The Rockstars of Vanuatu
It would seem that you learn something new every day in this job. Sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with his colleagues LP Svensson and Mike Duffin of Ericsson Response, Prakash Muniandy (former ETC Coordinator in Vanuatu) had just landed on Tanna from Port Vila. He was enjoying watching island life fly by as they made their winding way to their digs at the Tanna Lodge – the tang of the hot sweet tropics and the gentle shooshing of the Pacific contrasting with the brown and barren landscape that is the legacy of Tropical Cyclone Pam, for now at least.
The cyclone hit the island hard, damaging the majority of houses and wiping out the crops and fruit trees that sustain life here. As the trio chugged along the road – the back of the truck loaded with barrels of fuel for the generators – the guys updated Prakash on life, the situation on Tanna and how the operation was going for them on their island.
When these guys first arrived in Vanuatu, 10 days after the storm, phone services were intermittent and internet connectivity non-existent, Cyclone Pam having done her best to destroy much of the infrastructure. The Government of Vanuatu and the wider humanitarian community were relying on the ETC guys to provide connectivity to the outside world.
Although based in the capital, Prakash was aware of what they had been doing but had no idea of how famous these two guys had become and the impact ETC had made on the local community. Until now. Hearing the rumble of the truck, throngs of people leapt to the roadside or appeared from the undergrowth when we passed to wave, smile or cheer– or sometimes all three. At first, he furtively glanced behind him to make sure they weren't calling to someone else, the Rolling Stones perhaps, but no, their attentions were focused solely on Mike and LP. For the first time, Prakash was a groupie in the presence of greatness.
They have achieved much – together with their winning personalities, it's really not surprising they are famous. They've installed satellite equipment from our partner emergency.lu and provided connectivity to more than 20 NGOs – Samaritan's Purse, CARE, Shelter Box, World Vision, TSF, WFP and WHO – government offices and outposts. They have managed to connect seven sites around Lenakel, on the west of the island, to a single VSAT.
Mike and LP work day and night to ensure the services we provide are continuous – this is what they do and why they deploy. They check the network, provide connectivity and help people. The number of requests for connectivity grows day by day and they respond. Every time.
To us, ETC, they are our trusted partners from Ericsson Response; to the people on Tanna, they are rockstars. Mike grinned at Prakash's amazement joking that sometimes he gets tired from all the waving and autograph signing but he doesn't want to let his fans down. He clearly loves it. And with good reason. This is one of the greatest parts of the job and an aspect that isn't often talked about. But for responders on the ground, their personal interaction with those living in affected areas is a unique and special experience and one that is crystallized into memories long after the VSATs have gone.
The bond they have forged with the people of Tanna is amazing and an example of the many facets of emergency response. Of course, the ETC provides vital, life-saving services and help countries to revive national infrastructures, but forming friendships and trust is unbeatable. Their fame has even spread to their tiny hotel which happily lends them its 4x4 to get around to facilitate their work.
This is a special place. A slower pace of life and people who always have time to stop for a chat and help us do our work is magical. Teams of locals often show up at the port to help unload shipments of aid supplies or help clear roads of debris to allow trucks to pass. Mike and LP have gathered numerous invitations from new friends to return to Tanna when the country has recovered; they are already learning the finer details of preparing dinner, a process which appears to involve a slingshot and an unsuspecting bat.
ETC's part in the emergency response is just that – a part; a small wheel in a big machine. But in the case of Tanna, it has meant something bigger: friendship and shared stories as everybody works together to restore this island paradise. For Prakash, Port Vila was calling and he left the ongoing work in the hands of the Mike & LP Fanclub. The sound of clapping and cheering still ringing in his ears long after he had landed.
By Suzanne Fenton,Communications Officer, IT Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch, WFP.