My friend Neslyn – a food security story from Vanuatu

We stopped at the roadside market to buy some fresh coconuts and have a chat to the women. On offer was steamed corn, young coconuts for drinking, yams still covered with dark black earth, and lots and lots of crabs wrapped in green leaves slowly waving their claws in the air. I am traveling with an Adventist Development & Relief Agency (ADRA) team around South East Ambrym Island in Vanuatu. It’s been almost a year since Cyclone Pam, the strongest cyclone in Vanuatu’s history, devastated many communities here. South East Ambrym was one of the locations that ADRA worked with in the weeks after the disaster. My role is to talk to community members about their experiences in Cyclone Pam, and their perceptions of how ADRA worked with them after Cyclone Pam. A roadside market is a great place to start.

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The ladies giggle and the kids stare. I ask permission to take a photograph of one small child sitting with his mother. She nods permission, but the child takes one look at me, screws up his face and bawls. So I step away apologising and everyone laughs. My first question is about what they remember about the ADRA disaster response. That’s when I meet Neslyn.

Neslyn is a young mum. She steps forward with sassy confidence. Her English skills are good enough that she answers my questions directly in Bislama, without waiting for translation. With the murmured support of the other mothers she tells me about the days after Cyclone Pam, when entire families got sick with diahorrea and skin sores. They thought it was something to do with the water supply, but there is no qualified health staff at the local clinic, so they really had no idea. When ADRA arrived three weeks after Cyclone Pam each family received an assistance package. One of the items included was a simple water filter. The families started to filter their drinking water and the sickness affecting them went away.

The women in the group nodded as Neslyn then went on to list every item that was in the aid package distributed by ADRA. She listed the types of food, the tools for fixing their homes, the spade and bush knife for restoring their gardens. “Here, look at this!” she points to a pile of giant purple sweet potato on the ground, “This is the first harvest of sweet potato that we planted after Cyclone Pam!” The women around all share her happiness at the successful crop, and two prime specimens are held up for me to take a photo.

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I ask about the gardening training that ADRA provided. They are all gardeners here, and a mutter sweeps through the crowd. Neslyn explains that only men were chosen by her community to do the training, but they did share information with their wives after the training. Together we all bristle at the indignity of that. Neslyn then laughs at my squeamishness around the live crabs. I ask how the cyclone affected the foods they ate from the sea. “Everything in the salt water died during the cyclone,” she says, “The water was spoiled and everything was dead.” It took several months before the sealife recovered enough for them to be able to catch anything. So what did they eat I asked? Neslyn explained how they dug for wild yams, ate the coconuts that had fallen to the ground in the cyclone, and harvested what they could from their destroyed garden crops.

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“The food from ADRA came just in time,” she says. After the cyclone mobile communications were knocked out for two weeks. It took that time for the national government to do assessments of need and allocate areas to NGOs like ADRA for response. ADRA’s food aid arrived three weeks after Cyclone Pam, sent by ship and carried ashore at the only beach in the area where ships can anchor safely, before being driven in older cars along the single rough 4WD track that connects the communities here. But Neslyn had no complaints about the delay, only gratitude for the three food distributions each family received. “When our gardens were finally ready to give us some harvest,” she said, “We still had some rice left from ADRA! So it was the right amount of food!”

We were expected at another community down the road, so it was time to say goodbye. I wandered the market stall again and chose my young coconut. I also saw a lovely woven bag. I purchased both and as my coconut was being opened for me (I don’t carry my own bush knife!) I asked who made the bag. Everyone pointed at Neslyn! She just smiled and waved us goodbye.

Later in the day I was talking with the cameraman travelling with us. We were having trouble finding people to interview who would relax in front of the camera. I told him about Neslyn and her wide smile, so we decided to visit her again on the way home late in the afternoon. The market was closed for the day, but the driver took us right into the centre of her village. Neslyn walked over to the car, wiping her hands on her skirt as she had been cooking. She looked like she completely expected us to arrive right there and then. I explained that her story was a good story and would she like to share it for the camera. She agreed as if this was the most natural request in the world.

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We set up outside her kitchen, with her husband and young son watching carefully. After sharing her story with confidence and a smile the cameraman decided she was so good that he would feature the family in cutaway shots walking around their home and through the village. We followed along, talking with Neslyn about her dogs (Rusty and Puppy). After being patient with us for all the filming Neslyn walked me to the car. It had been a long day and I had forgotten that after I purchased the woven bag I immediately put my notebook and pencil in it and had used it all day. The bag was under my arm. As we got to the car Neslyn shook my hand, grinned and said: “Nice bag!”

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