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Jenny Leonard

Hello friends!
Jenny Leonard is from the USA, she went to Vanuatu to volunteer for Project MARC and her main job there was as an eye screener.  She went through villages to find villagers who had cataracts or very poor vision.  The eye doctors were coming to the same villages, a few weeks after everyone was screened, to give them an eye surgery that would help them see again.  To those whose eyes weren't as bad, Project MARC handed out reading glasses and sun glasses to help protect their eyes from the sun.  In the tropical environment with unprotected eyes you can damage your eyes a lot quicker.  90% of Vanuatu lives off the land, and there are over 120 village languages throughout the country.  We think her answers were very exciting.  What do you think? Hope you enjoy the interview.
Carol, Edward, Howard, Jack, Jackie, Jenny, Judy,
Peggy, Peter, Steven, Sunny, and Winnie
Imagiverse Student Ambassadors
Taipei, Taiwan

What are the reasons that make you decide to be a volunteer worker in Vanuatu?

I've always had a dream of traveling to far-away lands, seeing amazing things, and experiencing all kinds of cultures since I was a young girl, but never got the opportunity.  I also had this strong desire to do something for the world that I lived in.  A few years ago I had a client come to me needing help on the graphic design of a volunteer manual in which together we created a manual to train volunteers eye screening in third world countries.  Every trip they did required revisions to the manual version and she would come back with these wonderful stories and trips.  Of all the stories, Vanuatu was the one that captured my heart, I fell in love with a country and a culture I'd never heard of before, but only knew in pictures.  After 3 years of hearing these stories, and her hearing 3 years of me day dreaming about my traveling dreams, she made me an offer I couldn't refuse and they would personally help sponsor the funds to get me on Project MARC in Vanuatu which uses the Eye Screening Program to aide their health program.  Next thing you know, I was on a plane heading towards Vanuatu.  She was the inspiration I needed to take the next steps towards my dreams and make it actually happen.

How's the people's life in Vanuatu?

There are several different kinds of people's life in Vanuatu.  First and foremost Vanuatu is very poor so 90% of the country lives off the land.  There is no use for a government currency in most villages, instead they use pigs to show wealth in a village/tribe.  Everyone has a garden they tend to daily, and work that must be done for the village or their family.  In the 'bush' villages which means they get little to no outside world contact, they don't have much of a school system and wear clothes made of leaves and vines.  They also are more known to produce black magic religions.  In the more 'western' villages they are more geared towards modern day religions (Christianity and 7th day Adventists) and wear tattered western clothes.  They have a good set of clothes (for Church Sunday) and an everyday set of clothes.  Some of the children are sent off to boarding schools in neighboring villages that have put together their resources to build better schools for their children.  Hardly anyone has electricity.  Few 'tourist' attraction villages that can make money off tourists can afford generators for limited electricity.  For very few Ni-Van (what they call a native person from Vanuatu) have jobs in the one of two cities in Vanuatu, Port Vila and Luganville and make a wage.  Nearby villages to the two cities trade off days to come and earn money in the market by selling their crops or hand-made items.

What festivals do people celebrate in Vanuatu?

There are quite a few unique festivals to Vanuatu:

Land Diving - Around April/May of every year this ceremony happens on Pentecost Island.  It is part of an annual yam festival where boys take part in a land dive.  This jump proves a boy to become a man and for a good crop for the season.  It is a huge celebration with singing, dancing, and costumes.  Each boy builds a diving platform and secure vines to their ankles and when they are ready to jump they raise their hands, throw leaves to the wind and dive.  This is where modern day bungee jumping originated and was brought from a tourist that had watched the celebration on Pentecost Island.

Jon Frum - One I experienced first hand was a 'Jon Frum' village.  Jon Frum is a cult that evolved from Christianity.  The natives believed that by following the religion from colonial visitors would bring some kind of cargo, goods, or presents from the white colonials.  Jon Frum took the place of Jesus Christ... either by John "From" America or some variation in translation.  Every Friday night the Jon Frum villages get together at 6 pm and sing until 6 am in the morning.  They sing and dance and party all night long awaiting the day that he brings goods to their village.

Toga Dance - This festival happens once every 5 years on Tanna Island.  5000 or more villagers get together and sing and dance and party.  It is at this festival that a native will find his/her mate.

Have you ever had scary or dangerous experience in Vanuatu?

I was around 5 miles away from where our ship was anchored in Wusi on a hike to find a village somewhere along the shore and access what they needed from Project MARC.  I was injured in the hike and needed help home so the village chief offered to paddle me in a canoe 5 miles in the ocean to our ship.  We were quite aways out to sea when our canoe tipped over in a large wave and I had to swim to shore where I was stranded.  My partner and I got separated who decided to walk.  I was by myself with the chief whom made sure that he got me back to the ship before sunrise the next morning when we were set to depart Wusi.  Being a female, in a foreign country, alone with a native was a little scary as well as being dumped in the middle of the ocean with all my gear!  However, the people of Vanuatu are all willing to do whatever you need or give you whatever you need and will not ask or expect anything in return.

Which islands of Vanuatu do you like the most?

Tanna Island stole my heart!  While I enjoyed the islands of Santo, Epi, dnd Malakula where I visited the cities, villages, and scuba dived, Tanna was the best.  On Tanna Island they have an active volcano, Mt Yasur.  I was able to visit the wastelands where most of the ash falls, where I climbed up and then 'snowboarded' down the ashes of the volcano while it was exploding.  Then at night I would make an hours journey to the rim's crater, sit down, and watch the flying lava (which exploded every few minutes) fly above my head and land within the distance of a football field of me!  First the ground would shake, then you would hear a big explosion, and within seconds lava was up in the air, like fireworks and lastly smoke would fill the air.

What did your parents say when you decided to do some volunteer jobs in Vanuatu?

They did not understand my choice or desire to go and were very mad at me.  I saw what I was doing as a good thing, and something I had dreamed about doing for a long time.  Even though they are my parents we couldn't be more different.  In the end, I realize that it is my life, desires, and happiness and I hope that one day they will understand that and be proud of the things I have done in my life.

Do you have anything to tell or to advice all children around the world?

"An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an
idea that exists only as an idea."

– Buddha

If there is something that you want out of this world... go get it, no matter the obstacles.  For me, it was to explore the world that I live in and help where I can.

- 30 October 2007


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Last Updated:
19 April 2008

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