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Vanuatu volunteer helps hockey and health

Young boy about to hit a ball with a field hockey stick.
Ni-Vanuatu have fallen in love with hockey since it was introduced more than a decade ago.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Hockey is catching on across the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, spreading messages of health on the way, but it is going to miss a knockabout Australian volunteer who is headed home.

The words just don't seem to match the person saying them.

"Yu mas go dring plante wota," he says, encouraging a young girl to stay hydrated.

"Yufala stap plei plei smol mor afta spel," he says to someone wondering how long before a break.

The language is Bislama, the creole language spoken across many of the islands that comprise Vanuatu. It is apparent the speaker knows his stuff, because the youngsters understand his every word.

But this Pacific language is coming from behind dark sunglasses and a bushy beard that looks like it should belong to notorious Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.

Dash Hewitt on the hockey field.
Dash Hewitt has become a much-loved member of the Ni-Vanuatu hockey community.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The speaker is, in fact, Australian. But he is from Alice Springs, not Glenrowan, and interested in the sort of shooting that wins hockey games.

Dash Hewitt is wrapping up a year-long stint as an Australian volunteer development officer with the Vanuatu Hockey Federation, using the time to impart important health messages to young Ni-Vanuatu.

He is clearly beloved, and his efforts to grasp the local language only make him more of a legend among them.

When Dash and his local crew pull into a village in the white ute that has come to be known as the 'hockey truck' children shouting "HOCKEY!" come from everywhere, ready for a game.

A group of children playing hockey.
More than 200 children participate in Pikinini Plei Plei each week.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

More than 200 Ni-Vanuatu children play the game each week thanks to the Pikinini Plei Plei program. But today, teams have assembled on the best surface in the nation at the Wan Smolbag multi-purpose centre in Port Vila for a tournament.

During a break, Dash sits in the shade and has a chinwag in Bislama, asking the players why they like hockey.

"Fun," offers one.

"Winning," says another.

"Stap friend blo yu," says a third, suggesting camaraderie is one of the great appeals.

Taking a break in between games at the Wan Smolbag Tournament
Taking a break in between games at the Wan Smolbag Tournament.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I think the kids just absolutely love any sport and organised sports for kids are not accessible to many at all," offers Dash, when asked the same question.

"They thrive at the chance to get to learn and play. They are so naturally talented, so they pick it up instantly and they are so competitive."

- Dash Hewitt

Hockey has been in Vanuatu for more than a decade, and an elite program is offering the best players international opportunities, but the idea of using hockey as a development tool is a more recent phenomenon.

Three children pose with hockey sticks.
Nutrition, health, domestic violence and the environment are all discussed as part of the hockey education program.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"The hockey program also aims to provide a lot of education alongside its programs," Dash explains. "These range from nutrition and health to domestic violence to the environment."

"It is hard sometimes to see the immediate effects but hopefully in the long term it will create a shift in mindset at a community level."

- Dash Hewitt

As we chat, a primary school-aged boy trots up, hockey stick in hand. He tells a passionate tale in Bislama, complete with frowns, headshakes and general expressions of concern.

This is a mixed tournament but the young lobbyist is arguing the girls are too tired to keep playing and a male-only game should be instituted immediately. Dash is having none of it.

"The boys can be quite pushy," he says with a wink.

Girl crouching in front of a hockey goal.
Gender equality is an important theme in Pikinini Plei Plei.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

But this teacher of hockey, health and equality has also been a student of Pacific life.

"I love the family and community-oriented system and how happy, helpful and generous people are considering their circumstances are often so tough," he says.

"And I know my way around a coconut now, although [I] still haven't managed to climb up to get one. Squeezing out fresh milk for curries is awesome."

When he gets back to Alice Springs, Dash won't have as much use for his newfound tongue Bislama, but his curry should ensure there's a little bit of Vanuatu in the heart of Australia.

And all those village visits in the hockey truck mean this Aussie will long have a place in Ni-Vanuatu hearts too.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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