I loved being able to publish this guest post on my blog today. It is written by Anne Vize, a Melbourne writer. It is inspiring to read about the difference one family can make to another community.
Step through the doorway of a Vanuatu primary school and you’re likely to be greeted by a throng of excited faces eager to welcome you, and see who the stranger is who has walked into their midst. Classrooms are basic here – there are no interactive whiteboards or i-pads, libraries are a luxury, and resources are limited to a blackboard, woven floor mat and wooden benches for seating. But laughs! Well those are free, and freely given. These are happy places, with laughter and a genuine pride being taken in the work for the day.
The idea of traveling with a purpose
So how did I come to be standing at the entrance to a primary classroom in Vanuatu with my own two small children in tow? Surely most visitors to the country would be more enticed by white sandy beaches (including Gideon’s Landing, home to Survivor Vanuatu), the Cascades waterfall, breath taking dive sites, luscious tropical foods and boat trips to outer islands than by a classroom? Well truth be told, my journey began, like many, with an idea. The idea was to see if travel with children could be about something more than just visiting and seeing the surface of a country. More than just seeing the sights, tasting the food and taking loads of photos to display on a screen at home. What if it meant going a little outside the comfort zone for parents and children alike, and doing something that made an experience last longer simply the end of the plane trip home?
Daily life in Vanuatu
Despite being only three hours flight time from Sydney, Vanuatu is worlds apart in terms of culture, lifestyle, health and education. With only one city, Port Vila, to speak of, life here revolves mostly around the local village and subsistence farming. Foods are grown to eat, and that which is not eaten is sold at the market in Port Vila or on roadside stalls. Unemployment amongst young people is particularly high, and income levels are low. Health care is variable, especially when you get to the more remote islands. Only 72% of children who start grade 1 remain at school until grade 6, meaning many young children don’t reach basic literacy and numeracy levels. I decided that on this trip, it was time to give back a little to the country I was visiting, and hopefully make a few lives a little easier along the way.
Why give books?
As a writer, books are one of the things I treasure most in the world. I love children learning to read –it’s what makes everything I do worthwhile. The idea of children not having easy access to books and being able to learn to read and write was something that just didn’t sit well with me, especially in a country so close to our own. So I decided, after a chat to my own children, that what better gift to take on our holiday than some books? It seems many of our friends and family thought so too, and a quick note sent to school class mates soon saw us swamped with a massive 9 kilos of children’s paperbacks. Happily Air Vanuatu allow for 23 kilos, so there was still ample for at least some clothes and swimming gear. All we needed to hope was that we could find some schools to whom we could donate our books, and that they would be well received.
It turns out schools are extremely happy to receive donations of practical resources they can use in the classroom. Exercise books, pencils, crayons, picture books, readers and other stationery are all useful. The reading level for books needs to be easy, as most children are learning English as a second or third language. Remove packaging if you’re visiting outer islands such as Espiritu Santo or Tanna, as there is no rubbish disposal. Be prepared to enter into the spirit of giving – take the time to go into a classroom and share the books with the children themselves and read a story or two out loud. Avoid books which might be seen as inappropriate or which relate to movies or TV shows, as mostly the children will not be familiar with the characters. A bit of careful thinking and planning beforehand means you are more likely to take things that will be received positively, and more importantly, will be used.
Reaching out to schools in Vanuatu
Making contact with local schools can be challenging, although generally accommodation providers are happy to help. We stayed at The Melanesian in the heart of Port Vila which gave us the chance to explore to our heart’s content and make some initial enquiries about suitable schools. This was a great place to stay with a family as it offered self catering, easy access to town and a tennis court and pool. As a bonus there was even a couple of banded iguanas in a large cage just outside our room. These little guys love hibiscus leaves, and my seven year old delighted in keeping them well supplied. We checked out the Cascades Waterfall with Evergreen Tours while we were at Melanesian, and although it was not for the faint hearted it is certainly worth the effort to climb to the pool at the base of the waterfall.
Many of the schools close to Port Vila do tend to get lots of donations so it is worth heading a little further out of town to get to the schools which are more rural. Our second accommodation at Poppy’s on the Lagoon gave us our first school contact – a small and relatively new school called Seaside Community School. The children here were gorgeous and no one seemed to mind when we joined in the last session of the day and shared some of our book collection with them. From the look of the sparse book shelves in the classroom ‘library’ I could see any donations would quickly expand the reading possibilities for the children here. Poppy’s turned out to be one of our favourite places to stay too, with a great pool, good quality kayaks to use and an outrigger canoe to take onto the lagoon and explore.
Our last stop saw us further out of town, having mastered the mysteries of driving on the right hand side of the road against a constant sea of mini vans which veered erratically around the pot holes. We stayed at Aquana Resort and enjoyed a well earned break from cooking for a few days. Under the supervision of a great chef, the meals are stunning and it would probably not be wise or healthy to stay for too long, waist lines considering! But it is a fun place for a few days, and the additional support of some roving nannies made the parenting job a little easier. Aquana is close to Eratap Primary School, which is reached by trekking up a long, rocky path to the nearby village. By the time we reached the crest of the hill, I was looking forward to passing on the rest of our book collection and lightening my load a little. The principal here was very happy to have some new resources, as was the volunteer English teacher who was in the process of setting up a library at the school. We spent time with Grade 1, and I watched impressed at the level of skill of the teacher as she rapidly divided her class into three groups to cater for different learning needs, ensuring that those who had only just begun to learn in English were not stretched too far, whilst those who were more fluent had the chance to write several longer sentences on their page. We sang together (and discovered that although most ni- Vanuatu kids can’t recognize a sheep when it’s being pantomimed, they do appreciate any efforts to do so) We had lots of laughs (several at my expense) and I think we managed to share a little of our own home in Australia, even if it was slightly off key!
In the end I took home lots of precious memories and the feeling that a small group of children just a few hours from home will enjoy reading some new books that will help them build their developing literacy skills. My own two children took away the realization that not everywhere in the world is as incredibly lucky as we are in Australia, as well as the delight of some new pen pals to write to. And we all discovered that in the spirit of giving something as simple as a set of books, what you receive is often so much more valuable than what you give.
As we left Aquana and headed for the airport on a weekday afternoon, we watched amazed as a child of not more than ten years old gave our hire car the best wash and clean I have ever seen, for the equivalent of about $3 AUD and just up the road from the school we had visited earlier in our trip. His skills suggested he had been at the car wash game a long time, and that there was clearly no time left in his day for schooling. It was a stark reminder that education is not yet a fundamental right in Vanuatu, and that the blessings of an education and the ability to read and write can make such a difference to life outcomes for so many young people.
Anne’s latest publication is a comprehensive PDF book ‘Exploring Nim’s Island with Primary Students’ which provides ready to use lessons and activity ideas based around the popular new release movie ‘Return to Nim’s Island’. It is on sale at the Authors Unlimited website for $14.95.
Anne also writes in the special education and early years fields. Her book with Teaching Solutions ‘Supporting children with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance’ provides teachers and early years workers with the confidence to support a child who eats a gluten free diet at pre school, childcare or school.
Have you combined traveling with giving to the community you are visiting?