Too much.

My friend and fellow PCV Sydney posted a while back on the idea of "enough" here in Vanuatu. She wrote,

Within the global economy, Vanuatu's place is based in agriculture and tourism; on a local level, it is based in enough. Enough trees to build another house on enough land to plant another garden. Enough time to stop and say hello when passing neighbors on the road, and enough food to share with those neighbors who drop in. Enough family to never feel alone. 
How was I supposed to encourage young students to see the value of literacy when so little of their lives necessitated it? When they had enough family and land and food and friends? The most significant shortage I felt was, at times, imagination (and the things that prod it).
 Here is a reflection on "too much."

My village is located near the capital of the country. In that capital, there are higher-paying tourism-based jobs. There is big money to be made with tourists, because they will play $3 USD for a coconut when a true islander knows that the value is closer to 20 cents. Tourists will gladly pay $20 for a boat ride across the small channel between nearby islands when locals know the value is closer to $5. Regardless of the reasons visitors pay these high prices (they find it's a good deal, they're willing to splurge on vacation, they want to support the local economy, or, maybe sadly, [I say this with an eyeroll] they want to help the "poor people" of Vanuatu), and regardless of the reasons locals charge these high prices (they know that visitors have more money to spend, they know they have major economic gains to be made with visitors, etc), the exchanges are made.

Any PCV located in an area with major tourism can tell you of the major gains to be made with tourism, and how (sometimes) flush with cash their host families are.

Any PCV located in a remote area will tell you how difficult it is to find coloring supplies for students, or that their students make do with ripped backpacks or uniforms that they can't replace (not necessarily out of cost, but out of access as well). Frances, a PCV on Erromango, will tell you about how her school sometimes doesn't have enough printer paper. Or, sometimes it has enough, but it ran out of fuel for the generator to run the copy machine, and they have to wait 3 weeks until a ship arrives with supplies. Frances also struggles with access to picture books. AJ, a PCV on Paama, will tell you how NGOs will stop in the capital and drop off donations and supplies which rarely reach the southern villages. Colleen, on Malekula, noticed her school has barely any books, only "school journals," which are a sort of magazine with short stories and not a regular storybook that the kids need.

I can tell you with a nearby capital city, people in my village have exposure to Western lifestyles and ideas. They have access to university-level education. They have access to an airport for travel. They have access to foreign foods and stores that sell more than peanuts and rice.

Because my site is located near the capital of Vanuatu, we get lots of visitors. Anyone wanting to escape the larger island for the smaller outer ones that are a mere boat ride away will likely find themselves at my site. Visitors include tourists, church groups, school groups and more, typically from Australia or New Zealand, but sometimes from European countries.

They come to see the island life, how it "really is" in Vanuatu, and they often come bearing gifts.

These last two weeks, I've taken a lot of time cleaning out our supply closet, our admin office and our library. In these three rooms, we have hoarded donations from years (yes, YEARS) past.

Every time I came to teachers with a new "look what I found!" they asked me where I found it. Right here, right under your nose! Our school is very thankful for the donations we receive, and when visitors come, we ensure they are properly commended for their generosity in a "thank you" ceremony in which we give speeches and provide them gifts of locally-woven baskets. We would never, ever turn away these donations.

Now, I don't wish to bemoan the generosity of others' intentions. However, I would like to shed a light on some of the issues with large, blind donations. I've mentioned here how the work of a PCV is slow for a reason. We are here to understand the culture and the village/school's needs before we contribute.

Our school just built a new canteen. We bought a 200w solar panel, freezer, oven, and stove. We bought pots and pans. This was all in the school budget. Teachers complain there aren't enough chairs for staff. The headmaster goes to town and buys them. We need glue. We buy it. We have the money and access to get the things we need and want.

Let's take a look at what we have in our supply closet, most of which we purchased on our own (ie, not donations, but purchased within our budget):

Notebooks of every kind.

Coloring supplies and so much chalk/pens/pencils we're running out of space to store them.

Two (TWO!!!) laminating machines

In some of the donations we received, I noticed we had laminating paper. This is huge here in Vanuatu because of moisture, so it makes classroom displays last. Plus, this is very expensive in Vila (about $50 USD for 50 sheets of A4 laminating sheets). In one box of donations, we had a box of 150 sheets. My eyes instantly turned into hearts.

The top shelf of cleaning/toilet supplies, the bottom shelf of fasteners and clips and such.

Any donations contributing to the above picture are well-used. Permanent markers, staplers, and scissors often go missing, so it's nice to have all of those things. The year 8 math teacher was gleeful that we found a box of over 30 protractors for her students to use. And rulers! She was thrilled to see rulers, as she's been doing a lot of lab experiments with rulers lately, measuring distances and also using the rulers to teach students about vibrations in an object.

"Craft" supplies and small chalkboard slates

Years 7 and 8 have a class called "Technology" which I find to be closer to Americans' classes of "Home Economics." They often learn craft and art projects in this class, so when I cleared out the library of mismatched puzzle pieces, the Technology teacher was pleased to have supplies to make an end-of-year picture frame with her students. Also, after this photo was taken, I found about 10 more small bottles of glue. Teachers also fight over glue, ha.

Those are what are on our supply shelves, some of which was stocked with donations I uncovered in unlikely places. Now, let's take a look at some of the abundance.

The first aid shelf

One teacher told me that whenever organizations ask us what they can donate (they DO do this!) she tells them "first aid supplies." Above we have THREE first aid kits, two in bins and one in a blue bag hidden behind rubber gloves. There's also two rolls of gauze. I'd say a majority of first aid needs at our school are infected bug bites or "sores." I have found only a few alcohol wipes, tubes of antibacterial cream and Band-Aids in these kits, the things that we would need (and use) the most. These Western medical kits just don't suit us, and the nature of the supplies are not necessary. What will we do with 50 yards of gauze? Wound dressing? Three scalpels? Effervescent rehydration tablets? Tampons? Mini packs of tissues?

When students face dehydration, they drink green coconuts, a natural version of oral reydration salts. Students here learn nothing about menstruation or reproductive health, and it's a culture where tampons are not only rare, but unknown. Students use handkerchiefs to wipe their noses while sick and wash them when they get home. These supplies are all nice to have, but I can't think of the last time we had to, I dunno, remove a bullet from an open wound and employ all these supplies at once. If there's ever a real emergency, we are 20 minutes away from a hospital.

In general, teachers never even think to use these first aid kits because they are intimidated. On my long list of to-dos, I plan to host a first aid workshop to train the teachers how to use the basic things in the first aid kit and to not feel so scared.

Six desktop computers and monitors that were donated circa October 2017

I was here in Vanuatu when the above computers were donated. They have sat in disuse since they arrived. We have a computer lab of about 10 computers, 7 of which are functional. The computers above are in perfect working order (they were when they arrived, at least, I can't say what moisture and dust have done to them since then), but they aren't energy efficient. Our solar panels can power one computer that runs the 7 monitors. We can't power anything else. Earlier this year, a teacher suggested we try selling them to the villagers, but I mentioned that they, too, would have issues powering these machines. They still sit here, collecting dust.

Messenger bags! Backpacks! Mini backpacks!

When I cleaned up the storage closet last year, the French teacher and I noted that there were about 30 messenger bags, brand new, in a donation box. We logged these donations in a journal, and I don't really know the purpose or the recipient of the journal, other than maybe the capsule dump from LOST. The donations moved from the supply closet to the admin room, where they've sat for a year now. Every year the teachers talk about how they'll give them away at the end of the year for rewards/prizes. That happened last year and this year. We'll see how it goes at the end of this year.

Two large bags of coordinated orange t-shirts for sports competitions, numbered jerseys, cleats, and more sports clothing.

Above is some stuff I found in the admin office which is basically our sports storage room. One of those plaid bags is filled with things we have not once used, including numbered jerseys that are still factory-sealed in plastic bags with tags on them. Another bag has soccer cleats. There are some students who wear cleats during competitions, but for fun, they just go barefoot.

The box on the floor beside it was filled with glue, erasers, markers, notebooks, pens and more. The headmaster just bought an abundance of school supplies, and half of his shopping list was just sitting here, collecting dust.

A volleyball bag, cricket poles, rackets, frisbees and cones upon cones upon cones.

Our school is fortunate enough to have a real beach volleyball court, ie, a sand rectangle with two poles rooted in concrete where we can hang a net. We have a net in great shape. I also uncovered a net, never been used, factory-sealed with tags. This giant duffel bag has a net with poles and stakes and rope, much like one you'd set up in your yard for a BBQ back in the states. We don't need this.

We also don't need 2347329874 plastic cones. I mean, SO MANY CONES.

Kids here rarely play racket-based sports. In that pile, there's a table tennis net and clamps to convert a table into a ping pong table. This has never been used. Neither have the frisbees.

Three bags of sports balls.

Above is a photo of three bags of sports balls. Students here mostly play volleyball and soccer. Sports competitions center around those two sports. While there are professional rugby teams in Port Vila, the island kids just don't care for it (or don't know how to play). Yes, someone could teach them how to play rugby...but when it comes down to it, a dozen 8-year-olds aren't going to organize themselves a new game during playtime when they can rely on their favorite standby.

We have about 20 or more rugby balls and basketballs that never get used (we have a very limited space of concrete where basketballs can be of use). I'm planning to donate a few rugby balls to the nearby village schools, but for the most part, I know they won't be used.

 Not pictured:
  • a giant bag of toothbrushes to add to our massive (4x5 foot) bin of toothbrushes and toothpaste that we've accumulated over the years. We have 250 students, but we always have an abundance of tooth-brushing supplies. 
  • a bag of long-sleeve polo shirts that appear to be hand-me-down uniforms from an Australian school (in excellent shape)
  • a dozen drawstring backpacks
  • forensic science textbooks for university-level education

While sorting through the library, I uncovered board games and puzzles and, not exaggerating, over a thousand books that had not yet been cataloged/labeled for students to check out of the library. Most are primary-age-appropriate, but some are chemistry books for year 9+ students or advanced accounting textbooks. Some of those advanced textbooks aren't even in English, but in French. What good are those for a school which has students in grades 1-8?

The library deep-cleanse also uncovered flashcards for sight words, colors and the alphabet, as well as educational posters and reward stickers. We have a lot of these already, or duplicate sets. These are excellent items that most volunteers beg for in their care packages.

So what to do with all this stuff?

Boxed up book donations (ignore the mats rolled up on top)

I know from my personal experience as well as other PCVs' experiences that simply donating them all to a neighboring school is useless. I separated a handful of things to send to our neighboring schools on the island, but I will be bringing most of these things to Port Vila, to the PC office, where other volunteers can pick through them. A box of teacher resource guides will sit unused in a storage room.  If a PCV brings them to their school and hosts a workshop that shows the benefits of such a guide, it'll get more use.

To help anyone, we need to understand their needs and background. Donations can so easily turn into garbage here, so it's crucial that everyone understands this.


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