Meet "Leiwia from Mere-Sauwia"
In April, I received an email from my country director notifying me that Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet would be visiting Vanuatu and wanted to stay overnight with a Volunteer: “I volunteered you, I hope that’s okay.”
I was happy to oblige – how often do you get to share your village with the director of Peace Corps? Not to mention, no trip to Vanuatu is complete without an outer island experience in a traditional village with no electricity, no running water and, up until a few months ago, no cell phone coverage. I was excited to return to my village with the good news and begin the preparations.
Tourism has long been a dream for my village. I first introduced myself to the community in February 2014 and once they learned I had a tourism background, they quickly identified tourism development as one of my secondary projects.
In January 2015, Peace Corps Vanuatu chose our village as a training site and the community built 10 bungalows from local materials (bamboo, thatch, nantangora and other leaves) to accommodate the trainees. This gave our village island-style accommodations for visitors to experience traditional Vanuatu, as well as providing an income-generating opportunity for families.
Upon Director Carrie's arrival and with life jackets in hand, we boarded the metal ferry boat and took in the crystal blue water, fresh wind and stunning views of Moso, Kakala, Pele and Nguna Islands in Undine Bay. We discussed the impact of Cyclone Pam, the chiefly system, the village customs and the Ni-Vanuatu livelihoods on our way to my island.
We arrived on the beach and Elder John escorted us towards the nakamal, the local meeting house. A painted Ni-Vanuatu man, half dressed in leaves, stopped us on the way. His purpose: to ensure we were “okay” to enter the nakamal, per island custom. After a few moments of silence with his handmade spear in hand, he lifted his arm and motioned us to follow him. We then met the Paramount Chief and other local leaders in the village and enjoyed a few snacks before hiking into the bush.
Dusk was upon us as we made our way through the village to the newly cleaned uphill trail. The remnants of Cyclone Pam were evident: trees stripped of vegetation, fallen branches littering the ground and trees cut with borrowed chainsaws to unblock the path. At one time, bamboo reached for the sky but it now bends with an arch. Fruit and vegetable gardens that once flourished in rich soil are finally starting to take life again.
Near the top of the island, we waved as young men on the futbol team stretched before afternoon practice. Just behind the field, the health dispensary awaits the arrival of two new 6,000-liter water tanks to provide access to clean water to patients and nearby villages. We made a small right turn at the primary school where I often teach health classes and continued down the steep hill to be met by my favorite breathtaking view of the Shepard Islands.
We finally arrived in Mere-Sauwia and I was excited to see what the community had planned. We were welcomed with the sound of the traditional conch shell in honor of our special guests, a customary dance and the mamas adorned us in the official colors of Mere-Sauwia: bright yellow and green island-style dresses and shirts.
My papa, the Paramount Chief, welcomed our special guests in Bislama, Vanuatu’s national language. Director Carrie addressed the community with sincere appreciation for the warm welcome, collaboration as a training village and for upholding my safety, one of the primary responsibilities of hosting a Peace Corps Volunteer. U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu Walter E. North inspired the group with a message of gender empowerment, encouraging women to take on leadership roles and noting Director Carrie’s role as a woman leading Volunteers in more than 60 countries across the world. I was delighted the men, women and children heard those words of encouragement as I have invested a significant amount of time increasing the capacity of the women in the village.
We then took part in a kava tasting, the traditional drink of Vanuatu, followed by dinner. The night’s activities lent itself to “storian” about roles in the village, past health workshops, the future internet cafe and then the children proudly sang their climate change song (a previous volunteer’s work) all while sitting on locally made mats.
After dinner, the mamas gave Director Carrie her custom name: “Leiwia from Mere-Sauwia." The string band fired up and we laughed and danced the night away on the foundation where our community hall stood before Cyclone Pam.
The next morning, we sat outside my family’s beautiful “sunrise bungalow” enjoying coffee and local bread as the chickens pecked nearby. “Leiwia from Mere-Sauwia” and my mama exchanged stories about their children and "Leiwia" shared stories about her host family in Samoa.
Before returning to the mainland, "Leiwia" and Ambassador North planted the first trees at the entrance of our soon-to-be-fruit tree planting area.
I am so proud of my community for their hard work to prepare for Director Carrie ("Leiwia from Mere-Sauwia") and Ambassador North’s visit. It was a whirlwind trip and I am so grateful to have had another opportunity to share my culturally rich life on a tiny island in the South Pacific.
We are fortunate to have such a down-to-earth, inspiring, genuine, charismatic Peace Corps Director. Director Carrie shares our challenges as Volunteers and reminds me that although some days are difficult, I am proud to be a part of an amazing organization promoting peace and friendship across the globe.