22.11.2019 - Twenty months in the glorious Santo, visitors, three, all my sisters at one go, worn our clothes, all, except a white skirt I am saving to wear home with the VSA T-shirt, true gem volunteer friends 10, incidents worth noting, two, swims in the turquoise sea and blue holes, 22, rides on a boat, 11, lunches out, nine, run out of money significantly before payday, five, amazing things achieved professionally, plenty (just like to stretch it), smiles given and gained 2503.

Volunteering is all sorts of things for all sorts of people, we are like a family out here, thrown together not by choice, accepting individual quirks and geniuses, supporting gas run outs, rat trapping, engagement, birthday and Christmas celebrations and professional skills beyond what you would expect.

Our group of Australian and NZ volunteers in Santo is very close and we have committed to keeping our family messenger page on forever, we are already beginning to finish assignments but the contact remains. 

Somewhere in the beginning of the year we felt there was a desperate need to develop a platform to share common challenges, needs and professional skills and understanding.  We formed a Communities of Practice group that meets for lunch every second Tuesday.  Just the volunteers. 

This was the most brilliant move and filled a huge void of feeling no one really knew deep down what we were doing or feeling on a day to day basis in our assignments. Each CoP meeting ended with enormous relief and gratitude that we understood each other more, and the professional capabilities we had and could share with each other.  We have a code of ethics and keep what we share between us so that deep issues can be tackled safely. We all miss people really interested in what happens in our assignments and the challenges faced and won, and this void is nicely filled by the unity of volunteer’s honesty and care in our CoP meetings. What a simple way to allow moments of speaking our own language and for me, it increased my pride in what an incredible calibre of volunteers there are these days.

I wonder why this is not capitalised on more, why we are not more included in developing strategic country plans, advocating around to generate more real grassroots assignments, having opportunities to meet with our main funders and continuing to have contact with the office staff that prepared us to be on assignment. We have grown up from being school leaver volunteers but the term volunteer has us in that category daily. 

Perhaps time to change the term? The quality of volunteers is astounding and we work hard to stay humble and develop the confidence and capabilities of all we encounter. We would like to be seen as equal partners more, helping to build a transparent empowered region.  Everyone knows what Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, JICA, Peace Corp etc does, they are full of volunteers but the word volunteer is not mentioned as a label. Let’s have a go and change the term, the NGO name would then have to change so that is not easy.

Back to basics, Vanuatu Agriculture College students are in their exams and then will leave on 28 November to go out into the big world with their agriculture study helping them into the future.

We have had a marvellous project since May called Pacific People Advancing Change (PPAC). This involved every student once a week developing their knowledge, skills and understanding of human rights, specifically the right to information.  What a blast of a journey for us all, inviting NGOs to be on panel discussions, sending students off to visit NGOs with questionnaires and making problem solving activities with school students and communities. This all culminated in a great beach picnic, topped off by a rugby match, mostly in the sea.  It sounds an easy thing to do but the students that arrive here are often baffled by educational experiences of the past and lack confidence and direction for future pathways, so we tackled this with love, fun sessions, and great refreshments, ending with positive outward looking, more talkative students, more confident in themselves, their relationships and their future.

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Wendy visiting Pelau in the office in Malekula

We have had a tough year, finding out the courses being taught are still not accredited, students will have to leave and wait for formal certificates to come eventually. We have done a massive self-review of all policies and procedures with every staff member, had conferences and summits on kava and coconut, farming practices, disaster risk reduction, climate change (including a march with local children) and more in the Conference Hall. We have also have sent 10 brave students to the deserts of Israel to university study with farming work.  The horticulture patch has expanded beyond belief with a market stall out front and a new kava nursery and fish ponds alive with Tilapia. The gardens look spectacular and we have become an inclusive college.  My favourite activity was organising great locally built A-frame blackboards/pin boards which are now scattered in all corners of the college to help communicate updated messages and changes. It was fun to go back to sustainable chalk writing.

6. VAC students in Jerusalem Israel

VAC students in Jerusalem, Israel

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Jendry (in the blue shirt) was Wendy's Dance Teacher in Tanna Islands, Vanuatu back in 2003. They re-found each other atat the Malekula Arts Festival in Lakatoro, Malekula, Malampa Province in Vanuatu

Univol, Kelsey, Country Officer, Brigitte, and I went to the Makekula Arts Festival together. Amazing, amazing things we learned, and ended wondering why on earth Vanuatu needed advice from expats, it seems in custom everything is covered especially around disaster risk reduction. We got involved in it all and never missed a show of incredible dances and costumes.  Some very talented videographers from Wanaka stayed with us and it was a highlight seeing the images captured in evening editing sessions. Photos were given to dancers the next day.

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From left to right: Wendy and Kelsey, at Malekula Arts Festival in Lakatoro, Malekula, Malampa Province in Vanuatu

I also went to a regional Sign Language workshop, the start of developing a National Sign Language in Pidgin English here, what fun that was. I think my rambling creative right brain way of talking and thinking suits this communication media… what a blast playing games and sorting a new dictionary with deaf people … I was so busy I missed out on lunch.

My Christmas tree is up, nice little lights on it, I am organising a thank you morning tea for staff on Friday to cheer them up.  A shout out to all volunteers who are ending their assignment soon, I am sure you will look back and be able to say, yes I did something marvellous and I received a basket full of unimaginable gifts to return to Aotearoa, Meri Kirihimete.


Our message:

Thank you, Wendy. We welcome and appreciate the insights of our volunteers. It helps us continue to look at the way we do things and how we might be able to do things differently. We will be considering Wendy’s suggestions in the course of our planning and direction setting.