My Facebook feed is filled with images of destruction. Tin roofs ripped apart and crumbled like yesterday’s tinfoil, cinder blocks in jagged piles where walls once stood, corner posts as big around as tree trunks standing among the wreckage of what used to be the walls of the houses they anchored. Each photo makes my eyes water and my throat close. This used to be home.
I spent 3 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific. On Thursday evening, Cyclone Pam veered off its expect trajectory and slammed into the northern most islands. It continued south, bisecting the mostly north-south country on a diagonal with the eye of the storm clipping the edge of the southern islands. Wind speeds over 165 mph ravaged crops and tore apart trees and buildings with equal abandon.
I wasted Friday scanning news reports and talking to other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as we waited to find out how bad it was. We waited for news of adopted families and friends, we waited to hear of our villages made it through the storm or were washed to sea. While we waited, we organized. We created Facebook groups for volunteer translators. We researched aid organizations and looked at disaster management plans. We dreamed up fundraisers and ways to distribute wealth. We called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC for information on how Peace Corps would go forward with relief efforts. And we waited.
It is now Friday, week later, and I still haven’t heard from my village. I have a few aerial photos of other parts of the island and a second hand report of limited damage to pin my hopes on. My heart is breaking moment by moment as the seconds stretch on into minutes and hours and days and I don’t know if my people are safe.
Then again, this is Vanuatu. This is a country full of generosity and laughter. This country has survived countless cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. Half the images of destruction show a child giving a thumbs up to the camera or a teen in the background laughing. These aren’t people who will roll over and give up.
During the Catholic church’s month of charity, I was sitting on the church porch shooting the breeze with a friend. This man owns two pairs of shorts, three shirts and a guitar. He lives in a bamboo hut on an island that has one road, no electric grid or internet and intermittent cell service. He shares a single outdoor tap with his two brothers and their wives. Out of the blue he said, “You should make extra church donations this month.”
“Why?,” I asked.
“Because this month the money goes to people in need. People who don’t have enough food or clothes or houses.”
“Who are they?” I asked. I thought he’d say someone in Vanuatu, local families struggling to pay school fees or Catholics in Port Vila, the capital, where getting food was harder.
“The people in Africa who are starving,” he said. In Vanuatu, Africa is where black people come from and America is where rich people come from.
“Don’t you think the money could be used here?” I asked.
“No, we have plenty. We have food and land and water. I donate what I have to help out those people who are starving. I would send coconuts, but I think it would take too long for them to get there.”
This is the best of the Ni-Vanuatu spirit. Generosity isn’t an expectation, it’s a way of life. Like their laughter, nothing holds it back. There is a love of laughter and a willingness to laugh for the joy of it. Their laughs aren’t a polite chuckle or a bit of a giggle but the kind of full belly laugh that lights a room. Not even the worst cyclone in 40 years can dim those laughs or stop the spirit of giving.
Three years is a long time when you are in your twenties. It’s a time of growth and change and learning what it is to be an adult. I joined the Peace Corps in my mid-twenties. Vanuatu shaped my identity. I learned patience from farmers who tend plants from seed to fruit. I learned grief from women who collapsed over the casket and had to be picked up before the burial. And I learned resilience from farmers with failed crops, from mothers with ill infants and, from students repeating years of school.
I see the images of destruction and my heart breaks. But now, there are images of rebuilding, too. Trees blown over by the winds are being cut apart and used to rebuild houses. Leaves torn off and scattered and being rounded up for thatching.
Resilience is a weak word for the amount of work ahead of Vanuatu, but that’s what it is. The ability to acknowledge the grief, the despair and the rage and then push all of that to the side to find shelter and food for tonight. The country will rebuild, the people will continue to smile. Vanuatu is still Vanuatu, so let’s not forget the generosity and strength of a nation, even while we open our hands to help.