Joan Middlemiss is volunteering as a School Management Adviser with the Anglican Church of Melanesia based in Luganville, Vanuatu. She is accompanied by her husband, Peter and they will return to New Zealand in March, 2018.
Published on 29th May 2017
Volunteer Joan Middlemiss shares her experience of Tropical Cyclone Donna in Luganville...
On the Tuesday after the cyclone, I met Stanley, one of our Big Bay Bush Principals, at the office as I arrived at work. The cyclone had passed and the sun was shining again.
I asked Stanley how his school had fared and he looked at me seriously and said “Sori Joan, mi no save” (Sorry I don't know). Stanley explained that he had come into town on Thursday to pick up rations for the school, which is very isolated in the Big Bay Bush area in the North of Santo, but had not been able to return. He had waited out the cyclone, as we had in Luganville, but with the added burden of knowing his family, his teachers and his students were experiencing the cyclone in very different circumstances - without him.
I have visited Navele Junior Secondary school. It is a beautiful peaceful place in a quiet clearing in the bush near the River Jordan. The final leg of the journey to the school is via a dry river bed in a four wheel drive vehicle. Because of the drought conditions at the time of our visit, the vast river bed was almost completely dry, but I knew that, in wetter times, much of it would be under water. I asked Stanley if they ever got cut off. “Yes, in really heavy rain” was his reply.
The school has no classrooms made from permanent materials and even the chapel, with its tin roof for water collection, has no walls. Of course, there is no Internet and even phone reception is not possible, unless you climb one of the surrounding hills. Even then, at best, it is very patchy.
Stanley had not been able to make any contact and did not know what he was heading back to. By chance the previous week, we had been packing up boxes of donated text books which had arrived from overseas donors. I knew these would be very welcome for his school, which has very few resources, and hoped they would give everyone a lift especially if they had, in fact suffered in the cyclone. Stanley was excited and very grateful but explained that he could not take them back this time because he feared that the river would be impassable and he did not want to leave them in the truck where they might be damaged. He expected to have to leave the truck and complete the last part of his journey home on foot.
Cyclone Donna, thankfully gave us quite a wide berth and life in town quickly returned to normal. Talking with Stanley reminded me of the very different reality for those in rural areas, cut off from services and with limited shelter.
And how did Stanley and his school and community fare? “Sori, mi no save”. Until we see Stanley again on his next trip to town, we will not know. As is the case for many of our isolated schools, we still cannot make contact. We just have to trust that no news is good news.