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Vanuatu: an adventure like no other

Zoë Marshall

Defn Adventure: noun. An unusual and exciting or daring experience.

My adventure was going to Vanuatu as a volunteer teacher. It was unusual because I don’t have any teaching experience; exciting because I’d be living in another country for five months; and daring because the culture was completely different to my own. The only thing is, adventures tend not to go as planned. My plans were thrown out by Tropical Cyclone (TC) Pam, which started a very different adventure.

The Vanuatu I know and love starts with the community of Level Mission Primary School. We have 45 students, from three villages around our school station. It’s a pretty remote place — no power, running water, internet or landlines and our mobile signal leaves a lot to be desired. But when you spend your time with some of the most gorgeous kids on the planet, that all falls away. There’s something special about seeing a student with no English skills write the alphabet by themselves, without any help. Being adopted by people with so little but so much to give, who always smile and laugh, definitely impacts you.

TC Pam hit us on Friday 13 March. It started as a normal day, but breakfast turned deadly when coconuts started to fly.

The next three hours, we moved from house to house before a kitchen collapsed with two people inside. While they are ok, this danger lead us to evacuate to a village that was a 20-minute run down the side of a hill. It was terrifying, running when the wind was slightly calmer so the trees didn’t fall on us. There was a moment when I thought a tree had hit Basil, who is seven, thankfully he was just out of sight. After a night spent in Wosak Village, we headed back up the silent hill to see what was left of the school. We’d lost buildings, our church, roofs, a water tank was cracked and the gardens were decimated. In the next week, we ate flying fox, little birds, spoiled crops and drank coconut water because it’s sterile.

Living in post-cyclone Vanuatu was never something I thought I would do. We hadn’t even been worried about cyclones that much, it had been such a long time since the island nation had dealt with a big one. A week later, we found out just how much Pam had done; Courtney (my placement partner) and I were evacuated to Port Vila. Seeing the destruction is different to telling people about it. Even with pictures, it’s hard to describe it. It’s heartbreaking to see a place and people you care about suffering so much and feeling as though you can only do so much.

When I got to Port Vila, I saw my photo in the newspaper. Someone stopped me in the street with another volunteer asking if we were the Australians who had been missing. My friends found a missing poster with me on it that the Red Cross had put up. When I spoke to my mum, she told me about everything that had been happening in Canberra, about being on the front page of the Canberra Times All the while, I was getting messages from people at home, hoping my community and I were ok. Canberra was really worried about us.

I was blown away when my parents told me they’d raised the money to charter a helicopter, with rice and water, out to my little island community, to help feed them. With food that would last 12 days and clean water so they were able to source more, it was a lifeline for them. More than my amazement at what my parents had pulled off, was the generosity of people at home — people who I know, whose names I vaguely recognise and who I wouldn’t know from a bar of soap — their generosity threw me.

The support of a city with more people than the country they’re helping take care of is vitally important. It has been fantastic to see so many people banding together, donating what they can, be it time, money or just talking about it. Without this support, it would be so much harder for Vanuatu to recover, and there would be a lot more suffering.

Note: Zoe has since returned to Vanuatu armed with supplies and ready to continue her adventure as a volunteer teacher and assist in the rebuild of the Vanuatu community. 

The Red Cross’ Cyclone Pam appeal is now closed, but tragically, there is now somewhere else that equally needs the help of our community – the recent earthquake-affected Nepal. If you’d like to donate, you can do so by visiting the website for the Red Cross Nepal Earthquake 2015 Appeal.

Feature image from Shutterstock. Video from Red Cross


Zoë Marshall

Zoë is a volunteer teacher in Vanuatu for her gap year. Aside from teaching, she spends her time trying to keep up with her enormous adopted family, which has four mamas and too many siblings to count. She’s heading back to Vanuatu in May for ten weeks before visiting Europe. More about the Author