26 October 2014

A better chance, a better future

Joslyn and Carol with their grandmother and aunt.
© UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
Port Vila is the lovely little capital of Vanuatu. Remarkably beautiful but also, compared to the hustle and bustle of foreign cities, remarkably quiet. Shops shut by 5pm on weekdays, midday on Saturdays and almost everything is closed all day Sunday, for religious observance and gatherings at homes. Two main roads, running parallel, each going one way.

Considering the pace of life here, I was surprised to discover that Port Vila has a 24-hour fruit and vegetable market open Monday through Saturday. I am not talking about a petrol station type convenience store, but a real farmers’ market.  This is obviously good for retailers, restaurants, people who work odd shifts (think health care providers at the hospitals, police officers) but who is dedicated enough to be working at a market in the middle of the night?

As it turns out, every Monday morning, women from close-by villages and islands head to Vila to sell fruits and vegetables that they've grown in their gardens. They come with a week's worth of produce. While it is a logistical challenge to travel with that much produce, it is simply more convenient and practical than travelling all that distance, to and fro, on a daily basis. They spend the entire week in the market, selling their produce during the day and sleeping under the tables during the night. So if you have a sudden itch to buy fruits at 3am, no problem at all. They are right there, happy to sell as much as possible. They go back to their families on late Saturday, spend Sunday with them and then they are back in Port Vila on Monday morning.

As you can imagine, this is not an easy life at all.  These women are away from their families all week, getting just a day or two with them. In addition, sleeping on the bare floor in an open-air market, particularly in winter, can be harsh. The washing and toilet facilities are minimalist and not particularly hygienic. The hardest part is presumably leaving behind their children in the care of others, but this is the only way to ensure that they earn a living while their kids attend school regularly with no disruption.

One morning as I was passing by the market, I noticed two young girls playfully running around. Concerned they weren't in school, I started talking to them. They were a bit shy initially but once I brought up interesting subjects like candy and chocolate, they found their tongue. Joslyn was four years old and studying in grade one. Carol was three years old and in kindergarten. They both go to school and quite enjoy it but since it was a public holiday, they came to be with their mother and grandmother at the market.

Alice, their 53-year old grandmother, has been coming to the market for as long as she remembers. Annemarie, their 23-year old mother, started helping out after dropping out of primary school. Alice and Annemarie are keen for Carol and Joslyn to have a different future. They say they are convinced that is possible only through education. They feel extremely fortunate that primary education in their village is free, but they must work hard towards saving for secondary education. Unfortunately, Alice couldn't afford the secondary school fees for Annemarie but she hopes, along with her daughter, they'll have enough to send Carol and Joslyn all the way to university.

Three generations sharing a rare moment together
© UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
The only job options in their village are farming, fishing and logging. Growing up, most people don't even think of what they would like to do as adults. It was taken for granted. If you had land, you get into farming or logging.  If not, you get into fishing. That is it. But Alice is determined to widen the horizons for her grand daughters.  In her words, "I don't want them to be like us.  I want them to have a better chance at life, a better future. I come here to the market, week after week, hoping, praying and saving for a better life for them."

While it is sad that Alice struggled and failed to put her daughter through secondary schooling, it is heartening that she recognises the importance of education and does not want the same fate for her grand daughters.  Fortunately for the future of the country, most people in Vanuatu, like her, value education.

Tapping into this positive sentiment towards education, and in line with the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), UNICEF is confident that The Government is on the right track to ensure good quality education is easily accessible to every child of Vanuatu. There are plenty of challenges ahead, but just as Alice continues to work and hope for the children of today and tomorrow, so do we.

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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