“Who has bought their knife into school today?” said the Headmaster to all the pupils aged from six to twelve, on the first day of their school year. When only a handful hesitantly raised their hands he continued ‘Why haven’t more of you? We all need to cut the grass!” From this moment on I knew I was in for more than just a change of scenery for six months.
Pentecost is a small South Pacific tropical island, part of the tiny Pacific county of Vanuatu and home to 12,000 people and a perfect setting for a gap year volunteering adventure. Volunteering away had always been the plan for my gap year. I had known for years before that I wanted to spend time between school and university being a primary school teacher. What I could not have imagined was how much the six month experience would enrich my life and teach me about a completely different culture.
Vanuatu is famous for being the ‘Happiest Place in the World’ as rated by the 2006 London New Economics Foundation, and being the country with the highest number of languages per capita population. It is also a world famous scuba diving site and known as one of the most exciting culturally diverse place in the world despite being home to just 200,000 people. To me, at the start, it was just an escape far away from suburban North London, but by the end it was home, I was firmly rooted in school and village life and was able to sing the national anthem ‘Yumi, Yumi’ with genuine pride.
Lattitude(www.lattitude.org.uk) take 17-25 year olds to any one of thirty different countries. You can do ecological volunteering in Brazil, be a nurse in Japan or a primary school teacher in Malawi. It gives parents comfort of mind with insurance and country specific reps and gives the young people a support network and group of friends to share the adventure with.
An orientation week in the beautiful capital city of Port Vila and on the small island of Nguna gave us a taste of island life; cooking with coconut milk, bush walking and string bands. The sixteen in my group also had seminars about teaching, traditional kustom beliefs of locals and our expected behaviour in the villages we would be sent out to on the outer islands.
Then just as we were getting comfortable we flew out on small ‘island hopper’ twin engine planes to our various new island homes across the country. Placed in pairs, these would be the only ‘white people’ we would saw for weeks at a time. The first few weeks were the hardest. It was a steep learning curve as we got used to teaching, making fires for cooking and showering in our own waterfall! We soon learnt what was expected of us and what was taboo. We were allowed to skip church on Sundays but could not chat with young women in the village.
I was placed in a coastal village called Nambwarangniut, ten miles or so from the airport. There were ninety in the village, many had lived there all their lives. Everyone grows their own food in gardens up in the hills and catch and kill fish and animals when they want or for special occasions. These people would become my best friends and my family- especially when the phone was broken, post was not arriving and all contact with the outside world was a distant memory.
The children walked from surrounding villages to the school which had been set up by missionaries in the 1950’s. Resources were basic and textbooks scarce. Still the children were always keen to learn, they would bring flowers picked on their way to school each morning and my partner and I were paid in never-before-seen exotic fruit and vegetables. Working alongside the Ni-Van teachers we were included in island life socially, Teachers Christian Fellowship on Tuesdays and Kava drinking in the village meeting house or nakamal, a dark coconut –leaf woven hut, on Fridays and Saturdays. Kava is a root vegetable grown on the island that when pulped and added to water forms a muddy looking narcotic drink. Drunk from a coconut shell in a crouched position it could not be more different from having a pint on a Saturday night in any British city-centre pub.
Being a small country I met the Prime Minister three times, borrowed his speed boat once for a weekend away, and was able to chat with the Anglican Bishop of Vanuatu about his trip to Lambeth Palace. I was able to sell medicine to my local dispensary, get free treatment for being a volunteer and had a discount to watch the awe inspiring and stomach churning land-diving in the south of Pentecost. This is where men and boys jump out and fall to the ground from wooden platforms with vines attached to their legs, the original bungee jumping, all in celebration of the Yam harvest, rather them than me.
The gap year experience gave me an incredible opportunity to live in and understand a totally alien culture- something I loved and hated at different times during my stay. Teaching proved to be a challenge sometimes, but positive and enriching for me and my students. The South Pacific landscape, sea and sunsets and relaxed way of life were the hardest to leave, while sharing a bamboo house with rats and lack of internet for months at a time were reasons to return to modern Britain. Lattitude provided a structure to my six months away. It provided support when there were disagreements with the school and comfort when we were preparing for our time away. It was accessible when necessary but distant enough to leave us to experience our own unique adventure.
A brief description of my six months stay in Vanuatu. This will put some of my photos in context