Vanuatu: An Aid Worker’s Journey to the Edge of the World
Peter Wilson is a proud Rotarian. He’d want me to say that up front. From March 25th to March 30 of this year, I traveled alongside Peter as he brought humanitarian aid to the people of Tongoa Island in the island nation of Vanuatu. On March 13, Vanuatu was struck by a massive cyclone that hit 22 of its islands. Tongoa was hit by the eye of the storm.
Peter and I met at the airport in Port Vila, when Peter introduced himself and told me about his efforts. A few days later, I ran into him on the street. He was working out of the offices of a local company, Fr8 Logistics, whose owner is a local Rotary member. With the cooperation of Save the Children and approval from governmental agencies, Peter was able to secure a ride to Tongoa and he invited me along.
A Solo Artist in a Time of “Professionalism”
I took this series of photographs to document Peter’s journey and the unique challenges faced by aid workers around the world. As a solo traveler, Peter represents the vast majority of people doing charitable work. While he works with the blessings of a big organization, in the field, he is often a solo artist.
While in the field, Peter does his own reporting, planning, logistics and project management. This is very different from how lots of brand-name organizations operate, where aid workers are highly specialized and responsible for narrow scopes of work.
In the ecology of aid, Peter’s work falls somewhere between Renegade Aid, Big Aid and Small Aid. In the past, the Napangasale school project has been funded by the global Rotary Foundation. Peter has led teams of volunteers to Tongoa to help in improvements to the community in the name of the Foundation. Other times, he operates only as a representative of his branch of the rotary, the Rotary Club of Whangaparaoa.
Peter’s work runs contrary to the trend of the past 20 years towards a “professionalization” of the field of humanitarian aid. These days, many “professional” aid workers begin as Peace Corps volunteers or Master’s Degree students in International Development and eventually work their way up to field operations for non-profits, ticking off various career milestones along the way.
The Value of Real Life Experience
Though there are some benefits to creating professional humanitarians, one of the downsides is that ordinary people and concerned citizens are increasingly excluded from the insider world of aid. When it comes to global disaster, sometimes the voices of the big guys drown out the little guys.
Peter has a tremendous amount of subject-matter expertise on Tongoa and Vanuatu, but he’s unwilling and unable to sit in lengthy “cluster” meetings to discuss his efforts. That’s part of what makes him so good at what he does, but it is also a loss for the big spenders, who need people with local knowledge if they are going to deliver what’s really needed.
The professionalization movement also leaves little room for people who may not have worked in the field, but have invaluable, irreplaceable life experience. Peter’s real life experience has been instrumental in giving him a unique set of skills that makes him great at what he does. At one point in his career, he ran a tour company; at another, he managed big construction equipment and projects in developing nations.
A Friend to Tongoa & a True Force
It was only when Peter started telling me very casual stories about sailing fast yachts around the world, that I realized I was completely outdone by this septuagenarian in strength, youth and vigor. He is a close friend to the people of Tongoa and a force to be reckoned with.
In the interest of full-disclosure, he is not yet 70. He will be 70 in June. “Retirement isn’t a word in my vocabulary,” he told me. I know many professional and nonprofessional aid workers will recognize their journey in Peter’s.
If you are interested in supporting the Napagasale school and Peter’s efforts on Tongoa, you can support the Rotary Club of New Zealand. The best way to do that is through a direct transfer of money to their dedicated U.S. dollar account. That way, there are less middlemen taking a cut. Please see the banking details at the bottom of this story.
The Tina 1, loaded up for a trip to the Shepherd Islands in Vanuatu. The ship was chartered by Save the Children, but wasn’t very full. Following the cyclone, the Vanuatu government prohibited aid organizations from delivering aid except those who had previous relationships in Vanuatu. Peter Wilson was able to have his shipment approved in large part because he already had good working relationships with the relevant government agencies. His aid is only a small portion of what is shown here.
The ship departed Port Vila at 9 pm and we travelled all night through sometimes rough seas. At dawn, we awoke to see the Shepherd Island chain. Pictured here, Emae Island, which is next to Tongoa. In better days, the islands would be green with trees. They suffered a direct hit from Cyclone Pam on March 13, 2015.
Peter Wilson (seated by railing) of the New Zealand Rotary speaks at sunrise with Mark O’Hora, Logistics Manager for Save the Children. Mark traveled on to the island of Epi, but agreed to drop materials for Save the Children as well as Peter’s aid materials on the island of Tongoa.
Peter Wilson, on approach to the island of Tongoa. Tongoa does not have a port or wharf of any kind. So Peter, the ship’s captain and people on land made a group decision about where it would be best for the ship to anchor. The preferred beach for landing was unavailable because the road to the beach was blocked and partially washed out.
John, 9, watches as the students unload tarps and kitchen sets from Save the Children. Ordinarily, the road where John is sitting would extend down to the beach area where the young men are working. The bottom of the road was washed away by the cyclone.
Included in the first delivery of non-food aid to Tongoa was an ltl freight shipment of LifeStraw water filters from Action for Peace, pictured in the brown boxes. Water filters have been an essential component of most aid packages because the wind from the hurricane ripped the tops off of water tanks. The water became dirty with debris. Also, since many rainwater retrieval systems like roofs and gutters were damaged, Tongoa islanders have been turning to three freshwater springs to drink. At least one of the springs is of questionable purity. The lower the islanders drink from a spring, the less likely it is to be perfectly clean.
On the beach, Peter meets Miki Alon, a representative of IsraAid, a humanitarian group based in Israel. IsraAid was on Tongoa to assess the situation, particularly water solutions. Peter discusses the pre-existing water situation on Tongoa with him. On the right, Richard Williams, the Principal of the Napangasale school, with whom Peter has worked for a number of years.
First view of the Napangasale school. Pictured in the foreground is the girls’ dorm, which was badly damaged by Cyclone Pam. The dorm had been improved just recently by the New Zealand Rotary. Around the girls’ dorm, the trees were destroyed. The girls were especially sad to see the fruit trees go. They ate a lot of mango, mandarin, bananas and papaya.
Peter Wilson arrives at the guest house at the Napangasale school. This guest house, and another one, used by the boys’ headmaster, were built by the Rotary Club. When guests aren’t at the school, the community around the school uses the building as a “nakamal” or community center for meetings. With him, Peter brought two drums of fuel for the school, bags of rice, bags of flour, bags of cement, oil for chainsaws, chainsaw teeth, hand saws, and a shipment of medicine for the local clinic.
A student at the Napangasale school delivers one of the bags of flour that Peter brought to the school cook. The cook will use the flour to make the kids bread. Flour is not an item that will be distributed by big aid groups like the World Food Program. The Napangasale school is a secondary school that boards children from all over the Shepherd Islands chain, not just Tongoa. The children who attend must pay fees, but many do so on a sliding scale.
Peter’s main goal for the trip, beyond bringing things like chainsaw oil and fuel, was to determine what exactly the school needs to rebuild and to look at the damage around other parts of Tongoa. The school is an important centerpiece for the community, but the New Zealand Rotary Club has been involved with other projects over the years, as well. It is hard to imagine the lush, tropical rainforest that was previously along every hillside.
At the Napangasale school, the girls’ dorm took a bad hit from the cyclone. The girls are now staying in an old dorm, doubled up with each other. People in Vanuatu must pay for the education of their children if they go beyond sixth grade. For younger than sixth grade, most schools follow a donation model. The young women at the Napangasale school had to take a national exam to qualify for seventh grade. They will be tested again in 10th grade and again for “pre-college” 12th and 13th grades.
Principal Richard Davis’ daughter demonstrates how the girls hid during the storm. All of the girls were sheltered in the science lab. More than 20 girls hid under two desks, holding the desks down during the storm so that they would not fly off.
The girls of the Napangasale school hanging out in front of their dorm. They don’t have much to do. The New Zealand Rotary had installed a satellite dish so the kids could watch television and long-distance education classes, but the dish was hit in the cyclone. The girls spend time talking, playing soccer and doing their hair. They used to pick a lot of fruit and weave baskets. But now with the trees gone, they are no longer able to do so.
Peter tests the pump on one of the school’s water tanks. The water tanks, which they call “wells,” aren’t really wells. They just catch rainwater from roofs. This one was not totally destroyed, but the connecting pipes were damaged. The New Zealand Rotary installed the pump pictured here, which is designed for ease of use. Tongoa has lots of rain during the rainy season but Vanuatu is just approaching the dry season. It is also more difficult to attract rain with the island bereft of trees. Ordinarily, the cooling effect of the trees helps trap the clouds.
Peter and the boys among the debris, part of a work crew taking a break. The young men at the Napangasale school are from all over the Shepherd Islands group. Among them, they speak two different languages, Nakanamanga and Namakura. Sometimes they can’t understand each other, but they also speak English, so often that bridges the gap.
Peter just greeted a group of visiting aid workers from the group NYCMedics, who came to Tongoa to supply emergency health services. Most people didn’t have anything wrong with them, except a large number of mosquito bites irritated by flies landing on them. The medics found no medicine on the island in any of the dispensaries or clinics except what Peter himself had brought.
Villagers come to see the doctors. Most people on Tongoa have never seen a doctor. The local clinics have nurses in them and the nurses dispatch serious illnesses to the main islands, like Efate. The mothers here are in their Sunday dresses, handmade.
A grandma brings in her granddaughter, who is given a vaccine. Whenever medical professionals respond to an emergency like this one they vaccinate every child, whether or not the child has already been vaccinated. The practice is done because if doctors are going to go to a remote place and see everyone, it just makes sense to vaccinate as well.
The medical professionals with NYCMedics were staying in tents alongside the airport runway, a large grassy field. When they came to the Napangasale school, they were very impressed with the facilities. Peter brought them hot tea and biscuits, which pretty much made their day. Here, the boys watch the doctor work with curiosity. The peanut gallery (from L to R), Harry, Peter, Manuel, Willie Jimmy, Nono (behind Willie’s hand), Petro, Joseph, and David.
Peter heads out to see the damage in surrounding villages. Much of what aid workers do in the field involves uncomfortable travel. Being in the back of a pickup truck is fun, but it’s also dangerous. Not all organizations insure their employees for casual risks.
Peter met with villagers and surveyed the damage in two villages that are on the other side of a hill, beyond the school. Although the locals take the journey over the hill for church each week, it is quite a trek so Peter traveled by truck. Here, Mary, 48, a resident of the village of Mariu, stands in front of a lot and what used to be her house. Her brother built the house for her in 2012.
Geneva, 6, with her brother Jean Marc, 1, standing in front of their destroyed house. The village of Mariu is actually famous in the legacy of the nation of Vanuatu because it was the place where the nation formally became an independent state, free from colonial control. Until 1987, the country was run by both the English and the French in a very, very unusual power-sharing arrangement called a “condominium.” Every government office had a French office and an English office. In accordance with this power-sharing deal, the country switched which side of the road they drove on every month, taking turns, one month would be right for the French, the next month would be left for the English.
These were one family’s final crops. The cyclone took out most gardens, causing devastation to above ground plants, excessive water, and inclusion of salt water in storm winds. On Tongoa, families have survived almost entirely by what was grown around them. They also supplemented their diet with a few pigs, goats or occasional cattle slaughter. Unfortunately, they purchased those animals using profits from selling crops. Now they have no source of income or food beyond what they could salvage after the storm.
It’s a big day, Peter said, I’m going to shave. Peter cleaned himself up for a meeting with the Paramount Chief of Tongoa island. There is a chief for every village and a paramount chief who is the chief of the other chiefs. In the village of Bonga Bonga, the Chief asked if it would be possible for the island to get a portable sawmill to help the people clear the land, rebuild houses and make money from all the timber on the ground. Peter asked the Paramount Chief to meet and discuss the idea.
Peter meets with Chief Kalnasei Tinapuamata, the Paramount Chief of Tongoa island. The chiefs meet in community centers known as a “nakamal.” Here, Peter is shaking hands with Chief Tinapuamata in the Nakamal in the village of Lumbukuti. The people of Tongoa have gotten to know Peter well over the years.
Peter in conversation with Junior Chief Richard David, far right. Listening in at the meeting are the Paramount Chief Kalnasei Tinapuamata and another Junior Chief, as well as the Chief’s wife. It was very important to Peter to get the Paramount Chief’s ideas and buy in for a portable sawmill because the sawmill will have to belong to the community collectively. The group decided that there must be a rule that if the parties involved disagree about land ownership, the sawmill moves on right away. They agreed that if they are able to get a portable sawmill donated, that it will be the property of Tongoa’s Council of Chiefs.
Leaving Tongoa island, Peter says farewell to his “son,” Richard David and his wife, Rinnie. Richard is a junior chief and I wrote about the couple in my previous story, The Impact of Vanuatu’s Cyclone: It’s Bad, Very Bad.
From above, one of the islands of the Shepherd Group, Emae. Along the beach, a remote village. The Shepherd Islands have been very much overlooked in the emergency response after the cyclone.
Peter Wilson arrives back in Port Vila via the Air Taxi, a charter plane service that is available for hire. Although shipping boats occasionally come through and commercial flights travel to Tongoa twice a week, the flights are typically overbooked in these busy days after the cyclone.
Peter Wilson’s primary work product for the trip, other than his calculations for timber and roofing needed, is this document signed by the Paramount Chief of Tongoa. In it, the Chief requests that the New Zealand Rotary provides help to obtain a portable sawmill. The sawmill will help villagers clear the roads, recycle fallen trees, rebuild houses and make some money from the wood that is valuable. He is still working on getting the funding for the sawmill which will cost about $14,000 US.
On March 14, 2015, we the 14 paramount chiefs of Tongoa Island … woke up on a nuclear desert. Over 90 percent of our houses are all destroyed … Leaving many families homeless and … like refugees in their own land. Trees, root crops and cash crops on the island are all destroyed.
Leaving us with the deepest sorrows, with the big questions, How can we rebuild our houses and homes? Are we going to live under tarpaulins supplied by the relief suppliers for more than decades before we recover [from] this saddest situation?
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