A Long Way From Germany


A Volunteer’s Story…

Vanuatu proves a long way from home for intrepid German dental volunteer Wenke Petters.

My 4 Weeks as a Dental Volunteer in Vanuatu…

When my last year of university was coming to an end, I was sure that I didn´t want to start working full time immediately. I wanted to have a break after 11 semesters of study, improve my English my skills away from Germany and get to know other cultures and lifestyles.

While my friends were searching for jobs in Germany I was looking for an English speaking dental project, which I could join for a few weeks. I ended up getting in touch with Barry, Robert, Mike and Richard, members and founders of the ”Vanuatu Dental Care Service“. It seemed the perfect place to do some volunteer dental work in a place I had never visited (yet only heard of) before!

In preparing for this trip I needed roughly 4 months to get everything organised. Naturally I had a lot of questions that needed answering, particularly whether my qualifications would be recognised internationally, and if so in what countries (for instance, I discovered I would not automatically qualify to work in Australia). Further, I needed to research what visa, insurance and vaccinations I needed in order to work in Vanuatu – it should be said though, that Barry, Robert and Mike helped me out a lot with all this.

Beside that, I had a lot of personal questions in mind, like: how comfortable I would feel working as a dentist (straight out of Uni) without direct supervision; whether it would be easy to get to know other people in a completely different culture; would not being a native English speaker represent a problem; and whether patients would be willing to trust a young and recently graduated foreign dentist…

Having weighed up all my concerns, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn´t know unless I gave it a try. And I certainly didn´t want to forego such a unique opportunity.

So, I booked my flight and arrived in Port Vila in late April, having spent 6 days in Brisbane beforehand to recover from my jetlag.

Upon arriving in Port Vila, Richard met me at the airport and made me feel welcome immediately. We went to his place, where I spend the next 4 weeks living with his family. I had my own nice apartment in their house with a big bedroom, kitchen and bathroom (no hot water).

Before travelling to Vanuatu, I had considered staying in a resort, but chose to live with a local family. By doing so, I think I gathered a real insight into the life and culture of Vanuatu (something I might have missed had I not stayed with Richard and his family). Richard´s mum cooked nice food and I was grateful for the hospitality I was shown.

On my first day at the clinic, I met the two dental assistants, Bob and Morinda and the whole team of the eye-clinic, which is located in the same building. My job was to help Barry and other dentists arriving in Vanuatu later in the year with starting an oral health study (Plaque Index dependent with oral hygiene). This involved applying fluoride varnish, or giving small fillings to grade one children at local schools. Bob, Morinda and I spent most mornings in different schools and talked with the children about oral health, how best to brush one´s teeth and examined one or two classes every morning. Our visits were something really new and exciting for a lot of the kids, and fortunately very few showed any anxiety toward treatment. Working with the kids was a lot of fun.

Once the school visits were out of the way in the morning, we usually saw about 3 patients in the clinic most afternoons. Primarily we treated caries with fillings (often with composite or glass ionomer cement), provided professional tooth cleaning or extractions (by and large premolars, front teeth or loose molars). The practice was well equipped and all the tools easy to work with. Bob and Morinda were also invaluable assistants. It was a relief to know I could refer patient to the local hospital in Port Vila, if I was uncertain as to the best treatment available or they had a particularly complex problem.

Because Vanuatu is a country made up of many small islands, during my stay I visited over 6 individual islands. Some of our work required us to go to other islands, but I also used my free time, such as on weekends to travel. Getting to some of the more distant islands (such as Ambae – one of the islands we went to as a team) required flying in some pretty small aircraft – which was a little harrowing to be honest (but I never felt unsafe). Particularly memorable free-time activities I embarked on were visiting the Cascade Falls, going to Hideaway Island (close and easy to get to from Port Vila), and (particularly as a huge finding nemo fan) snorkeling was always fantastic (fortunately I didn´t come across any Bruces!). As for some of the local cuisine, don´t miss out on coconut crab (a real highlight of the trip) – prepared traditionally by Richard and his family. As for the local people, I found everyone to be very approachable and helpful.

Tips for future volunteers:

1. Start organising and preparing everything (i.e., administrative stuff) early – at least 6 months beforehand (particularly if you´re from outside Oceania – and need documents translated)

2. Get to know the locals, and avoid simply visiting the tourist hotspots – this way you´ll get to see sides to this
exotic and amazing country you might otherwise not.

3. Don´t be afraid to approach people if you´re unsure about anything

4. Eat coconut crab (don´t be put off by the smell or look!!!) and try Kava

5. Check out the fire show (very impressive) and beach bar in Mele

Enjoy the adventure! Wenke

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