A combination of circumstances gave me the opportunity to collect primary data on Araki in 1997-1998, after I had been contacted by an old man from Araki, called Lele Moli.
While on my way to the Banks Islands where I was intending to study the language of Mwotlap for my PhD, it so happened that I was stuck in the city of Luganville (Santo) for a few weeks, with a leg in plaster, after… a football accident! But every cloud has a silver lining. This unexpected condition of mine gave me the opportunity to meet Lele Moli, then aged 76, who was spending some time in the city too. One of the very last fluent speakers of Araki, he was eager for his language to be recorded, before it disappeared altogether. I was surprised to witness such a rare awareness, by the speakers themselves, of their own language's endangerment, and of the importance of documenting it for posterity.
He told me he had even written a letter to his government a few years earlier, asking them to send him a linguist. After several years of waiting in vain, he was relieved to see I had come at last – as though our chance encounter had been planned somehow. Despite my plans to study another language, of course I accepted his offer immediately. To be sincere, I was also excited to fulfil the dream of my teenage years, of discovering and “rescuing” a highly endangered language. (This dream, incidentally, was to be fulfilled again and again during my later years of fieldwork in Melanesia, to my joy – and to my despair.)
I then spent several weeks visiting Lele Moli in his house of Luganville city, on a daily basis. Let me here again thank him, as well as his son Graham Lele and his family, for their patience and kindness. This was my first encounter with a Melanesian language, so I was working slowly, and asked many silly questions. As I was also a beginner in Bislama, our contact language, it was sometimes hard to capture all the nuances of the translations Lele would give me… Yet after some days, I began to make sense of his language, and enjoyed it.
Later on, in 1998 and 2003, I was able to spend some time on the island of Araki, which of course told me a lot more about the language and its environment. This also gave me the opportunity to meet the other speakers of Araki, most of them in their old years… except for Lele Moli's granddaughter, who was only seven! Having been raised by her grandfather, she was – and will surely remain – the youngest fluent speaker of her ancestral language.
On that occasion, I estimated the number of Araki fluent speakers to be nine. Sadly, Lele Moli passed away in June 2000, without seeing the fruit of our collaboration.