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Year 13 House Building In Vanuatu

August 06, 2019 at 1:50 PM

‘We came, we sawed, we constructed.’
With thanks to Year 13 student reporter, Karl Jorgensen

Vanuatu - sun, sand, surf and smiles. To many minds, it is simply an idyllic South Pacific nation comprised of more than eighty tropical islands. For fifteen enthusiastic Year 13 students, it was all of this, and yet much more. For well over a decade, Saint Kentigern has been sending teams of Year 13 students to the Pacific Islands each July school holiday, to build cyclone proof houses for deserving local families. This year, we students, along with four College staff members, met at Auckland International Airport early on a Sunday morning ready to make the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Port Vila. At that moment, none of us could predict just how much of a memorable and eye-opening experience it would be for us all.

After disembarking in Port Vila and finally finding everyones’ bags on the carousel, Albert, our host (and the man who organised pretty much everything) greeted us with a cheerful ‘Hello,’ words as warm as the tropical air we were walking in, while he also placed around our necks a traditional shell necklace.

One 40-minute van ride and a 10-minute boat ride later, we arrived on Lelepa Island at the village where we would be building the houses. With all the excitement of what lay before us, we were itching to get started on the project, but being in remote location where electricity is possible only when running a portable generator, our eagerness to get building would have to wait until the next day.

No one could sleep that night. This was not due to the excitement, but the roosters. And the dogs. And the occasional pig. These creatures who lived in considerable numbers in the village began to crow, bark and oink. This cacophony started from about 2am and it seemed as though when one started, they all started as if they were talking to each other in one great extended conversation! Having had little sleep, a few of US were a bit tired, yet a lack of sleep could not dampen the sense of anticipation for what the day ahead might hold.

Half of our group were assigned to work at the first building site which was a five-minute walk from where we were staying. The other half of the group were stationed about fifteen minutes further away in a clearing near the beach.

The first day, Monday, was the hardest. The site needed levelling so after a seemingly endless number of wheelbarrows of dirt had been dug out and shifted, in order to make the site flat, we began digging holes for the foundations. The frames were erected on the first day and some of the posts were concreted into the ground. All of this was done in the searing heat of a cloudless day.

Building materials delivered by boat also required carrying to the respective sites. Needless to say, most of us were not used to manual labour or the hot and humid climate, so we had a bit of adjusting to do. But any discomfort we were experiencing was put into perspective when we got the opportunity to meet the family for whom we were building the house. Our half of the team met Joshua and his family. Joshua is sixteen. However, due to his significant physical and mental disabilities, he cannot walk, speak or care for himself. He is able to communicate emotion and it was clear that he was excited by our presence. The other half of the team were building for Kiki and his family. Kiki, much like Joshua, is extremely limited physically, although he is very expressive in non-verbal ways and has some use of his arms and hands. Again, the joy he radiated toward us as we met and interacted was both deeply moving and truly humbling.

Over the next four days the houses quickly took shape. We had to assemble and install the three windows and a door, clad the exterior walls, put on the roof, and complete a multitude of other tasks.  It was very rewarding at the end of each long day to stand back and see how much progress we were making from the sweat of our own brows.

After a delicious dinner prepared each night by our host Albert, a remarkable man of many talents, all the children in the village would come to where we were staying and dance and sing with us. We learnt several new songs and taught them new songs as well. It was amazing to see how happy they were even though they had so little. It was so important for us to learn something from them, and as clichéd as it may sound, in New Zealand we should learn to be more appreciative for all that we have because there are people in the world that have a lot less than us yet they seem to be a lot happier. Their happiness rubbed off on us and such an experience was probably the most enduring effect from the whole trip.

On Thursday night the group had a feast with the chief of the village named Reuben and many other villagers. The food prepared was delicious, and in the ceremony that followed there were speeches of thanks from the village chief and the head of the Vanuatu Disabled Persons Organisation. Following that we all got sarongs as a gift for our work. This was the ceremony where we officially handed over the houses to the two families.

Friday was the completion date for the two builds and it was an incredible feeling to see what our group had accomplished in four and a half days. If you really work hard at something, the feeling of accomplishment and pride afterwards is incredible.

Once the houses were largely complete, we said our emotional goodbyes to the Lelepa community knowing that we had made a contribution to the life of Joshua’s family and Kiki’s family, although we were realising that they had probably made a more profound impact on us. Getting into the boats, we took an afternoon tour around the beaches and inlets of the island where we got to snorkel and swim in some of the most pristine waters in the world. We also explored a cave which is one of several which are listed as part of a World Heritage Site. Once we set foot back on the main island of Efate, the vans headed to Vila Chaumieres Resort, where we stayed for the final day and a half with Richard and Ursula, our Kiwi hosts. Ursula was a former art teacher at the College. It was nice to relax our tired and weary muscles after a hard week’s work and that evening, we experienced another side of Vanuatuan culture as we watched a fire show.

I would like to thank Mr Nick Hanne and Mr Stuart Mudford for their leadership of the two building sites and also Mrs Joanne Macdonald and Mr Ieti Fetalaiga for all their hard work and support in assisting with the project. We learnt a great deal about carpentry, problem solving and team work in sometimes challenging conditions.

In Acts 20:35, it says, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’

Arriving back in Auckland after the eight-day adventure, everyone felt happy and blessed as we knew that we had done something special for the Lelepa community. Not only was this experience special for them, but it was special for us because of how much we learnt from it about appreciating what we have and seeing that hard work does pay off. After this action packed week, it seems appropriate to borrow (and adapt) the famous words of Julius Caesar: ‘We came, we sawed, we constructed.”

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