Ells, Philip: The People’s Lawyer (2000) / Where the Hell is Tuvalu? (2006)

Where the Hell is Tuvalu - Philip Ells

The version I read was the original title The People’s Lawyer. I guess the title was changed to be more relevant to the place??

Autobiographies are such odd creatures. Truthfulness and memory seem to become victims to them. Not so in the case of Philip Ells.

Quite sensibly, Ells seems to have kept more or less up-to-date journals while staying on the Tuvalu Islands as a volunteer attorney. His veracity is such that one of the two official sites for the Tuvalu Islands has a link to his story.

As a new lawyer to the islands, Ells views his experiences differently from the manner he sees them by the time he leaves the place. Two years is just enough time for the culture to begin settling into your bones and possibly long enough for the locals to begin trusting you. This all-encompassing statement is made solely based on my own experiences of moving around a lot until I turned 29. Toward the end of his stay the women of Tuvalu had begun trusting Ells enough to let on about their own doubts about the fairness of the way women were treated. Until then, it was just something they seemed to accept as a way of life.

Seemingly idyllic, the Tuvalu islands are too small for life to be anything but a challenge. A population that was 9561 in 2002 grew to 11636 by 2005. I do not know what the numbers were when Ells was there from 1994-1996, but I imagine they were somewhat lower than the 2002 census shows. Some of the places he describes in his autobiography are now being built over with houses on stilts (borrowing holes used for waste). Ells himself touches upon the challenges of living in such an enclosed ecosystem and the conflicts between Western and Traditional ways of dealing with problems that occur.

While The People’s Lawyer / Where the Hell is Tuvalu? deals with serious issues, it is by no means a downer. In fact, I found it delightfully British. There is something wonderful about a people who manage to make fun of their own mistakes in such a dry manner that I am left giggling. Being bossed around by his “secretary”, discovering rats in his loo, suffering from the traditional bout of diarrhea and having practical jokes played on him by locals and other volunteers are just some of the hilarious experiences (for me as a reader anyways) that we get to share.

What Ells is left with when he leaves Tuvalu is an appreciation for the difference between who he was when he arrived and who he had become during his time on the islands along with a love of the people and the land.


Where the Hell is Tuvalu? on Amazon UK

Islands of Tuvalu

Tuvalu profile

Travel to Tuvalu

UN climate change funds not reaching Pacific island nations



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