Cybelle Cenac is originally from the tiny island of Saint-Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean, where she has been a Barrister for 16 years and served in a quasi-judicial function as Registrar of the Supreme Court for almost 5 years. When an opportunity came to become a Master or Associate Judge with the Supreme Court of the Republic of Vanuatu, she welcomed it. Through a chance encounter, I got to hear more about this dynamic, courageous and daring lady, which led to me learning so much more. I am honored to feature her as one of my ‘Loverly People.’
Lovee: Hello Cybelle, thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Traveling as you know is my passion, so whenever I meet someone who decides to step outside their comfort zone and venture into unknown territories, as you have, I’m always curious to learn more. It’s truly an honor to do this interview with you…
Cybelle: Thank you Loverly. It’s an honour to have been singled out as one of your ‘Loverly People.’ One never thinks that anything in their life is extraordinary until someone else points to it. And even then we are at pains to see. Even now I hold little understanding as to why you would have chosen me; but for what little light I can shed on this country that is temporarily my home, I am pleased to do.
Lovee: It’s important to tell our stories and share our experiences, we never know who we can inspire.It takes a great amount of courage to leave the familiar behind, but you took that big leap of faith, and literally moved to the other side of the world! A place many have probably never even heard of-Vanuatu! Had you ever been there before? And how did this opportunity come about?…
Cybelle: With perfect honesty I admit that I was quite ignorant of the existence or even geographical location of Vanuatu. In fact, but for the category 5 cyclone which hit the country in March of 2015, 6 months prior to my arrival, most persons I spoke with, but for my father, had never even heard of the 84 island country before the cyclone.
At the time the opportunity arose I was on a sort of year long, self-imposed sabbatical, with no intention to have returned to Saint Lucia in the foreseeable future. I was pursuing my Master’s part-time and reflecting on the next step I wanted to take in my life. Just about the time I was ready to step out and find something specific to my skills, my younger sister, who had previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London came across the post of Master for Vanuatu, and knowing me as well as she does, she knew it would be something, not just that I would be good at but I would passionately throw myself into. At the time, the post was advertised with neither salary nor terms of the contract. Those facts held no interest for me. I read the first few lines of what was required and I knew instinctively that that was where I was meant to be. I applied, and though I didn’t hear back from the Secretariat for almost 4 months, I knew, without a doubt, that I was already divinely chosen to hold that position.
Lovee: WOW! Divine intervention indeed. Vanuatu is literally on the other side of the world. Describe your long journey getting there from Saint Lucia?
Cybelle: Though I was recruited from the UK I was in Saint Lucia on a visit by the time the contract was finalized. The Secretariat was accommodating enough to allow me the time to return to the UK to get things in order for about 3 weeks before I travelled for Vanuatu. So an 8 hour flight from Saint Lucia to the UK didn’t seem as arduous when it was followed by a 3 week break prior to taking on the long haul portion of the trip. I travelled from the UK to Dubai which was about a 10 hour journey and then a 2 hour in transit wait for the next 14 hour flight to Sydney, Australia where there was a delay of about 4 hours before I could board my final 3 hour flight direct to Port Vila, Vanuatu. In all it was approximately 33 hours before I arrived in Vanuatu and of that 33, 27 hours was flying time. I generally love airports because they bode a sense of excitement and adventure, but I was never more relieved to arrive at a destination. I arrived to beautiful sunshine but with calves as hard as bricks and ankles as swollen as a pregnant belly. As temporary as I knew that situation would be I was still appalled to look down at what I referred to as my ‘cankles.’ I am glad that apart from said cankles there was little in the way of hiccups that I could count, other than the fact that no matter how spectacular the airline the tea is just never hot enough.
Lovee: I feel tired just by reading it! That was quite a journey.What were some of your initial concerns/ fears before leaving? How did you overcome them?
Cybelle: I was so convinced of my destiny in that country that I honestly had no fears about leaving. I was only anxious to begin the work. My only real concern was that I might be unable to accomplish all that I knew I wanted to within that year, but I was determined to go in and do as much as I could in that short time to create the change I wanted to see.
I can say that my father was very hesitant about my leaving because of the distance and the fact that there was absolutely no one I knew whom I could call on in case of an emergency. I told my dad that there was nothing to fear, that God had always taken care of all us and there was no reason he would stop now. I told him I felt compelled to do this, and while his fear would not prevent me from going I still wanted his blessing. He remained hesitant until I decided to read him the description of the post. I knew that if I could get him to feel the need of the court I could secure his blessing. My father has always been about service to God and country and that is the mantle he has placed on the shoulders of all his children. I told him that I could not live my life in fear of the unknown or to deny my service where it was needed, either out of his fear or mine. I was only able to read the first two lines of the description when my father stopped me and said, “Cybee you have to go to help the people.” I had gotten my blessing and any fear that may have been in me immediately dissipated.
Lovee: A parent blessing is really like a stamp from God, isn’t it? That’s exactly how I feel when I get my mom’s blessings. Your dad seems like a very wise man.
What was your first impression of Vanuatu?
Cybelle: There were the obvious similarities: sun, sea and sand, except that their waters were so much clearer and bluer than Saint Lucia. The food was the same (except you’ll be hard pressed to ever find spinach or find a Nivan who even knows what spinach is lol) so it was easy to find a lot of the things that I liked, except no one knew why I was always looking for really green bananas and not ripe bananas lol. The people are as open and friendly as Saint Lucians and always smiling, no matter what. I guess that’s why they are ranked as number 3 in the world as one of the happiest nations on earth. While the capital city Port Vila on the island of Efate where I live is developed the same cannot be said for many of the other 83 islands of the country. The population spanning the 84 islands is just over 200,000 with about 50,000 living on Efate. Efate is much larger than Saint Lucia but by all accounts we are certainly more densely populated and much more developed in terms of our infrastructure, education and human resource development. Living here has made me appreciate the road Saint Lucia has travelled in just 37 short years to the place where it is now. We may not have everything we want or need but we have made amazing strides in the world for which we must be extremely proud and indebted to great men like Sir John Compton who carved out such an amazing foundation upon which we continue to build today.
Lovee: Saint Lucia has definitely come a long way, and had a great visionary leader in Sir John to help in its evolution. Was it difficult to assimilate into the culture?
Cybelle: I found it easy to fit into the environment. I find it easy to fit into most environments because of my personality. It’s always easy to become part of something different when you don’t see yourself as different. Even though their culture may be somewhat dissimilar to ours, one can always find common ground to meet on, and that makes it easy to always act and speak from love. Once that is present, the physical environment doesn’t matter.
There are quite glaring differences between Vanuatu and Saint Lucia, particularly in the professional arena. I often say to the lawyers that it’s hard to distinguish a lawyer from a vendor sometimes. They seem to have no concern for creating distinctions among themselves. It is an admirable quality, but when you hail from a society like ours where you are graded for conforming to the school dress code and comportment from stage 1 to Form 5 and reprimanded by employers or judges if you fall below the acceptable dress code then it becomes difficult to accept slipper-clad lawyers with collars askew and red shirts peeking beneath gowns lol. While it probably says something about my inflexibility in these matters due to my rigid training from school to profession, I see its value to the development of a people; as the outward appearance is often reflected in the quality of the work produced, and more importantly how the Nivans view themselves against the rest of the world. I have found that as wonderfully nice and helpful as they are they seem to lack the self-confidence to move through the world or even their own space with verve and passion. It’s as if they have no expectations of anything more than what they have been given. There is something to be said for contentment with what we have been blessed with, but man yearns to discover and to grow and no person or country will ever achieve its potential until there is a burning desire to seek out more than what you have been given. By ‘more,’ I don’t simply refer to material possessions but the ‘more’ inherent in giving exceptional service to your country and others, the ‘more’ to push your children to achieving more than you did, knowing that that knowledge will not only benefit them but the country and the world, the ‘more’ that is necessary to lift women in this country out of poverty and domestic violence and to an understanding that a bride price is not a cultural point to hold on to but a barter of a woman for pig’s and mat’s and money which will always place her below and beneath the feet of her husband.
The people seem almost unaware of the happenings of the outside world. It is as if all that matters is only their front doorstep. They are truly without guile and believe in the honesty of all and are themselves as honest a people as I have ever met. They are simple and easy and wish always to please, even to their detriment. They abhor conflict and will do whatever is necessary to avoid it. They are frustrating and lovable all at the same time. Frustrating for the potential that is evident in them but which they do not see, frustrating because they place the needs of the whole world before their own but lovable, because like a little child they come to you for comfort and reassurance and kindness and even though they don’t realize it they come to you for validation of their worth.
Lovee: People who can adapt to anything tend to have more meaningful experiences. It’s great that you have such an attitude towards life. Perhaps your presence will have a positive impact on what is lacking. What were/are some of the challenges/obstacles you face in your role and environment? How did/do you overcome them?
Cybelle: Initially, the most frustrating thing for me in my work was the fact that Nivans say ‘yes’ to absolutely everything lol. If you asked a question it was yes. If you asked if they understood it was yes. It was only after the fact that you came to realize they neither knew nor understood but were too nice to say so. I had to reassure them over and over again that the sky would not fall in if they said no to me or that they didn’t understand and that I was happy to take as long as they needed for me to help them. Now, many of the Nivans I work with can confidently tell me no and I love it. Progress! Lol.
The other most annoying thing is that everything takes a year and a day to accomplish. In the spirit of not upsetting you they will leave you with the impression that whatever you have asked for will be done in short order. It never is. Decisions take forever and when finally made, may need to be followed by some ceremony with kava lol. My sister had forewarned me that in the South Pacific things move at an even slower pace than in Saint Lucia. I couldn’t imagine that being possible but it is. Vanuatu time is at least 6 months behind Saint Lucian time lol. I have developed an entirely new respect for my home. I swear I will never complain about Lucian time again. Those I work with have gotten moderately better in this regard but it’s still a major work in progress.
I have managed to get the lawyers to dress better for court which I consider quite an achievement lol and to make greater efforts in the preparation of their work by conducting training and telling them specifically what the court expects and wants and like a good mother not only cajoling but reprimanding and applying serious sanctions where necessary to ensure compliance.
Lovee: See, I knew it! You’re already making strides! More to come. What are some of the positive things about this experience and your environment?
Cybelle: The Nivans remind me every day about gratitude. The women in this country suffer a great deal; domestic violence, sexual abuse and they are generally viewed as less than men, but they work hard every day. They get beaten and they still come to work and smile and find not just one but many things to be glad about. I see young girls who give up their children for adoption, not because they are not loved or wanted but because they have no means to care for them and it makes me realise how very, very fortunate we are in Saint Lucia and many parts of the world that we have options.
I always knew, but this experience has reinforced to me that I am not the type of person who can work just for money, that it must be always about service to others first. It is the only thing that excites me and fuels my passion to achieve, never for myself but always for others. I lack the personal ambition to personally succeed at all costs, but at all costs I am filled with the ambition to see those around me excel. What legacy is there in achieving only for yourself.
Lovee: What are your responsibilities as a Master Junior Judge?
Cybelle: I am one of only two female judges who sit on the bench with 6 others. The second female Judge was also brought here by the Commonwealth Secretariat from Gambia. There has never been a Nivan female judge sitting on the bench.
My primary responsibility is to help to strengthen the institutional capacity of the court by reducing its backlog of cases and improving the administration of justice. I deal with almost all the applications before the court for hearing, I hear all succession matters (i.e. matters dealing with the estate of a deceased person), I manage many of the judges cases up till trial, I hear and prepare all the preliminary matters for adoption before they go to the final judge and I am the court’s appointed mediator to help parties to settle matters. I also assist with judicial training of the lawyers and employees of the Supreme Court.
Lovee: You certainly sound like you’ve got your hands full. I know you’re quite capable of executing this role. You mentioned that you are responsible for dealing with adoptions. Could you tell us, for those who might be interested what that would entail?
Cybelle: There are no adoption agencies or centers you can apply to, to have a child placed with you. You essentially have to identify the child yourself (usually through some contact person or friend here). Once that is achieved you need to provide the following:
(a) Application to the Court for adoption and interim custody [forms can be obtained from the court office] to take the care and possession of the child for 3 months. You must attach:
(b) Psychological assessment and background check from the relevant adoption authority in your country
(c) References from reputable individuals regarding suitability to adopt such as from family members and friends
(d) The birth certificate of the child
(e) Your birth certificate and that of your partner if applicable
(f) Your marriage certificate (if married).
(g) If married, you must have been married for five (5) years. If you are short of the 5 years you may include any relevant evidence regarding the stability of the relationship and the court MAY take it into consideration.
(h) Medical certificate for both you and your partner (if married)
(i) Police clearances
(j) Certificates of employment
(k) Consent of biological parents and or guardian with a photo ID signed and witnessed by someone who knows them.
(l) Independent assessment of you and your partner from country of origin (psychological, financial and social background). If no such assessment this will be done in Vanuatu with the Court’s appointed psychologist at your expense.
(m) Filing fee receipt of VT20, 000
(n) No monies should be paid to the birth parents in exchange for the adoption of the infant. Any money exchange will void the process.
Once Applications are filed a first hearing date before the Master of the Court will be communicated to all parties who must be in attendance together with the infant.
After the hearing you will receive an order permitting you to have the infant for three (3) months and a return date for a final order will be given.
The adoptive parents must ensure that the birth parents receive independent legal advice (through the public solicitor’s office) so that the court is assured that they properly understand the process of adoption and understand the effect of an adoption order.
Depending on the documents provided the court may order a psychological assessment for you and your partner but will always order a psychological assessment be done by its court appointed psychologist of the biological parents. This cost is to be met by you.
Once the psychologist fees are paid in full a report will be submitted to the Master who will then make a recommendation to the Judge.
The birth parents must also provide their non-withdrawal of consent to the final adoption to the court before the final hearing.
All parties together with the infant must attend the final hearing before the Judge.
If all is in order then a final adoption order will be granted by the court and you will be able to leave the court and Vanuatu with your child.
Before leaving Vanuatu with the child, you need to make sure that the Civil Status Department has changed the name of your child to your surname. The Department will then provide you with a new birth certificate for the infant containing the new name and the name of the adoptive parent(s).
Any enquiries can be directed to the Clerk of Court with the Master’s Court at (678)26715 or the Public Solicitor’s Office at (678)23450
Lovee: Great info, thank you. How have you evolved since being here, and how has this experience changed your perception of the world?
Cybelle: I don’t think very much has changed about me. I think I am as I ever was. I have only grown more myself here. My capacity to love has expanded, my levels of patience and tolerance have increased and I try to find many more ways to lead by example.
One side effect of all this, not directly associated to my role is that I have come to find an even greater appreciation for my parents and the ways in which they raised me. But for their counsel and their guidance I do not think I could have been sustained in this position or this country. I know, better than I ever did, that everything they ever told me and showed me about the world and myself was perfectly correct.
Lovee: Isn’t it amazing how much we grow and learn when we step outside of our comfort zones? We definitely learn to see the world differently, and learn to understand and appreciate others better. What’s next for you?
Cybelle: Hmmm, I have given little thought to that. All I know is that God will lead me where I need to be. Worrying about the future has never brought me anything but a migraine lol and fatigue so I leave these matters to the one who deals with them best. All the plans I had set for myself so very long ago have hardly ever come to pass so one thing I know now is that I am a bad planner, so I’ve given that up except for the odd dinner party here and there lol.
Lovee: Great approach. While we’re busy making plans, God is smiling. Can you tell us something interestingly unique about Vanuatu? Something we probably wouldn’t know.
1. That Vanautu used to run under both the French and English legal systems and when you came here you could opt for which system you wanted to fall under. That meant if you committed a crime then you would be tried under the system which you initially chose. Of course, since independence this no longer applies but it’s an interesting bit of trivia. Consequently, many of the Nivans speak French as well as English and there are still French based schools in the country.
2. When people see pictures of Nivans they assume they all walk around sans tops for the women and sans pants and tops for the men. That mostly pertains in the more remote tribes of the other islands and everyone dresses in western clothes except on special occasions of course. The women do wear their traditional island dress everyday, even to work and church. It definitely solves the problem of what to choose to wear and cuts down on the costs of clothes lol.
3. When you drive around you will see many small children with Negro hair that appears to have been bleached, so it looks sort of orange/red. Apparently it’s a gene unique to their ethnic group. It is the same gene evident in white Caucasians with blond hair. This genetic mutation is only apparent in the Melanesian people of the South Pacific.
4. Their kava is known to be more potent than Fiji or any other South Pacific country.
5. The Nivans are extremely religious people. You will often find them in restaurants sitting together and praying together before their meal. It’s wonderful to see such unabashed religious zeal with no shame for their public displays.
Lovee: I can’t wait to visit! From pictures, it looks breathtaking, and seems like a very interesting place. What advice would you give to anyone who’s afraid to step outside of their comfort zone?
Cybelle: You can never grow until you walk into the unfamiliar. In the arena of the unfamiliar is fear and pain. Like the muscle of the body you have to move past that pain and the fear, past that feeling that tells you, that you just can’t do one more lap, to the other side where your dream body awaits lol. But seriously, man was born to strive. If it were not so God would not have given that impossible task of striving for perfection. He who made us and knows us well knows that striving gives us purpose, renews our purpose and allows us to reach out to others. After all, it’s only by moving beyond our comfort zone that we can help to answer the prayers of others.
Lovee: I love it! Great advice and even more amazing story. You are indeed a remarkable woman. Your faith, courage and character speaks volume about who you are, and the blessing you are to the world. I hope your story inspired someone to take that leap of faith, and step outsider of their comfort zone. Thank you for sharing and God bless.