My thoughts are far from Provence today. They are on the other side of the world, actually, hovering with worry over the island of Tanna in the archipelago of Vanuatu.
Perhaps you have read about the damage that Tropical Cyclone Pam has wrecked on Vanuatu, a country made up of 83 islands in the far reaches of the Pacific. It was a level 5 cyclone - the highest - and has widely been declared one of the worst, if not the worst, such tropical cyclone to have passed through this area. As we have more and more such natural disasters occurring, the news is always "sad" to discover but when you know the land and their people involved, well, it takes on a level of importance far beyond what is "the news."
Photo ©Remi Benali
It was in 2004 - at about this time of year actually - when we landed on Tanna after having flown from New Caledonia and then to Port Vila, the capitol of Vanuatu. We were spending a month on assignment in this corner of the world and I was intrigued by Tanna - initially as it is home to the world's most accessible active volcano and then due to curiosity about one tribe on the island whose chief had, in 1963, decided to turn his back on modernity and return to the traditional ways of his ancestors.
We came across several members of the tribe from Yakel during a moment when they were far from their home base high in the Middle Bush. Remi, as always, effortlessly made the initial contact and photographed the men, who were wearing only the traditional nambas or penis sheaths, while ripping coconuts open with their teeth. I couldn't help but think back to the fact that the last known act of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in 1970, not so long ago. It was an impressive beginning...
Photo ©Remi Benali
...and yet we were warmed by their kindness and welcoming attitude immediately.
Bob was born in the same year as Remi and so called him, "My Brother," while proudly putting an arm around his shoulder. That is him, smiling, sitting behind Remi on the left. Henry Fire is on the right.
When I remarked how much I liked one of the songs that they would sing, he decided to teach it to me through repetition. He was very patient and would correct me over and over - as he was in the midst of doing above. By the end, I could sing it to them without the mistakes that would make them fall into fits of laughter. And I still remember it now.
As a surprise, Henry Fire gathered all of the members of Yakel village together to dance the song for us. The ground shook hard under pounding feet as the men stomped in a circle and the women and girls jumped up high, swishing in their grass skirts as they went. To thank them, it felt like a proper exchange was in order and so, as the light turned into gold, I gathered my courage, stood and sang "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, which has always been one of my favorites. They seemed genuinely touched and pleased. I even merited a nod from Chief Johnson Kowia himself. He passed away a few years after our visit (he is the white bearded man to the right of Remi) at an estimated 108 years of age. In our age of Globalization, I am still so moved by the courage of his choice for his people.
On one of our last days on Tanna, we made the pilgrimage to Mount Yasur and our friends wanted to come with us. For them, the volcano is beyond sacred, it is the heart and source of everything on the island. Before making the easy ascent (one can drive up to 150 meters or yards of the crater), we had a picnic on the black ash plain. I wrote in my photo album that is was "the most exotic meal ever" even though we supped on Spam and Velveeta cheese (you take what you can get this far out in the Pacific). I remember Remi asking Henry Fire what he thought of the cheese in particular as it was the first time that he had tasted it and his making a polite but distinct frown. And it is true, that was a far cry from the sweet potato and taro root stew that they had made for us in Yakel.
Photo ©Remi Benali
Photo ©Remi Benali
When we arrived on the island, we surveyed the damage from another heavy cyclone, Ivy, I think it was, that had passed the month before. Nearly all of the structures there are built from woven fronds and wood, save for a few in concrete in the main village. They had all been smacked flat by winds. Nothing was left. The vast majority of the population on Tanna survive from subsistence farming. That too had been destroyed. The beaches were lined with broken coral that had been churned up from the bottom of the ocean.
The winds from Tropical Cyclone Pam reached 300 km per hour or 185 miles per hour and it is believed that Tanna was hardest hit. I try to imagine what it must have been like in Yakel. Where did they go? How could they protect themselves? In the far more secure capitol of Port Vila, the rescue teams have described scenes of "like a war zone." According to the New York Times, an initial report from a pilot that had flown to Tanna said that none of the traditional houses were standing and half of the concrete structures were damaged. All of the crops were gone, giving the population roughly a weeks worth of food on the trees and vegetables before they rot. "After that there is no food, water or shelter," responded a local official with Unicef.
I began the article that I wrote for the French magazine Grands Reportages about Tanna with a legend that it is believed that the entire world came from the belly of the Mount Yasur volcano. How I hope that our friends are alive and safe and that the volcano is indeed making the world anew everyday.
Several appeals have been set up if you can and would like to help:
Sending wishes of Hope, Strength, Health and Safety to all that have been touched by the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Pam...