12-25: Welcome back to the Developed World where Things like Mexican Food and Homelessness Exist

Jason and I spent 2 nights in Darwin before coming to Bali. In many ways, it was great to be in the developed, English-speaking world. I got Mexican food (of a fashion), decent internet (which another guest said “Is not the fastest but…” It was the fastest.  He was confused.), and generally returned to the lifestyle in which I grew up. It was an excellent break between the stress and emotions of leaving Peace Corps and the stress and emotions of traveling in foreign countries.

There is one thing that hasn’t left my mind about those few days though. There was a lot of homelessness and poverty immediately visible. It felt wrong. I know that Vanuatu is an impoverished nation, that it scores pretty poorly on development factors and the ones it scores decently on are often inaccurate for cultural reasons. (Unemployment is listed as almost non-existent because everyone subsistence farms and cell phone ownership is listed at 90%, but most people who have 1, have 2 because the 2 networks are incompatible and both have very poor coverage on the outer islands, really the ownership should be more like 45-50%.) But Vanuatu never felt poor the way the people in Darwin did.

We chatted with a young girl, maybe 9- or 10-years-old. Her questions to us mostly revolved around food and where we were sleeping. Her language was heavily accented by what I took as her local language. She may have been on school break but she didn’t seem to have any of the concepts of geography that I would expect from a fourth or fifth grader, so I doubt she was in school or at least up to grade level. She lost interest in us after about 10 minutes, but it was an enlightening 10 minutes for me.

Mostly, the homeless we saw were Aboriginal families, which I think made it all the starker for me. I’ve been working with and for people who look like them, and not like me, for the last 3 years. That little girl told us about her 6 daddies, a cultural trait shared by ni-Vanuatu, and about how she was sleeping with one part of her family now but not be tomorrow. (In general in Vanuatu, your father’s brothers and male cousins are your “dads” and your mother’s sisters and female cousins are your “moms.” The opposites are your aunts and uncles. Children are raised communally, with special emphasis from their biological or adopted parents.) Now, here is a population that no one seems to be working with or for on similar issues of health, education, and goal-setting.

Interestingly, none of the Aboriginal people were poorly dressed. The three white homeless guys I saw were all your “typical” homeless individual. Ragged, poorly kept, surrounded by filthy possessions with a rather manic gleam to their eyes. But the Aboriginals had clean, good quality clothing, were not emaciated, and seemed to spend their time laughing and joking with each other during the day. Again, this implies to me that the Aboriginal culture carries some of the family values similar to Vanuatu. Their families are helping them out with clothes and food but can’t, or won’t, help them with housing.

I don’t know what to make of this. It is something that is sticking with me and something I kept noticing. I don’t want to turn my eyes away and pretend I don’t see people because they are homeless or in need. But I don’t know how to interact either. I don’t know how to politely handle beggars without giving away everything I have. And it was just straight up disturbing to see people in true poverty while all around them people just kept on with their affluent lives. This is not something I can reconcile in my head, even as I am doing it.

Welcome back to the developing world. Welcome to reverse culture shock.

7-5 Feminism in the Army

The French have invaded and brought with them women soldiers.  This is awesome.

This is awesome for many reasons.  The first reason is that I like badass women.  The second is that it reinforces the things I, and the other women volunteers, have been saying for the last two years.  We keep saying that women can be strong, that women can do “men’s work” and that women can be their own boss.  We keep saying that women are as smart and as capable as men.  We keep saying that women can lead their own lives and control their own reproduction.  Now, there are 16(ish) women in uniform running around Melsisi.
I hope the girls take note.  I hope the women take note.  I hope the boys and men take note.  It is possible to be a woman and be strong and independent and still be part of a community.
On a more personal note, seeing the women made me miss my badass women friends and the men who support and join in the badassery.  I miss being around women who don’t say “the man is the boss” and who aren’t afraid to speak their mind.  I miss the sense of camaraderie of accomplishing something together.  I miss having friends of both sexes and feeling like I am part of the group, not the outsider.
The French army has made me homesick.  How odd.

5-15 Fundraising skills

Group form

Discussions of closed economies and export vs inmport aside, finding money here is interesting. People tend to have some money from selling kava or other such garden produce, yet no one really admits to having any. Even opening a bank account is sort of an odd idea, most money is kept in a sock under the bed. So, raising money for a cause like a new school building or toilets is a mix of challenge and scripted routine.

Showing off previous training.

There are, as far as I can tell, four ways of raising money. The most common and easiest to do is a kava night. One or more people supply a huge amount of kava which friends and family help to grind and milk then is sold for 20 vatu a shell. The price is different in different places, its 100 vt a shell in Vila and most provincial centers. 100 vt is the equivalent of about $1.10. The second and almost as common form of fundraiser is selling prepared food. The mamas, with and without the help of the men, cook massive quantities of laplap, le soup(boiled cabbage, sometimes with other veggies or noodles), rice and usually fish or chicken. The standard price is 50 vt for a chunk of laplap with fish and coconut milk. Basically, a full meal for $0.50.

A Kung-Fu stick form.

The other two forms of fundraisers are a bit more complicated to put together and I’ve only been to one of each. The first is the equivalent of a school carnival. There are games of chance, like mini lottery draws, raffle tickets, games of skill like kicking a soccer ball through a tire or driving a nail into the ground in one swing and food. Usually, there is also a mini-tournament for volleyball or other less active sport. These take a LOT of planning but tend to bring in a good amount of money. The last option is the soccer tournament. The teams pay in (usually by doing their own kava night fundraisers) and then the winning team gets a goodly prize and every evening is an opportunity to sell kava and food, either for the fundraiser or for private profit.

Given the standard script of fundraising, finding a new and interesting draw is a serious competitive edge. If you can think of something that will make people want to come to your fundraiser, you will win more money. Into that environment come two white people who do martial arts, like a movie. (We’ve been told that we look like movie actors. I think they have a low bar.)
Beating up on my primary student, a classic.

It took a year but the innovation is happening. The Maorip Tae Kwon Do Karate Klub, now renamed the Maorip Hwa Rang Do Karate Klub, was asked to come do a show at the primary school. I am impressed with the innovation that it shows to do that. So, we set a date and did some practice for the show. Of course, the people who showed up to practice for it two weeks before were not the same people who showed up to do the show, which required some quick edits and a two hour morning rehearsal. Which changed again when two people who were not at either rehearsal showed up in time to do the show. We managed and the show went fine. Not great, but no one got hurt. (I did kick Jason in the face, but only lightly.)

They put up a fence and jammed coconut leaves in it to block the view from outside, so they could charge admission. They did charge, 20 vt for a child, 50 vt for an adult. We made 4,400 vt. Then we had a kava night. We finished the kava, so I assume they made another couple thousand vatu. Not a bad evening’s work.

1-19 The State of the Work

Despite what this blog reflects, I am actually in Vanuatu to do a job.  That job is a little unclear most days, but I am here to do it.  My job description translates to something like “Improve the health of the area.”  It is up to me to determine what that means.

PHAST in action, discussing toilet improvements for the community
I like these parameters.  I am a self-starter and I work best with minimal supervision.  (Its a nice way or saying I don’t like authority.)  Most of the time, this works out great for me.  However, there are days it is kind of rough.  There are days I want nothing more than to show up to a job and be told to go take care of something that I can then proceed to ignore or half ass until the end of the work day when I can go home and feel like I did my eight hours.  I don’t do that here.  Even on the days I feel like slacking, I have to motivate me to go do work.
This conundrum has been challenging for some Community Health volunteers.  It is hard work to go make yourself a job every day.  For some volunteers, their last year of service becomes a year of watching time pass.  They’ve run out of steam to find work and are just waiting to finish their contracts.  I’m at the point right now where I can choose to sit back and play with my cats and go swim in the ocean or I can make the choice to keep working hard and searching out things to do and people to do them with.  Those of you who know me know which choice I’ve made, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.
Here is what I’m doing and how it is going. 
After a four day PHAST workshop, we did a group picture


I did a lot of workshops about hygiene and sanitation.  In them, the community chose a project to improve their hygiene and sanitation.  I chose these workshops based on surveys in which the community members told me there is a lot of trouble with toilets.  So, the community chose to build water seal (dump a bucket to flush) toilets.  I agreed to help them write a grant.  That was over six months ago.  The grant is still incomplete, though it is under consideration by the funding agency.  The community contribution was due over a month ago and I haven’t seen or heard of anyone giving their portion of the money.  The person I was working with has forgotten to show up to talk about this twice in a row.  In a continuing effort to not give up, I went to the chief to discuss this state of affairs.  We’ll see if there is any change in the coming month.  If not, I will strongly consider pulling the grant out of consideration. 
Children’s Sanddrawing workbook
There are beautiful sand drawings that have meanings and stories that go with them.  The stories and even the drawings themselves are disappearing as the oldfala die or become to senile to show them to people.  There are a few people who are interested in preserving this art form.  I am trying to work with one of them to create a small workbook/coloring book for kids that include how to make about a dozen of the drawings and the stories that go with them.  If I can pull it off, I’d like to stories to be in Apma, Bislama, French and English.  Literacy, here we come!  Of course, the last three times I’ve tried to meet with the oldfala, something has made us not connect.  I still don’t have the drawings or the stories so I can’t even start to type them up and create a layout for the book, much less look for a publisher or funding to publish it.  Sigh.
Weekly Health toktok
I want to get my  counterpart involved in doing more health outreach as well as learning more about health and medicine herself.  She is interested in going to nursing school in the future.  I thought we could do weekly or bi-weekly lectures of an hour or less about one or two topics each week.  It would give the two of us a chance to discuss health topics and hopefully increase her knowledge while doing some basic education within the community.  We set a date for the first one.  She cancelled it the night before.  We set a second date.  She cancelled it.  I went to her about a third date, she cancelled it.  I tried a fourth date, she cancelled in the morning of.  I think I’m done trying on that plan.
High School Health Class

In Jason’s classroom, mine is up the hill with chalkboards, not computer.

I was teaching the high schoolers health.  By health I mean sex ed.  This is one of the places I can say I’ve been successful.  I’ve increased the knowledge of STIs and STI prevention among the 14-17 year-olds in the area.  I know they are using condoms because I keep finding the condom wrappers hidden in dark corners.  When we did Sex Jeaopardy on the last day of class, there were only a few questions that stumped them.  I’ll be teaching in the school again this coming school year, though I may try to expand from sex ed to include nutrition and basic first aid.

Children Hygeine and Sanitation Transformation
It isn’t a success yet, but its getting there.  I’m working with some other PCVs to create a toolkit of pictures to teach hygiene and sanitation to first through fifth graders.  We’re ready to do a beta test of it when the new school year starts, I’ll tell you if it goes anywhere from there.

At the Training of Trainers for a GLOW/BILD.
Next step: run a GLOW/BILD


These are youth leadership and empowerment camps that are really encouraged within Peace Corps.  We went to a Training of Trainers last May.  We left with every intention of running one in our community.  Since then, the girl who came with us left to get married on Santo, one of the boys got married and is too busy and the other one hasn’t showed up to talk to me about it.  We may try to do a long weekend instead of a full week sometime in the next few months.  Again, it seems like the momentum is lost and it will take some serious effort to build it back up.
Adolescent Reproductive Health Curriculm
This is another project to try to give Peace Corps more resources for the future.  I’m basing it on my experience teaching last year.  I haven’t done a lot yet, but again, I have high hopes.  I always have high hopes.

I have a few more ideas of things I want to do before I leave.  I’d like to do a AIDS/STI workshop in the community.  I may try to make it a really big deal over two or three days and do a tournament and hire the band to play or watch AIDS related videos in the evenings.  We’ll see.  I’d like to do a maternal and child nutrition workshop with the mamas.  I’m going to talk to someone about that today.  We’ll see what other work I can find to do.  I’m good at coming up with ideas for work, anyway.

11-7 One year in

Today (when I’m writing this) is exactly one year on Pentecost.  Here is a list of our accomplishments, the good, the bad and the medevacs.
Taught 2+ terms of sex ed to year 9s and 10s
Taught 2+ terms of computer class to year 9s and 10s (Jason says that between the two of us we’ve taught most of three.  I’m only counting his classes.)
Ran 4 Participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Transformation workshops
Trained a ni-Van co-facilitator up to run a workshop without me present
Helped my community write a grant for improved toilets
Taught community computer classes to anyone interested
Got medevac to Australia.
The other half got medevac to Australia
Held a Koala (x2)
Visited New Zealand
Watched games from the rugby world cup
Published a story, twice
Learned to cook on a fire
Learned to roast food in a piece of bamboo
Learned to skin a coconut without slicing my hand open
Trained incoming Peace Corps Volunteers for their two year adventure
Drank LOTS of kava
Learned to grind kava
Learned to milk kava
Wore a loin cloth to public events
Did a health survey of my district
Assisted with a Training of Trainers for youth leadership camps
Taught sex ed workshops
Cut a bush garden
Cut a second garden in my lawn
Carved a jack-o-lantern on Halloween.  Carved 4 more out of green papayas.
Learned the basic scripted conversation in local language (where are you going?  To the garden!)
Learned to find coconuts
Learned to find firewood
Learned many, many uses for every part of a coconut, tree, leaves and fruit
Baked vegan banana bread on an open fire that is better than most banana bread I’ve had in the States
Explain in Bislama who Bin Laden was and why he got shot
Wove a basket
Explained that not everyone in America is white
Got diahrrea
Got diahrrea again.  And again.  And again.
Got giardia.
Got scabies.
Got strep.  Again. And again.
Used more h2o2 than the entire rest of our lives.
Learned the many and varied uses of a bush knife 
Transported cats as carry-on in an airplane
Stole eggs from a mama hen roosting in my kitchen
Learned to identify edible plants and how to knock the good fruits out of a tree with sticks or stones
Learned to eat coconut milk in quantity.  Large quantity.  Everything is better with coconut milk.
Walked an hour home kava drunk.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And again.
Met wonderful Americans with similar values and diverse backgrounds.
Made friends I hope will last the rest of my life
Walked up hill.  Again. And Again.  And again.  And again.  And again, ad nauseum (sometimes literally, the hills are really hard on hot days.)
Made a friend from a wildly different culture
Ate a giant bat
Ate sea turtle (didn’t know it was until post-consumption.  They like doing that to us.)
Ate fish I’ve only ever seen in tropical fish stores or on screen savers
Drank more kava
Made friends with people from New Zealand, England and Australia.  I know I’ll have a place to sleep when I want to go visiting.  (Right guys? Right?)
Celebrated 6 years of dating and 4 years of co-habitating
Explored the medical system in Vanuatu
Broke out in more unexplained rashes than ever before
Learned that staring at the cell tower does not mean you will have cell reception
Learned to speak Bislama fluently
Learned computer words in French (other basics including Bon Appetite and Bon giorno)
Cut the grass with a bushknife
Built a bush kitchen
Pinned natangura thatch
Lived in a convent for a month
Saw Brisbane, Australia
Saw a volcano explode from the front porch
Watched a volcano explode from the rim
Read a couple hundred books
Traveled by passenger ship and cargo ship
Flew in a plane small enough that the pilot turns around to make the seatbelt announcement
Flew in a 4 seater plane (I swear I’ve been in pickup trucks that were bigger.)
Wrote 20,000 words
Developed an interest in photography
Shot 10,000 photos (some are better than others.  We’re culling the weak and ugly.)
Killed a computer
Acquired a new computer
Taken many long, long walks along the beach (aka commutes)
Had a visit by a friend
Had a visit by a mom
Drank a pinacolada at a resort in the tropics.  It had a flower in it.
Destroyed our English language fluency
Learned to recognize the sound of the rain about to soak you to the skin as it comes down the mountain
Learned the real meaning of “heavy rains”
Sat in a bamboo hut during a cyclone
Felt an earthquake.  Felt a few big earthquakes
Learned to tie on a roof with coconut leaves
Grew tomato plants taller than me
Grew basil plants as tall as me
Said goodbye to friends (hopefully just “see you later.”)
Split firewood with a bushknife
Ate ferns.  They are damn tasty, especially in coconut milk
Walked most of the north-south distance of Pentecost
Got called fatfat a lot
Got a new name and started answering to it faster than my real name
Washed clothes by hand.  Learned that tossing them in the bucket with soap is the same as washing.
Cut my hair and grew it back out
Taught children to do acrobatics through cow pies
Relished a Thanksgiving dinner of boxed mac and cheese
Watched men jump from very high places with vines tied to their ankles
Missed three weddings
Missed one new born
Celebrated 26 with s’mores, mac and cheese cooked on an open fire and a bottle of wine
De-wormed. Twice.  Out of necessity.

8-23 Entitlement is a Dirty Word…Or is it?

In my pre-Peace Corps vocabulary, “entitlement” was a dirty word. It was used to describe a mother who thought her child deserved good grades by virtue of being her child or the man that thought his son’s skinned knee required an ambulance. I used it to mean talk about feeling justified into deserving something, when that something hasn’t been worked for. My relationship to this word is changing. Entitlement and empowerment are two very powerful concepts and I’m grappling with how to teach them in a healthy way here.

By virtue of being conscious beings on this earth, we are entitled to basic human rights: food, clothing, shelter, education, pursuit of happiness and health care. By virtue of being citizens of a country, we are entitled to government services including: postal service, health care, education, the ability to pursue business, and responsible governmental oversight of the country.

These entitlements are not happening here. There is a gap between the rights and the reality.

For instance, there is a pressing need for effective education, not just rote learning and memorization but critical thinking skills and student-centered education. It is not being met, partially due to the lack of facilities to train new teachers, so people with no teaching background or experience are being pressed into those roles. When I’ve asked people here about it, the response is lukewarm. Sort of a, “Well, I can’t change it, so why bother.” We didn’t have medicine in the Aid Post for three months and I got the same reaction. I’ve heard the same reaction in regards to the corrupt government. They aren’t even willing to pressure the postal worker to stay at the post office for the entire work day. This, to me, speaks to a disempowered and disenfranchised population.

Part of my work here is to empower people. By empower, I mean to ask for these things in an effective and respectful manner. Teaching people to campaign and petition their government is important. Learning how to address these issues is important to the future of this country. These are services that people are entitled to on every island, in every country. They are mostly services that they aren’t getting here, or are getting in name only.

On the flip side, there are things people are not entitled to but believe they are. There is no entitlement inherent in voting for a candidate. That candidate is not required to give you a new saucepan for your vote. In most countries, that would be illegal. No foreign government is required to give aid to any other government, the aid that is given is an attempt to better the world (or buy political capital). That does not mean that a village is entitled to a water tank or that any individual household is entitled to a water tank. The school is not entitled to new computers because they have a Peace Corps Volunteer. No one here is entitled to my money, so stop asking.

This seems to be related to the culture of handouts. When foreign aid agencies come in and give out free things, it creates the expectation that the next whiteman to come through will do the same. This turns into the ugly side of entitlement. The idea that “I deserve more because I have less than you.” A person can always view themselves as having “less than” some one else, which means they always “deserve” more. This is not healthy, it is not good for the community and it doesn’t assist people in empowering themselves to improve their own lives and the lives of their children. It doesn’t teach people how to plan for future change or work towards a long-term goal.

I would like to see foreign aid focus on grassroots projects meant to help empower people at the village level and through that empowerment to think on the larger scale. I would like to see foreign aid that assists people in organizing their communities towards a common goal. I would like to see aid agencies looking for local individuals to build up into leaders within their communities who can provide the pool from which to choose governmental leaders. I would like to see aid organizations working towards finding sustainable options to solve human rights issues which are based in the resources available to the community.

I guess this is why I’m in the Peace Corps.