Volunteer tourism (volunturism) is usually associated with countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. At worst, it can resemble vulturetourisxm, (where tourists pay to gawk at children picking through rubbish). At best, it can transform the lives of both recipient and donor. This is the story of one village, one group of voluntourists and one rewarding experience…
We travelled up Santo’s East Coast Road before turning off on the dirt track to Big Bay. It was a bum-bruising journey involving constant swerving to avoid pot holes, a great deal of dust, and much nervous banter.
Ours was a rag-tag group of travellers with few obvious skills. Amongst us was an artist, a stand up paddle board instructor, a Barista, a refrigeration technician, a creative child of 10 years, a marine biologist and myself; an environmental scientist and owner of a small adventure travel company.
We had come together from three different countries to embark on a week-long adventure. We planned to indulge in all the usual escapist’s dreams of snorkelling across coral, swimming in blue holes, riding horses along the beach, and paddle boarding across jelly blue waters. The difference however, was that these travellers had agreed to dedicate two whole days of their vacation to participating in a knowledge exchange with a difference.
As we rounded the last bend in the track, a small cluster of thatched huts came into view. Half-naked children chased chickens between them as mangy dogs barked in alarm at our crew. Women carrying babies peeked out from shadowy doorways and they looked at us with unveiled curiosity. Few outsiders ever bothered to venture as far as Big Bay, and our imminent stay clearly wasn’t widely known.
Matantas is a village with a population numbering roughly 200, and they survive through subsistence farming. They have no town water, no piped sewerage, no mains electricity, and the Internet remains a thing of the future. Copra provides the only source of income and the closest store is located two hours away in Luganville. Getting about is done on foot or on horseback, as most of the vehicles lie broken and abandoned, reincarnated into driving simulators occupied by roosters and chooks.
That is not to say there is nothing to see here. Matantas is home to Vanuatu’s only National Park; the Vatthe Conservation Area. There is an endless black-sand volcanic beach, a crystal clear river, and limestone escarpments that are infused with a bewitching primordial beauty unique to this part of the island.
Bouncing around in the back of our truck was a big tin of paint, a handful of brushes, a length of flexible hose and tints in primary colours. These were all the supplies we had with us, an outlay amounting to roughly AUD60. This was enough though to enable us to undertake an ambitious list of projects that were both environmentally and socially beneficial. From composting to cash cropping, personal healthcare to waste; none of the tasks we had planned required particular expertise or skill.
However, as anyone who has lived in a developing country will attest, developed-world solutions become irrelevant when applied to remote communities that are 100% off the grid.
The group settled into the Bay of Illusions Guesthouse before splitting into teams accompanied by community members. Our objective was to consider a range of issues that had been raised by the Chiefs and drawing on knowledge from both worlds devise practical, simple and sustainable solutions that could be maintained without reliance on external resources.
By developing these solutions in a cooperative manner, we hoped that a sense of community ownership would occur. This in turn would deliver better outcomes, sustained long after we departed, and encourage more innovative ways of thinking by community leaders.
Without doubt, the most ambitious and fun of the 23 projects undertaken, was the painting of a newly-built bush kindy. Housed in a small thatched bungalow sitting below soaring palms, the hut was dark, hot and totally lacking in colour. Inside, a single ply wall divided the room in two and not a single piece of child’s art decorated the facility.
With the teacher at the helm, we set to work at once, transforming the kindy into a place of wonder and excitement. As children fetched the paint and brushes from the truck, others ran helter-skelter gathering coconut husks for mixing tints. Adults chalked scenes of mythical creatures on the walls creating simple line drawings for the budding young artists to colour in.
Within two hours, the storyboard of pictures had been decorated in the full spectrum of colours and even the smallest of helpers was knee-deep in fun. Then, turning their attention to the exterior, the kids stamped their handprints across the outer walls, the water tank and the stump of an old coconut tree. Even Chief Solomon wasn’t safe from being decorated when the all-out paint fight ensued. Never before had the village children of Matantas engaged in such play and they took out their joy by ganging up on the visitors and giving them a colourful lesson in the art of meaningful travel.
The joy of spending a couple of days helping others resulted in memorable experiences that will last a lifetime. We helped overcome almost two-dozen everyday problems and in return, gained deep insight into village life and culture.
Story and Photography By Chantal Clarke.
Chantal Clarke is behind SUP Wilderness Adventures and often organises knowledge-exchange journeys, in Vanuatu and abroad. For more info check www.supwildernessadventures.com.