Laughter can be heard erupting from the direction of the community’s nakamal (meeting house in Bislama, Vanuatu’s lingua franca).

11-year-old Bonsue and 13-year-old Tabirap are among the 60 excited children playing with treasures from inside the metal chest.

Observing the scene, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that this is a community that only knows happy times.

But this was not so.

Bonsue and Tabirap live in a remote rural hard-to-reach community on the eastern side of Pentecost Island, situated in the north of Vanuatu.

Only three months earlier, in October 2023, category five Tropical Cyclone Lola ravaged their village of Olapa in the Vanmwel area.

“During the cyclone, we were away from our village and had moved to the next village to be with our grandmother,” said Bonsue.

“We were worried about our belongings. When we went home after the cyclone, all our houses were damaged, our gardens were destroyed, and all the trees were down.”

“My father was worried about our things, which made me even more worried and scared.”

Tabirap said, “During cyclone, we moved from our house to the nakamal. When we were in the nakamal, it fell, then we moved back to our house.”

“I was scared because the wind was so strong and loud. When the cyclone was over, we came out and the trees had fallen. I felt sad. Since then, I have not returned to school.”

Today, the nakamal has a completely different vibe to the time Tabirap vividly remembers with trepidation three months earlier.

It is a scene of playful energy and laughter. At least 60 girls and boys and the same number of parents and caregivers, with mothers cradling babies on their hips, had come out to play or simply to sit in the shade and take pleasure in their children’s enjoyment of the activities. One after another, different play aids were brought out of a metal chest lying to the side of the nakamal. Children’s eyes opened in wonder as game after game was introduced by the community youth volunteers facilitating the play-based psychosocial support activities.

The metal chest of treasures weighing some 25kgs reached this remote rural community just over a month ago. Michael Birikai, a community volunteer, and President of Central Pentecost Ward 2, took part in a refresher training on psychosocial support facilitated by UNICEF partner, Ministry of Youth Development and Sports, and was given the recreational kit to help run play-based psychosocial support activities with a team of volunteers.

Bringing the kit to the community was no mean feat. Travelling for three hours in the back of a pick-up truck across bone-jarring terrain then carrying the kit downhill for another two makes the transportation of any supplies to the community difficult. But it is something that comes with the job for community volunteers like Michael.

“The remoteness of the villages on the eastern part of Pentecost due to lack of infrastructure is only one of the issues affecting children and youth,” said Michael.

“Access to schools means that our children often walk for three hours, much of it uphill, to sit in a classroom to learn. This affects their learning. Often children are too tired the next day to make the journey to school.”

For Cynthia Birikai, a mother observing the children’s activities with her 8-month-old baby by her side, it makes a world of a difference when her children are playing, and she can focus on other tasks at hand.

“With the games that the children are engaging in, they are no longer scared and are happy to come out and play,” Cynthia said.

Through the psychosocial support orientation and recreational kits provided by UNICEF with the support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), community volunteers like Michael are able to run activities with children in remote rural communities in Vanuatu.

The children finish the day’s activities with a final game. Linking hands, the children form a fence to protect a little girl remaining in the inner circle, singing a song in their mother tongue about safeguarding children from harm.

What an apt way to end a laughter-filled day.

This story was written by Rebecca Olul, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF Pacific’s Vanuatu Field Office, originally published at UNICEF on 15 February 2024.

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