Project Vanuatu

Project Vanuatu

We are frequently asked how Vilo became involved in charitable giving, with 10% of profits given to A21; a global non- profit organisation that works to stop human trafficking. The answer began in another life where Josh and I volunteered with a small Non-Government Organisation called Troppodoc for a month on Malekula, Vanuatu. Our teeny team of five and a half (including a two year old burgeoning Doctor) was led by Dr Derek Allan and partner Diana Watson. The burgeoning Doctor is their then two year old adopted daughter Hilda.

The inspiration for this epic trip, for me began in Primary School.  After learning about the Sudanese Famine of 1998, I was convinced that as long as everyone heard about third world poverty and worked really hard together, it wouldn't exist by the time I was "grown up". I became a registered nurse at 20 and desperately wanted to work in the third world. Slowly I realized you need skills and experience to benefit impoverished nations otherwise you're just another western tourist offering bandaid help in exchange for an unusual experience. Derek is an absolute one of a kind and has worked in the third world his entire career straight out of medical school. He spends every year volunteering across India, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, Somali-land, Indonesia and Vanuatu. After six years of nursing both in New Zealand and England, I finally felt ready to nurse in a developing country...but how would Josh, a helicopter pilot, be able to help?

I contacted Derek and Diana and was assured there would be plenty for a non- medical person to do. So this was how, in February 2016, our venture into the third world began.  We spent the first bizarre night in Port Villa, in 38 degrees in a windowless room. The toilet (our only flushing toilet in the whole trip) was a death trap with a door you could only open from the outside and the only light switch situated IN the shower. 

We flew out to Malekula on the second day in a Twin Otter light aircraft. Josh passed our two hour delay in Port Villa reading the Twin Otter's crash records and took great delight in sharing with me their record for the most crashes internationally of any light airline aircraft. They finally got the second engine started and we took off under the power of prayer. 

We landed on the grass airstrip in Lamap and my eyes were opened. I had considered myself an educated individual. I watch the news, Josh and I had been through Eastern Europe post the Bosnian War and I thought I'd seen impoverished countries.  I'm ashamed to admit than on our drive from the airstrip to the village I thought the coconut palms and tin huts were model villages for tourists to demonstrate how the islanders 'used to' live.  These were in fact the local homes.

Vanuatu gained Independence from the English and French in 1980. When power was vacated, unfortunately so did many resources for the Vanuatu people. The "hospital" we arrived at is a classic example.  The building used to house an xray, power and running water. Now none exists. The water supply for the "hospital" came from a well.

To the left are our shower buckets we would squat next to at the end of each hot sticky day.

Babies were delivered at all hours by torch light, on plastic sheets, on a donated bed with stirrups. One bed meant mummies delivering at this hospital would labor on a concrete floor until they were ready to deliver.

We had nine babies in the month we worked on Malakula. The women on Malakula labored in silence and I was convinced I could too when my time came to have babies...needless to say the day after the arrival of my little girl, I was told by my midwife I sounded like the local volunteer fire siren.

So what filled our days? Machete injuries...

Lots of wounds from coconut trees...

And the usual presentations we would expect in New Zealand such and heart disease, skin complaints and Asthma. With more unusual solutions...

Your eyes don't deceive you, that is Josh becoming a bike pump nebuliser.

Derek had been donated a "luxurious" Suzuki so we were indulged by one of the only cars in Lamap with a "special" ignition system...

Another luxury of the hospital was a covered kitchen. The majority of locals cook over open fire...

You felt like you really earned every cooked meal after building your oven each time and filling your lungs with smoke.

But the people...oh the people.  The men are beautiful, there isn't a scrap of fat on them even well into their 60's as they work hard on coconut plantations. I say 60's but no-one has a birth certificate so knows how old they 'roughly' are! I had never, nor have never since met such happy, grateful, kind people.  Mummies would travel by boat three hours to vaccinate their babies, or wait in the dark for us to return from surrounding clinics for up to five hours, or walk 15km each day to have us tend their wound, all thankful, smiling and never complaining.

At the time, there were 28 doctors in the whole of Vanuatu. None in Lamap. A beautiful nurse Eliane and nurse practitioner called Samuel ran the hospital when Derek and Diana weren't there. Two incredibly dedicated individuals who served this community for free. At the time their salary hadn't been paid by the government for four months. They survived on the love of the community who bought food for them from their own gardens. Though this community was incredibly poor, there is an abundance of food. The tropical climate means everything grows here, even the fencing!  

On returning to Vila I ran the tap in the airport for the first time in a month, I washed the water over my face and it felt wonderful. No more would I wash in a bucket or do laundry by hand...

I struggled returning to our "developed" home. Our Emergency department had 30 doctors (more than the whole of Vanuatu), running water, electricity, radiology equipment, clean needles and drugs that hadn't expired. My first shift back I fielded a complaint that we didn't provide a gluten free option in sandwiches. 

Derek explained that everyone should see the third world to help change it.  We can all too easily fall back into western wealth and lose perspective of our needs and wants. In the west, we have an incredible earning capacity.  If we can keep perspective on an appropriate standard of living and share our wealth with developing nations, how quickly could these beautiful people enjoy fulfillment of the basic needs you and I take for granted?

The first birth I attended in Lamap was a tragedy. The umbilical cord delivered first meaning as the baby descended, the cord compressed and oxygen was deprived from the baby. This is a medical emergency in New Zealand also, but the mummy would have had a full team of medical professionals and operating theatre available to her. After a 15 minutes of CPR with a manual suction cap and ambu-bag with no oxygen, the baby survived, but died the next day. The tragedy shaped my trip and the injustice of unfairly distributed wealth across our world. 

So when Vilo began, we knew we had to give back. This blog is the long answer to "How did Vilo become involved in charitable giving?" We first encountered the A21 campaign on our not so charitable three year OE in London. The church we attended partnered with A21 and it was the first exposure I had to modern day slavery.  I hadn't understood what this looks like and how tangible it is in society. Our experience with the campaign came full circle when in 2019 our church in New Zealand partnered with A21 also, and it became apparent that Vilo could help in our small way.

We also began the Vilo Recycling Program. In Lamap, we took thirty pairs of plastic sunglasses we had collected on advice from Derek. They were all donated within two hours of us arriving at the hospital. UV protection is desperately need in Vanuatu. The harsh UV rays and long hours spent outside mean macular degeneration and cataracts are rife in the relatively young. The community in Lamap have limited access to luxuries like sunglasses.  The Vilo recycling program promises a discount on our wooden sunglasses in exchange for a customers old (usable) plastic pair. The program promotes a circular and sustainable society where old plastic sunnies don't end up in a landfill but instead protecting the eyes of the impoverished in Vanuatu. 

Vilo Sunglasses Recycling Program Australia

Currently Josh and I are struggling with how to return to the third world with our two babies. I don't know how to balance family life with working in impoverished nations. Derek, Diana and Hilda are living proof it can be done. I talk the talk, but after treating Malaria in Lamap, could I be brave enough to bring my babies there? And why are my babies entitled to a safe, clean delivery and standard of living when the babies of Lamap, through design of their birth, are not.  I am struggling with the balance so until I figure out how to serve my babies and serve the third world, our business can help in a small way.

So when supporting the third world, choose charities where your dollar reaches the ground. When you don't know what to do or how to help...just do something! Something small, then something else until it grows and grows.....