We’ve just come back from a 4-month stay in Vanuatu—a small Pacific country made up of 83 islands & located between Fiji & Australia. As this was our visit to this remote & underdeveloped island country, we were desperately seeking the Lord for guidance on how we could best use our time there.
We didn’t have long to wait, as we soon found out that most of the country is desperately poor & in need of help in just about every area! In particular we heard that the Rotary Club had received a large consignment of good educational books from Australia but that they had been sitting for months in a warehouse as nobody seemed to have solved the problem of how to distribute them outside of Efate, the main island.
We were immediately interested as we had carried out a similar book distribution project with the Rotary Club in Fiji which was very appreciated in all the village schools we had visited. In Vanuatu things would obviously be much more difficult though, as populations are widely scattered over many islands & shipping is expensive. The Rotary Club had rightly realized that the cost of shipping the books to different islands would come to more than the original cost of the books—hence they had ended up in a warehouse where they were gathering dust & starting to get damaged by rats!
We decided the first step was to meet the owners of some of the different inter-island cargo ships to see if they could donate the shipping costs. We thank the Lord that the very first director we met agreed to do this, (see photo of the Sarafenua ship). Next, we made
a presentation to the Rotary Club, outlining how we proposed to distribute 150 boxes of books among 35 primary & high schools throughout the central islands. The Rotary Club were very happy with the plan & so we were on our way!
In Vanuatu, it’s not sufficient to simply put the boxes on a ship & then try to arrange that someone collects them at the other end. To ensure that the books safely reach all the schools, we needed to travel with the boxes in the same ship—a 12 hour overnight trip to start off with. On arrival at our first island of Epi, we were then transferred to a speedboat, along with the boxes, to take us through the shallow waters up till the beach—the first of several such journeys.
At Epi, we were fortunate to be able to stay at the high school, which served as an ideal base for reaching the other 15 schools on the island. For 10 days their library was transformed into a book warehouse as we opened up every box of books in order to better organise them. Primary level books had to be separated from secondary level, damaged books thrown away & then everything repacked in order to ensure an equal distribution among the 30 primary & 6 secondary schools that we planned to visit.
From Epi, we had another 5 islands to visit, however the logistical problems were enormous as on remote Pacific islands such as these, ships don’t work according to a fixed schedule. (We had asked at one shipping company how often they sail & were told ‘Sometimes’!) Boats basically leave when they have sufficient cargo & that depends on the amount of crops & animals that villagers bring to be transported. Telephones are almost non-existent & so rumours abound as to which boat or ship might or might not arrive. For smaller villages that aren’t on the boats’ regular circuit, villagers have to wait until they see a boat pass & then quickly light a fire on the shore—thus letting the captain know that there are passengers & cargo to transport! On one local inter-island boat we found ourselves not only with many villagers, but right next to us among the passengers were 4 cows, 3 goats, 6 pigs & many chickens! At another stage of the trip, we were stranded on one particular island due to a cyclone that for one week prevented all ships in the whole country from sailing.
In all, we spent 35 days visiting each of the schools on our list in order to make a personal presentation to each one. On the ‘easier’ islands this involved renting a 4-wheel drive truck & negotiating dirt roads through forests & across mountains, beaches & several rivers. On other islands, we found that even dirt roads were limited & so our book distribution continued by speed boat, stopping off at various villages. Other times there were no motorised forms of transport at all & so we took the books by wheelbarrow through the jungle!
Vanuatu schools are among some of the poorest we’ve ever seen; some with no electricity or running water, dark classrooms & very few educational materials. As we went from island to island & school to school, the smiling faces of so many happy children & thankful teachers made the trip worth it all! In addition to giving the boxes of books, we also made some video presentations wherever a generator could be borrowed. Throughout the Pacific we travel with quite a number of video/DVD presentations, ranging from Christian films on the life of Jesus, to endtime prophecy (Countdown to Armageddon), Bible cartoons & programs about cigarette & drug abuse. As TV & cinema are almost non-existent, any program of this type goes over very well & will be remembered for a long time to come.
Heading back to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, we found that the book warehouse still had a number of boxes of novels—not so great for primary schools but ideal for young people. A friend of ours suggested donating these to the prison so we gathered up 5 boxes, having first sorted through them to take out anything unsuitable, (for example crime thrillers!) The prison officers were delighted as boredom is one of the prison’s main problems.
Our work all finished, we returned to the Rotary Club to make a slide show presentation of the whole book distribution project. The country’s main newspaper, ‘The Daily Post’, also covered the story. We thank the Lord that even in a poor & distant country such as Vanuatu, we were able to touch the lives of many & bring some happiness to teachers, prisoners & school children.
See also our 2 newsletters from this time in Vanuatu: