Solidarity in cyclone-hit Vanuatu as folk come together

Solidarity in cyclone-hit Vanuatu as folk come together

VANUATU - Not long after the roof of Keith and Emma Vatoko's bedroom was torn off by Vanuatu's destructive cyclone, family members and neighbours were already hammering nails into a new makeshift home.

The Vatokos and their village Mele, two kilometres (1.2 miles) south of the Pacific nation's capital Port Vila, are struggling to clear water-logged houses after winds of up to 320 kilometres (200 miles) per hour and pounding rain swept through, flooding a nearby river.

The reality for many Vanuatuans is bleak with reports across the island chain of widespread destruction of property and crops, along with water and food shortages, and fears of disease.

But the villagers in Mele are doing their best to stay positive, typifying the optimistic demeanour that outsiders see as a defining characteristic of the islanders.

"Despite what we are facing, we still put our heads up high and always think positive," Emma Vatoko told AFP as she stood beside her bedroom, which now sits bare of everything except a handwritten Lord's Prayer poster on the wall.

"And that's what makes us strong." The 35-year-old lights up when she talks about how the community rallied together after the Category Five storm barrelled ashore on Friday night, cooking meals for each other and rebuilding damaged homes.

"It's hard for us, but we have to have confidence in ourselves that we can do it," she said.

Vanuatu, which has a population of some 267,000 people living across a string of picture-perfect islands, is famed as a tropical paradise for tourists.

Despite being among the world's poorest nations, it was dubbed the "happiest place on earth" almost a decade ago by British think-tank New Economics Foundation for balancing the well-being of its residents with a light environmental footprint.

'We always sit together'

Lida Chilia, another Mele villager, credits the support of her neighbours as a key reason why she remains optimistic.

Chilia, 39, said she was frightened as the storm battered her home for hours through the night.

Standing up after meticulously removing coin-sized debris caught between blades of grass, Chilia beamed broadly even as she recalled the ordeal.

"We prayed for several hours. We asked God to protect us," she said.

"We feel sad. But we (neighbours) always sit together, and that makes me happy." Tom Perry from aid agency CARE Australia said Port Vila residents were dealing with the aftermath "remarkably well", given the circumstances.

But he feared the can-do attitude avoids addressing some of the issues raised by Cyclone Pam - such as the assumption in the subsistence economy that food is always readily available.

New homes are also being erected using similarly flimsy materials - such as metal sheets that were blown away by the storm - instead of more hardy ones.

"They are (rebuilding) in a way that worries me," Perry told AFP at his office in Port Vila.

"They are resilient people and they want to get on. So they want to start rebuilding houses but they're rebuilding houses that just fell over." In Mele, Jenny Garae and her friends prepare a basic lunch of bread and butter for the men toiling over the new corrugated metal house for the Vatokos.

Garae, 18, is helping her family remove the mud congealing on the floor after their home flooded.

Yet she too is keen to look on the bright side to the challenging conditions.

"If you look around, houses are made of boards and sheets," Garae said, stressing how villagers are coming together for mutual aid.

"Maybe this is a sign that people should build their house with cement," she added, although many in the poverty-stricken country cannot afford such luxuries, and rely on making do with what they have.

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