April 1, 2018: Utanlang Good-bye and Final Reflections
Top things I will surely and sometimes sadly forget about village life:
1. The children chanting ‘go Morris, go Morris’ as Morris zips his boat around the point and into Utanlang’s shore.
2. The fact that everyone knows who’s boat is rounding the bend to the village before it is visible based on the sound of the engine … even a 4 yr old has a guess…accuracy gets better with age…to a point.
3. The echoing sound of water filling my bathing bucket in the dead quiet night when the rest of the village is on water restrictions.
4. The feeling of interconnectedness with village life where all things are shared, everyday and everyone knows everything!
5. The sound of the wind as it rolls over the hills, through the trees and into the windows of my little grass hut, tinkling my shell chimes that I brought from home.
6. Nigh-time noises – rats scurrying, crabs scampering, pigs squealing, roosters crowing, and perfect silence.
7. The sound of Willie’s reassuring voice over the loudspeaker in the mornings announcing the morning village news – e.g., when the meeting bell rings, people are expected to attend the meeting; what the work project is for the day…that people are also expected to attend; church news…..These announcements are all done in local language so I can only understand snipits when enough bislama/english is used, but his voice ringing through the village has been a reassuring sound for me that all is right in our little corner of the world, the day has started and something is happening.
8. Lying in bed and hearing the sound of Willie and the women singing church hymns when the sun is barely up in the sky and certainly not above the hill yet.
9. After relentless searching for the cool spot in the shade finding a bit of a breeze under a mango tree that is still hot but is the only relief available and always with a half dozen others seeking the same relief.
10. Frankie, Freddie, Tasale, Marina, Erica and the rest of the five-and-under squad screaming my name when they catch sight of me from across the village.
11. The happiest look on Lie Tap’s face when we went to the city to buy school supplies and to pick up some donated supplies – the wall clock was most important.
12. The overwhelming flow of emotions from so many in the village when it was time for me to move out of the village; at five in the morning all lined up to shake my hand and share a final hug – a part of me wanted to be in their line saying good-bye to someone else as I had done so many times in the past two years.
13. The mix of emotions I had at my farewell celebration, ready and looking forward to moving on but then, Betina giving me a beautiful mat with a message woven in it from her to me – her whispering in my ear as she was crying, how important my friendship has been to her and how much she will miss me…..this weight of profound impact I have had on individuals and their impact on me that will reveal itself in time.
14. Early morning moon setting over the water.
It’s been almost two weeks since I left the village and five days since I left Vanuatu. I’m sitting in a stunning bay just north of Sydney on a sailboat working slowly on my adjustment to leaving the village, working to process transitions. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write this final post; how to put into words reflections on my time in the village, the work accomplished and not, my friends and family left behind, the farewell process, and what carries forward with me as I move on.
In my first blog post, nearly two years ago when first moving to the village, I talked about the hope I saw and sensed in people at the welcoming ceremony when I was given my custom name – Lien Temate, a dress and was introduced to my sweet host family. I was scared and nervous, taking on this life on the far side of the volcano where there was no internet, poor cell reception, no electricity or running water, or access to anything remotely developed. It was just me and this little village of a few families that have been very welcoming to women marrying into the village from other islands…..but have never had a white person live with them.
At the farewell celebration, I talked about this journey that we have been on, the entire village and I. It was evening two weeks ago, and the whole village was involved in preparing for and celebrating my two years with them. I was served local fowl cooked in coconut milk, had a delicious lobster, fried fish and soup with chicken along with several kinds of lap lap (manioc or banana baked in a stone oven in the ground). Before we ate, people gave speeches that always started with an apology for any failings, work they didn’t do but had promised to do, all the talk and lack of action, disappointing me in some way or not meeting expectations. The speeches were equally as gracious as apologetic, recognizing sacrifices I made to spend two years with them, away from my own family and friends. They also commented about the work we had done together, our accomplishments like starting the fishing association and the primary school class-one.
By the time we started the evening program it was dark. A generator was powering an overhead light in the nakemal (custom material shelter where we hold community meetings and celebrations with bamboo tables and benches). Seventeen children walked across the island after school that afternoon to attend the celebration. They carried a box of books for our new class-one schoolroom that I had requested from the principle at the school on the south side of the island, passing the box between the older children as they walked the nine kilometers to Utanlang. More children came from the city by boat and everyone was in attendance in the evening for the celebration. Older people and the children sat up close, on the benches in the light. Others were scattered off in the dark, sitting quietly and listening.
Speeches were given by many leaders. The final person to speak was my friend Betina. Batina is a quiet, reserved woman. I could see that standing before the village and talking was very uncomfortable for her. She spoke briefly about our time together, the knitting and computer classes, our friendship and quiet talks, my encouragement and support for her to develop and teach our new class- one students on the three new computers we have in the village. She wove a beautiful mat from bandannas leaves – a large rectangle with dark purple died leaves fading to natural tan color with a message to me, using my English name. She openly cried as she thanked me telling me that I made such a difference for her. When I stood to except her gifts, I whispered in her ear my love for her and how she made it good to be in the village many times when it was hard. She is one of several in the village that shared their love, trust, and genuine friendship with me.
I had been thinking for a week about what I wanted to communicate in my final talk. This would be a talk of celebration, a story about our time together and what we accomplished….but first, an apology. In this culture of shaming and blaming, apologies are a must so I started off with an apology for….well, for being frustrated many times. My frustration came from the lots of talk of needs/wants, problems and planning some discussions of possible solutions….and then no action. After my apologies, I told a story, the story of me and the village; my arrival and accompanying fear. I made some jokes about me fitting into village life which after two years of honing my humor got chuckles (e.g., early on my struggles with starting a fire and my morning match counts, reporting on how many matches it took me to light my cooking fire the night before – 20 at most, many looked forward to this morning report).
I talked about how initially I walked to a different house every morning, to get a cup full of hot water and to sit and chat, getting to know people. After a month, the village bought me a thermos – the ‘white man’ interpretation is that this is unwelcomed behavior when really what they meant was that every house has a thermos and therefore I should have one too. I also talked about the computer classes, work with the kindy, establishing a fishing co-op, starting the primary school, all our celebrating and the leadership changes that we struggled through as a community. I think my talk did what I wanted it to do – unify us as one story, struggling, celebrating, thriving and living together over the course of these two years.
There was much more that I wanted to say but we still had to launch the class-one computer classes that would start next week and the food was waiting, we were all hungry. While the women prepared the plates, I slipped away to share a bottle of wine with Dolly. We talked about her two girls and their plans after they finish secondary school – limited options but with a scholarship maybe they could study in Australia or Fiji.
Upon my return to the nakemal, a table cloth was laid out for me with bowls of food and jokes were made that I was expected to eat everything given my tendency toward light eating compared to their very hearty eating, especially at a celebration. I savored every bit of the lobster and talked about lobster and other seafood in the U.S. At this point it was just me and a couple of leaders sitting at the table and I was asked to share thoughts about what the village needs to do to receive another volunteer (they will spell for one year, taking time to make changes in the village before they get the second of three scheduled volunteers). They asked what they could do different once that volunteer comes. I told them two things: the volunteer wants to be included in every aspect of village life so try not to view him/her as a white person but simply as another member of the village, invite him/her to the garden, to go collecting shell and catching crab – encourage participation in the work as well as the fun; and, it is the burden of the village to find the gifts the next volunteer brings – he/she will be different from me and the village must work to find the special treasures this next person brings.
The rest of the weekend, I spent eating with a couple of different families. It was hard to say good-bye to everyone with genuine emotion – over and over again. I was exhausted by the end of the weekend but then there was the last good-bye early Monday morning with everyone lined up at the beach to shake hands and give hugs. I worked my way down the line hugging and kissing all the women and some of the men, whispering sweet thoughts to some of them, hugging some hard and crying with a few. As the boat pulled away, people lingered on the beach waving until we were around the point and out of sight.
Once in Port Vila, I had several days with a few Peace Corps friends to process our time and departures from our villages. Now I spend some bit of time thinking about my time in the village – working to make sense of our exchange – what we both offered and gained from this experience.
Here are lists of some of the soft and hard accomplishments I can provide at this point:
• Acquired a small development grant that acted as a catalyst for the men to form a fishing association that is registered with the government and may allow them to receive further assistance by way of resources and training to develop the fishing.
• Through the grant, purchased a 240L ice box and solar kit (regulator, inverter, four huge batteries, solar panels), many fishing nets, spear guns, repair parts for spear guns, and dive gear. The men can rent the equipment if their’s is broken or if they don’t have gear and want to start fishing. They can also purchase the repair parts in the village to fix broken spear guns saving them the $20 transport costs to get to/from the city.
• Trained a half dozen adults and a dozen secondary students on basic computer skills with two old computers that were donated upon my arrival to the village.
• Launched a small library with books donated from the Port Vila Rotary Club.
• As part of the grant, we acquired two new laptops and, along with a third donated laptop, to replace the old, failing laptops. Several people were trained on how to make brochures for the tourism business that they hope to develop.
• Willie was trained on video editing with the new laptops and has been a film making fiend. He has made videos of the building of the school house, a two minute thank-you message for donations and is charged with posting videos to fb for partner organizations that have helped us over these past two years.
• Developed and launched a computer class for class-one students, likely the only village-based weekly computer class program in the entire country of Vanuatu for primary students (maybe there are regular computer classes in the city schools, but not in any villages, I am quite sure). This is a small income for Betina, the teacher, and is set up in a way that she can expand to the small school up in the middle of the island if she so chooses.
• Brought Solar SPELL digital library to the village (a Univ of Arizona project – http://solarspell.org ) and put it to good use for homework help, see my story here (http://solarspell.org/solarspell-influence-in-vanuatu-letter-from-nancy-peace-corps-volunteer ).
• Expanded the computer committee to include Betina, the computer teacher, Lei Wia, the librarian, and Onz to expand the computer usage in the community with goals including: expanded computer training for children living in the village, offer computer classes to older students home on school break, and classes for adults; have monthly programs using the Solar SPELL resources (e.g., show videos on climate change relative to the south pacific and disaster preparedness; host trivia research games with the downloaded wikipedia); use the music making software to remix the villages string-band recordings; teach others video editing and make a music video – lots of ideas and opportunities to use computers for learning and for fun.
• Building of a small, one-room school house using local materials, and starting a class-one school with plans to expand to class two and beyond in the coming years; thereby keeping the young children in the village with their families – everyone is healthier and happier for this.
• Receiving donations of money and supplies for the school. We needed the absolute basics – a wall clock most importantly as the teacher did not have even 50 cents to charge her phone so she could keep track of her class schedule. We also purchased alphabet and number charts for the walls, workbooks, pencils, glue, two reams of paper. The Rotary club in Brisbane sent us nice wooden puzzles, musical instruments, alphabet and number flash cards among other supplies. I also left Lei Tap oodles of office supplies that my parents had sent me in care packages (thank-you once again Lolly and Dad for all those goodies and support).
• Living as the locals do – cooking over a fire, collecting firewood, growing a garden, struggling through the hard times and celebrating the good times – a learning curve for the village as they see white people only living in the city with electricity, water, gas stove etc….and certainly a learning curve for me in terms of survival skills as well as holding my ground – for some equality and independence.
• In a post colonial state where the locals remember white people having the power and black people showing utmost respect, battling sometimes on a daily basis for equal respect (me giving in equal measure to what I am receiving – refusing special treatment that made my skin crawl at times).
• When John and I first started talking about the fishing grant, we attended meetings at the Dept of Fisheries, the Dept of Co-op Dev., and the Peace Corps Office. He then took the initiative to register the co-op and have follow up meetings. My hope is that overtime, John and other fishermen become new leaders in the village and that the fishing association gives them opportunity to develop some leadership skills.
• Repeatedly talking about and putting into practice the process of identifying something we want to change or develop (e.g., the kindy program), analyzing what works and does not work then developing a course of action to create or improve things. This was coupled with talks about not waiting for the white man, government or anyone else to tell us what we need to do – stressing that we can find our way forward – we are smart, capable and able to ‘develop’ (what ever that means to the village) and are not helpless, waiting to be rescued. I believe the primary school is a direct result of this thinking put into action. This was quite a hurdle to overcome as the village culture is about waiting to be told what to do – by chiefs, church, govt. The only thing the govt did was put up road blocks. Willie was instrumental in putting our talk into action and building the school
• Strategizing with the teachers about how to promote the work they do in school so that (1) parents will see the value of school and PAY THE SCHOOL FEES; (2) better understand that they are the first teachers and what they can do to help at home. I also had some great conversations with some moms about how I saw their kids doing in our new little school house, encouraging them to visit and to get engaged.
• Probably most importantly to me, making genuine friendships with so many people in the village.
o Making pizza with families,
o family time with Jenny and the kids,
o cooking with Batina,
o killing a rooster with Teresa then making rooster and dumplings,
o climbing the volcano with Harry,
o Friday night dance parties with the girls – in the dark when no one is watching and they can let loose,
o pizza and movie night at my house for the youngfella – telling them they are just like American boys eating pizza and watching a movie.
o Talks with oldfella Harry, Morris and George about the ‘old times’, what’s working and not in the village, in the country, in the world.
o My friendship with Crissy and her family. Crissy has all the leftover donated yarn for knitting and plans to make and sell things.
o Crissy’s sweet 10 yr old girl Flora who intends to be a Peace Corps Vol. when she grows up – that or a teacher!
o Lydia, Merci, Pauline, Kalman, Christina, Lie Tap, Lei Song, Jaqueline, Raymond – all those that overcame some level of discomfort and came to my house to sit and talk, to get to know me, ask questions about life in the US, what kind of food I eat, checking out my house to see how a white person beach hut/house looks.
There’s probably much more I can add to this list with time for reflection especially regarding what I gained and learned from the village – a list I have not spent much time thinking about yet. On a recent phone call with my dad, he asked me if I accomplished all I had hoped to with the village. With the little bit of time for reflection that I have had I would have to say yes. Yes because I lived the lessons my dad taught me and demonstrated the values he instilled in me: showing respect for others; acting with absolute integrity in all matters; showing an appropriate amount of humility; regularly taking the high road in difficult times without judgement of others; taking on the difficult tasks that others won’t or can’t do; trying with 100% effort; giving more than I receive; finding humor in something everyday. These attributes go a long way in addressing the second of three goals of the Peace Corps, to share a bit of what’s great and special about America and Americans with others, creating good-will, a positive culture exchange, and long lasting friendships. Yes, my two years was well spent and I accomplished what I set out to do.