Cyclone Pam: I've watched islanders protect their homes from a previous cyclone with banana leaves — what hope do they have this time around?

I dread to think about what has happened to the friends and islanders I lived with

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dozens are already feared dead, but we still haven’t heard what has happened on the outlying islands of Vanuatu in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. The place is one of the world’s few black holes of communication, and aircraft cannot yet discover the extent of the damage.

Three years ago I taught in Ambae, an island populated by rural communities with a rainforest ringing a dormant volcano at its centre: just one of the many islands that has suffered in the path of the horrifying "super-cyclone" Pam.

I spent half a year there, volunteering in a primary school and staying in the home of a very hospitable family (who luckily spoke excellent English, as well as pidgin and a number of other local languages).

Our sphere of existence was limited to the western part of the island, as miles of impassable jungle and the enormous Mt. Manaro volcano kept us from its eastern side. And in this short stretch of land I busied myself with lessons and getting to know the children, growing slowly accustomed to a life and outlook very different to my own.

Unlike Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, in the village where I stayed concrete buildings were unusual. The majority of islanders lived in homes with walls of woven palm, earthen floors and thatching, or loose sheets of corrugated metal for roofs. None of them had electricity.

Throughout my time spent in Ambae, the nearness to nature never failed to amaze me. School was sometimes cancelled by storms. People regularly fell ill with malaria. In the warm closeness of the climate, sores festered and spread. Children itched their way through endless rounds of ringworm. Health – and most importantly sanitation – was taught alongside English and Maths.

I experienced a gentle cyclone while I was there, one which passed so far by our island that we only caught its outer winds. It does not compare to the monstrosity of Cyclone Pam, and yet it is my only point of reference, and made me realise how utterly vulnerable the villagers must be now.


It began with an old man’s eye to the grass, inspecting the ants for any sign of movement. "If they move, we move," he said to me. They didn’t move, so nor did we. The winds picked up that evening, and families gathered beneath the thatched nakamal, or meeting house. Banana leaves were plaited and pressed against the roof as an extra layer of protection.

The island’s sporadic phone signal soon disappeared completely. I said dream-like goodbyes to my family in England, wondering, semi-seriously, if these interrupted sentences would be our final exchange.

A child sits in one of the houses visited by the author in Ambae, the island neighbouring Vanuatu (Photo: Tess MacArthur-Dowty)

The storm confined us to our foundationless houses, and there we sweated out the night, listening to the branches being ripped from the trees outside. But this was nothing compared to the gargantuan Pam.

We emerged to a place of total disorder, of uprooted wildlife and a dishevelled-looking village, while the smack of the colossal waves against the nearby cliff continued well into the next day. The locals took it in their stride; they had seen this all before.

I dread to think – when contact is finally made with the people on these outer islands, my friends and adopted family – what stories of devastation they will tell us. Lacking any clear signals or any points of comparison – Pam is purported to have been more powerful than 1987’s Uma, which wiped out entire communities – it will be a wonder if these villagers were given sufficient warning to protect themselves.

And if they managed to survive the cyclone, then what next? Food and clean water shortages, compromised sanitation, homelessness, and lost livelihoods are almost inevitable. And in the longer term, the education system in which children can rebuild their lives could also be damaged beyond repair.

The people of Vanuatu need our help – we cannot ignore their suffering. But it is islands like Ambae that I fear for most: too remote, I fear, to be a practical priority for aid workers. They will have nothing, these people who were so incredibly kind to me. They will have woken to a flattened land, with all their security swept and blown away – where will be their hope?

If you would like to donate to the emergency relief effort you can do so via Unicef and Oxfam