Alumni Update: Lessons Learned

Joanna Haber was a YCI volunteer in Vanuatu in the summer of 2006. Read on to learn more about where her experience with YCI has led her in the last four years.

I want to tell you that Youth Challenge International changed my life. (It did.) But in the way I expected? Of course not. Things are never as you expect. Case in point number one: when my Ni-Vanuatu host mother asked me if I wanted to swim, I expected to be escorted to the glorious turquoise coastline of the island of Malekula, where I would frolick with dolphins and bask in the sun’s soothing rays. No. In Bislama, a creole language which is the lingua franca of the Republic of Vanuatu, while the word “swim” is a verb which describes the action of making ones way through water using arms and legs, it is also the word which describes the action of washing with water, and sometimes, soap. And thus, I did not go to the beach.

Vanuatu is an archipelago made up of 83 islands which lies due North-East of Australia in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It is similar in geography to its tourism-ravaged neighbour directly to the West, Fiji. Its natives practice land-diving as a fertility ritual every year, and the national dress is the “island dress,” a garb which looks something like what a chicken might resemble wearing a floral tapestry. The last recorded incident of cannibalism in Vanuatu was on Malekula in 1969, and in 2006, Vanuatu ranked first on the Happy Planet Index, published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a list which challenges the traditional world order by measuring consumption levels in relation to life-satisfaction. I would experience this life-satisfaction firsthand with nine other YCI volunteers in the Lambubu Cocoa Plantation, based at Amelatin station, living in a workers’ barracks that would be shared with giant rats that ate our underwear and a chicken named Gladys.

Our project was a school construction project. We sifted sand. We dug holes and mixed cement by hand. We laid bricks, mortared, sanded. I tried repeatedly to help lay the roof but was reprimanded every time I tried to climb up. I was contractually not permitted to use power tools (probably for the best). I was also part of a kindergarten development initiative, and my colleagues organized and executed community workshops on topics such as environmental awareness and sexual reproductive health. By the end of our short six weeks, two classrooms had been built almost to completion, which would house level seven and eight classes; the building would be cyclone proof and solar-powered. We had also conducted youth health workshops with community members and school classes alike. We had slept on the ground and come to like it and visited man-eating caves.  All of us had met people who had changed our lives and become a part of them forever in some way.

Case in point two: Dora, Noela, Christopher and Bruno. I guess that’s really cases two, three, four and five  - but nevermind.

Our neighbours across the street. Dora made a cake for Becca’s birthday, and Samuel’s. We would hang out with her kids after work every day, play, dance and braid hair. The night before we left, Dora invited us to share a meal in her home. She had made not one but three cakes (because she knew how much we liked them) and had prepared a speech for us about our impact on the community. Tourists don’t visit Lambubu, and our simple presence had made a difference.

Noela wants to be a carpenter when she grows up, and I’m pretty sure that if I go back there in a few years time that’s what she’ll be up to.

The morning I left, Dora handed me an island dress she had made for me and I was again moved by her generosity and kindness and devastated by the idea that I might never see her again. Luckily for me, I made a pinky swear promise to my host auntie that I would return in 2011 with my husband, and if I didn’t have one, I promised, I could be married off to someone in the community.

One of the other Canadian volunteers on my project now works with YCI in Toronto, and when she asked me to write something for the blog I didn’t really know what to write. I left for Vanuatu the day after I graduated from university with a degree in international development with the expectation* that this experience would in someway solidify my commitment to the discipline and be a great first introduction to life in the field (*see paragraph one). What happened, instead, was that I realized that this kind of work wasn’t for me. That wasn’t so much a bad thing, because being exposed to a community where life and livelihood and love were so different than what I am accustomed to gave me to the drive to keep moving and living and learning and meeting new people around the world and to write about my experiences. I learned that there are a million ways to do good and that the most important change begins with one small, seemingly insignificant action – like making a cake.
Since then, I have hitchhiked in Central America, taught English in Taiwan, met monks in Laos and currently and live in a neighborhood in Singapore populated primarily by Indian laborers who are here as a means of providing better lives for their families back home. Next month I will move to the United Kingdom, where I will once again have to adapt to life amongst an alien culture. Bob’s your uncle? Football? It’s soccer.

So then, lessons learned?

1. Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get. (Fine, Mark Twain said that.)
2. There is no direct correlation between living in a cocoa plantation and access to chocolate.
3. There are 102 accepted two-letter words in Scrabble.

-Joanna Haber, YCI Alumna, Vanuatu 2006

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