Diary of an aid worker: back to Pentecost

Steve Barton reflects on returning to the place his aid work journey began almost 20 years ago.
Waterfall village on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island has faced four cyclones in the last few years. Photo: Steve Barton

Many years ago, my life at a dead-end, its value having somehow evaporated, I called Australian Red Cross. “I want to work for you.” They replied, “Do you have international experience?"

Sometime later, I found myself scared and confused on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island, beginning two years as a volunteer school builder with another organisation, seeking the international experience I needed.

Now, after nearly 20 years and many International Red Cross deployments, I am returning to Waterfall village on Pentecost Island to see what damage October’s Tropical Cyclone Lola has inflicted on the population.

Are the school buildings still standing? Are the houses of my friends in ruins?

Four cyclones in four years

Over the last few years cyclones Harold, Kevin, Judy, and now Lola have been trying to prove that climate change is real and test just how much punishment the people of northern Vanuatu can take.

I’m in Vanuatu for three months on assignment for the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) as a Shelter Cluster Coordinator. In the first few days, I experienced a tsunami of information, contradiction, new names, emails to answer, meetings to conduct and those to attend. I was quite proud of my Bislama – the local language – until the first meeting, which was entertaining but incomprehensible.

At the airport, waiting for our Pentecost flight, we are uneasy witnesses to a public outpouring of grief; a young woman has died, and we are all farewelling her on her last journey home to the island of Malekula.

Over the next few days, on difficult tracks, we crawl south, then north along the west coast. Things broken press everywhere – trees, vegetable gardens, churches, and most of all, the local leaf and bamboo houses.

Scattered across the landscape, Red Cross tarpaulins cover much-reduced houses strung together from salvaged materials.

"All I could feel was gratitude that I was alive”

On the very tip of Pentecost – there is time to talk and reflect.

I met David John Bulu, his dark, living granite features reminiscent of a Rodin sculpture. He wears every piece of clothing that he now owns - tired sandals, a much-stained shirt, and board shorts.

Lola roared between the two rocks that, according to custom, frame the northern door to Pentecost, circled around for a few hours and departed the way she had come, heading for Maewo Island.

David’s bag of carefully packed clothes and key possessions has never been found.

David and the temporary shelter where he lives with his wife and one of his children. Photo: Steve Barton

I heard how, in a rough blockwork house, terrified families had combined their body weight to hold the buckling door during the latest cyclone. In quiet and musical Bislama, John tells me his story.

“At last, when it was quiet, first we went to the places where our houses once stood, then we looked at the remains of our gardens. How would we eat in the three months it takes to grow any crops at all should have been on my mind. But all I could feel was gratitude that I was alive.”

David is a community leader and shows me a certificate of participation in a conflict resolution workshop. This was found with parts of his crumpled house roof 500 meters away, in the valley sloping down to the sea.

Getting ready for what comes next

Vanuatu Red Cross has distributed tarpaulins and tools. Alongside David’s one remaining piglet, we examine his carefully built emergency house. He will live here with his wife and one of the kids for quite some time as he slowly gathers resources to rebuild, replant, and then find and fence the missing pigs and hens. An air of emotional shock permeates the village.

My travelling companion, an old friend from school building days, sighs, and back in Sara township, we each buy a bag of rice and find a couple of men to walk this ‘fill-the-gap’ food back to David and his community.

The buildings at Ranwadi School, where I lived for two years, are still standing. No one has been killed, but grief is in the air behind the soft voices and laughter.

Cyclones will keep coming - with increasing frequency. We need to identify and strengthen safe places, work out creative ways to add recent knowledge to ancient building practices and improve preparedness for the next climatic challenge.

Most of all, we need to look outwards. We need to care.

The budget is slim – very slim. But now I will talk to the shelter agencies about recovery programs with David, his micro shelter – rather than numbers – in the forefront of my mind.

About Steve: I joined the Red Cross Movement from a construction background. I’ve been deployed as a shelter expert across the globe, in between times living off the grid in the southeast of Australia. Having recovered from a life-threatening illness, I am back in the field, writing, building a new house, and treating our two family dogs as errant but loveable kids.

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