The Challenges of a PCV in Vanuatu, Part 1

Yes, I fall asleep to the sounds of ocean waves crashing on the beach. Yes, I have unlimited and free access to mangos. Yes, my home here is basically a paradise.

...Until it’s not.

A friend of another PCV came to visit recently and the PCV and I were discussing a new program that has been created in PC Vanuatu, the Peer Support Network. It’s a group comprised of currently serving volunteers who provide a sort of counseling service to their fellow volunteers.

The visiting friend was a little confused. “Is service difficult? Do people need that sort of thing?” And the other PCV and I explained that yes, there are many challenges a PCV can face during their service, and some even ET, or early terminate, because the challenges can become overbearing.

Friends and family back home initially think that homesickness will be your greatest downfall (until they hear you complain about a multitude of other things). Personally, homesickness is far down on my list of hardships here during service, however, it can be greater for other PCVs.

Peace Corps is known to be “the hardest job you’ll ever love,” because it can push your limits beyond where you even knew you had limits. In a year of service, I have encountered my own challenges and heard from others encountering challenges. Not every PCV experiences these. Other PCVs experience every single one. To some, they can be a minor nuisance, but for others, they can cause them to early terminate and head home.

These challenges are specific to Peace Corps Vanuatu, but I am sure that many can be applied to other sites around the world.

Challenge: Homesickness
It’s no surprise that this is an issue that PCVs deal with, especially being thousands of miles away from their loved ones in the states. Not only is there the general sadness that comes with not being there with your family or pets or friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, but you are spending major holidays and birthdays away from them. There is also the fact that you will probably miss out on big life events (good and bad) happening back home: your baby cousin’s first steps, your uncle’s death, your brother’s engagement, your best friend’s wedding, or your mom’s 60th birthday. Communication can and will be lacking. Some volunteers, like me, have access to internet at site, and good phone service. Others get internet and decent phone service once a week when they head into their provincial center.

Method to overcome: Regarding communication, set low expectations. Peace Corps provides you with paperwork outlining this particular challenge in the “On the Homefront” handbook. Read it and share it with friends and family so they can adjust to the idea of speaking to you once a month, if that. Life events will happen back’s unfortunate but also unavoidable. Were you expecting life to stand still? It’s hard, but know that while 2 years feels like a long time, it’s also a short time, in the scope of things. There will be more exciting life moments to experience upon your return. As for the ones you miss, just catch up with your loved ones to be there for them (as much as you missed being there for the wedding, they missed you more) over the phone or via snail mail. Regarding holidays and birthdays, it’s really fun to share them with locals or your new fellow volunteers (slash new best friends!). Sharing homemade pecan pie and sweet potato casserole with my neighbors for Thanksgiving, watching Casper for Halloween with my students, and having a cookout at the hotel in Vila with fellow volunteers on the 4th of July are some of the best moments in service so far.

Challenge: Food security 
 Your diet will be different. There is no Papa John’s pizzeria in Vanuatu (I have looked into opening a franchise, so don’t you fret). Obviously food selection will be different, but there are other factors. Thankfully, Vanuatu is a place where crops and gardens grow plentifully. You stick a seed in the ground and you’re guaranteed food with little to no effort. That isn’t the issue. What is, or could be, an issue is variety. Some volunteers live at sites where the only available food is that which grows in the ground or is found at sea: ie, they eat taro, manioc, kumala (sweet potatoes), fish, and island cabbage. No rice, no crackers, no kato. Other volunteers, like me, live close to a provincial center, so their stores are stocked with rice, cookies, tin tuna, flour, ketchup and more. That leads to my village having kato and bread readily available, as those bakers can find their supplies at the local store. It also means that I can easily run to Port Vila to stock up on beans or spaghetti or cumin or chocolate chips or whatever “exotic” grocery item I can find in town. But regardless of availability and regardless of the kind of food, I am pretty sure every volunteer encounters rodents and pests. There are rats, mice, ants and cockroaches that will gladly consume any food you leave uncovered (or even, how ants get in a sealed Ziploc bag is beyond me). The absence of a refrigerator, combined with the heat and humidity causes food to spoil quickly. Those fresh carrots you bought at the market are floppy after three days. Those tomatoes will get mushy in two days. That boiled manioc from yesterday’s lunch is going to be pink and furry by tomorrow morning. That beef jerky your family so kindly sent you in a care package that you have been saving for a special occasion is green and furry, despite the silica packet in the bag and the loads of preservatives the food inherently contains.

Method to overcome: Obviously you aren’t the only one living in these conditions, so the food available here is built for this…enjoy those yummy preservatives! Powdered milk, margarine, canned goods all do not require refrigeration and are easy to find in Vila some village stores. Start a garden! Your host family and villagers typically will provide you with local plants from their garden just to be hospitable, but you should grow a garden with herbs, fruits and vegetables that locals may not have in theirs. Seeds are readily available in town on Efate, Santo, Malekula and Tanna. Some village stores even sell seeds. You most likely will have a chance to visit your site on “walkabout week” during training before moving there permanently. Take that chance to see what is in your local store and ask around what people grow in your garden. Now you know which groceries you should buy in Vila (beans? crackers? rice?) and which seeds to buy for your garden. While stocking up for site in Vila, buy plastic containers with clamped lids to protect your food from creatures. Ants are pretty much inevitable because those pesky things find their way into EVERYTHING, but you can easily keep rats and mice out. As for food waste, it’s inevitable. But as I mentioned before, we’re lucky enough that we’re in a country where everything grows so plentifully. If my neighbor offers me 3 fresh fish and there’s no way I will consume them in 24 hours, I pass them off to my host family. Yes, I just threw away a mushy, uneaten mango, but there’s a tree growing 100 new ones just up the road.

Challenge: Overall health 
As I just mentioned, food will be different. With that, you may become concerned with your diet. I joke that when I am in Vila, I load up on “iron supplements” by way of cheeseburgers. You may not get enough protein or vitamins with the food you regularly consume, and then you’ll become worried about your overall body. Female volunteers often gain weight with the carb-based diet that is so popular here. Male volunteers often drastically lose weight. All volunteers want to stay fit or at the very least have energy to get through the day, but cultural barriers and general equipment availability can prevent a volunteer from doing their usual exercise routine from back home. On top of that, there is the general diarrhea, colds, lice, mysterious rashes, bug bites, accidental bush knife wounds, and other diseases and first aid issues that you will encounter in such magnitude, even if you were a picture of perfect health back home.

Method to overcome: Something Peace Corps will drill into you from day one is that you are responsible for you. Be aware of your diet and be aware of how it affects you. When I noticed I was tired all the time early in training, I noted it was due to a lack of iron. The PC doctor happily provided me with multi-vitamins that contain extra iron. No one has ever been sent back home due to scurvy, so clearly there are ways to combat basic dietary issues. If you have dietary restrictions, I assume you know how to take care of them back home. If you are a vegetarian and your main source of protein back home is protein powder and beans, then stock up on protein powder and beans while in Vila! Easy enough. Exercise can be a challenge, but just ask your community how it’s perceived. Sometimes the idea of a female going on a solo run through the bush can not only be perceived as plain strange, but there could be cultural barriers ranging from dress (maybe your community only wears island dresses) to political issues (maybe there’s a land dispute that prevents you from going on a certain path). Talk to your community. Tell them how important exercise is to you and your well-being. Some volunteers set up exercise classes to share with their community (like a dance or yoga class). Other volunteers set up a gym at site using readily-available materials (like buckets filled with concrete as weights). Be resourceful and creative. Ask other PCVs how they handle their exercise routine at site to get some ideas. Regarding all ailments and general health inquiries: there are 2 Peace Corps medical officers. Use them. If you have been sleeping horribly for a week, let the doctor know. If you haven’t gotten your period in 5 months but know you aren’t pregnant, let your doctor know (preferably you’d let them know sooner). If anything at all seems weird or abnormal or has stuck around for far too long, LET THE DOCTOR KNOW. Don’t try to tough it out. Don’t assume your consistently growing rash will get better. Let someone know so you can nip any issues in the bud. You can’t be a functional volunteer if you are not at 100%.

Challenge: Language barrier 
You’re in another country that speaks another language. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong. You learn Bislama in training, but depending on your village, your neighbors could speak little to no Bislama at all, instead using their local language (of which there are over 100 in Vanuatu). You spend 3 months learning Bislama, only to find that foreign words are swirling around your head at work, at the village meetings, and while playing with kids at the river. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a village that mostly speaks in Bislama. You’re so excited because you spent 10 weeks learning a language, and you finally get to use it! But Bislama, as we have learned, doesn’t have a huge vocabulary. And because people tend to grow up speaking local languages, which also have limited vocabulary, sometimes messages are lost in translation. I feel pretty fluent in Bislama, and I can easily express what I need to express. However, it has often been the case that when a neighbor tells me one thing, what I hear is completely different from reality. This is a blend of the language barrier and the culture of word-of-mouth news spreading, so you can hear details on an upcoming event in your village that end up being completely false because you received misinformation. People also don’t use the same language tone, or tenses, that you learn in training. Actual conversation I’ve had at site:
Me: Bai yu nomo luk Kalmataku olbaot. (You won’t see Kalmataku around anymore) 
Silvia: Mi no save! Mi no bin luk hem. (I don’t know! I haven’t seen him.) 
Me: No, mi save se yu no bin luk hem. From hemi ded finis. (I know you haven’t seen him. Because he’s dead.) 
Silvia: Mi no save, mi no bin luk! (I don’t know, I haven’t seen him!) 
Me: No, be mi save. Mi save se hemi ded. Mi faendem hem yestedei, mo mi beiriem. (No, but I know. I know he’s dead. I buried him yesterday.) 

What I wanted to be a conversation of me telling a neighbor that my cat was dead was interpreted by her as me asking if he was dead, even though I was very clear with what I was telling her.
People tend to talk about their daily lives. Conversations rotate around who did what today, and narratives on what your neighbor did after she woke up this morning until now, the time you are having this conversation. On the flip side, a fellow volunteer shared a story with me that his host papa was with a handful of PCVs, who spoke English among themselves, and he teased them for talking too much about too many details. We, the English speakers, won’t simply say “I didn’t like lunch today,” but instead will nitpick every detail, from how the manioc wasn’t boiled enough to how the rice needed more salt to how the water had a strange aftertaste. Locals here would just settle with, “Lunch was not good.”

Method to overcome: Patience. There is no quick solve to this, but instead one that involves lots of breathing and repetition. Regarding the local language, learn some! I have learned basic greetings in my local language as well as “Sit down!” and other various commands since I hear mamas shout it at their kids all the time. I know I won’t be fluent, as I have self-discovered through my travels that I can best learn language through writing and reading, and here, the local language is mostly spoken. But I can still try. Regarding getting the correct news and information about events, ask several people, and exhaust them with questions, repeating some of them. Then, you will ensure that you brought food to what was essentially a potluck party, or that you depart on the correct boat, or you know where the bus will take you before you arrive at your destination. Ask, and you shall know.

Challenge: Comparison to other PCVs
I incessantly hear about how the first PCV in my village “knew [the local] language.” I hear about events the previous PCV hosted at the school. All volunteers will hear “comparison talk” regarding previous PCVs at their site or sites nearby. Usually, it feels insulting, because it always appears to be accolades that the villagers are giving to PCVs past.

Method to overcome: As the PCV on my island who overlapped service with me, Natalie, said, “everyone’s service is different.” It’s a simple statement that carries a lot of weight. Every site is different, so that statement can be applicable to PCVs on other sites, but it can also apply to those who were in the same village/school as you are. Yes, that PCV was here in this village, and appeared to do amazing work that you haven’t done (or don’t plan to do), but that’s ok. Use this gossip to your advantage, to find out what others were doing. Maybe you’ll hear about a committee that PCV Jane worked with, and now you know it exists and you can do work with them, too. You can also shrug it off. I hear about projects the previous PCV did at my site, and they aren’t the kinds of things I want to do. No offense to her, but I prefer to do work in different ways and in different methods. I don’t host music celebrations during school days, but I do cook with villagers, which apparently the previous PCV didn’t do. It can be hard, because you are often the few Americans who will ever visit this village and make an impact, which can put the pressure on you to be the greatest you can be. However, this culture is communal, and American culture is individualistic. So, while we can understand that every individual is completely different, it can be hard to tell a village of 100 that the previous American who came here is very different than you, the American who is here now. But I guess anyone could chalk that up to a limited exposure to any culture at all.

Challenge: “The Fish Bowl”/ “Coconut Wireless” 
Friends of mine who have served in other countries around the world had shared with me their experiences of the “fish bowl” effect, in which you feel like everyone knows everything about you, and there is no escape. Here in Vanuatu, there is “coconut wireless,” which is used to describe how everyone knows everything about everyone (both good and bad and mundane). If you were cutting wood on your front porch on Saturday, ten people at church on Sunday will ask you what you are building. If people in your community saw you consume alcohol once, you can be perceived as the town drunk (even if it was just one drink). News can spread widely and quickly, like the time one volunteer was given a chiefly rank during walkabout week, and two of our language instructors, who were on nearby islands at the time, heard about it from their relatives before they even saw the volunteer at class the following Monday. This applies to your fellow volunteers, as well. As the closest network of friends to you in-country, they will know everything about you. Everyone knows who has hooked up with whom, why so-and-so was late to training on Thursday, and the REAL reason so-and-so is in Vila (“medical” was just code for something else!). There isn’t a lot to talk about day-to-day, and unfortunately gossip can take over the majority of your conversations with other volunteers.

Method to overcome: Depending on your community size, the village coconut wireless can be more extreme than in others. It can get annoying sometimes, especially when people stick to one thing you did one time and forever associate it with you. However, you can control the gossip by telling your story. Talk about yourself, and project the self that you want people to know. No longer are you “that crazy white girl who danced at Robert’s wedding” but are now the “white girl who used to teach in Africa for five years before moving to Vanuatu.” The more complex, the better, because the conversations that rotate around the five years you spent in a foreign school system versus that one time you unapologetically danced in a public setting are far more interesting. Regarding your fellow volunteers, it can be difficult. You can feel like you’re having a heart-to-heart with someone and then they accidentally go off and spill your secrets to other PCVs because they thought it was common knowledge. As far as romances or transgressions, everyone will know, because those things are hard to hide, especially when you are in close quarters during training or any other volunteer gathering. Just be aware of it and get comfortable with it.

Challenge: Environment 
Vanuatu is hot. It’s also humid. You will sweat and you will smell, and you will be greasy and gross most of the time. Even when you are in your house, you will be exposed to the elements, sometimes because you have dirt floors, and sometimes because you have a family of cockroaches that also calls your concrete abode “home.”

Method to overcome: Prepare for the heat. Bring clothes that will suit this kind of weather and/or feel comfortable while you’re drenched in sweat. Some islands are hotter/cooler than others. People here don’t use deodorant, and you most likely will not, either. You just get used to being coated in a constant layer of sweat/oil/sunscreen/bug spray all of the time. That’s okay. You aren’t competing in a modeling competition. Your home will have exposure to the elements in some way, whether that is the barren dirt or coral floor, or the gap between the roof and walls that allows gigantic moths to flutter inside. This is another one of those “get used to it” situations, and after training, you will start to get used to it.

Challenge: Feeling helpless in abusive situations 
For our own safety, there are rules we must abide to. There are also untold rules that are for your own good, so that you can better integrate. A major issue in Vanuatu is domestic abuse, against partners and children. PC’s policy, in a nutshell, is to “not get involved.” You could be falling asleep at night to the sound of your host mother whipping your host sister as she wails in pain. You could walk down the road and see your friend chasing his girlfriend out of the house with a saucepan above his head, and then he laughs when he sees you watching. You hear about your neighbor’s husband transferring money out of her account, leaving $20 to her name. She frantically calls you from town, because her husband’s phone is off and she can’t get a hold of him. You find him and he says “eh, it’s no big deal, don’t worry about it” as he makes no effort to call her back. A school decides not to fire the headmaster, even after it’s revealed that he’s sexually abused at least two students. Your friend and fellow teacher could return to school after a week of absence with a bandage on her arm, telling you how her husband accidentally threw a plate at her and broke it. A student falls from a tree and breaks her arm. You ask her if this is the first time she’s broken it, and she laughs as she says no. She tells you when she was 7, she mooned her sister and her mom got mad and hit her with a broom so hard that her arm broke. A man in your village has brain damage from his parents beating him after he smoked marijuana. It’s been revealed that a couple female students in the dormitory have woken up naked in the dorms, covered in leaves and semen, and have no recollection of what happened, and the village blames it on black magic. A woman in your village tells you that when her husband argues with her, he repeatedly tells her how he stopped loving her a long time ago. A student has burn marks on her face that she’s too embarrassed to explain. Students compare scars on their backs like they’re freckles. Your neighbor’s son runs up behind you as you’re washing dishes, tugging on your skirt, asking you to hide him so his mama can’t find him to hit him, because he accidentally broke her phone screen. You pass a message to a teacher’s wife. He receives a different message, and when you say that it’s the wrong one, he says it isn’t your fault but instead, his wife’s. You fear the results.

Method to overcome: There are complexities to all of these situations, so it’s hard to give a simple answer. All of us want to help, but getting involved is often the wrong and dangerous option. We are the outsiders in our villages, so taking a strong stand against something can isolate us and erase any and all integration that we’ve progressed to have. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, but there is very little we can do. PC policy is to NOT get involved. There have been issues in the past around the world with situations just like these. PC trains you, during pre-service training, on how to address certain scenarios. One, I remember, was to go tell the chief. At the time, though, we were blind to the option that…what if it’s the chief doing the abusing? The safety and security team is well aware of the complexities and prevalence of abuse, and they are here to help. I have called on a few occasions, with the typical “I want to do something, but I know I can’t, so what can I do?!” Being supportive is one thing; or, being a friend. Sometimes the abused can feel trapped, like they can’t share things with their friends/family. Being there as a friend can make them feel comfortable, and even if the abuse continues, they know that they have at least one supportive person in their life where they can go bake cookies or read or just talk in comfort and without fear. PC advises against giving advice, because that can often get back to the abuser. It is bad news if you’re found out as the person who told the abused person to run away, or to move to another island, or whatever you may say. So, you can’t say anything. You can nudge, or just offer information. PC has programs through GAD (Gender and Development committee) that share information on happy and healthy relationships. You can host a workshop at site to share this knowledge. You can work with your community to invite an outside organization to come make an awareness. The safety and security office through PC can provide you with pamphlets about domestic abuse that you can leave at your school, health center, or community building. There are ways you can nudge, but unfortunately, there are no major changes you can make on your own.

More posts in this series to come…


Popular Posts