5-29 Health and Sanitation

We spend a lot of time keeping our bodies in good working order. I’m not talking about exercise and stretching or eating right like I would in the states. I am at a more basic level. Everything grows well here, including mold, bacteria and all forms of illness and infection.
Tool of the trade
In any given week, I will likely put at least two minor holes in my feet, legs or hands. Jason does fewer holes but does them deeper. Any break in skin is a valid place to start growing bacteria, I mean scratching a mosquito bite or a broken blister is enough to start your own bacteria lab. Our nearest neighbor got medevaced to Vila in December for Impetigo after a bug bite got infected on her foot. We are trying to learn from her experience.

I think we spend about half an hour a day playing with hydrogen peroxide and bandaids. Here is the routine: Ask the other person if it looks infected, if no feel a little relief, if yes consider the option of calling the Medical Officers. Don’t bother to call. Pull out the peroxide, iodine, bandaids, triple antibacterial ointment, athletic tape and cotton balls. Go wash the affected area with soap and water. Try to keep it clean while going back to the porch. This is often a challenge since the most common cuts are on the bottom of my feet. Dump or dab peroxide on. Try not to swear for the audience of people watching from the community store. Repeat. When peroxide only foams up for about a minute, switch to dabbing iodine. Peroxide kills everything, including skin cells. The iodine is to counteract the peroxide and keep it from continuing to burn away the skin. Let it air dry while opening the bandaid and putting a dot of triple antibacterial ointment on it. Cover the bandaid with athletic tape to make it stay for more than fifteen minutes. Re-start the process on the next hole.

I think one of those signs of a Peace Corps Vounteer is when peroxide feels good. It feels like not infected today!

12-7 Bad things

These are the things I won’t forget but I wish never happened.

There are several other volunteers here. Not just PCVs, but volunteers from other organizations including GAP/Latitude and Oxford Volunteers. GAP is pretty well supported in-country with a bunch of volunteers all over the place. It is a program for high school grads to take a gap year before college and volunteer as English teachers in a developing nation. The Oxford program is not as well supported. In fact, the entire program last year consisted of 6 volunteers in Vanuatu and one woman supporting them in England. They are all Oxford graduates, hence the name Oxford program.

On our amazing plane ride here, there was another white woman. Katie was part of the Oxford program. After we got here, we were shown around Melsisi and living in the convent with another 2 from the same program. We ended up walking down to Randwadi, the next high school over, where Katie and several other volunteers were working one evening and having dinner with them. The next day, Katie took us around to some sites in the area and general made us feel welcome.

On Friday November 26th, Katie was raped. She was walking home from a goodbye dinner just after sunset. She was attacked from behind by two men, who dragged her off the main road and one of them raped her. She was supposed to leave the island on Saturday morning. She missed her flight because the rivers are all flooded. After she missed her flight, she called Jason and I and we walked to Ranwadi. We spent the weekend with her and the two GAP volunteers who were still at the school. By the end of the weekend, the community had caught the two perpetrators, Katie identified them and they did a kastom ceremony.

The boys were brought in front of the community and forced to stand and be berated by 3 people in two languages for about 45 minutes. Public humiliation and public shame here is a really big deal. I can’t really describe it to do it justice, but because the families are so intertwined and community plays such a huge role in daily life, being shamed in front of your community is really bad. Being forced to stand and listen to how not only have you shamed yourself in the eyes of the community but you’ve also brought shame on your family and your community and ruined the name of this place, well that’s like the Vanuatu equivalent of having your face on the 5 o-clock news with “rapist” underneath.

After the yelling, the chiefs set a fine that the boys and their families would have to pay. The first part was in retribution for Katie’s lost phone. We valued it at 5700 VT, the chief decided 1000 VT would do. Then they had to give her 16 red matts, which is about a third of a bride price. They also had to pay the chiefs of Vanmelang (the county I live in and she lived in) 4 full-circle pig tusks and the chief of Waterfall 2 full-circle pig tusks because it happened on his land. To get a pig tusk to grow in a full circle, you basically have to bottle feed it for about 15 years. The cash equivalent of a red matt is about 2000 VT and the cash equivalent of a pig tusk is about 20,000 VT. The total there is 152,000 VT or about 1,520 USD. The average family makes about 2,300 USD a year.

When Katie told us what had happened, I called our safety and security officer, who called our assistant country director (APCD) who called me back. By the time Katie got on the plane on Monday, my APCD was planning on picking her up at the airport, she would be staying with the APCD who had arranged to have the police come to her house to take the report and set up a doctor visit on a public holiday. Katie got to Vila on Monday and made her police report. On Wednesday, the next day there are flights to Pentecost, the police came and took the two boys. Their arraignment hearing is on Thursday (Dec. 9th). Rumor here is that they will be facing international law and 15 years in prison.

The community response here has been interesting to witness. Many people have gone out of their way to tell me that it is really not ok that it happened. I’ve been told a number of times that the boys should be beaten up, I’ve had offers of people going to go beat them up, I’ve been told the police will beat them up. (Corporeal punishment is viewed differently here, by the way.) I’ve been told that nothing like this has ever happened here before, that it never should have happened. I’ve been told that the boys are from an uncivilized area, they spend too much time in the bush and not enough time in town or in church. Jason has been told that the correct way to deal with being horny is to talk to your mom about finding a wife or if you really can’t stand it go find a pig or a cow. A huge number of people have come to us to tell us that it really, really is not something that is acceptable.

I don’t know if the response we’ve gotten is because they think it is a big deal or because they know it is a big deal to us, but either way, I’ve been impressed with the response. The community has come forward to say that this never should have happened. They are uniformly in favor of the boys going to prison for a very long time. They want it to be completely clear that this is not ok. Similarly, the Peace Corps staff took care of all the aspects of legal and medical things that were needed for Katie, who wasn’t even a PCV. I feel like if anything does happen to me or Jason we will be very well looked after.

Finally, before I get any freaked out comments about how it isn’t safe here, well, it isn’t safe anywhere. The population of Vanuatu is half that of the city of Minneapolis, not including its surrounding area. How many rapes or assaults are there a year in Minneapolis? I’m here to work to improve the quality of life of the people here. Now, I have one more personal reason to work towards women’s rights and equality, sexual and reproductive health education and education about domestic violence. As I said about the death of the boy on the plane, these are events that will forever affect me and will affect my service here. These events will focus my efforts and add fuel to the fire, but they won’t make me quit and run away and hide.

I don’t feel unsafe. I’m also not stupid. I won’t be walking around alone at night but I’m not going to give up every ounce of my freedom to fear.

Safety and Security as a PCV in Vanuatu

I don’t know how many people have seen the recent 20/20 show about safety and security issues in the Peace Corps. If you haven’t, I’m sure there’s plenty of information on the Internet. Not having seen the piece myself, the gist I have of it is that they were reporting on some instances where women were sexually assaulted and the Peace Corps either ignored warning signs or covered up information after the fact. I do not personally know anything about these cases or the staff of the Peace Corps in those countries so I cannot make any comments about those cases. I can, however, comment about our safety and security experiences here in Vanuatu.
From talking to multiple current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers it seems that the safety and security can depend on the staff members who deal with problems as they come up. Gaea and I have had more opportunity than we would like to test the system of support here in Vanuatu, though fortunately for us it has all been us getting involved with other peoples’ situations rather than having our own per se. The support staff here has been nothing short of amazing. When Gaea ended up giving the young boy CPR on the way back from Epi our medical officer picked us up at the airport and our Country Director and Assistant Country Director met us at the office. We were put up in a hotel and were very well taken care of. I will be posting another incident where a nearby volunteer was raped. We talked to some of our support staff when we found out about it and the level of support they brought to bear through non-official channels and in their off time for a non-Peace Corps Volunteer was simply amazing. The Country Director was strongly considering whether to leave us at site because of this incident and may have if the community had not been as phenomenally supportive of the other volunteer. I am personally on the Safety and Security Committee and know how seriously our Safety and Security Officer takes our reports of any incidents. During training we have been specifically instructed to report everything and I know it will be taken seriously. In talking to us about the 20/20 report, our Country Director assured us that both he and the Assistant Country Director keep the phone numbers of boats and even helicopters all the time in case they should deem it necessary to pull a volunteer in trouble. Our staff will take incredibly good care of us no matter what.
Beyond the Peace Corps staff, our community has been incredibly supportive in the wake of the rape which happened at the end of November. I can’t count the number of people who made a point of telling us how horrible it was, that the boys deserved to be punished severely, and not to mention that if anyone tried that on Gaea she would beat the crap out of them. When it happened, the entire area put on a massive search for the boys and found them quickly. They proceeded to give the biggest fine that our Safety and Security Officer had heard of for a rape and told Katie that if she decided to go to the police (and they thought she should) she would have the full support of the chiefs. Gaea is also treated by all the young men of the community as though she were their little sister and are quite protective of their peace corps. The community is looking out for us too.
I also want to remind everyone that these kinds of incidents can happen anywhere and Vanuatu’s crime rate is much less than Minneapolis. Overall, Gaea and I feel very, very safe here. We are obviously avoiding unnecessary risks and keeping aware as much as we can. Some of this Gaea has stated in her post about the rape but I felt it important to expand on and make sure that people are not worrying unduly about our safety.
Love you all!