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.”
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,