ActionAid Australia board member Sonia Zavesky with Emelda Davis of the Australian South Sea Islanders and a beneficiary of the relief items.
Photo: ActionAid / Vanuatu

Sonia Zavesky has been a board member of ActionAid Australia since 2009. She previously headed up the communications team at Greenpeace. Sonia joined the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior crew and ActionAid staff in Vanuatu to deliver relief items.

Having been a Board member of ActionAid Australia since 2009, my involvement with ActionAid so far has been very much to do with governance, strategic planning, budgets and raising the profile of the organization in Australia. 

So I was thrilled to finally be going “into the field” to see and be a part of the work we are doing. Our Communications team is stretched at the moment so to relieve a staff member who had to go Nepal to work on our earthquake relief program, I flew into Port Vila Vanuatu to assist with our work here in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam which struck Vanuatu on 12 March.

The weekend was spent meeting our team here, visiting some of the Women’s Information Centres that we, in partnership with the Vanuatu Department of Women’s Affairs and UNFPAare running for women to come and register their needs and access any assistance they might require, such as access to existing domestic violence counselling services.

A clear picture began to emerge – while much needed supplies and services were beginning to flow on the main island, Vanuatu is made of 83 small islands – some 65 of them populated – and getting supplies to some of the islands is proving extremely difficult.

So it was with great excitement that we all headed to the commercial port in Port Vila this morning to welcome Greenpeace’s most famous ship, the Rainbow Warrior, which was carrying much needed supplies from Australia. 

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Included in its cargo were boxes of solar torches which the women of Vanuatu had requested we provide for them to protect them in the dark nights in communities where electricity has not yet been restored. It’s well known that violence against women almost always increases in the wake of the disaster.

We stood on the docks for most of the day – in the burning heat, the rain, the humidity – while the ship arrived, cargo was unloaded, and other materials were loaded.

The first shipment is off to Tanna Island – which was hard hit by the cyclone.

The women of Tanna Island were so grateful that something was being done to help them and their communities, they arrived at the dock today, some 30 of them, dressed in their traditional gear, faces brightly painted and with feathers in their hair. 

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We’d like to welcome the ship – to show our gratitude, they said.

They were told by officials that that might not be possible. They said they would wait. So that they sat in the dirt by the side of the road and waited. For several hours.

Finally when the ship’s arrival had been processed, the Captain of the Rainbow Warrior went out to greet them.

We would like to thank you all, they said. So led by the ever gracious, oh so lovely “Captain Mike”, the crew of the Rainbow Warrior came off the ship.

Suddenly the quiet desolate concrete slab of the port erupted with the sounds of singing, clapping and dancing – grass skirts and head feathers flying as the crew of the ship were embraced into the dancing circles and smiling faces of the women of Tanna Island. The men soon joined in and suddenly I was in another world.

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All the logistical challenges of cargo, consignment notes, and keeping to expected schedules were gone.

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For me, ActionAid was no longer Board papers and budget forecasts – it was about dancing and clapping with a feather in my hair and hiding my tears behind sunglasses as the wonderful women of Tanna Island sang their thanks to us. 

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These are people, some of whom had lost loved ones, homes, and crops, and they were singing and dancing their thanks to us.

The feather given to me by a Tanna woman today is already a treasured possession.

One, that due to Australia’s tight custom regulations, I will unlikely be able to bring home with me.

I tried explaining this to the women of Tanna – one of whom looked at me and said… so maybe now Vanuatu is your home.

Maybe, I pondered to myself, as I looked up to the sky to see a rainbow, beaming over the bow of the Rainbow Warrior.

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P.S. Hear more from the Captain of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior, “Captain Mike” (below) and his full account of the journey from Sydney to Vanuatu by clicking here.

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http://www.actionaid.org/boardpaperstovanuatu