Vanuatu is a beautiful country comprising 86 beautiful tropical islands in the middle of the Pacific. The people of Vanuatu, Ni-Vanuatu or Ni-Vans for short, are possibly the friendliest, welcoming people to be found anywhere in the world. I would often remark to Ni-Van friends of mine that someone in deepest darkest wintery Europe, someone probably has the images of the beaches of Vanuatu as their desktop picture or screen saver, dreaming of a tropical paradise – to which they would laugh. Let it also be noted, the best pineapple I’ve ever eaten can be found here.
But don’t let Vanuatu fool you into thinking it is all paradise. It consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for natural disasters – tropical cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity occur here regularly. Recently it has been struck by Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category five cyclone (the highest rating for cyclones) to which it devastated the islands of Espirito Santo and Pentecost.
Despite this, it has been a place where for the past five years I have been travelling back and forth from, for both work and pleasure. In that time, many lasting friendships have been made.
Roads for Development
From 2015-2017 I was involved with an Australia Aid funded program Roads for Development (R4D), firstly as a volunteer, then as a consultant. This program provided technical assistance and institutional development to support the Government of Vanuatu and worked within the Public Works Department. It focused on rural road maintenance across Vanuatu. Along with technical support, a sub-program for Community Based Contracting (CBC) was developed. This program contracted communities across Vanuatu to carry out simple maintenance tasks on main roads close to their villages.
To support this program’s cross cutting issues, the development of a Social and Environmental Safeguards Framework training program was developed along with learning guides and supporting material for the delivery to staff and Community Based Contractors (CBC). I designed and developed this training and supporting communication material with local staff to support regional staff in workshops and training.
On completing this work, I was given the opportunity to be involved in gathering information on the CBC program for monitoring and evaluation (M&E). This meant travelling across Vanuatu to rural communities participating in the CBC program. Having previously had no experience conducting M&E surveys, I worked closely with the M&E specialist, the team leader and local staff on developing questions for the survey and in planning the travel. I was very fortunate to have the support of the Social and Environmental officer, Jason to travel and work with.
22 communities in three weeks across five provinces. Not a problem!
Flexibility to change
Saturday afternoon at the small tin shed of Norsup airport on the island of Malakula with a three hour flight delay, trucks breaking down on barely passable roads and having to push in my island dress, community hall filled with around 30 residents angry at the government department for not fixing the road alongside their community. All these experiences have taught me to accept the situation at hand and work with what I have. Wishing and wanting for my flight to arrive at Norsup airport didn’t make it come any faster. Flexibility was understanding and having the ability to see the situation for what it was, leaving my preconceived western notions at the door and the importance of time management. This all counted towards seeing the bigger picture and embracing the situation at hand.
The best laid plans, no matter how well thought out, organised and ready for implementation, can be thrown out the window. Timing and planning in the Pacific can be notoriously difficult. Time works differently in the Pacific – ‘island time’ is very real. My experience of this in Port Vila had somewhat prepared me, but residents in communities often may have been available, might have decided that other work took precedent or just forgot about our meeting. No matter how many reminders, emails, phone calls to local regional staff, I knew that it is about accepting the situation and finding workable solutions. Letting go of what I wanted a situation to be and accepting what was in the present was hard but yet liberating. It sometimes tested my patience but at the same time it taught me the value of patience and flexibility.
The importance of listening and how to listen well
At the heart of the work that I was doing was the art of listening to people’s experiences, both positive and negative, and it became a skill that I needed to cultivate. Knowing how to and where to uncover these stories, sifting through information to reveal more. These are the skills that I developed during this experience.
Listening and listening well was my way of showing not only respect to the people who had given their time to me out of their day, it also gave dignity to their personal experience. Often my conversations would be with small groups, perhaps three or four. But each had a story to tell of their own personal experience of what impact this program had on their community.
Listening and showing genuine engagement is important. The stories that communities told me of their experiences with the CBC program, both positive and negative, can be rewarding and difficult – but they needed to be heard. There were positive stories such as the chief from the village of Rory on the island of Malakula proudly showed the plans for the new community hall they could now afford materials for building. Then there were the frustrated angry communities in Efate who had completed the agreed work and had been waiting months for payment. They saw me as the contact to direct their frustration at, and listening to them validated their experience. Which I did.
Cultural connection and awareness
As a woman from western society, there are some things that I found different and I needed to ensure that I was aware of the culture and what was appropriate behaviour. When travelling and visiting these communities, an obvious change I needed to make was my dress. Generally, in Port Vila, wearing trousers and slim cut clothing was not an issue, however in rural areas of Vanuatu, it was expected that I would be dressed modestly and to wear an island dress. This was not an issue for me, and I was prepared.
However, there were other subtle cultural differences I needed to observe. Understanding that some rural village men would not be happy with speaking directly to me without the presence of another man was something that I needed to be aware of. Links to family and what relation you were to another person was also important. In these situations, I was fortunate to have the support of my co-worker Jason travelling with me to help me navigate through some of these subtleties. This was a great help and with his knowledge, it helped with making that connection with the people I interviewed.
Things are never what they seem
The element of surprise is always a delight and can make long and sometimes arduous journeys to remote locations worthwhile.
Many of the communities that I interviewed pooled much of their earnings from the program on community-based projects; fixing churches, building new community centres, school fees or solar power. But not all communities chose this. In one community on the main island of Efate the women chose to invest their money in something else…
Many of the women in this community had never travelled outside of their village or been given the opportunity to travel. Unlike many of the men, who had travelled to Australia and New Zealand as part of the seasonal fruit picking program, many of the women did not have this opportunity in this community due to family commitments and money. Not satisfied, the women saw an opportunity to change this. They had heard of the CBC program and asked the chief of the community if they could become involved to earn the funds for a trip to Fiji. Both for a holiday and to learn how Fijian women developed their handicraft business. The chief agreed. The women told of not only having to complete their daily household work, but on top of that, they were walking up the steep 2km route to the main road to complete their road maintenance work. It wasn’t easy, these were long tiring days. However, the women did complete all the work and had their trip to Fiji paid and booked.
The stories of their adventure to Fiji brought not only happiness but great pride when the women of this community proudly told of their achievements. We all can be sometimes quick to judge and make assumptions based on previous experience, however the refreshing, unexpected nature of this experience was a valuable lesson for me in keeping an open mind.
Monitoring and evaluation is a process by which projects and programs have the opportunity to understand where problems are, what changes need to be made and what can be learnt from the situation. But it is also a process of sharing in the stories and narratives of the people’s lives. It is more than just the data and outcomes. These are the stories, images and experiences of community lives. To be welcomed into communities, for people to give their time willingly and share their stories was a privilege.
I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that this has been some of the best work that I have been involved with in my career. Though there were frustrations – delayed flights and long car rides to remote villages – experiencing and being privileged to hear the stories from communities of their experiences has made me appreciate and hopefully convey this through my current and future practice. It is an on-going process of learning, developing and refining my communication and design practice. This process is one that will be a continual journey that I look forward to seeing where it will lead me to – new countries, communities and most importantly, people.
Images: All images are the author’s own and permission has been given by the participants for the images to be reproduced.