Eight things I learnt in Vanuatu

Vanuatu reflections

Hello! I’m back from my year in Vanuatu – little culture-shocked, remembering to drive on the right (no left) side of the road most of the time and wondering why everyone is in such a big hurry.

It’s been a long time since I last posted, partly due to dodgy internet reception, but mostly because a whole lot happened while I was away, personally, professionally and everything in between. Some was good, some bad – I’ll tell you all about it one day; for now I’m still processing all the changes that have occurred.

Today I’m in a reflective mood, so I thought I’d look back on the things I learned from living in Vanuatu and the volunteering experience. If there is anything specific you want to know, including travel tips, tell me in the comments and I’ll happily oblige.

One: We have so much

I remember an afternoon  we all walked down to Seaside, a suburb of Port Vila where each street is home to a different island community. There was a fundraiser – local kakae, a mamas’ market where you could buy island dresses and second-hand clothes. A bunch of kids was playing with a ball that had lost its vinyl covering so it was grey and pretty much flat. The game was vigorous and lively, the kids laughing and happy. Later, when we got home, the toys we’d brought over seemed grossly excessive, although we had whittled them right down to a couple of boxes. This is just one example of many, but it will stay with me forever and, hopefully, with the kids too.

Rubbish Vanuatu_DTEM

Two: I can never pick up all the rubbish

Oh, this hit me hard. I always Take 3 for the Sea, picking up three or more pieces of plastic whenever I am out and about. But in Port Vila, you could pick up 30 every outing and still not make a dent in the rubbish that eventually makes its way to the ocean. It’s not because the locals are lazy or uneducated. There are regular clean-up days organised by the councils and churches, and environmental groups put up signs saying “no sakem doti olbaot”.

Living in a developing country gave me a whole new perspective on the plastics-in-the-ocean issue. For one, people have to pay for rubbish bags that are collected and the cost (around one dollar) is a bridge too far for many who are living hand-to-mouth. Secondly, there are few public bins about and those that exist have no protection from dogs, sudden downpours, wind or overflow. I despaired about this huge, complex system that needs to be in place in dozens of countries around the world. For a while I gave up picking up my three for the sea, feeling like the boy with his finger in the dyke, but then gave myself a reality slap and carried on. To all the waste management experts out there – I honour you and hope you break down those blocks to find a solution to this issue. To every one else: just pick it up.

Three: Climate change has already happened

A few days before I left Vanuatu, my Mum, sister and I went to the popular island Espiritu Santo where we kayaked up a (bloody long and windy) river to get to a famed “blue hole”. In the pictures, the hole was aqua coloured and clear as a shop window. As we approached, some French tourists going in the other direction warned us that the Blue Hole was no longer blue, therefore not worth visiting.

I’m stubborn when I want to be, so my sister and I pushed ahead. Sure enough, the water at the end of the river was murky and dark brown; you couldn’t see your knees. I asked the landowner what happened and he simply shrugged and said “climate change”. Now, I suspect there may have been another contributing factor to the water condition, and I found the man’s apathy and acceptance of the situation just as disturbing as the problem itself. Climate change is obvious in Vanuatu – in the three years I’ve been visiting, I’ve seen it get more and more dry and felt the seasons shift. One of the predicted effects of a warmer ocean is that there are fewer cyclones but they are more severe. That means Cyclone Pam, the worst recorded storm in the Pacific that left 80 per cent of people on the capital island, Efate, without roofs, is only the beginning.

Tanna Island, home to the famous Yasur volcano is particularly struggling. I watch this video of a nine-year-old boy from Tanna describing his life and know that we are responsible for this and therefore we are responsible for doing something about it.

Vanuatu DTEM

Four: Perspective

The whole year in Vanuatu was a barrage of reality checks. I took up running and at first found the potholes and coral rocks and lack of footpaths frustrating. Then I saw a man in a wheelchair picking his way through road works up a hill, bracing the insane traffic and squinting against the dust. I’d despair at the cost of yoghurt in the European supermarket, then remember my colleague telling me she doesn’t have a fridge. When my kids went away for five weeks to be with their dad, I sucked up the constant ache because, for many NiVanuatu women, it’s just normal to be separated from your kids so you can work on the mainland and put them through school. Another example, seething from an argument, I found sympathy in our housegirl who told me her husband would “tok strong” sometimes too, then he would hit her until her head bled. Perspective.

Five: It’s okay to pay for help

Do you feel uncomfortable paying for a cleaner, nanny or other domestic helper? Well stop it. I had helpers the whole year – wonderful women who loved my children and family – but it wasn’t until the very end of my assignment that I shed the vague discomfort about being the privileged white woman. I have my friend and wonderful artist Julie to thank for this. She has lived in the developing world for decades and passed on a piece of wisdom she received from an Indian friend: Inviting someone into your life and paying them to help you out is not charity or condescension. It’s a way of sharing your earnings with them and their family.

The friend told Julie, “Wealthy Indians touch so many more lives than rich white people.” That’s because, when your helper’s sister needs an operation, you can loan them the money. When you pay them to clean your home, you help put their children through school.

This blew my mind. I was lucky enough to go to university and learn skills that mean I can earn a good salary, therefore, it is my duty to pay it forward, and giving someone a job is one way to do it. I’d love to know your thoughts on this. I think it’s a curly issue, and I know many women who struggle with feeling guilty for hiring a cleaner or home helper.

Food Vanuatu

Six: “Poor” people eat way better than the rich

One thing I will miss the most about living in Vanuatu is the produce. Most days started with a smoothie made from pawpaw, fresh coconut water, ladyfinger bananas, passionfruit, island spinach and fresh local ginger. When a friend came to visit, she almost cried because she said she’d never tasted a real cucumber before (love you, Caz). Beef from cows who happily grazed in coconut plantations and never met a grain. Poulet fish, fresh herbs, tomatoes that smell like tomatoes. And, of course, all of it local, organic, free-range and fresh. It’s a special kind of crazy that means we pay through the teeth for the “luxury” of eating such food.

Seven: We don’t have all the answers

My first foray into international development was such a huge learning experience. I was so nervous and suffered from a serious case of fraud syndrome (an expert in my field, bahhaaahaaaa, fooled ’em). I was lucky to have an incredible mentor who taught me that we don’t have all the answers, we can only ask the right questions and build on local wisdom. The West isn’t always right, just look at the state of the world right now. Let’s honour that indigenous wisdom that exists and find solutions that work.

Eight: Always look both ways

Superficially, this means look both ways when crossing the road in a foreign country (and even at home because you never know). But what I actually learnt was the importance of having a 360 view of your life and yourself.

2016 was a tough year for many, with a sense of being swept onto a different path, ready or not. If you haven’t already, ask yourself, have you lost yourself a little on this motherhood journey? Have one too many compromises left you feeling resentful – that harbinger of certain doom? If so, make 2017 the year you reclaim yourself and make an effort to discover who you are and what you want out of this life. Then, be prepared for anything.

I’m sad to have left Vanuatu, but I am happy to be back, currently based on the Sunshine Coast. I missed you all! Here’s to an amazing 2017.

Jo Hegerty xx grey





Talk to me; I’d love to hear what’s going on in your world! Share your thoughts in the comments.




  1. Sue Murray says

    Very wise words Jo. 2016 was a watershed year for you and I wish you all the bet for the future. Vanuatu is a great place and gives you an entirely different perspective on life.

  2. Alison says

    Nice to have you back! With my youngest daughter starting kindly, 2017 is indeed going to be a year of reclaiming myself and I’m looking forward to it. I’m also looking forward to seeing you in my inbox more often again :)

    • (dt)em says

      High five! My little girl started prep this year and is now officially a schoolie, phew! Thanks for being here, Alison x

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