Where the Hell is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells

Where the Hell is Tuvalu? describes the two and a bit years Ells spent working as the People's Lawyer, or the People's Liar as came to be known, in the world's 4th smallest independent nation during the mid 1990's. Focusing on his job and ex-pat life among the Tuvaluans, Ells self-deprecating humour makes this an interesting read and stands almost alone as the only travel book written on this country.

Disillusioned with the corporate world at the grand old age of 23, Ells decides to enroll with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an international development charity, and picks up a posting to Tuvalu, situated smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

With a total land area of 26 square kilometres and a population of close to 10,000, this is a nation that few will have heard of, which also applied to the author who spent three months pondering whether to take the assignment. Previously comprising the Ellice part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony (Kiribati making up the Gilbert component), the country only became fully independent in 1978. It's admission to the United Nations in 2000, means that it is the 6th newest UN-member (bizarrely beating Switzerland which only became a member in 2002!).

Where the Hell is Tuvalu? mostly concentrates on Ells' interactions with other palagis (pronounced pah-langis), the law cases he works and his daily life as an ex-pat on this tiny island. Naturally, most of his dealings with the Tuvaluan people is through the work he undertakes in his job as the People's Lawyer. It is in this role that he defends his clients mostly against charges of pig theft, traffic offences and drunken fighting. However, on "loan" to Kiribati his cases become much more gruesome, including rape and child abuse which signals a more somber tone to this part of the book.

Given his visit to, and Tuvalu's close historical connection to Kiribaiti, the book naturally lends itself to comparison with J. Maarten Troost's book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. While Where the Hell is Tuvalu? contains a greater number of funny events that take place, Troost's superior writing ability makes his book the pick of the two by some distance. That said, there is still plenty that appeals within Ells' offering.

Suffering constantly from giardiasis, we probably learn way too much about his bodily functions than is absolutely necessary with this knowledge usually imparted by way of humourous events that occur to Ells. Ells' considerable efforts to also become immersed in the Tuvaluan way of life ensures that we also get glimpses of some of their customs, which he observes in an entirely by non-judgemental fashion. There's also illustrations of some of the steadfast friendships he makes during his time on Tuvalu, both with other ex-pats and locals.

All up, Where the Hell is Tuvalu? is a good read, told in humourous fashion and one which provides a bit of knowledge on what life on Tuvalu is like. Given the dearth of books available on this tiny Polynesian nation, this is definitely recommended for anyone wanting to find out more about Tuvalu. So long as you're able to find it.

3 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Stefan Lins