02.06.2020 - Going on VSA assignment in 2018 was to be my last work in international aid before retirement in May 2020. I was selected for Santo Vanuatu as a Literacy and Numeracy Officer at the Vanuatu Agriculture College. “Do you know much about agriculture apart from your own vegetable garden?” the selection panel asked. “Well, if I don’t I will ask and find out as I go along,” I replied.
The selection, briefing sessions, packing, forms and medicals are not easy to get through and I think are a deliberate part of the test of volunteering survival. Volunteering is not for the faint hearted, it is not for those seeking life in the sun with hopes to change the world. It is a humbling experience and it kills your laptop, mobile phone, plug ins and battery charges, here in lockdown in May 2020 you would not believe what parts of my faithful laptop don’t work, capitals, shift key all punctuation keys, delete button or paragraphing, but the movies work. I went to Paradise, ESPIRITU SANTO, Vanuatu.
Accommodation was wonderful and other courageous fun loving Kiwi and Aussie volunteers all lived close by. Life was sweet, we had a house helper, a washing machine and many shared meals with friends. There were children of neighbours I became responsible for to take to school, which was near my work place, and the school was one of my daily highlights. I could be a mum and attended parent meetings, shows, prize giving, violin, island dance and sports competitions, I loved the teachers and the children were inspiring.
My VSA job was in a park like environment and full of incredible staff and students from all over the country. I did my assignment objectives and also became the cyclone warning disaster risk reminder person, the scrounger for novels found in resorts, expat homes and the capital city library to fill the Agriculture library – encouraging students to read and read. I facilitated and helped introduce a Human Rights programme and generally rallied morale and spirits whenever I could.
We had a fantastic CEO, a visionary with ideas that never stopped flowing and lots of opportunities to meet other volunteers, local experts, Government Ministers, Directors and talented people that came to the college to use the Conference Hall facility for frequent capacity building workshops. We had fun. We had plans and lots of academic course accreditation paper work and agricultural things to do.
I made my exit plan in early 2020 for April 2020, including a scheduled holiday on Tanna. One day suddenly things began to tumble and crumble. Our volunteer hub called The Gotts lost deeply loved volunteer friends as their assignments finished or circumstances changed, our dear landlord died and the following property dispute left us all scrambling to find new accommodation, the new VSA Programme Manager came on-board and COVID-19 conversations about high risk volunteers and assignments ending early, began.
Every day things changed as I was being farewelled, in reality we were all being farewelled and it seemed like the truth about the dangers of COVID-19 were upon us. Determined to make the most of the time left we had a period of lovely meals, BBQs, picnics, birthday breakfasts, swims, snorkeling, kayaking and unforgettable fun and companionship.
I had planned to finish work on 10 April but as a selected COVID-19 higher risk volunteer, I had to leave for New Zealand on 15 March.
On 6 April (about when I had planned to finish work) a massive category 5 cyclone named Harold hit Santo and beyond. It flew right over when we all had been living and its destruction crushed the homes we shared, the beaches we frequented, the work places we loved and left our neighbours and colleagues at the mercy of the wind the rain and dependent on help.
We were not there and it hurts to know we cannot be there. I had been in TC Pam, Category 5 cyclone, in 2015 in Vanuatu and the psychological/social needs alongside WASH, shelter, food, logistics and rebuilds, are enormous and it takes a long time to ease the pain and situation of those in need.
Looking at all the photos and video clips back in New Zealand as they rolled into my phone feed while I snuggled under the blanket in isolation and lockdown, impacted my heart, my head, my empathic being, and my little comments and sad faces on Facebook feeds seemed pathetic as a response.
Vanuatu shut the borders, COVID-19 must be kept out, so with a new Government in place, the locals and the few expats left have kicked in to help. We can only email support, donate, send prayers and have a few phone conversations. It is so heartening to see, that although the Agriculture students were all sent home to help their families, the college staff all teamed up and began to clear, rebuild and replant the college nursery and horticulture farm. Even the beehives are humming again, and the fish are in clean ponds.
Hope is always there (as these devastations are not new for the paradise we had our assignment in) that everyone will get through the rough and come back with the smiles and happy island life in time.
Those of us from VSA and all the other volunteer groups left, one by one or in little groups until the last flew out on the New Zealand Cyclone Harold aid Air force Orion flight on its return trip. VSA assignments have been cancelled for the time being, work we left or planned put on hold, and we all went into isolation. Not a usual way for a volunteer to reintegrate, no family or friends contact, no one to tell our stories and feeling too, endless patience needed to communicate with assignment families, nothing to do but depend on others till perhaps level 2 arrives.
I feel like I started knitting something and it came unraveled and I must plan to go back to Vanuatu when the borders are reopened and it is safe for all. There is my holiday on Tanna to be achieved and Santo to visit again. I need to go back and pick up the stitches I feel like I dropped as I knitted my Kiwi world together with the people of Santo and Vanuatu.
This last assignment gave me such an opportunity to be myself with the care and support I had from volunteers, local friends and VSA in-country stars, thank you, Brigitte, Andrew, David, Clemmie, Sam, Nadene, Diane and Trevor. Paradise will change there and I will adapt to the new world I will see, there and here. Returning or being sent back to New Zealand early from assignment is hard but in the big picture of things, it is all part of the life path we lead. Let the retirement road trip begin.