MY PLACEMENT IN VANUATU
I volunteered with Lattitude back in the first half of 2009 and opted for the Vanuatu programme as I was keen to try and do something different and experience as radical a break as possible from what I had known until then, whilst also hoping to try and make a positive impact of some kind.
Eventually I was dispatched to Paama island; one of the tiniest and unnoticeable islands in a small and largely overlooked country. It certainly offered me both the challenge and the profoundly different existence I was hoping to encounter. As anybody who has spent any time in Vanuatu knows, the country is a wonderful place, which is difficult to summarise concisely. Rural Vanuatu has a lifestyle and infrastructure that can make you feel like you have gone back in time, whilst the less-visited islands are so isolated to seem at times like another planet!
For the tourist Vanuatu offers the picture-perfect paradise beaches, miles of reefs for snorkelling and some of the most celebrated scuba-diving on the planet. Various active volcanoes with different degrees of accessibility shoot lava into the sky. Each island retains its own languages, own customs, and some spectacular rituals whilst maintaining a remarkable nationwide spirit- the inhabitants redefine hospitality with an incredible generosity and friendliness that every visitor remembers forever. All this alone is amazing enough but placements there and a longer stay offer so much more. I still feel very fortunate to have chosen Vanuatu and had the chance to live there a short time.
Once at Vaum Junior Secondary School I was housed in the old library on the school grounds: the bamboo walls and tin roof served in luxurious contrast to the hut that volunteers had lived in before. With no running water and extremely intermittent electricity on some evenings, I adjusted quickly to a simpler way of living. Though the repetitive rations provided by the school could get tedious, the tropical nature of the islands provides a constant supply of ever-changing seasonal fruit and you can never go hungry! Indeed it’s unlikely that you’ll ever want for anything that the islands can provide- from the very first moment there, all the staff and community were absurdly welcoming, with some members of the community adopting me like family.
The school was a boarding school and I was expected to teach as well as take on other responsibilities. I was assigned as Class Tutor for Class 9A, and when on-duty had to host morning devotion, assemblies, meal-times, and evening prep on a rota with the other staff. I was assigned to teach Agriculture and R.E, and whilst these were certainly tricky (and slightly bizarre!) subjects for me to cope with initially with no previous teaching experience, going truly outside of your comfort zone is the only way to really develop. After only a few weeks I had picked up enough Bislama to converse with local people, which was absolutely magic. To be so far from home, and yet be able to walk into any village in the country and speak to the people, to be comfortable, is a really empowering thing.
It’s impossible to summarise the time there succinctly but I think it still remains the single most rewarding thing I have ever undertaken in my life. Vanuatu placements are intense and you should anticipate that it will invoke new emotions in you as you experience life amongst brilliant, unique, joyful people. It will change you for the better.
Highlights are really are far too numerable to mention! But include:
- Being applauded by my class after they enjoyed a speech I made; hearing the school kids sing everyday
- The Ni-Vanuatu people, and being able to speak with them in Bislama
- Hearing a tremendous bang from Mt Marum or Mt Benbow on neighbouring Ambrym island and running out of the classroom to see if it was erupting
- Standing on the edge of Mt Yasur and watching the lava
- Drinking Kava and chatting with locals in the nakamal at sundown
- Various adventures surrounding travel inside the country: 3 nights onboard a small cargo ship back to Paama island, island hopping in a tiny 8-seater plane, seasickness onboard another ship which went straight past our island and left us stranded on another
- Spending a night on Lopevi, the now-uninhabited conical volcano that rises out of the sea next to Paama, turning 21, pulling in a live shark from the sea