Born to New Zealand missionaries in South America, Alastair and his family lived and served in Jamaica, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Spain, and the United Kingdom, all before his young adult years. His heart for people and desire to share the gospel cut short a first career in biochemistry and led him to New Jersey in the late 1980s. Alastair completed further education and then had the opportunity to pastor in Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as to serve for 10 years in Russia and Eastern Europe as a pastor, teacher, and administrator. For three of those years he was the country coordinator for The Salvation Army’s work in the Republic of Georgia. Alastair now lives in West Milford, NJ and has four daughters.
The 2015 World Happiness Report is out. Switzerland took top place with Togo languishing at the bottom in 158th place. The USA was at a modest 15th. What interested me was the Gallup data used for the report. The placements were based on such indicators as average income, gross domestic product, corruption levels and social support. You would assume from this your chances of being happy are higher if your income is good and you live in a wealthy, stable country with a robust ‘safety net.’ Obviously this is the belief of many people. But what of the intangibles that can’t be summed on a spreadsheet? Cultural influence? Faith? Family? Resilience? And dare I ask, weather?! I’m forming my own list of the world’s happiest countries… and I’m currently in the happiest of them all…Vanuatu.
Before you bring up Google Maps, as I did in March when I was asked to join a disaster response team heading here, I’ll tell you more.
Situated over a thousand miles north west of Australia in the South Pacific, this stunningly beautiful island-chain nation of 240,000 people is one of the world’s poorest. It has seen more than its fair share of disasters, from cyclones to earthquakes and tsunamis to mudslides. It was briefly in the news in March when the Category 5 Cyclone Pam hit with 165 mph sustained winds and everything in the monster storm’s path was blown away. On the chain’s southern islands, 90% of buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Trees, including income-generating coconut and banana trees, were stripped bare, crops were leveled, and tourists, the nation’s largest income source, were scared away. Fortunately a solid national disaster preparedness plan resulted in relatively few deaths (13) and perhaps because of that, and other subsequent disasters elsewhere, this tragedy has quickly left the news feeds and consciences of most people. However this nation is still hurting on its long road to recovery. It has been a privilege to be a part of the coordinated response through the small Salvation Army team on which I am serving. Working alongside other faith-based groups such as World Vision, Save the Children, ADRA and Samaritan’s Purse, it has been amazing for me and other foreigners to see the people of this tiny, predominantly Christian nation, who have lost so much, retain their most precious asset of all…their joy.
One of the communities on which we have focused is called “21 Jump Street,” not far out of the center of Port Vila, the capital. 21 “yards” make up this community and in each yard are several dwellings, sleeping rooms, as they call them, facing a shaded central area. One family lives in each of these small corrugated iron rooms. Their yards have a communal kitchen area (with open fire stove) and a communal pit toilet. Running water comes from a central standpipe, although the cyclone has left the water contaminated. The community assessment we conducted involved going from yard to yard to talk to the residents. Destruction by the wind, rain and flooding was evident. Gaps around the yards showed where rooms had stood. For other sleeping rooms, the roofs or walls had simply blown away and the large trees in the yards were either barren or toppled, leaving no shade under the brutal sun. Those still standing had remnants of corrugated iron and other debris caught in branches like rags. Dwellings closest to the river were washed away by the 10-foot surge, along with their few possessions. No one in living memory had ever witnessed destruction on this scale. But the community was pulling together. Activity was everywhere. Children were running around, laughing as they played, while parents worked to clean up the yards. Families who had lost their sleeping rooms moved in with neighbors, sometimes 10 or more to a room no larger than my one-car garage at home. In the assessment we heard vastly more gratitude for what remained than complaints over what was lost. Over subsequent weeks we have been able to help this community with hygiene kits, rice, water containers and water purification means, seedlings to replant, and, through the blessing of generous donors, a $300 voucher for each of the 150 families toward construction materials and lost household items, a sizable amount in this poor economy. Their gratitude was overwhelming with a community celebration event held in our honor. It was a humbling experience.
Elsewhere, we have been able to restore drinking water to remote villages on the island of Tanna; purchase 3 fishing boats and gear, essential to the villages’ livelihood; fix the latrines of a school, and replace text books and exercise books to allow the children to return; provide tons of rice and other staple foods to various communities, including a school on the distant island of Anatom; and distribute tarpaulins to over 500 homes with leaking roofs, or no roofs at all, in remote parts of Efate, the main island.
I have learned so much from the Ni-Vanuatu people. I have never in my travels come across a more beautiful, happy, honest, positive-outlooking people. So many people in developed parts of the world, who have every possible possession and luxury, seem to yearn for one treasure they can never find…contentment. It’s found here in Vanuatu. Each night we walk through a ram-shackled, corrugated-iron, shanty-town street going home in the dark. The scene would bring fear of mugging and robbery in almost every other part of the world. Here in Port Vila, we simply receive from everyone we pass friendly calls of “Goodnight!” and broad smiles seen through the darkness.
The Ni-Vanuatu people understand and live out what Paul revealed to the Philippians. (4:12-13 NIV) I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
May I, too, have the faith to live with this contentment.