A thousand smiles on Epi Island


        When Cyclone Pam hit, it was a long and horrifying night for the people of Epi Island. In the aftermath, communities are slowly rebuilding.

The Save the Children organisation has been undertaking projects to help the people of Epi get back on their feet. Based in Vanuatu since 1984, the not-for-profit organization implements a comprehensive program throughout the country focusing on the areas of child and maternal health, primary health care, early childhood education and child protection, and links community based results into provincial and national level initiatives.

After the cyclone, it was ‘all hands on deck’ to devise and deliver immediate emergency aid response and post-cyclone recovery plans. Bringing in technical specialists in the areas of WASH, Food Security and Livelihoods (FSL), Health, Education, Shelter and Child Protection and recruiting an extra 41 national staff, the organization set up projects and delivered emergency aid to the cyclone affected areas in the country. In partnership with the NDMO and various ministries, they delivered emergency food rations, building equipment, tools, primary health training and education kits to the islands of Ambrym, Efate and its offshore islands, Epi and Tongoa. Save the Children has also prioritized the rehabilitation of community water supplies and reconstruction of some of the destroyed aid posts and schools.

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On Epi, Save the Children deployed field manager Ben Brookman and a team of dedicated national staff to supervise relief aid and recovery projects on the island. “The first priority after the cyclone was to deliver water, sanitation kits, and other essential items to the communities,” explains Ben. Ginette Morris, staff member, explained how Save the Children delivered over 1,100 tarpaulins and hundreds of plastic buckets to allow people alternative water collection as well as tools and kitchen kits to start rebuilding. Based at Elcress Agra Products Coconut Oil Mill in east Epi, the Save the Children staff have been supervising post-cyclone recovery projects in several villages. “The help from Elcress has been invaluable for us in that they’ve provided us with a base, including accommodation, storage facilities and online communication that allowed us to get these projects off the ground efficiently,” explained Ben.


The cyclone destroyed the crops, damaged the water catchment structures and contaminated the water sources of most of Epi, affecting thousands of people. The villages of Mate and Ngala rely on a mountaintop spring water catchment for their respective water supplies. The cyclone destroyed the spring water supply, cutting off water from the two villages and the local dispensary. Save the Children enlisted local builder and community leader Kerry William to supervise the repair and construction of the new water catchment. “There are no rivers next to the villages and the water source is a few hours walk up the hill, so after the cyclone we had no way of getting drinking water,” Kerry explained. “All we could do is dig the ground next to the shore to try to find some but the water here is also contaminated by the salt water.”

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Sandra Din, another staff member, worked with community members to reconnect their water source. “This could only be accomplished by bringing the two villages together,” Sandra explained. Sandra worked alongside Kerry, who successfully facilitated the collaboration of both communities. The logistics of fixing the water catchment were challenging as the concrete structure which houses the entry pipes that gravity-feed the villages was damaged, as were the pipes and fittings and a new concrete box had to be built. Being on top of the hill, with no road access, everything had to be carried by manpower. “We had to take every bag of cement up the hill on foot. It took two men to one cement bag, taking turns to carry it over their shoulders. We had to carry the sand and coral for the mix as well as all the reo bar, pipes and fittings. Over 50 people came to lend a hand during its construction; it was not easy, but we did it!” explains Kerry.


Now almost completed, the fresh water source will be soon operational, carrying water to the villages and dispensary. “Without the help from Save the Children, I think I would have died before it was fixed!” laughs Kerry. Realizing the importance of its water source, the community now plans to establish a water management committee to collect funds and ensure the maintenance and functioning of it in the future.

Ngala village also lost its school and kindergarten. “It was very sad,” recounts school principal Henry Orah. “The day of the cyclone the chief of the village took the community to the four safe houses in the village. The morning after, it was complete destruction all around, including all the gardens. The school had lost half of its roof, all its windows and the internal walls. Everything was flooded.” Save the Children provided Ngala with a tent as a temporary learning space where the children could study and have a safe space while the school was rebuilt.

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“It is very important to provide children with safe, happy spaces after such a traumatic event,” explains Ginette Morris. “It is easy to underestimate the effect of a cyclone on children’s wellbeing and making sure that they have a place where they feel safe is an important step in the process of recovering from the traumatic after-effects.” The New Zealand Army repaired the roof and internal walls of the school and Save the Children provided learning materials and toy kits for the school to be able to open up again. “We lost all our crops,” explained Henry. “Our main income comes from copra, cocoa, weaving handicrafts and sales of our vegetable gardens. All this was destroyed by the cyclone so the village right now does not have any possibility of generating cash. We have all started to plant peanuts, which have a three month turn-around but this is the only crop at the moment and if it wasn’t for the help of organizations such as Save the Children and the New Zealand Army, I don’t know how long it would have been before we had the materials and money to rebuild the school. We are immensely grateful for their help,” he added.


Ngala kindergarten was completely destroyed by the cyclone, and Save the Children provided the materials and technical advice for it to be rebuilt. The brand-new kindergarten, with its lovely modern iron roof and traditional walls made with bamboo is now open, with Taku Ben, the kindergarten teacher, happily welcoming all pikininis back. “There are 59 children in the school and 20 pikininis in the kindergarten,” explains Ben. “It may not sound many, but villages in Vanuatu are small and every bit makes a different and helps rebuild a village. It is a matter of rebuilding the country, one village at a time,” he smiles.


Besides Ngala and Mate villages, Save the Children has undertaken many other projects in Epi, such as providing Epi High School and Port Kuimie School with educational materials as well as food. “These are the two boarding schools in the island and one of our first priorities was to provide food to these schools so they stayed open,” explains Ben. The organization also provided the materials to repair the water structures in Epi High School, Vaimali Hospital, Robo Bay and Naleme Village

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In partnership with the NDMO (National Disaster Management Office), on Sunday May 10th, 52 tons of food donated by the World Food Program landed in Epi reaching a total of 7,423 people. The cargo was shipped from Santo to be delivered across the whole of Epi Island. “Our initial assessment told us how many households there were in every village and how many people in each household. With these numbers, we were able to allocate the right amount of food to each area and village to make sure that the distribution was equitable and reached everyone including those most vulnerable,” explains Ben. “We enlisted the help of the LC Sabrina as well as the coastal barge to deliver the food to each council area. Together with the NDMO and VMF members (Vanuatu Mobile Force), we delivered the cargo to main ports in each of the four council areas. Once in the port, the food was distributed by truck to each village where it was stored in the community nakamal or church.


Each community had a list of its residents and each person could then come forward to receive their allocation,” Ben explains. National staff Kaltom James and Gwen Ayong said they learned a lot from the experience. “The full delivery took us a week, in rough seas. It was a logistic feat, considering that food had to be transported in barges and quickly unloaded and kept dry from the ocean and rain. There was a small window of weather when barges could offload and we really pushed the comfort limits here to make sure the food got where it needed to. We all came together and it was an outstanding example of government, NGO and community working together in a concerted and organized effort to deliver the aid successfully.”

Ben reflected on how this type of work brings people together in a combined effort, “Responding to a disaster in an isolated area with poor transport and limited communication is hard work. Things take time as it is weather dependent and for example, when it rains, roads are no longer passable. It is logistically very complicated as everything must come from elsewhere and be transported. So things take time but eventually, everything gets done, the island way, slowly but surely”.

Story by Patricia Gil. Photography by Patricia Gil and Ben Brookman, courtesy of Save the Children.