Willy Missack: “Keep smiling, no matter what!"
Willy Missack: “Keep smiling, no matter what!"
Cyclone Pam hit his home country, Vanuatu, destroying his community and his project. But despite the many setbacks life throws at him, Queen’s Young Leader, Willy Missack keeps going strong.
“It takes years to bring the water supply,” says Willy Missack, an environmental scientist from the island of Tanna in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu.
Willy describes the process – building water catchments from the water source, using gravity to bring the water through pipes and into tanks, designing a distribution system to different villages and households. The cost of all this is huge, and waiting for strands of funding causes delays.
“And all this needs engineers,” Willy explains, “But we don’t have any so we learn from the mistakes we did all along the project.”
In 2014 Willy was volunteering with the non-governmental organisation, Live and Learn, running a project to bring water to communities on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu.
His team were villagers. “Most of them young people,” he says. “We were around 20, then the number increased when we started talking about the project in villages.”
“We have to build people’s capacity to manage water and also to help them become responsible for repairing the system when it is damaged.”
He describes his role as “complex” – leading the team, training others to lead sub-teams and to understand the water system. “And also the role of an engineer,” he says, adding, “not a very good one, but I try my best.”
Villagers who helped work on the water project
For Willy, winning the Queen’s Young Leaders Award wasn’t just a recognition of his work, but the whole community’s. He says it reminded all young people in Vanuatu that their contribution matters.
He was keen to get going with the Leading Change course. He had “a thirst to discover what the programme would give me to help me in my projects”. But he had to rely on internet cafes and – even when he found time to go to one – there was no guarantee the internet would be working.
He had barely got going when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu.
“Many families lost their homes and most of their things,” says Willy. “There was nothing left but the dead trees and none was there to shelter most of the people.”
According to a Live and Learn report, about 90% of buildings across the Vanuatu were damaged. Fruit and vegetable gardens were destroyed, leading to a fresh food shortages in both urban and rural households, and the loss of income for those dependent on small holdings. This had a knock-on effect on nutrition, school attendance and the economy.
“For the project it was very hard because the people had just started to have water,” says Willy. All their hard work and the infrastructure that brought water to communities in Tanna were destroyed.
As for the internet connection, that cut out for a month and Willy couldn’t access the course or the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme.
Devastation Cyclone Pam, March 2015. Photo by Graham Crumb
When, after a time, messages from other Queen’s Young Leaders began to filter through to him, Willy was hugely encouraged. “That gave me hope that they still remembered me and were with me in their thoughts.”
Unfortunately, Willy has not been able to find funding to rebuild the infrastructure that supplied water to his village. Rebuilding the community has taken priority. “At the moment the NGOs are working with communities to prepare for another cyclone that was recently announced by the meteorological office,” says Willy.
He adds that NGOs from Australia and New Zealand are working with the government of Vanuatu, with a focus on contingency and disaster planning. “The community is also involved in a food security programme with NGOs to develop knowledge in agricultural food security.”
Visiting Buckingham Palace to receive his Queen’s Young Leaders Award in June 2015, Willy told Her Majesty that the award would help him “encourage the young people of Vanuatu to face the future with determination and courage”.
Serving the community is a core part of Willy’s Baha’i Faith and, he says, “I love working with young people, because I believe in their capacity to transform the world into a better place.”
As President of his local Conference of Youth, he works “to inspire the young people, not only in Vanuatu but in the Pacific region”.
Now that he is coming to the end of his studies in New Caledonia, Willy plans to return to Vanuatu to continue working with his community. But with the threat of more cyclones, and with funding so hard to secure, how does he keep going?
“I always remember that at the end of a crisis there are victories!” In this way Willy sees challenges and difficulties as opportunities to learn. “So no matter what challenges I still continue, and also keep smiling no matter what.”
And he is encouraged knowing that there’s a world full of young changemakers out there. “I know that on the other side of the globe,” he says, “other people like me are striving and giving themselves to help other people.”