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Our first trip to the island of Tanna

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Our first trip to the island of Tanna

For a couple of weeks in April we visited Tanna along with Abi & Jimmy S, Jess & Mike P, David & Beryl W. and Aunty Val P. – along with our children.

Tanna is one of the many islands that make up Vanuatu. At 550 kilometres square, the island could fit into Kangaroo Island over 8 times and has a population of 29,000. It is a mountainous land of high ridgelines separated by deep valleys so difficult to traverse that each ridge has developed its own unique culture and parallel ridges may speak 2 different languages. Most people on the island live in picturesque villages of thatched huts, edged with gardens of bright cannas and hibiscus, and nestled amongst lush, green, tropical jungle. There are dedicated huts for cooking and sleeping and there is usually a large cleared area, often sheltered by a magnificent, ancient banyan tree. Dogs, piglets & chooks run where they will.

For all their visual charm, the interior of the huts is dark and sometimes damp. One sister admitted with a wry grin that during heavy rainfall sleeping in her hut was somewhat like sleeping in the middle of a river. Bedding consists of a woven sleeping mat. It would seem to offer little comfort to us but one brother was unable to spend a night away from home as someone else had commandeered the sleeping mat he intended to use.

There is no electricity in the villages. Cooking is done over a fire and disfiguring burns are not uncommon. An evening meal generally consists of rice and a soup of boiled root vegetables and island spinach. Most or all food is grown and gathered from a family garden. This garden may not necessarily be in close proximity to the village and, to our eyes, is often indistinguishable from the jungle around it. These gardens were decimated by Cyclone Pam in 2015.

Tanna is also home to Mt Yasur (which translates as Yahweh) – the world’s most accessible, active volcano. Whilst this provides an exciting destination for tourists like ourselves, the fallout from its immense ash cloud inhibits the growth of the gardens. There has been some experimentation with the use of walipini greenhouses but without much ongoing success. Sometimes at the end of the day every exposed surface is black with ash. This was not such an issue while we were there. Some days the wind would blow flakes of ash into our eyes and add grit to our sunscreened faces but generally it didn’t bother us.

We did have the opportunity to visit the volcano while we were there, were able to stand on the very rim of the crater and watch the eerily writhing column of smoke rise high into the sky, watch lava exploding brilliantly from its depths like fireworks and be physically thrown by the force of the explosions. It was an incredible experience and a demonstration of God’s power that we will not soon forget.

If people wish to visit other parts of the island they will either walk or hail a ‘truck’ – what we would call a ute – at the nearest main road. One day we took 10 pregnant ladies down to town in the back of a ute, in the pouring rain, for their one and only prenatal checkup. No one seemed concerned.

Indeed the inhabitants of Tanna are amongst the happiest people I have ever met. Wherever we went we were greeted with warm smiles and incredibly generous gifts. I heard no one grumbling. People always had time for us.


The Kapalpal ecclesia has approximately 20 members. It is approximate as brethren and sisters will often spend time living in Port Vila for various reasons including health care or training; and some brothers choose to spend a period of months living in Australia or New Zealand working as labourers to earn an income.

The memorial meeting begins with hymn singing. Anyone can call out their favourite hymn and then the group sings it. While we were there the memorial meeting was always chaired by Bro Jack – the first Christadelphian on Tanna and a bit of a patriarch for the ecclesia. He also acts as interpreter. I loved listening to Bro Jack’s prayers. They were given in Bislama but you could hear him mentioning the ecclesias in Vanuatu, the local countries, Australia, the world and asking God’s blessing on them and their breaking of bread. Jimmy, Josh & David took turns in giving the exhortation. Dogs, chooks & kittens joined and left us as they felt moved.

After the meeting the ecclesia has lunch together. Everyone brings something to contribute. The local sisters brought rice, baked plantain bananas and lap lap (vegetables mixed with coconut milk, layered with banana leaves and cooked in a fire - very labour intensive).

After lunch they hold Sunday School. While we were there we ran the lessons. We got off to a bumpy start on the first Sunday when Jess got halfway through the story without remembering to pause for translation and I used a permanent marker on the whiteboard!

There is also a committed group of interested friends on Tanna. The men ran an interested friends class on Sunday afternoons and a number of womens classes were requested during the week. On our last day in Tanna were privileged to be present for the baptism of Nancy. Nancy has been coming along to classes for 3 years and was previously been interviewed for baptism but for various practical & family reasons her baptism had not been able to go ahead. Nancy is the mother of 8 young children and her husband’s family introduced the Bahai faith to the island. The baptism was beautiful, held in a pool beneath a waterfall. Nancy’s face usually wore an expression of calm peace but on that day it was broken by a broad smile of joy as she greeted us all as our sister in Christ.


The Kapalpal Christadelphian School sits high on a ridge with spectacular views out along the coastline. The large cleared area it has been built on was originally intended to be a runway but the first pilot to land declared he would be the last – the wind made it untenable. The school itself consists of a number of shed like buildings with concrete floors and glassless windows consisting of a hinged piece of tin or wood. On fine days this is held open with a strut but in bad weather it must be closed and the children persevere with their work in near darkness (there is a solar power system but in prolonged bad weather insufficient power is generated and I just don’t think they feel the need for additional lighting like we would).

The fieldworkers hut is great - rough but functional. It is bunkered down into the hill at the end of the ridge looking out over the view. Clothes washing is done by hand, water for bathing is heated over a fire and there are gas burners for cooking. Some nights we had more dinner than we could eat. Josh & Mike had fun playing Uber Eats - dashing through the darkness to hand deliver leftovers to quiet unsuspecting villagers.

The school offers free education from kindy to year 8 and it is quite common for children to walk over 10km morning and afternoon to attend. In the frequent torrential downpours some children will share umbrellas or large leaves and others will bring a change of clothes in a plastic bag but many just arrive on the doorstep soaked to the skin.

It is possible to walk a steep, slippery track approx 4km long from the school to the beautiful black beach far below. We chose to make this trek one free Saturday. As we made our way past village after village more and more school children left their homes to join us. Initially I felt a little concerned about the responsibility of caring for them all but it soon became apparent that they were there to care for us. We were watched like hawks. On steep slopes hands immediately took ours to steady and guide us. New foot holds were cut into the worst sections. And whenever we paused, coconuts and pawpaw appeared from nowhere and were prepared for us using the ever-present machetes. (We frequently saw knife welding babies. Parents were totally unconcerned. The ability to handle a machete is such an essential life-skill over there that I even suspect they are given the knives on purpose!). After a much-needed refreshing swim and a couple of hours of relaxation on the beach we bit the bullet and laboured our way back home again – just in time for dinner. An exciting and challenging day trip for us. A daily walk to school for many of the children.

Children begin life learning their local dialect – and this can change from ridge to ridge. On commencing school at Kapalpal they are taught Bislama, a pigeon English used throughout Vanuatu. Then from year 4 they are taught English. Only a few brethren and sisters are able to speak English and translation is always required for meetings, Sunday school and Bible study groups.

Our children attended classes for a couple of days but soon decided that it really wasn’t fair that they spend their school holidays sitting in classrooms when an untamed wilderness beckoned! They created amazing cubbies with million-dollar views halfway down the steep slope in front of the fieldworkers hut; slipped, slid and tumbled down the track to the waterfall whenever they felt like a swim, and I don’t think the feet of the local kitten touched the ground once during our visit. Given the choice, they would have stayed in Tanna forever. The ever-present local friends and animals, the freedom to go where they wished, and almost do as they wished, shoeless and hatless, seemed a paradise to them.

A midday meal is provided for all the school children. This is prepared by the local ladies using ‘Manna’ packs. Manna is rice enriched with various vitamins and minerals to ensure the children are receiving a balanced diet. As a result of Cyclone Pam and ash from the volcano, some of the school children were previously suffering from malnutrition.

There is also a widows distribution on Saturday mornings. Each widow receives: a tin of tuna, a single packet of 2 minute noodles, a box of matches, a cake of soap, 2 heaped mugfuls of rice, 1.5 mugfuls of salt and a big bunch of island spinach. Some widows bring old plastic bags for their rice & salt others tie their allocation up in their sarongs. Some widows collect their food in person.  Some is collected by primary school students who take the food back to widows in their village. Jack keeps careful records.

The school is also home to a medical clinic where Sis Tess patiently attends to the basic medical needs of the local communities. She treats the festering wounds of those who come to see her; cleaning them with Betadine, applying an antiseptic lotion and covering them with a dressing. Many of the children develop large, infected sores on their legs. They begin with a scratch but if untreated soon deteriorate. Tess works there from 8am-3pm every weekday. The clinic is also a bit of a gathering place for the women.

While we were at the school we gave religious instruction classes. These classes are usually taught by the teacher. The first week we revised the story of Moses (the topic of last year’s Bible Camp) in preparation for our Bible Camp on Joshua. The second week we taught the younger children the story of Lazarus and the older classes the story of Gideon. We used drama and picture books where we could to help convey the story and generally the teacher provided translation, willingly entering into our demonstrative story telling style! As a teacher and special needs assistant, David & Beryl Wigzell were also able to share new techniques for teaching reading and comprehension with the local teachers.

There was also building / repair work to be done. The sourcing of timber & materials was far from straight forward and their standard on arrival not always as expected however the men rose to the challenge. Josh & Mike felt inspired by their experience to create a show called ‘How to make a 10 minute job take 2 hours’.


The kids Bible Camp ran for 3 days. The whole primary school is invited to attend – up to 160 children. It is held during school hours with the children returning home each afternoon. We began each day by teaching the children some Joshua songs. This was followed by the telling of the story. We then acted it out including the children where we could. It was a very wet 3 days and we were often confined to the classroom but we still managed to achieve a whole group re-enactment of the wandering in the wilderness, the crossing of the Jordan, the battle of Jericho and the ambush of Ai – lots of fun.

The camp saw Jimmy’s exceptional cross-cultural communication skills come to the fore. His ability to engage a room packed full of Tanna school children in a Bible story, be that sitting on the edge of their wooden benches in silent suspense or lifting the roof in an eruption of frenzied excitement, was a marvel to behold! And the way in which he would leave the room while they counted down from 20, only to reappear in some unexpected corner, ‘unrecognisable’ in a red headscarf as Moses, never failed to bring the house down.

Story telling was followed by a craft of some sort – making trumpets for the battle of Jericho, sling shots for the ambush of Ai, bracelets made of red cord in remembrance of Rahab, etc. Each child was also given a cap on which they were able to draw a Bible quote of their own choosing. This was a very popular activity, taken very seriously and executed with great care, which provided each child with a treasured and useful possession to take away.

We thank our Heavenly Father for the amazing time we were able to spend enjoying the warm hospitality of the people of Tanna, their eager participation in all we organised, their insistent generousity though they have so little, their serene acceptance of their situation whatever that may be.

Josh & Anne J.


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