One of the most emotional parts of my recent trip to Vanuatu to do ultrasound was being part of the reunion of a family in a village which was ripped apart by the historic practice of blackbirding.
I am Nematautu, come home from Australia
I wear no shoes, so I can feel my grandfather’s land
We have come back home …my heart is for my people – Lenny Yasso
Lenny Yasso stands bare-foot in the middle of a large dirt clearing surrounded by banyan trees and villagers, deep in the heart of Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
The 72-year-old Australian pastor belongs to these people of Iakunauka village, and they to him, but they do not know each other well yet.
He speaks, his orator’s voice ringing out loudly and slowly, and he pauses frequently as a friend and Tanna Island chief translates his English into the village’s dialect.
The two-hundred villagers applaud after every line of translation, their heart-felt welcome palpable. They live in what is known as a kastom village – dedicated to preserving the traditional way of life.
Lenny’s great-grandfather was tribe chief in the days of those traditions, until one day in the late 1800s, he disappeared from the shore of nearby Bethel.
The tribe never knew what happened, and another family member became chief.
In the course of the next few decades, more than 6000 people were taken from Tanna Island alone in the practice which came to be known as blackbirding. They were mostly men, but women and children also ended up in Australia, often against their will.
It has taken 150 years for the family to be reunited. In faraway Rockhampton, Queensland, Lenny Yasso and his family also did not know where their ancestors had come from, other than it was “the island with the volcano”. They had no idea where within Tanna their families were from.
I am Yasso, from Australia
Fifth generation (points to his son Ricco)
I see this dance (just performed)…
Back in Australia, many years ago,
they danced in the cane paddocks
in memory of where they came from
It is good to be home.
Ricco then addresses the still-intently-listening crowd.
Back when they blackbirded us, they put us in chains
They even shot us on the ships, and we were thrown overboard.
Because we didn’t eat their food, a lot got sick and they threw them overboard for the sharks
A lot of them died in the cane paddocks from snakes and diseases and they buried them right beside the cane – Ricco
Lenny and his son Ricco had formerly met with tribe members, but this day, October 7, 2018, was the first time they had been invited to visit the village and people.
The Yasso wives, Dianne and Michelle, however, had not been formally recognised. Earlier in the morning they had been welcomed with grass skirts and a large, colourful procession of women singing “welcome, you have come home,” exuberantly in their language.
This was followed by dancing in the village meeting place, with the women of the tribe circling an inner circle of men. The Yassos, and the group of health worker volunteers who accompanied them to Tanna Island, were encouraged to join in.
Then, every member of the village lined up and shook the hand of every member of the Yasso family and the health workers.
Ricco’s wife Michelle tells what happened when he later sat down with family and village members, and talked about their shared past.
“We were shocked to realise that no school children knew the blackbirding stories, and very few adults spoke about it. They believed that the pain of the blackbirding would keep the grief revisiting them, so after a time of grief, they closed the door to that and moved forward.
“The stories were then passed down to the story keepers and those that kept the history alive. Those that were given and shared the stories, were moved to tears whenever they spoke of what had happened. Everyone hoped that their loved ones would return one day.
“When Ricco showed photos to the men and boys in Tanna of the islanders in Australia in chains, and working in gangs on the cane fields with full English apparel from the 1800s, the scars they carried and heard the way their people were treated, the look of disbelief and horror was all over their faces.
“It was bad enough that their loved ones were taken and forced to work in the fields, but to see the hatred and the conditions that they endured left them without words.
“One older man, on seeing photos of these blackbirded men, grasped his chest with the emotion he felt. The whole group was deafeningly silent… more than a reflection, bordering a memorial.
“But then Ricco went on to tell the the stories of how those men remained strong and became business people and helped to create a prosperous nation. And how now South Sea Islander people are becoming leaders and now politicians.
“He wanted them to know that they can be proud of the men, women and children who turned tragedy into opportunity and made the most of what they were dealt.”
As Ricco talked to the men, the Bridging Health volunteers started their clinic, doing health checks, dressing wounds, giving advice on pain management, and writing referrals for further health care.
They returned later in the week for another clinic. Their visit to the village is part of a much larger mission to improve the health of Tanna Island, which started after a visit to Tanna Island by Ricco about seven years ago.
“Ricco was playing with kids in a village and noticed that they had leg infections that were pretty bad, and made enquiries about where he could take them, only to find out that they had no accessible health care,” Michelle says.
Ricco developed a vision to change this, and within a few years he and Australian nurse Sherrie Pickering had started Bridging Health Inc.
The group became a registered charity in 2013 and now holds 1-2 working holidays each year, taking medical, professional and skilled volunteers to the island.
They work alongside Tanna island nurses, midwifes and health professionals to assist them in improving standards of health and living.
“Every year the demand for our services increases.
“The past two years, we’ve begun shipping containers full of life-changing resources.”
These range from an ultrasound machine to baby clothes – essential in a country where newborn babies still die from malnutrition and cold.