Change before you have to

It’s an early, rainy morning. I’m listening to Ludovico Eianudi. The music perfectly complements the sounds of the falling rain drops and birds outside. Yet it’s only when I look away from the computer that I’m reminded where I am. Outside my window I see a little garden of tropical flowers, coconut palm tree tops in the distance, a roof made from natangura leaves close by. I can see it all, but my mind is still elsewhere. That as well perfectly complemented by a song that’s playing, In un’altra vita (something in the sense of ‘another lifetime’).

I’m thinking of the cake my team got me before l left for Vanuatu. In the very wise words of Winnie the Pooh: ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard!’ We crossed paths at the time I was most fragile I’ve ever been. Unknowingly and unintentionally, just by being these warm, funny (with no lack of sarcastic and cynical too) & caring souls, they helped me lift up to a stronger and better me. One comfortable enough with myself again to take a leap of faith and land in Vanuatu, learning so much about life and myself. So, this is a thank you to Team NZ! Thank you for being such beautiful humans!

My life choices have led me to having many goodbyes. Luckily (according to the bear), many were hard. A colourful collection of bitter sweet memories, tears, laughter, even a ‘Happy’ dance and of course hugs that we sometimes wanted to make last forever… Time is a funny thing. Every week, days here are starting to feel shorter and months ahead are starting to feel too short. Realizing half of my time here has already passed is just another reminder of how important the present time is. And how important it is to appreciate it and be aware of how the present moment is shaping and changing you.

Moving to Vanuatu was just a short, under four hours flight from New Zealand. When I’m working on my computer or chatting with friends on my phone, the present time here is just an hour of a time difference behind Auckland, an hour time difference ahead of Sydney and nine hours ahead of Ljubljana. Visiting communities across different Vanuatu islands though feels like traveling through decades of a time difference. The exotic notions of pacific islands come to life with a first view of a village nested in the lush green, untouched nature. Little wooden huts with roofs made of leaves, fitting in perfectly with the surrounding gardens. Different leaves are used for anything from roofs, to bags and even clothing. There’s music and there’s dancing and there’s colourful plates of fresh local food and there’s warm big smiles. It’s a cultural village. Here, you can experience elements of the local traditions, here mostly referred to as kastom.

75% Ni-Vans live in rural areas. They live of land – by selling crops, fish and handcraft. Their income needs to cover costs of food, transport, school fees and healthcare. Seasonal work abroad (primarily NZ) can mean a big change for a family, a safer house, more years of education, access to safe drinking water closer to the house…

Communities Save the Children reaches with the First 1000 Days program also have houses made form natural materials nested in nature the locals welcome us with warm big smiles. Yet here, kastom impacts many other things beyond arts. 75% of Ni-Vans live in rural areas. For most of them the only, if any, source of income is nature – sale of crops, fish or handcrafts. The idyllic notion of a natural materials made hut is less idyllic when you add the fact that 90% of rural households don’t have access to electricity. That’s when you start feeling like you’re travelling through decades of time difference. What does it mean for people living here? No lights for kids to do homework after dark, no foods (or medicines!) that require to be kept in the fridge or freezer, clothes washed by hand, dishes washed by hand and scrubbed with the sand. For 97% of rural household firewood is the main cooking fuel. For me firewood evokes memories of nice camping trips away from our busy lives. When used as the primary cooking fuel however, it causes respiratory health issues. The impact is greatest for women and girls. Not because our bodies are different or more susceptible to respiratory disease. Just because it is mostly women and girls spending time in the kitchen. A kitchen is usually a separate space to the main house. The house is basically a bedroom or two, mostly just a blanket on the ground, sometimes a mattress, hopefully a mosquito net. The kitchen has a few shelves of pots and pans (or they’re tucked in the roof between the leaves) and a cooking fireplace. A bathroom is also separate and an extremely rare luxury. Not with running water, just a private area to wash yourself with water in a bucket. Rivers, lakes and sea are mostly used for washing. If there’s a toilet it’s most likely a pit latrine.

Kitchen is separate to the main house with firewood used as the main cooking fuel. Main house is usually just a bedroom and 90% have no electricity. Small solar panels are used by half of household to get some power for a light bulb or a charger. While most will use rivers or sea to ‘shower’, very few houses have a little private area for washing.

One of the communities I visited, in the northern islands of Vanuatu, has 100 households with 482 people. That’s just under the average household size of Vanuatu – 4.9 people (vs about 2.5 across Australia, NZ & Slovenia) with median age of 20 years old (37.2 in Australia & NZ, 43 in Slovenia). In this community of 100 households, there are 2 flush toilets, 9 pit latrines and the remaining 89 households use a bush toilet. The village health worker here has formed a committee that’s planning to install pit latrines for each household in the next 12 months. As part of the First 1000 Days program, Save the Children just finished installing a water tank that will give all households in the community access to water.

In addition to educating parents on best health and nutrition practices from pregnancy till the child’s second birthday, Save the Children supported this community through the First 1000 Days program by installing a water tank to give access to safe drinking water to all 100 households. On the right is the demonstration of hand washing with the soap.

It’s humbling to think what a difference that makes. We reach communities to teach about best practices in the first 1000 days. Yet besides having the knowledge what to do, the questions is do you have an environment that enables you to do it. We (people reading this now) don’t even think about where our water and power come from. We get absolutely outraged if there’s a power cut for two hours once in five years or wifi drops off for thirty minutes. Here, women can now (daily) save hours they used to spend walking to the river and back and carrying buckets of water. Clothes and dishes no longer need to be carried to the rivers or sea, they can be washed right outside the house. Mothers and fathers can now actually teach kids to wash their hands regularly and prevent spreads of infections and related illnesses (diarrhoea is still one of the most pressing health issues for kids in this community). And it’s not just any water. It’s safe drinking water.

All of this impacts the whole community yet impacts the lives of women and thus children disproportionally. Access to water is one thing. Then there’s access to education, access to health, access to electricity. Decisions about each and all are primarily made by men. Many consequences of decisions are carried by women and children. When you make decisions on things that barely impact your everyday life… well, it’s unlikely you feel too pressed to make the changes. Just like the beautiful dance and a wonderful traditional dish, the patriarchal social norms are kastom. Men provide for the family (what they deem important), women care for the family. If the husband doesn’t see value in prenatal checks for his pregnant wife, she won’t have them. Men decide which seeds are used in the garden, men decide how many children they want to have. Community meetings are attended by men only. That’s where decisions on investments such as water tanks are made. Women are not allowed to attend. That’s kastom. If at all, they can only voice their opinions through their fathers and husbands and hope they’re willing to support them

When you see all these obstacles, it’s hard to believe you can make a difference. Not just individually. It’s just hard to believe anything will ever change. I would sit in meetings with various ministries or talk to people in the communities and listen to their discussions on what they want for their future. I would read the government’s vision for Vanuatu 2030 that talks about a stable, sustainable and prosperous Vanuatu, a place where all people have a just and equal opportunity to be well educated, healthy and wealthy. I would also here it’s kastom or it’s not kustom as the main explanation for how things are done – now. And each time I would be wondering: What are you prepared to change to achieve that? Are you recognizing which parts of kastom are benefiting you and which are holding you back? How do you deal with conflicting priorities of progressing towards a prosperous future and staying true to your traditions?

Key source of income – gardening is done by both women and men, fishing is mostly done by men. Household chores, such as collecting water, hand washing dishes and clothes, cooking with firewood, and waving are primarily done by women and some by children.

In the search of better understanding, I decide to travel through time some more. Inspired by one of the best books I’ve read lately (in years), I had a call with my parents, asking them all the details about their lives when they were little. You see, I feel like some things I’m seeing, I’ve seen before. My parents were born in Bosnia just after WW2. I have very fond memories of our summer breaks spent there with my grandparents. For a kid it was something different and exciting. Looking back, I’m starting to understand the magnitude of how enormously different our lives are through just three generations. My grandparents didn’t read to my parents when they were little. They couldn’t read or write. They never went to school. My mum and dad finished four years of primary school in Bosnia. They walked to school barefoot in spring, summer and autumn and in wooden shoes or clogs in winter. They had no school books or any other kind of books. They laughed as they spoke about the many times they came to school without homework – because it got wiped off by the rain or snow from their little black chalk boards (tablets?). Nobody had an umbrella. Beatings at home and school were the normal, unquestioned ‘discipline tool’. Dad told me that sometimes the teacher would ask him to go outside and choose a stick by himself.

My dad is the oldest of seven children and six of them survived. My mother is the youngest of six and only two of them survived past early months of their lives. Access to basic needs doesn’t change just the stats on life and death, it changes individuals’ lives. My dad moved to Slovenia at 16 to find work and provide for his family (his dad was disabled) and few years later my mum moved for work to Austria. They met on one of their trips back home. After an unknown number of letters, she joined him in Slovenia, they got married and had my sister and me. Dad got a scholarship through his work that enabled him to finish a vocational college, staying in construction for the rest of his life. How did he close the gap between just 4 years of primary school and college, I have no idea?

What I know is that, although by most of today’s standards (of most people reading this) we had very little, I never felt I lacked anything as a child. Our trips to my grandparents were ‘fun’ in my eyes – two weeks of playing in nature. I didn’t notice then all my parents did on ‘holidays’ was work some more to help their parents. I was just chasing chicken, pigs and cats and dogs, ‘helping’ grandma in the garden and each year trying and failing to smuggle some animal back home to Slovenia. I was even slightly disappointed when things started changing, when the flush toilet was installed, when we no longer needed to get water from a well (1981), when the wood burning stove got replaced, when the phones started ringing there (1988), when everything was less and less different to home. I didn’t consider it progress, I was just sad when the new house was built. Later (1992-1995), when it all went years backwards, I noticed. Electricity was gone, wood burning stove was back, phones stopped ringing. It wasn’t that time just stopped, it was going in reverse – because of the war. While I was trying to avoid doing my homework’s (and even attending some classes), children in Bosnia were eager to go to classes, to maintain some sense of normality and to hold on to the hope of a better, just normal, future.

I however hated going to school from the start. I just could not understand why it’s so important for my parents. I learned to read and write before going to school (perks of being the younger sister) so I declared after two days of attending school that I’m quitting: ‘I know how to read and write and even count so there’s really nothing they can teach me, and I’m bored’. There is no way I could have grasped what providing us with education meant to my parents, let alone what it truly meant for me. Being here, now, I can see that in just two generations my parents left behind poverty, cut off the cycle of home violence and gave us an opportunity to be ‘well educated, healthy and wealthy’ (taken from the Vanuatu 2030 vision).

Their story is special to me, but luckily, it’s not special when you travel in time throughout the world. 200 years ago, 85% of world population lived in extreme poverty, in 1966 it was still 50%. And we believe things are getting worse?? Today that number is 9%. There is no good enough reason that it’s not 0%. Not one good enough reason for a child’s full potential being taken away from them from the start. And this is the point where we can choose to give in to despair and hopelessness (as there’s still the 9%) or put in perspective the progress that’s been made and keep working towards the zero.

This is a excerpt from the book I mentioned before (Factfulness by Hans Rosling): ‘’ I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious ‘possibilist’. That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It’s having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It’s having a worldview that is constructive and useful.’’ I too want to be a possibilist & to learn to resist the overdramatic worldviews. I want to be constructive and keep improving.

When it comes to balance between courage to change and serenity to accept, I generally tend to have or exhibit more of the first and less of the second (which in many cases doesn’t make me a most likeable person in the room). I love change. Yet, with some more reflection – I love change… as long as I get to do it my way… and in my own time… When I came here, I first noticed all the differences. I was quick to tell what’s ‘holding them back’. I got overwhelmed by the impact of many beliefs which get wrapped in a single word (kastom). It’s easy to fail to recognise that “many things (including people, countries, religions and cultures) appear to be constant just because they’re changing slowly*. It’s easy to be judgemental. It’s hard, on the other hand, to change yourself – even when you have to.

I’ve spent last few months looking for a way to ignite change in the mindsets of young parents here. To help them change some behaviours to help decrease children’s’ stunting. The trick with first 1000 days (especially pregnancy part) is how do you get people to care about something that is practically invisible for a while? And after a while the impact is irreversible. How do you break traditions for a positive outcome? My efficiency driven mind runs to ‘just do it… it’s all so obvious people… the why, the what, the how…it’s all there, so just do it’. My other, less perfect and efficient and much more real me though also thinks about all the times I’ve had the why and the what and the how and I’ve done nothing or very little. Until I did. Until I had to. So in addition to all the questions about kastom, I had a new one: how good am I truly recognizing which parts of my ways are benefiting me and which are holding me back?

Choice to seek change without having to (like taking on a Pulse assignment) is a quite counterintuitive choice. Choice to letting it really touch you is an ongoing everyday battle (and somehow contentment as well). Brené Brown captures it so well in Rising Strong: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable. Our instinct is to run from pain. In fact, most of us were never thought how to hold discomfort, sit with it, or communicate it, only how to discharge or dump it, or to pretend that it’s not happening. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel too much shame to let anyone see a process as intimate as overcoming hurt, or is it because even when we muster the courage to share our still-incomplete healing, people reflexively look away.’

Watching a mother draw a cross on a piece of paper as her signature hurts me. It’s 2019!?! She’s about my age. She deserves better – screams everything inside me. That cross symbolizes so many things. She had no education, has no say, no right to land, she had no right to decide when and how many children she wants (nine, seven alive) or even where to give birth. And it doesn’t stop with her. She’s not the generation (like my parents) that broke the cycle. Her daughter also doesn’t get to decide when and how many children she wants. She still believes that wife-beating is justified in instances like leaving the house without telling her husband (1 in 3 women in Vanuatu, ages 15-49, believe that). But she can read and write! She has some education. She learned about family planning options & her husband learned about family planning options and he decided to have 3 children. She just had her first baby – in the clinic. Her and her baby have access to basic healthcare. I look at the full picture and a confusing meandering timeline flashes through my mind: a mix of circumstances in which my grandmother, my mother, myself and my daughter were growing up and turning from girls to women are all somehow present here, in this moment, for this first time 21 years old mother. When I push myself to look beyond just the differences and beyond kastom and beyond ‘backwards time travel’, I can notice changes too. And when I can do that I notice change in myself. It’s then that I have more to give.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning to go beyond the initial feelings. I’ve let my Save the Children colleagues teach me how to see value in progress beyond just speed & scale in a single moment. I’ve been speaking to fathers and mothers as well as government officials, church leaders and chiefs in Vanuatu who are finding their own way through fragile balancing between the conflicting priorities of striving for progress and staying true to traditions? It’s been both draining and invigorating to discuss how to show the invisible impact of those 1000 days to fathers and get them engaged at early stages, have them work together with mothers. Now I can’t wait to make their voices and their stories heard in Vanuatu. I know it’s just a drop in the ocean, but every drop has its ripples. ‘’As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible.”

Peer support groups (mothers, grandmothers, fathers) participating in First 1000 Days program to drive change for the better future of their children and the overall community. The reason program is designed through peer groups is to educate on most relevant topics for each of the roles they play in child’s life but also because in a mixed group, the mothers don’t speak to share their concerns, only men can.

I’d like to share one more excerpt from Factfulness that served as my inspiration to push through the initial overwhelming feelings and carry me to the exciting final stages of developing the awareness campaign for Save the Children First 1000 Days: “The macho values that are found today in many Asian and African countries, these are not Asian values, or African values. They are not Muslim values. Or Eastern values. They are patriarchal values like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden. They are not unchangeable.” From my journey I’d like to add: Some values found today in the Pacific countries are not Pacific values. They are not Christian values. They are patriarchal values like those found in Yugoslavia (and really across the world) only 40 or 50 years ago and it takes just one couple to change and change lives of generations to come. Like my parents. Like some parents I’ll soon introduce in our campaign. Parents who know that children’s health is the key measurement of the quality of the whole society.

The morning has turned to a late afternoon. I have no idea when the speaker’s battery went flat and the music stopped. Outside, the rain stopped too and the wind is getting stronger, tiny patches of blue sky are showing up… I didn’t notice the silence. It was a good day to write. Late – according to some self-imposed timeline. Just on time – according to how I feel right now. I’m still not making any progress on giving you something more concise. But then again, the key thing to remember remains quite short: show that you care, be kind, give a smile, recognize if you too are one of the lucky ones. And sometimes… try and change before you have to.

This blog and thinking behind it was inspired by an incredible book that challenged many of my perspectives, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Anna Rönnlund Rosling and Ola Rosling. They also launched an incredible website, showcasing the world data as well as living conditions through individual households across the world If you’re curious and keen to challenge your perspective of the world, take this test and see how things are much better then we usually tell ourselves and each other.

As I was trying to wrap my head around my time here, many people have been very warm and kind in their support. I was recommended another reading by an incredible Pulse team member – on the other side of the world but so tuned into just what I needed. Rising Strong by Brené Brown helped me accept that choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable. Thank you M!


  1. Hi Karolina, what an incredible journey you are on and thank you for sharing so deeply. There voices and stories will not only being heard in Vanuatu but across the world. Even the ripples from a small drop in the ocean travel far and wide. You are truely inspiring 💚

  2. Karolina – I was so excited to see another one of your posts come through this morning! Once again, your words have truly resonated with me and encouraged me to reflect on a deeper level. Thank you for helping me clarify my own feelings, to see the hope in even the smallest of changes, because as we’re both realizing, they’re always there. ❤

  3. Karolina – Wow! Love your post… your words are SO powerful they had me glued to the screen! You are having an incredible experience – and I am so happy to hear that you are finding ways to connect the dots and support yourself well while you are there…or maybe ‘the universe is conspiring’ to support you in these powerful ways!! Keep growing and keep sharing, you have a talent to tell a story 🙂 Best wishes for the next phase of the assignment and for the change back in your NZ team , Manu.

  4. Everything start with a smile. Language is no barrier.
    What a wonderful project you are doing for Save the Children in Vanuatu and for yourself.
    Every little bit counts.
    You are amazing.

    1. And it’s nice here hearing so many languages here Caro. Besides English, French and Bislama there’s around 100 local languages and smiles through all of them when we can’t find words :). Bisous

  5. Amazing read and a deep inspiration. Thank you, Karolina.
    I love your expression “possibilist” – it is a keeper. All the best ☼

  6. Karolina, this is simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing your journey and your vulnerability. I think all Pulse volunteers are crossing that journey, we either just choose to live and accept it or turn away from it. I am there, in that vulnerable place, the place where the magic happens even if it is tough. Its a choice to encounter our real selves. You are amazing!
    With care, Ingrid

    1. Thank you Ingrid. Connecting with people of kindred spirits has been one of the most enriching parts of this experience and that goes for the full Pulse team. Enjoy the rest of the journey

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