paralegal with his office. She feels that the less he knows the better. He can cause fewer problems that way.
This book is written about his two years of service in the 1990s. That means that the community in Tuvalu had very limited access to the outside world. There was no internet and mail may not come if there were extra passengers on the plane.
|From Google Maps|
This is the main island of Funafuti. The town is on the eastern side.
This is the whole island nation. The islands are spread far apart and there was a boat that tried to make a circuit of them about once a month. Sometimes it brings back fruits and vegetables. Most of the time it doesn’t which leads to ex pat fantasies of the joys of a potato.
The ex pats and the natives of Tuvalu never truly understand each other. The author writes about this with self-deprecating wit. He comes to appreciate the quietness of the island especially after being loaned out to Kiribati and working for seven weeks on many horrific crimes in that country in addition to a Constitutional crisis.
He may have even been able to do some good such as helping teach a three day seminar on the legal rights of women in an area where domestic violence is not taken seriously by the police.
This is an unusual memoir in that the epilogue tell what other people in the book are doing now but never updates what the author did after leaving Tuvalu.