For My Uncle Skip

For My Uncle Skip

You wanted to be a marine biologist

I thought about this when my best friend did, too

Jaques Cousteau, a hero

To look at the things under the sea

A thousand leagues,

Or the depth of the above-ground pool in your backyard.

.

You mixed sound for a band

So cool,

Maybe too cool:

Uncle Skip with his cigarettes and Scotch

In some smoky bar

With my Aunt Lisa,

The softest of hearts

The biggest of loves and

A little rock & roll

For someone who needed it most.

.

When you heard I was leaving for Peace Corps

I found a Swiss Army knife

Batteries

A flashlight–

Light for the dark spaces

Power to see me through

Something strong, stainless, useful

For all the rest.

.

Now I hold this multitool in my hand,

Watch my own hand shake,

Like yours at the dinner table.

My family, such a challenge

A labor of love for your treasure,

Your jewel,

Your opalline girl.

.

Maybe you wouldn’t have kids because

The world was too messed up

Drunk drivers and who knows what other dangers

Lurking beneath the surface.

But you had me.

Me and my brother.

And Rusty, Tigger, Casey, Romeo:

.

So many lives,

So lucky to know

Your softest, sweetest sides

So hard to bear

In a world of edges

Even alcohol and cigarettes

Cannot dull.

.

Uncle Skip,

I hope in this, at least

With a loving God,

You rest

In peace.

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BE CONFIDENT: what I’ve learned from (and hope to share with!) ni-Van women

This post means an extra-special lot to me, so please take the time to take a peek!

Women.

Demonstrably proven to be culturally and monetarily underappreciated. And yet, when empowered, the changes they tend to effect are exactly that: powerful.

You don’t have to take my word for it. I invite you to take a peek at UNWomen’s Facts and Figures about Economic Empowerment. Some that stood out to me:

  • A study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5 per cent
  • Women devote 1 to 3 hours more a day to housework than men; 2 to 10 times the amount of time a day to care (for children, elderly, and the sick).
  • When paid and unpaid work are combined, women in developing countries work more than men, with less time for education, leisure, political participation and self-care.
  • Women comprise an average of 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries
  • Companies greatly benefit from increasing leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness.

Oh, how Vanuatu is just so.

Any Peace Corps Volunteer who’s run a PACA Workshop can tell you: women here do more. To regurgitate some cultural banalities: Ol mama, oli mekem bigfala wok— The women do so much work. And the men? Wok smol, spel bigwan— That is: work a little, rest a lot… (drink kava).

Suffice to say, I have had the blessing of crossing paths with so many incredible ni-Vanuatu women.

One of the platforms for these interactions has been school: the staff at my post is comprised of 21 women teachers and only 2 men. Let me tell you: every. single. one. of these women is an absolute powerhouse. I cannot overstate that fact. The work they get done in a day is outstanding: even just classroom management for upwards of 40 students, so many of whom experience trauma at home, is no small task. Add to it lesson-planning, grading, administrative tasks. And then returning home to cook (over fires!), fastidiously clean their yards, sweep out their houses, hand-wash mountains of the family’s laundry, bathe the babies, run to town to buy the food they no longer have time to grow. I hear them talk about being up past 11pm, getting up at 4am (well before the hot South Pacific sun) to start their chores…

And still, the level of professionalism I have found at my school in town has been inspiring on so many levels. The older leadership encourages young teachers to run workshops on newer material being taught in Teacher’s College. They all submit daily lesson plans, checked by the principal. Meetings start promptly and are surprisingly formal, with clear agendas, motion-making, and minute-taking.

I recently took the time to interview one of these women, Miss Larisa Jill Temakon, and the interview was featured on Peace Corps Vanuatu’s Gender and Development Committee’s website, here. Miss Jill responded in a mix of Bislama and English typical to those ni-Vanuatu who have had access to a deeper level of education, and I’ve translated the interview for my English-speaking readers, but I also want to break it down a little bit here.

As I write in the interview, Miss Jill is a paragon of ni-Vanuatu women’s productivity. At only 23 years old, the amount of work she accomplishes in a day is no less than prolific. She is the head Reading Helper at our school, designing the one-on-one pull-out reading curriculum that she and her two fellow Reading Helpers conduct with every single one of our students. Additionally, the administration relies on her heavily for assistance with photocopying, filing, and resource-creation. She is a whiz when it comes to digital design and a true artist, illustrating books that she’s written in Bislama and designing and painting the logos for all (600+!) of the students’ Sports Day team t-shirts. She takes courses at the local university in pursuit of her dream to someday become an architect. And also, all on her own, tends to her family’s property on the island. Have I misused the word powerhouse? If anything, it feels like an understatement…

Miss Jill

But yes, as I sat in our tiny, dusty, full-to-the-brim library, picking Miss Jill’s brain, one theme in particular left me deeply inspired. When asking her what she sees as Vanuatu’s biggest need, she answered emphatically: education. As a woman who has had the opportunity to receive an excellent education, she talked about how, from her perspective, the issue is not that the people of Vanuatu are void of good ideas. Instead, she recognizes that many ni-Vanuatu, including those in rural settings, have great ideas all the time. The obstacle is that they don’t always recognize or quite know how to express and manifest them. She brought up this thought a second time when explaining what she’d like to share with other women in Vanuatu, if given the chance.

Be confident!

she said, and I stopped scribbling, looked up. I’d been struggling to confidently find my place at such a talented school, and it felt like she was talking directly to me. “We all have different ideas, have different things to offer our communities; if women had more confidence, they could do some great work. Some of them don’t, they’ve been held back emotionally and physically. But with enough confidence, they’ll be able to do work and really achieve something. Confidence and courage.”

What Miss Jill is advocating for in both of these situations is not a brainwashing with western thought, but rather an empowerment of her own culture’s way of thinking. She already knows just how capable the people of her country are. The only thing stopping them is the means to express themselves.

Which brings me to another platform I’ve had that’s facilitated amazing interactions with local women: my role as a member of the Gender and Development Committee I mentioned above.

On the GAD committee, we work to help support and empower volunteers as they encounter gender-based violence throughout service (it’s a sad truth that 60% of ni-Vanuatu women will experience some type of intimate partner violence during their lifetime), to provide inclusive project-planning tools like the PACA workshops I mentioned above, and also to directly empower ni-Vanuatu youth through community clubs and our yearly Training-of-Trainers Camp, GLOW-BILD (Girls Leading Our World/Boys in Leadership Development).

While I usually write my posts with no objective other than to share a bit of perspective, Camp is where I’m going to pause to say: I need you.

Better, we need you.

Not every volunteer in Peace Corps Vanuatu has had the same experience with the women in their communities as I have. As brave, independent, well-educated men and women who have ventured out of our home country to serve in a completely different culture, it can be extremely challenging to see the cultural differences towards women here (and of course, also can leave feelings of #f$ckthepatriarchyworldwide… is that a hashtag yet? no?). Oftentimes, the work we are able to do to address gender-based violence and the patriarchal dominance that silences so many women’s voices can feel like whispers in the wind. And the most frustrating part is often exactly what Miss Jill is getting at: it’s not that the men and women living in rural Vanuatu aren’t capable of embracing more equitable feminine roles in their communities. More often than not, some of the biggest barriers to women’s empowerment (and the benefits this empowerment can engender!) are a lack of education and underdeveloped confidence…

And so I present to you: Camp. With GLOW-BILD, we on the Gender and Development Committee have the privilege to not just whisper, but tangibly bring together and help educate a group of 12 volunteers and 12 ni-Vanuatu counterparts from all over the country, often from extremely remote communities typical to Peace Corps service here. We meet in a community (usually that of another volunteer) that has demonstrated an acute desire and need for youth empowerment. Over the course of a week, we separate into two groups (men and women), and volunteers and counterparts practice co-running culturally-sensitive sessions about leadership skills, reproductive health, and healthy relationships. When I helped run Camp last year, the direct interactions I had with the local men and women were so powerful. We had conversations about the health of current relationships, self-confidence, and family-planning. Women talked with me about how they’d never really thought about what makes a good partner, and counterparts who started off shy embraced their roles as session leaders. Probably my favorite part was the last day, when we ran a mini-camp for local community children. The counterparts and volunteers worked together to adapt our sessions to be appropriate for the students’ age-groups, and it was so cool to watch them really own the adaptations–taking their own ideas and using the tools we’d been able to help provide them with to bring them into reality, and in a way that empowered the community! It felt exactly like what Miss Jill was talking about. And if that alone isn’t enough to demonstrate the value of Camp, I want to add that many volunteers have expressed gratitude for being able to share in these types of experiences with their counterparts. It’s an extra benefit that Camp provides them with a concrete platform and a diverse, culturally-appropriate toolbox to use when addressing these sensitive topics in their communities.

But to finish rambling and say it short and sweet: funding cuts for the USAID grant we’ve been able to use in the past have put this year’s Camp at risk. I’d like to ask you, if you feel you can, to please click here to show your support. Strengthen our whispers as volunteers. Help equip ni-Vanuatu leaders with the tools to help their communities grow. Every little bit helps. I can’t express how much I would appreciate it.

With love, as always,

Sydney Nicole

Back to School (Spel)

View from my office

Monday morning, I woke up a little late. Did a little yoga, made a little coffee, ate a little breakfast. Showered, dressed, brushed my teeth. Scurried up to school. I was feeling rushed.

I peeked at my phone, willing time to go backwards. It was 7:15, and I’d wanted to be at the school by 7. Most rural schools in Vanuatu were probably still empty, but things move quicker in town and I knew most of my teachers would be coming in. And they’d probably be on-time. I tramped across the soccer field with my head a little bowed, stomping on the tall grass stems. It was another failed attempt at The Perfect Morning Routine, another illogical reach towards an elusive alternate reality where those two hours between 5 and 7 turn infinite and I fill them with all the self-care and little chores of my (admittedly very tame) dreams.

Rushed self-care. Running late. I shifted my backpack on my shoulders. And I hadn’t even met with my Academic Chair. I stomped another stem. She’d been on the school grounds for nearly the whole break, and what had I gotten up to? Kamp, I suppose. And a bunch of daytrips around the island with visiting friends (which, while wildly fun, were not necessarily as productive as we’d meant for them to be). I hadn’t even gone to see her over the weekend because I’d spent it cramming, brain-puking all the thoughts I had stewing onto butcher paper and hacking at them ‘til they broke into action pieces. I felt my heart putter, out of practice with morning coffee. I had certainly not been a glowing example of responsible time-management.

My only full school-year during service, and here I was coming into it feeling unprofessional, disorganized. Grumpy. I kicked one last grass stem and stepped up to the concrete walkway in front of my host mama’s classroom. All these little failures. I looked around. It was quiet.

My host mama popped out of the door, a few dust piles gathered on the floor behind her. She’d already been here for a bit, started sweeping. I grumbled at myself inwardly as she gave me a hug. I squeezed back, tried to shoo away the self-disappointment. I was late, there was nothing I could do about it now. We joked about all the friends I’d had visiting, agreed we were glad we’d have more time together now that we were back to school. I asked her where all the other teachers were.

“Ating yumitu ol fest wan ia!” “I think we’re the first two here!”

My chest loosened a teeny bit.

“Kam, bae yumitu go jekem.” “Come, we’ll go check.”

We held hands and walked together towards the main office as a few more teachers trickled in. French-style double-kissed all their faces and wished them Happy New Year, or “Bonani”(a Bislama pronunciation of the French “bonne année”). I listened as they shared gossip from over break:  where they’d spent Christmas, which teachers were coming back, who would be filling the empty positions. Because nearly everyone in Vanuatu is at least distantly related somehow, a big topic was who had died.

The principal chimed in. One of our sixth grade teachers had lost his mother a month before; we were coming up on the 30 day mark, which in Vanuatu means another mourning ceremony. She suggested that since this was the first time we’d all be together as a teacher community, we should go “share our sorry.” The other teachers agreed, and she said she’d “sing out” for us when the bus came to pick us up.

I followed some teachers to the building we share:  their classrooms, my small shared office (which functions as our unofficial squad clubhouse). The building is a plastic pre-fab thing, not designed to withstand a Vanuatu rainy-season downpour. Water puddled on the floors and cobwebs draped the desks and corners. I bristled a little. So much for a Perfectly Productive First Day Back; my action plan’d have to wait until the room was clean.

“Yumi gat wan mop?” I asked. “Do we have a mop?”

One of the teachers scolded me gently:  “Yu no wok had tumas!” “Don’t you work too hard!” Besides, she said. You should sweep out the excess water first. So I did.

“Ay!” the principal called to us. “Bas i stap kam nao!” “The bus is on its way!”

“Ale, yu jes spel festaem,” the teacher told me. “Okay, take a break first.” We moved to a classroom by the office where everyone had gathered: more Happy New Years and double-kissing faces and sharing Christmas stories. One teacher led a prayer, welcoming everyone back. Another led us in song:

God is so good/He took my sin/Now I am free/He’s so good to me.

I peeked around the room at the group of women singing, put a little extra oomph into “Now I am free.”

Take that, I thought to my morning grumps.

The grumps grumbled something about our dirty office, how I wasn’t following the plan.

Then the bus pulled up and we all piled in.

a “Christmas tree”

For the second-largest city in Vanuatu, Luganville can still feel like a village if you turn down the right roads. Our bus wound through narrow streets in a neighborhood up the hill from the school, not exactly the suburbs but then again, maybe they are. I watched through the window as we bumped past overgrown lawns, hedges of hibiscus, flowering frangipani and Christmas trees. Peeped bush kitchens and laundry flapping in the humid air. Angry dogs barking.

I’m so afraid of dogs here.

So when our big group climbed out of the bus and all the teachers were afraid to approach the house, I wasn’t exactly keen. I squeezed one of their hands as we huddled together, the teacher’s family dog growling and baring its teeth. An old woman popped out of the outdoor kitchen, shot a kick in its direction; it cowered and ran away. So often they’re like that, all bark and no bite, just scared you’re going to throw a stone. Knowing that doesn’t make their bared teeth any less scary, though. Doesn’t make them any less fickle.

We clustered by the front door.

One by one, we slipped off our shoes and filed into the cement house, the floors lined with woven mats. Our teacher was sitting on the floor in the front room, leaning against a wall, his head in his hands. An aunt and a sister on either side. Everything was quiet for a moment as we all sat down. I waited for someone to say something.

And then, everyone started to cry.

I closed my eyes quickly–maybe I was embarrased–and listened as everyone’s tears deepened, turned to sobs. My host mama had asked me once if people in the US cry the way people in Vanuatu do at funerals, and I had been surprised, told her, “Of course!” I mean, who wouldn’t cry hard at a funeral? But this was something different. I took a breath, tried to catch it in my mind. A room full of people sharing in this man’s pain. Not verbally–no spoken apologies, no sorry-for-your-loss-es. To lose your mom–to lose a life. It felt so precious, so tragic, so tangible. I held my breath, pressure building behind my eyes.

They weren’t just thinking about the tragedy. They were feeling it.

And something in me slipped and I was crying, too. Letting myself move into this communal hurt. I couldn’t tell you how long we sat there. Slowly, the sobs turned to sniffles. The room began to quiet. We waited for his aunt, this woman’s sister, the last to stop.

Our principal said a few words and another teacher lead us in prayer. We each shook our teacher’s hand, his aunt’s, his sister’s. Hurried out past the dog to the road to walk back.

The skies were gray and heavy with rain; you could hear the thunder rolling. The teachers laughed amongst themselves. “Yumi turis wantaem!” they joked:  “We’re tourists!” We strolled through the foreign neighborhood, admiring the houses and waving as students still enjoying break called out our names. I looked around curiously at the other teacher’s faces, checking for any lasting sadness. But no; that wasn’t how it worked here. Scheduled, traditional ceremonies to engage in catharsis. And then you move on with your life.

It was so different from mourning back home. Crying in that room felt like lending tears to a family that had so much hurt they needed the extra tears to cover it all. We were part of a space opened up just for them to let it all out–every last bit, for as long as they needed. And once the tears were dry, the hurt tuckered out, we said a prayer, picked ourselves up, and moved forward…

When we got back to school it was lunchtime, so we shook down some of the last mangoes from the mango tree, plucked a couple papaya. Sitting on the counters of the school kitchen, we talked for a while about ex-boyfriends and babies and sour stomachs from too many green mangoes.

Papaya, or “popo,” plucked from somewhere on the school grounds

“Okay, be naoia bae mi jes go klin,” I announced, hopping down from our perch. “Alright, I’m gonna go clean now.”

“Gas, yu spel!” one scolded again. “Gosh, rest!”

I asked her where I could find a mop and she sent me to look in her room, waving me away.

It didn’t take long; I broomed out cobwebs, shooed a few cockroaches. Swept away an ant colony. Cleared my desk. When I’d finished mopping I popped in next door to see how the others were doing, figured I’d keep catching up while waiting for the floor to dry.

I found them all sitting on a mat, sharing Scotch Finger cookies, the dirty puddles still on the floor.

“Mi mopem smol rum finis!” I proclaimed. “I finished mopping!”

They laughed, “Taem i stap yet!” and passed me a Scotch Finger. “Taem blo wok i stap yet, yumi jes stap katjap festaem.” “There’s still time to work, we’re just catching up first.” I sat and laughed with them for a minute, munching on the Scotch Finger.

My grump grumbled again.

“I’m just going to go check in with the Academic Chair, though,” I told them, pushing up from the mat.

“Yu wok tumas ia!” they chorused, laughing again. “You’re working too hard!” Always laughing. I waved my hands.

I’ll just fill her in on my plan, I thought to myself. Show her I’ve put real thought into it, make sure I’m complementing anything she’s been planning on her own…

I reached her classroom lost in thought, blinked my eyes. Inside, she was sitting at a table with our principal and two secretaries, munching on some crackers, laughing.

“Sori blo disteb,” I offered. “Sorry to disturb you.”

“No gat!” she laughed. “Kam, kam.” She motioned to a seat, pushed the crackers in my direction.

“I just wanted to show you some of what I’ve prepared for the next two weeks…” I pulled out my laptop, flipped through the outlines for the workshops I’d prepared. She nodded, remembering bits from our conversations at the end of last school year.

“Si, si, bae i taf ia,” she said, taking off her glasses. “Yes, this’ll be great.” I turned the screen back towards me. “Be bae yumi jes mekem nekis wik, lo Wednesde mo Tosde. Taem i stap yet. Oli mas klinim ol klasrum festaem.” She smiled. “But we’ll do this next week Wednesday and Thursday. There’s still time. Everyone has to get their classrooms cleaned up first.”

A secretary called up from the floor, where she’d lay down to rest. “Mi harem se mi taet we!” “I’m so tired!” I plucked a cracker from the pack, smiling to myself as the Chair agreed, as the principal chimed in. Quietly, I slipped from the room and back to my office with it’s now-dry, clean floors.

I placed my things on the desk: action plan front and center, books neatly stacked, and pens resting in a big roll of tape. Looked at the puddle-less floors and cobweb-less corners. Listened to the teachers laughing in the other room.

Grabbing a marker I drew a sun, a copy of the tattoo behind my ear. Taped it to the wall by the desk. A maybe cliche reminder that I AM NOT A MACHINE, that I need to leave space for myself at work, too.

My buildingmates walked past, called out a chorus of good nights. “Yu no wok tumas, ia!” they shouted.

I checked the time. 4:30. Zipped up my backpack, looked back at my little sun. I’d been the second teacher at school today. I’d wished everyone a Happy New Year, shared a sorry, played tourist. Had schoolyard fruits and gossip for lunch. Cleaned my office. Met with the Chair, scheduled my workshops, nibbled crackers and Scotch Fingers.

I felt around my chest for my morning grumps, for that stress about not being ready, about not being enough, but they’d melted. Today, I’d held hands with people I care about, shared in a family’s grief for lost life, and kissed the faces of people I admire. I’d fought to work, and my teachers let me.

They just also reminded me to rest.

I stepped out into the pink-y afternoon, locking the door behind me, all my school stuff inside. No cramming tonight; it’d be there tomororw. The chorus from the morning rang in my ears.

Now I am free…

I started my walk across the soccer field, humming to myself, the grass stems tickling my shins.

I say there’s not much island time here in town, but my teacher’s voices echoed in my head.

Taem i stap yet, Syd! Yu spel!

I bounced a little, perfectly grump-free.

There’s still time; no need to rush.

Rest, girl.

Taem i stap yet.

Ambae, backwards–or: Who saved who?

I have to start by saying this is only a tiny piece of a much bigger picture. I have some friends who’ve written pieces about the topic, and I’ve linked one here if you’re interested in reading another (broader, more direct) description of the whole ordeal. But if you’ll bear with my narrative style, here are some of my recent thoughts with little corner ties to the Ambae evacuation.

Friday, a neighbor invited me to dinner. A calculus teacher at the secondary school on campus, she’s a working mom (which should be enough to say she has her hands full). I ran into her walking across the school soccer field in the hot mid-day sun, limping a little on her weak foot, a vestige from a stroke when she was two. She told me she’d been preparing some food, and that it’d make her happy if I could come share it with her that night. I was excited to accept; we both walked away smiling.

I’d been working to build up a relationship with this woman for some time; to be honest, I still am. She’s the mother of my two favorite little girls here in our cluster of teachers’ housing, two sisters a year apart, six and seven. When I first arrived at site, all the neighbors warned me about them, saying they were naughty and that I shouldn’t let them in my house because they’d jump on my bed and break things. It only made me think of my last job in Baltimore, working with students with behavior issues, and with their parents at home. I remember shaking my head, joking to myself, “Show me what you got.”

Over the past few months, outside of my work up at the school, one of the things that’s made me happiest has been working with these two little girls. In ways, my neighbors aren’t wrong: they are bursting with energy. They use papaya leaves like wings to pretend to be butterflies (or, more recently, fairies). They swing from small tree branches until they break, and can’t help but pick the flowers they see because they’re so pretty. Some nights, we go up to that soccer field and sprint end-to-end over and over again, laughing the whole way and doing bits of yoga in between. When I finally quit, they beg me to keep going. They’re tireless.

 

 

But while tireless, they are not the epitome of naughty; they’re just little girls. In our time together, they’ve learned to ask permission before they come inside my house. They say please and thank you. They know how to wait patiently, and like to listen because they know it makes me feel happy and respected. Little doses of patience, positive reinforcement, and reciprocated respect went so far. These days we have so many fun little playdates when I get home from school, coloring on butcher paper with cheap crayons (they’ve learned the names of their colors), building “fairy houses” out of empty toilet paper rolls and tin cans, and watching movies like Moana. (An important side note: one evening at sunset I passed the younger girl climbing up a basketball hoop, staring at the pink sky and singing “How Far I’ll Go,” her chest puffed out and eyes sparkling. My heart melted. Perfect.) They’re two of my best friends in my community, hands-down.

 

 

But, to touch back on dinner. I’d been wanting to eat with their family for some time, to get the chance to talk with their mom and see if there was anything else I could support her with, as it was clear to me she was having a tough time balancing work and the girls and a new baby boy. When I got to their house, I saw she had a little bit of a crowd. This is where Ambae comes in.

A few weeks back, a volcano named Manaro on the neighboring island Ambae increased in activity to the point where all residents had to be evacuated. The government had to remove and find housing for eleven thousand people, and fast–no easy task. But something that feels unique about Vanuatu, particularly when compared to the US, is how close-knit its people are. The families here are huge; as a ni-Van, if you go to any of the islands in-country you’ll be able to find someone you’re related to. The density of this social net is beautiful for many reasons:  babies are adopted so quickly by friends and family there’s hardly such a thing as orphans; I’ve seen a single homeless person in the whole country in my entire seven months here. And when it came time to find food and shelter for the Ambae evacuees, nearly all had family who checked in on them and offered meals and housing, wherever they were placed.

The crowd at dinner was a group of secondary students, extended family, who’d come over from Ambae. My neighbor had prepared a “last kakae,” or going-away dinner, to celebrate their last day of exams and their last bit of time staying with her. We all converged in an extra classroom, and my neighbor stood up to give a little speech before enjoying our feast, as is customary here. Behind her, she had a small pile of wrapped presents.

One by one, she picked up the gifts and gave a small thank-you to each of us. She thanked the students for their help around the house, preparing food, looking after her baby boy and the girls. She thanked me for having the patience to sit with the two of them and teach them things that she “should, but I don’t always make time.” With each thank-you she teared up, explained that her gift wasn’t enough to show her gratitude. I hugged her extra-tight as she passed me the wrapped tin of cookies, kissed each cheek, French-style. A big part of me didn’t want to let go.

 

 

What I think is so interesting about this night is that for my neighbor, Vanuatu’s social safety net worked backwards. While she functioned as the net in that she looked after the evacuees, in effect the evacuation sent her the support system that she’s lacking here in town. Urban migration often results in greater isolation, and looking at my neighbor’s gratitude for the extra support she received from these young extended family members, I couldn’t help but feel so glad that I’m able to be a semi-permanent part of her net. I could feel her loss as these students were leaving, and my heart ached a little to see that it didn’t seem clear to them how much their presence and small actions had meant to her. It was another moment of really feeling the uniqueness of my site placement, being in a town instead of a smaller village.

It bears repeating that this is a tiny piece of a natural disaster that Vanuatu will remember for years to come. I encourage you to read what my friends had to say about it, as well.

As always, more to come!

With love,

Syd

UPDATE: Laura from the blogpost linked above shared a couple great articles with me for those interested, one with some cool geological facts and one that she described as her favorite article about the evacuation. Linked for your perusal!

Not Yet

It's hard to sum up a place in a few pictures, a few words. Even harder to try to tack, on top, three months of work; but here I am. Three months into service. Three months into observing as a staff of twenty vibrant teachers work to shape the future citizens of this breathtaking country. (It's not often you find a place where cruise ship tourists and refugees share the same dock–but more on that later.)

My school (like my house) is not a woven bamboo hut. It is all concrete and tin roofing, prefab Chinese plastics shipped over in containers. It is a mix of rough wooden desks and tables and modern, bolted metal ones. Chalkboards and plasticized walls designed to be written on with whiteboard marker. There's a copy room with three photocopiers, a projector, even Wi-Fi. The most recent fundraiser pulled in around $8,000USD–which is all to say, in many ways, it is not resource-poor.

Vanuatu is currently poised to lose its categorization as a Least Developed Country by 2020, which is something that felt hard to believe during training but is more palpable here in town. At school, there's ample colored paper to make origami decorations during art block. There are netted bags of sports balls, stopwatches. A sticky old electric keyboard. A functional desktop computer lab. Teachers purchase matching silkscreened t-shirts for special events. If they notice their classroom roof leaks, it's mended. When they run out of something, they need only pop into the office to pick up some more: paper, folders, glue, markers. The list goes on; but mostly, it reminds me of the first challenging question I had when thinking about how I'd tackle my job at site. How do you frame something as urgent in a culture of abundance?

Within the global economy, Vanuatu's place is based in agriculture and tourism; on a local level, it is based in enough. Enough trees to build another house on enough land to plant another garden. Enough time to stop and say hello when passing neighbors on the road, and enough food to share with those neighbors who drop in. Enough family to never feel alone.

How was I supposed to encourage young students to see the value of literacy when so little of their lives necessitated it? When they had enough family and land and food and friends? The most significant shortage I felt was, at times, imagination (and the things that prod it).

Is that rude? I think it is, but I didn't, I don't, mean it to be. I sat on the lawn of my first (since-changed) site and struggled with thoughts of yins and yangs; bigger imaginations and bigger dissatisfactions. “Stronger” economies and more sickly ecologies. I have faith that it’s this, in the end, that will provide the motivation, or maybe the lure, to change.

Enough is not inherently sustainable. So little today is. Soon there will be too many babies and too many mouths and too many trees cut down. Too little soil, too few fish, too few jobs to earn too-low wages to buy too much rice to beget too-high blood sugar. Enough, will no longer be.

The families living here in Luganville already feel this. Maybe they’ve come with expanded imaginations. 3G and smartphones are spreading. Information. Maybe the dissatisfaction has already taken seed. Maybe climate change and invasives have spoiled enough crops, destroyed enough homes. I don’t know for sure; I’m still having these conversations. But maybe.

What I do know is that when I ask my fellow teachers why they teach, they talk about building up and guiding the future leaders and citizens of Vanuatu. While Christianity and strong faith are at the center of education here, directly around it are thoughts of things more tangible–the teachers marked development of academic skills, healthy citizens, and work ethic as the top three most important “Purposes of Teaching” in a survey we did together. There are three designated staff who work as “Reading Helpers,” giving one-on-one attention to students. Teachers encourage students to eat “gudfala kakae,” whole, plant-based foods cooked in local styles. They take half-days on Wednesdays to let students run around playing sports. They have students sweep out the classrooms, pick up leaves and trash around their designated corners of the school campus.

These are the things I think about when I look at the students’ bright faces. Teachers who give advice to their peers such as:

“Being a teacher is fun and interesting because you deal with kids and kids are creative and helpful in many ways. Kids can make you angry sometimes, but they always give or make you smile every day.”

As another friend put it,

“Every once in a while it’s nice to just fold your hands and think about how good kids are. They’re just so good.”

I walk around campus and peep light through the windows, on the playground, in their eyes. Listen to their Bible verses in morning devotion: John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Not yet.

I hold fast to this Hope. Though I’m not a strong Christian, it has come to be my favorite part of studying the religion. The potential in this moment, this now that is not-yet-the-end, this hope of what’s yet to come. And what is yet to come?

Will keep you posted.

With love, always,

Sydney Nicole

Blak Sanbij

I blow my nose and
The boogers are black–
Like the tiny scraps of stone
Still scratching my scalp
Each time these eager fingers brush
Through tangled hair.
They may call us stardust, but
Today I'm modern,
Prehistoric,
The ghost of volcanoes past;
Dusty, hardened vomit turned to
Bits of glitter that glimmered in
Baking sunlight,
The wind whispering it to
Shimmying, shimmering life.
I reach for my pen and
Find sand in my pocket,
Close my eyes and taste it:
Smoke,
Salt,
Sea.

Trees (burn cleaner than plastics)

I fiddled with it in my mind
Picked it up and twirled it:
A floret of broccoli,
A branching twig,
Spindly, popping with
Buds of thick, waxy leaves
Nestled at nodes,
Pursed lips to the sun.
Licentious, some
Open wider
Open up
To a warmth that
Excites them,
Breathing heavy,
Out the good.
I breathe it in,
Close my eyes.
Snap my mind's fingers.
It turns to smoke.