Missionary Diary: A day in the life of a sailing missionary family

Miriam and Peter Handsworth had planned to be part of a church plant in Reykjavik, Iceland, during a sabbatical from their teaching jobs in Brisbane. However, when COVID hit in 2020, they were inspired by the work of Robert Latimer, co-founder of Medical Sailing Ministries which has been helping the people of Vanuatu with their sailing boat. As keen sailors, Miriam and Peter raised funds to buy a bigger boat, Tehani-li, and earlier this year, went on a mission sabbatical to Port Vila and beyond. They were part of the Gudfala Tut Skul program, which provides toothpaste and brushes and encourages toothbrushing.

Wake up! Wake up! It is time for a quick breakfast onboard our sailing vessel Tehani-li before going ashore. Our boat is laden with local fruit given to us by school families in thanks for our visit the previous day. We soak up the beauty of God’s creation as the mist tumbles down the lushly vegetated mountainside of the now-dormant volcano of Ambae. The anchorage is lumpy. There is no protection from the sea current. This part of the island is still considered remote. Local boats come and go quickly. They drop off supplies and leave. Rarely do they anchor overnight as we have. The beach landing has white-capped waves that roll vigorously onto the volcanic black sandy beach. The conditions change quickly. It is easy to capsize. Our six-year-old becomes anxious. “Will the waves come in our boat, Daddy?” Local dug-out fishing boats are lying on the beach, light and graceful. I admire them as we haul our heavy tender and outboard up the beach.

The local health centre has kindly agreed to release their truck and driver, which doubles as the island’s ambulance, for a daily fee plus a couple of diesel-full jerry cans. We are very grateful for this arrangement. Our driver knows well the rugged terrain and can negotiate all the mountainous ascents and eroded roads. There is no public transport here. People generally walk.

We arrive at the most colourful house on the main road. It is the guest house where some of our team is staying. We collect the day’s provisions for the two schools we are visiting as part of the Gudfala Tut Skul program and set off. The discomfort of the trip is amply rewarded by the beautiful smiles of the children eagerly awaiting the arrival of the visitors. We are the first foreign sailing boat to visit West Ambae after the pandemic. There is a gratefulness in the air. Aid often comes in unaccompanied packages; however, today, we are a mixed team of locals and foreigners (bringing the love of Christ to these wonderful people).

A formal welcome by the school’s Principal is followed by an introduction by the district council officer. He introduces the team and the Gudfala Tut Skul program.

We are then invited to talk. Peter tells the children about our journey over the sea, explaining why we have come so far to give them toothbrushes. I then give them some basic oral hygiene tips. “You need to brush your teeth twice a day, when the sun rises and when the sun sets.” Due to many islanders living a subsistence lifestyle, toothbrushes and toothpaste are luxury items. We open the boxes of brightly coloured toothbrushes and start handing them out, pink bristles and yellow handles, orange bristles and blue handles, blue bristles and pink handles. The children’s faces gleam. It is something I will forever treasure. It was if we had given them something much more than a toothbrush. The children now file past me to go outdoors. I greet each one, placing a small blob of locally made bubble-gum-flavoured toothpaste on each child’s toothbrush. The children here drink bore water. The only source of fluoride they will have in their diet will be the toothpaste I have just given them. This will help support healthier, stronger teeth, which is vital considering there is no dentist on this island.

The children form a circle in the open air. The natural beauty of the island is captivating. What an amazing setting for a school. We stand around helping show the children how to brush their teeth. It is such a delightful scene. Some children have never used a toothbrush before, some are super enthusiastic, some are a little reluctant and some create big white foamy smiles. Brush, brush, brush!

While the children continue their supervised brushing, I go inside to help with the teacher training. The teachers are as thankful as the students, as many of them suffer from cavities and are equally interested in maintaining good brushing habits with the children. It seems so basic to us, who have easy access to highly qualified, fully functioning dental practices.

Food diaries and calendars are given out, along with storage boxes for the student’s toothbrushes. The teachers will oversee the daily brushing once we leave.

Today’s school is high up on the mountainside, far away from the main hub of West Ambae. It is nearly lunchtime, and I am a little concerned as to where we might find food. We are then invited to the other end of the school to discover a wonderful spread has been prepared for us. I am feeling a little tired and thirsty. It is humid, and we had been busy all morning. I taste fruit I have never seen before in my life. It is delicious and not dissimilar to lychee. The home-baked bread is fresh and made with love. There is a lovely papaya fruit salad and coconut milk mix, which is so refreshing. One of the teachers takes a huge machete and cuts up a giant grapefruit which seems to feed her entire class.

At the end of this splendid lunch, I take a photo of the entire school, which really is like a large extended family. We jump in the truck, and everyone waves goodbye down the track, past the cacao tree. What a privilege. I thank God for the people we have met, for their kindness to us, and their warmth and love shown to us. It feels like a little glimpse of heaven.

We return to the guest house and check in with the local banana boat owner, who is keeping an eye on Tehani-li during the day for us. There seems to be nothing to report, so we continue to the next school. We are greeted again with a similar warmth from teachers and students alike. At the end of our time with this school, the Principal prays for us and we pray for them.

This time when we find the banana boat owner, he warns us the winds have changed. We scurry back to the boat with no delay. The anchor is lifted, and we set sail for the alternative anchorage, where we hope we will have better protection from the wind. Although a little lumpy, the new anchorage is better. We cook dinner onboard and the local team fish. They love fishing and they are good at it. We turn in after a game of UNO with our six-year-old. This game gives universal pleasure to most children!

God is good. Another day completed. A few more to go. We have seen his glory and abundance through the provision of the health centre’s truck, the hospitality of the school, the smiles on the children’s faces.

We are grateful to Redlands College in Brisbane for allowing us to serve in Vanuatu during Term 3, 2022. What a privilege it was to meet and build relationships with these warm and loving people.