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,


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!