The story of the 2017 volcanic disturbance on Ambae has been, and is being, recorded on film by the charitable community association, Further Arts Vanuatu.
This body has been around and interested in the role of artistic endeavour in the community since Fest’ Napuan began in the mid-’Nineties.
Leaders come and go, but the core principles of Further Arts Vanuatu, which revolve around cultural endeavour cementing big or small communities in Melanesian custom, are securely guarded by the association’s founders and followers ever since.
With the present activity of the Ambae volcano and the arrival of 9,000 Ambaeans as refugees from Ambae on Santo, Luganville’s facilities were stretched in every way. The population moved from 20,000 to 29,000 overnight. Ambaeans were in a state of shock at the trauma of being herded together regardless of their family connections.
People were housed in some 52 temporary camps in the northern town. Team members from Further Arts worked with the official disaster response personnel and the Further Arts personnel tried their hardest to get the concerns and worries of the refugees recorded and the stories of resilience in the difficulties forcing Ambaeans to leave their island.
One mother of 6 from Ambae with a six month-old baby staying at the SDA Church in Chapuis area was exhausted following the trip from the island and the week-long incarceration at the first refugee centre on Ambae until ships could be pressed into service, expressed the fear detailed by many. She had had to leave all her family’s things on the island, especially the animals like pigs and chickens. Whilst the pigs were tied to fences and trees the woman was certain all these farm animals would have escaped and gone wild before she could move back with her family.
The main saving grace of the hugely over-populated refugee centres of no privacy was the provision of basic food and shelter. Government representatives each day brought imported rice, canned meat, sugar and toilet paper. The Red Cross worked hard to supply more food and tents and tarpaulins, but the heat and humidity were such that tents had to be abandoned by day.
The 12-person Further Arts team learned of how communications worked with the 2015 Cyclone Pam relief activities and how communications are important. They tried to ensure language groups stayed together back then. It was important for both messages coming and for those going, to enable communications to succeed.
Viviane Obed, General Manager of Further Arts, was leading the group’s efforts in the Ambae relief operations for Further Arts.
She said, “It is critical for the Ambae community to stay in touch with its own sense of value and agency.
“Some people feel like their own island is angry at them, and we work to remind them that their island is like the connection to their mother — it can never be broken.
“Their island provides food sustenance and is the foundation of their culture.”
Most of the Ambaeans have gone home now. One of the key findings of the refugee crisis is that people who were evacuated to rural Pentecost and Maewo islands and were hosted by families and not placed in camps, were least impacted by the displacement.
“It was like a visit to another family,” Further Arts volunteer Tom Dick reported.
But back on Ambae families now speak of food gardens destroyed by the farm animals gone wild and the undrinkable water everywhere.
Ash and dust are still spoiling the normal cleanliness of Ambae. More communication will still be needed.
Further Arts is getting the story recorded.