Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A prayer for Tanna in Vanuatu



My thoughts are far from Provence today. They are on the other side of the world, actually, hovering with worry over the island of Tanna in the archipelago of Vanuatu.


Perhaps you have read about the damage that Tropical Cyclone Pam has wrecked on Vanuatu, a country made up of 83 islands in the far reaches of the Pacific. It was a level 5 cyclone - the highest - and has widely been declared one of the worst, if not the worst, such tropical cyclone to have passed through this area. As we have more and more such natural disasters occurring, the news is always "sad" to discover but when you know the land and their people involved, well, it takes on a level of importance far beyond what is "the news."

Photo ©Remi Benali

It was in 2004 - at about this time of year actually - when we landed on Tanna after having flown from New Caledonia and then to Port Vila, the capitol of Vanuatu. We were spending a month on assignment in this corner of the world and I was intrigued by Tanna - initially as it is home to the world's most accessible active volcano and then due to curiosity about one tribe on the island whose chief had, in 1963, decided to turn his back on modernity and return to the traditional ways of his ancestors.


We came across several members of the tribe from Yakel during a moment when they were far from their home base high in the Middle Bush. Remi, as always, effortlessly made the initial contact and photographed the men, who were wearing only the traditional nambas or penis sheaths, while ripping coconuts open with their teeth. I couldn't help but think back to the fact that the last known act of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in 1970, not so long ago. It was an impressive beginning...

Photo ©Remi Benali

...and yet we were warmed by their kindness and welcoming attitude immediately.


Bob was born in the same year as Remi and so called him, "My Brother," while proudly putting an arm around his shoulder. That is him, smiling, sitting behind Remi on the left. Henry Fire is on the right.


When I remarked how much I liked one of the songs that they would sing, he decided to teach it to me through repetition. He was very patient and would correct me over and over - as he was in the midst of doing above. By the end, I could sing it to them without the mistakes that would make them fall into fits of laughter. And I still remember it now.


As a surprise, Henry Fire gathered all of the members of Yakel village together to dance the song for us. The ground shook hard under pounding feet as the men stomped in a circle and the women and girls jumped up high, swishing in their grass skirts as they went. To thank them, it felt like a proper exchange was in order and so, as the light turned into gold, I gathered my courage, stood and sang "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, which has always been one of my favorites. They seemed genuinely touched and pleased. I even merited a nod from Chief Johnson Kowia himself. He passed away a few years after our visit (he is the white bearded man to the right of Remi) at an estimated 108 years of age. In our age of Globalization, I am still so moved by the courage of his choice for his people.

 

On one of our last days on Tanna, we made the pilgrimage to Mount Yasur and our friends wanted to come with us. For them, the volcano is beyond sacred, it is the heart and source of everything on the island. Before making the easy ascent (one can drive up to 150 meters or yards of the crater), we had a picnic on the black ash plain. I wrote in my photo album that is was "the most exotic meal ever" even though we supped on Spam and Velveeta cheese (you take what you can get this far out in the Pacific).  I remember Remi asking Henry Fire what he thought of the cheese in particular as it was the first time that he had tasted it and his making a polite but distinct frown. And it is true, that was a far cry from the sweet potato and taro root stew that they had made for us in Yakel.

Photo ©Remi Benali

We arrived to the crater's edge at sundown. The men paid their respects and then let us alone to stare down into the center of the earth, churning, churning. Fire bombs and lava would spurt overhead so closely that we would gasp. Remi and I were both completely mesmerized and at some point after a full moon had risen, two of the men came up to lead us away.

Photo ©Remi Benali

When we arrived on the island, we surveyed the damage from another heavy cyclone, Ivy, I think it was, that had passed the month before. Nearly all of the structures there are built from woven fronds and wood, save for a few in concrete in the main village. They had all been smacked flat by winds. Nothing was left. The vast majority of the population on Tanna survive from subsistence farming. That too had been destroyed. The beaches were lined with broken coral that had been churned up from the bottom of the ocean.

The winds from Tropical Cyclone Pam reached 300 km per hour or 185 miles per hour and it is believed that Tanna was hardest hit. I try to imagine what it must have been like in Yakel. Where did they go? How could they protect themselves? In the far more secure capitol of Port Vila, the rescue teams have described scenes of "like a war zone." According to the New York Times, an initial report from a pilot that had flown to Tanna said that none of the traditional houses were standing and half of the concrete structures were damaged. All of the crops were gone, giving the population roughly a weeks worth of food on the trees and vegetables before they rot. "After that there is no food, water or shelter," responded a local official with Unicef.

I began the article that I wrote for the French magazine Grands Reportages about Tanna with a legend that it is believed that the entire world came from the belly of the Mount Yasur volcano. How I hope that our friends are alive and safe and that the volcano is indeed making the world anew everyday.

***

Several appeals have been set up if you can and would like to help:



Sending wishes of Hope, Strength, Health and Safety to all that have been touched by the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Pam...






30 comments:

Judith Ross said...

Thank you for making this so much more than just a news story, Heather. When we can envision the people involved, we are better able to feel our shared humanity. I wish I could read your original story as well. As you know, my main focus these days is on helping people understand the impact of our warming planet. The irony is that those who contribute the least to climate change often live in the places that experience its greatest intensity.

Heather Robinson said...

Judith, I will email it to you. I actually just updated it a few weeks back.

And yes, the irony is not lost on me either...

Lorrie said...

I heard the news yesterday as I was driving, but like so many other news stories, my sympathy and prayers were momentary and soon swallowed up in the concerns of daily life. This post will reverberate throughout my day, as you've put faces to the tragedy. We are all connected to this planet and to each other. Thank you for the reminder.

Heather Robinson said...

It is a good reminder for me as well Lorrie. Thank you for your response.
Bisous,
H

Joan McKniff said...

Amen.

La Contessa said...

WHAT AN EXPERIENCE!This needs to circulate................you need to put this on FACEBOOK.SO, I can copy and others can too!As much as we areNOT BIG FB users thats the way to HELP these people.YOU SANG TO THEM..........and you say your SHY!!!!!!!!!!!!
XOXOX

Vickie Lester said...

Thank you for the links, and the reminder that anywhere you go in the world, you will find friends.

silkannthreades said...

What a wonderful, unforgettable experience for all of you in 2004. The devastation is awful but it is encouraging to see the spirit of the people shining through. Aid is arriving. Communications are being restored. I suspect your friends, being close to nature, will have understood how to protect themselves better than many others. As an interesting aside, this is what happened about the same time in 1889. There were those who knew what to do and those who refused to listen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1889_Apia_cyclone There were 147 casualties. :( Our thoughts and prayers are with Vanuatu.

Willow's Quiet Corner said...

You definitely made this a personal window on this beautiful little corner of the world. Too often we hear the news stories and sympathize with the devastation wrought on the people and then continue on our day. This makes me really stop to think about your friends and truly hope they have made it through this and that somehow they get any help; food, water, or whatever they may need to help them rebuild their lives. One of the best parts of being able to travel is making these connections that help us realize we are in all this together.

ourfrenchoasis.com said...

This is one of the most beautifully written pieces I have read in a very long time, so moving and so real. We have many fishing friends who live in and around Port Vila, I hear that the insurance companies only cover up to a category 3 and nothing above. It seems there is little help even for those who live in the modern world. Another friend owned the Wahoo bar with a jetty for boats, all completely gone. The devastation is unreal and yet already it has faded from our news screens, but not for those that live there. I shall definitely be supporting the help appeals you listed.

Bill Facker said...

Heather .. you have memorialized the place and her people at the highest level with your heartfelt sharing. This eloquent outpouring of your compassion is testimony to the power of words .. a power that will reverberate with all who have read them .. a power based in love which will grow stronger with time. Mahalo et Merci, Heather .. and congratulations on having a "moment" .. going to that "place" all writers seek .. in this piece you bravely gave yourself and became a willing messenger of your soul. Well Done .. Beautiful. Merci.

Aloha,
Bill

www.kauai-to-paris.com

Silke Bauer said...

Heather, you obviously have made extraordinary experiences in your live that not many people have. Reading and looking at yours and Remis extraordinary photos I was all attention and really tense when looking at you standing in front of the men who tought you their song.

Just yesterday morning R. and me where talking about the disappearance of any news about the impact of this cyclone in the media. This one was already announced to be caused by climatechange which means caused by mankind.

But not important enough to be reported about longer than max. one or two days?

Another thing which I find extraordinary is that here we see two extremly diffent cultures welcoming each other in peace, with warmth and laughter, even singing to each other. Trusting each other. I thought that was not possible anymore after all the history of wars and slavery throughout the centuries.

I worry for those people too.

PS: How brave you were singing for them and what a gift of a moment.

Sandy said...

How absolutle fascinating. You turned a headline event into a personal experience for me. I'm embarresed tp say I hadnever heard of this island. You brought it to life.

Mumbai said...

This is the second place I have been (the other one is Syria) which has been destroyed but a natural disaster
you can't unfortunately avoid . I share those peoples pain and wonder why such things happen to the poorest.
Your story evoke some memories and made me sad even it was a wonderful time there.
That the media message was just a "high flyer" shows how fast we live and how egocentric.

Gustia said...

Isn't it awful that we think the ground beneath our feet is solid and safe and yet it is not. Jim and I visited Montserrat years ago and we cried when we saw how it was devastated by a volcano. Your and Remi's photos are beautiful, especially the one of you singing. Another important reason to treasure those memories and images. Big hugs.

D A Wolf said...

What an extraordinary story, Heather. You have so much heart.

Louise said...

Thank you Heather for this extraordinary post. When the cyclone was at its full strength I was also concerned for the little island nation of Tuvalu, close to Fiji, which sustained some damage...it is only a couple of metres about sea level. The Australian government yesterday I believe began flying in huge military aircraft full of supplies...one can only hope they get to the outlying islands as quickly as possible.

Janey and Co. said...

I did hear of this storm (briefly), on the news. I remember that my husband and I got out the atlas.. It seemed so far away.. Your beautiful photos have brought it closer. I pray too that they are all okay...Janey

Heather Robinson said...

Thank you so much for the link, G. And yes, unfortunately, on Tanna they have a lot of experience on surviving such natural catastrophes so I do hope that you are right...

Heather Robinson said...

I am!! I am!!!

Heather Robinson said...

Absolutely. I feel very blessed to have been able to see that even in societies that seem at first glance to be quite different from my own.

Heather Robinson said...

That is wonderful to hear, thank you. And yes, I had heard the same thing about the insurance coverage. I know that several of the fatalities in Vila were within the expat boating community. I truly hope that your friends are ok...and am sending my Best Wishes to your friend as he rebuilds...

Heather Robinson said...

Mahalo for your extremely kind compliment, Bill. Truly.

Heather Robinson said...

Thank you Silke but do you know what? I used to sing that song a lot but I swear to you, it was the best I ever did as it was for them and not about me!

Here in France there is still mention of the cyclone but I think that it has to do with the fact that Vanuatu was a former colony! It makes me very, very sad. We don't even know what the true extent of the damage on the outermost islands is yet and so many in the world have turned away.

As for trust? Again, Remi has just an amazing talent for establishing respect right away and that goes a long, long way. True, there have definitely been places where we were just "a dollar with two legs on it" and nothing more...and there was a time during the Bush years when I carried a backpack with a Canadian flag on it while visiting certain countries. But I have some wonderful memories...I think that you and I have talked about this already...that there are good eggs and bad eggs all over the world, with every religion and race...it is so important to remember our connection, as others have said here. :)

Heather Robinson said...

Oh! Please don't be embarrassed Sandy! I think that 99% of the world's population has never heard of it!

Heather Robinson said...

This may sound odd but I have both my notebooks and photo albums from those trips left easily accessible for a reason...if there was a fire (God forbid!) they are one of the first things that I would take. Hugs right back!

Heather Robinson said...

I do wonder where the population of Tuvalu is going to go, Louise. It all makes me sad and angry that we have let things get to this stage...

Stephen Andrew said...

I'be always been so romanced by the South Pacific and would absolutely love to visit there. This is a lovely piece that puts some faces to the "news". My favorite nature show ever (and I love many) was s miniseries on Discovery called Wild Pacific. They just recently re-aired them, but originally aired in 2009. There is a narration that says "though Vanuatu's contribution to global warming is minuscule, they will feel the greatest effects from it". So sad. I hope your friends and their families are doing well.

Patricia said...

Heather, you continually open my eyes to the world which exists out of my personal experience. Vicarious is better than nothing to open one's heart, mind, and soul. Thank you and Remi for that.

Heather Robinson said...

Oh you are so welcome, Patricia and I absolutely agree that "vicarious is better than nothing"!