Dr. SueLi Hilbert
Medical Director for Project MARC - Medical Assistance to Remote Communities
Getting a good night’s sleep in the bush is always a tricky thing. Depending on one’s level of jet-lag, adjusting to an early bedtime can be difficult. When there isn’t much in the way of electricity after the sun goes down and your day begins at sunrise, the prospect of staying up past 7pm seems like a tremendous feat. Once you do get to bed, it can be difficult finding the proper body position to fit the uneven ground or occasional cement floor. Regardless of how diligent you are about tucking in your net or zipping your tent flap, there will often be that one persistent mosquito singing a high-pitched lullaby in your ear while desperately looking for some small patch of exposed flesh. If you do manage to find a moment of solace with the waves washing upon the shore, don’t be surprised if it is abruptly cut short by the crash of ripened fruit falling from an over-hanging tree or by the mournful lowing of cattle as they bed down for the night. And finally, let us not forget the roosters. As a child, I was always taught that roosters crow at sunrise as harbingers of the new day
Here's Anna, Emma, Jerusha, and SueLin while in Jerevieu
and all the possibilities it may hold. I have since learned, however, that the true role of the rooster is to remind us all that the world is round and that no matter where we are or what time zone we are in, the sun is always rising somewhere... just not here. It may be pitch black and 2AM in Santo, but just remember people in Paris are sitting down to their morning coffee. I had finally adjusted to the nighttime cacophony on our last night in Jereviu when a new sound appeared.
The path to developing the Traditional Birth Attendant Workshop with the Ministry of Health was neither short nor narrow. My first several attempts to even define a “Traditional Birth Attendant” let alone develop any sort of training curriculum were fraught with complications, scheduling conflicts, staffing limitations and what appeared to be a general lack of interest. In the week leading up to our departure for Jereviu I was certain the expedition would be just short of a disaster. But as is often the case in Vanuatu, having faith that everything will magically work out--or that Seamus will make it work out--paid off at the last minute.
While Jerusha and Seamus were out on the Publicity Campaign, the town team was hard at work making teaching aids.
After some gentle persistence (and a few strategic phone calls) the Ministry of Health provided us with some basic curriculum guidelines and assigned a locally trained midwife to work with us. Anna would become the most integral and, for me personally, most inspirational member of our team. Although she claimed to have little prior teaching experience, Anna easily engaged the women in discussions and patiently answered all of their questions even long after the day had ended. Our Project MARC volunteers for the season, Emma and Jerusha, were equally invaluable. They worked tirelessly to help develop teaching tools and lesson plans, including hand-copying full-size A4, double-sided handouts for each of over thirty participants. I am forever grateful for their enthusiasm and dedication. I am also thankful to our translator and dear friend, Thomas, a retired Peace Corps volunteer whose sense of humor and love for the Ni-Vanuatu brought to the project a vital and unexpected energy that we would not have otherwise had.
Prior to our arrival, each of the surrounding villages had selected two women to participate in the TBA Workshop. Since there were no predetermined qualifications to participate, the end result was a group of thirty
Sunday Dress Parade
Attending two weddings on a sunday means gettin' dressed up.
women of various ages and experience from all over the southwest coast of Big Bay convening on the small village of Jereviu for five days. A few of the older women, or “mamas,” had attended many births over the years and were familiar with some of the difficulties of delivering a baby in the bush. Most of the participants had attended one or two deliveries, but for some the only delivery they had ever experienced was the birth of their own children. A few participants were distant relatives or already friends, but many had never met before. Given the rapid formation of our expedition team and the varied familiarity of the participants, the first few sessions of the workshop were a bit rough around the edges and rather “organic” as some artsy types might like to say.
One of my favorite words in Bislama is “storian” (pronounced “story-on”) which refers to the process of communicating information through storytelling. It can be as structured as a parable, or as fluid as catching up with a long time friend over a good meal. For five days and nights in Jereviu, our team and the participants “storied on” together, trading our knowledge
At first there was a strong need for bislama translation, but as the weeks progressed, our teams picked up the lingo.
and experiences back and forth, and hopefully improving healthcare for pregnant women in the Big Bay area. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and ultimately, very satisfying.
On the last night, the closing ceremony was filled with speeches and offerings of gratitude from all sides. There were flowers and gifts, singing and dancing, and piles upon piles of island food. As I crawled into my tent and closed my eyes to the soothing sounds of crashing waves, buzzing mosquitos, falling fruit, howling dogs, mourning cattle, and frenetic roosters, I couldn’t help but notice a new instrument in the nighttime symphony: women’s voices floating out from the guesthouse, whispering and giggling, storying-on long into the night.
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