October 5th was World Teachers Day. While this may have only been a blip on most peoples’ radar back in the States, it was something of a big deal here in Vanuatu. At least is was here in SE Ambrym. I admit that, initially, I wasn’t looking forwards to attending the celebrations, especially when I was told we’d have to wake up early in the morning to walk to another village. Many celebrations are all day affairs and packed with people, meaning that you’re usually gawked at by gaggles of children and mamas from other villages. They have the potential to be emotionally draining.
Waking up at sunrise, my family and I began the long walk to the village of Paamal, which was hosting the day’s events at its school. I had never step foot in the secluded village nor had I met many of its residents as it was the only French-speaking and Catholic village in the region. All I knew about this place was that their students had the cutest of uniforms. We arrived sometime around 8:30am. To my surprise it was a small affair; perhaps only a couple dozen teachers and their families were in attendance, with the women and children languidly reposing under the cool shade of a mango tree while the men were off someplace. There was also no music playing, which was remarkably out of place for Ni-van celebrations. I took my place amongst the mamas, finding an open mat in the shade. Now we began one of Vanuatu’s favorite pastimes: waiting. Festivities were scheduled to start at 9 but… Island time.
Things finally got up and running around 11am (woo only three hours late!), when people were starting to get hungry. Unfortunately, the delay was caused by other Peace Corps volunteers who wouldn’t show up for several more hours. Eventually our Ni-van colleagues gave up on waiting and got started. It was a short affair, with only a few speeches made by various principals and our Zone Curriculum Advisor (ZCA). It was then that I realized that, despite this being a comparatively humble gathering, this meant a lot to those in attendance. For many teachers, working in a school is a thankless job. Literally. Some haven’t been paid by the government in nearly a decade and, seeing as how they’re in the classroom all day, that’s one less person working in the garden to gather food for their families. With no pay and the opportunity cost associated with being busy during the day, teaching has become a major sacrifice for many. While I knew that issues with pay delays were common in Vanuatu, I suppose that the reality of it never fully sank in.
Life is hard on the island, harder than I could ever imagine. The amount of work people put into their everyday lives is frankly astonishing and impressive. So the fact that there are dozens of individuals willing to dedicate years of their life to the edification of the next generations with little to no recognition from their government, it’s commendable but it’s also heartbreaking. The ZCA himself began to tear up during his speech. Everyone present has relied upon the generosity of their communities to survive, and surviving off of the generosity of others is a hard existence. But you’d never guess based off of daily interactions with these teachers; they’ve embraced their circumstances with a grace and humbleness that the rest of the world could learn from. So, attending World Teachers Day was an edifying experience for me: I saw a side of life here that normally I would not be privy to in day to day interactions. In a society where emotion is frequently veiled, this was a particularly vulnerable moment for many individuals present. Despite this, it was empowering and, more importantly, hopeful.