Wantok Almanac: Nancy Patterson





Wantok Almanac is a collaboration between Wantok Musik’s David Bridie and The Footy Almanac’s Jarrod Landells. Both share an affinity with our Pacific neighbourhood and its stories, of which several on music, sport, culture and history will be published on The Footy Almanac.




“Ale sinaot stron, mi mi wantem harem plante toktok!”


This is the mantra I find myself repeating as the young women and men of AFL Vanuatu go through their paces in pre-season training. It’s a cliché that players need to be asked to get vocal with teammates, but for the first time I’ve been trying to motivate in rapid-fire Bislama; the de facto main language of Vanuatu. It’s a creole of English and French with a smattering of words borrowed from indigenous languages and my ticket to gaining legitimacy as a Johnny-come-lately to Australian Football in Port Vila.


It’s a false legitimacy really. Enough to get through training and receive generous thanks from the players, however the ultimate reason I’ve been accepted is by the virtue of knowing one woman: Nancy Patterson.







I’m wary of describing Nancy in the tried and tested colloquialisms that cling to inspirational sporting figures. A force of nature, tough as nails, unlikely hero…as they aren’t things I’d say to Nancy in person; but they do describe her and her relationship to the microcosm that is Australian Football in Vanuatu perfectly. Step back and it’s plain that Nancy has risen to her position despite firm barriers: she’s been a single mum of three who left her partner after long-term mistreatment. This was an exceptionally brave action in the deeply religious and patriarchal nation where public discussions on the merits of men’s rights to assault their partners for disciplinary reasons are common and mothers are assumed to be submissive, inactive and not trifle with the businesses of men.


Also, when it comes to sport, soccer is king. Thousands of spectators will turn out to watch an Under 21s match or even local derby, but established sports where Vanuatu regularly punches above its weight such as cricket, volleyball, or table tennis struggle to cut through, meaning Nancy and her colleagues must hustle endlessly for recognition or even survival.


Nancy has drawn on her own experiences to reach out and engage with the community at large, leaping over those barriers and gaining widespread respect along the way.





“Bae yumi wokabaot smol, traem luk nakamal blo smol dadi blo mi”


The all too brief tropical twilight is fading as training winds up. Nancy has help from myself and two junior players to store the equipment in a re-purposed shipping container before shepherding her riotous young flock to a waiting flatbed truck-cum-team bus. The youngsters safely on their way to suburban Mele, Nancy and a small group of women footballers ask me to join them for kava at a nearby nakamal.



Footballs get a long life in Vanuatu [Source: Nancy Patterson]


The nakamal is the standard place for social gatherings in Vanuatu society. Like many such institutions worldwide, it was originally exclusively the domain of powerful men (chiefs) but now the vast majority are open to all. At the nakamal you will find struggling farmers alongside ministers of government and everyone in between, engaging in hushed conversation while accompanied by a steady back-beat of spitting.


Attitudes persist about the supposed poor moral fibre of women who drink kava, but that too is eroding. Nancy doesn’t care what a bunch of men clinging to the past have to say; her mind is far too focused on the future.


“In 10 years’ time AFL Vanuatu will be all over the islands of Vanuatu. We will spread from Efate and start introducing the game in two major towns: Luganville in Santo and Blackman Town in Tanna.”


This is a huge development for any endeavour taking place in the archipelago of 82 islands. Vanuatu’s population is notoriously decentralised, however businesses, media and general infrastructure projects are located almost entirely in Port Vila. Fortunately, Nancy’s infectious optimism is also located in Port Vila.


“My dream is that AFL Vanuatu will grow bigger and bigger in the future. There will be far more people involved in programs and more people actively participating. I can tell that AFL has a bright future in Vanuatu…I see that through future plans, development will also benefit.”


After several shells of kava and some small talk with the owner of the nakamal (Nancy’s uncle) most of the women leave to rejoin their families at home. I’m left talking to Nancy about all things sport in Vanuatu.


She found Australian Football by chance, like so many from outside of our shores. A basketballer of some note (Nancy won a bronze medal representing Vanuatu at the Pacific Mini Games in 2017) it was after a game in the early 2010s that an Australian, Justin Johnson, pulled her aside to chat about an opportunity with AFL Vanuatu. Despite having zero knowledge of the code, Nancy’s natural curiosity & affinity for sport won out and she soon became one of the tiny number of staff at AFL Vanuatu.



Nancy the baller with her cherished bronze medal [Source: Nancy Patterson]


Nancy wasted little time in putting her mark on the organisation, initially playing in the near solely expat-Australian women’s competition alongside her role as chief development officer. In the years since, largely through the force of her will alone, AFL Vanuatu has attracted scores of local Ni-Vanuatu women and girls to join her on the field.


Her affinity for engaging traditionally excluded or marginalised groups extends beyond women alone. A significant part of her time is devoted to involving people with disabilities in the game, highlighted by AFL Vanuatu’s programs at local NGO Wan Smol Bag and Freswota Bilingual School.


We are informed that the familial kava brew is almost finished, putting a ‘last drinks’ style full-stop to our conversation. I bid Nancy farewell as she treks back home through winding unlit paths to her awaiting trio of children.





It’s at the following week’s training when Nancy and I pick up where we left off. I’ll be umpiring this week’s practice match and so I’m free to observe from afar in the warm up. Despite the fact that she is still a young woman, Nancy’s charges of all ages hold her in such reverence that her directions carry the weight of a seasoned veteran coach. Some young men – definitive enfants terrible – listen so attentively to Nancy during drills that their old high school teachers must be weeping.


“Being a development officer in Port Vila and a woman, there are lots of challenges that come across, especially in working in the community with boys of all ages. I feel myself that I am a mother of more than three kids and I share the same love that I feel at home with all of the AFL Vanuatu kids…even the Senior men’s teams!”



Players from Mele Eagles and Malapoa Coconuts (wearing GWS-style guernseys) pose after a game [Source: Nancy Patterson]


At this point, Deago, the youngest of Nancy’s offspring, bounds into our vicinity. He’s a mischievous, energetic boy, demanding the attention of mum while she tracks the progress of the players in front of her. She acquiesces momentarily to gather him up like an errant football; a mother and child embrace with laughter, briefly alone amidst the throaty cacophony of athletes and landmine-like crab holes. Luckily, AFL Vanuatu is a community and Nancy isn’t forced to choose between her boy and her boys, as one member of the resting girls’ team offers to take Deago off Nancy’s hands.


“My two older sons understand the job and I always take them along to AFL Vanuatu events, they’re part of it now.


“I love the Pikinini Kik (Vanuatu’s version of the Auskick junior program), seeing the way the kids feel about the game, smiling and happy. I truly feel within myself that I am a mother of more than three kids.”


Alongside Pikinini Kik, Nancy loves that she’s involved with people with disabilities; engaging and encouraging sports participation, increased activity and if she’s really lucky, some will take a shine to Aussie Rules. As part of a coordinated program with Wan Smol Bag, Freswota School and the Vanuatu Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee (VASANOC), AFL Vanuatu run weekly Pikinini Kik programs for young people with various physical and developmental disabilities.


“It’s the first time a sport has suggested taking the children outside to take part in activities. Their teachers said: ‘Every day our kids spend time inside the classrooms, but they never venture outside to play.’


“It’s the best program – it’s fun! Whenever the kids see me enter the school gate they all run towards me and give me a big hug before we start the program.”



Nancy teaching a youngster the art of the drop punt. [Source: Nancy Patterson]




“Olgeta insaed lo kijen mo man blem i ko aot evridei lo aos”


Perhaps the most important impact of Nancy’s work – albeit mostly unheralded – is just how many ‘mamas’ (generally mothers over the age of 25) she’s been able to find and convince to swap their island dresses for shorts and a jumper. As in Australia, football codes in Vanuatu are historically men’s games, but also like Australia, women’s participation has surged in recent times.


Women who otherwise wouldn’t leave their houses day-to-day can be found leaping for marks, attempting to perfect their drop punts and generally having a ball. There’s a natural camaraderie between team-mates that seems to go above and beyond that of the men’s teams.


Some of the women tell me they hadn’t played any sport since early high school, quite a few have had more than one child and others even have children approaching adulthood. All of them are incredibly thankful for Nancy.



AFL Vanuatu’s women’s squads during preseason training. [Source: Nancy Patterson]


Having been a single mother herself, Nancy is a significant role model for the footy mamas; her work extends past promotion and coaching to umpiring, event scheduling and organising of finances/equipment. All on a shoestring budget.


Like many countries, Vanuatu’s more pressing public health problems revolve around Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. Sedentary lifestyles are more common in women after marriage and there are programs targeted at adult women to combat NCDs in every province.


“We encourage these women to improve their health, with the goal of increased fitness for life and to prevent disease down the track. All of the mamas had been spending their days doing domestic duties while their husbands went out.


“When they get involved with training, you see big smiles and excitement. Some bring their babies down in prams – the senior boys act as babysitters too. My favourite is when a mama gets selected for our local competition and you see her husband and family come to the field to provide support.”


Community mindedness is critical for AFL Vanuatu to achieve its potential; Nancy makes a point that players are selected on both playing ability and character grounds – similar to the infamous ‘no dickheads policy’ of AFL powerhouse the Sydney Swans. Wilful neglect for education or family life is not tolerated.


It seems the enthusiasm and dedication of Nancy and AFL Vanuatu has started to pay off in a small but significant way. Exciting 21-year-old Jesta Toka was invited to train with AFLW side Greater Western Sydney in 2018. Two boys were also selected in the South Pacific Under 16s representative side.





“Yu spel bae yu fatfat”


Despite all she’s managed to pack into her short time with AFL Vanuatu, Nancy won’t be resting on her laurels. More cooperation with other Pacific countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea is being canvased and Nancy is a strong advocate of learning for life, having recently completed courses on management and elite coaching techniques. She’d also love to travel to Australia again, hopefully to see her beloved Richmond Tigers win the premiership once more, but this time in person instead of on a small television screen.


“In 10 years’ time AFL Vanuatu will spread over all the islands of Vanuatu. That’s my dream for this game.”


There’s something considered and reasonable about this statement when Nancy says it; from anyone else it would sound naive and throwaway. I’m not surprised. Nancy embodies the ethos that made the Australian game stand out to begin with – independent, innovative and atypical. I’m appreciative of the chance to watch her help to make it a reality.



Nancy in full flight as the sun sets. [Source: Nancy Patterson]



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A classic jack of all trades & master of a couple, Jarrod started his footy career as a gangly ruck after a growth spurt catapulted him to the lofty heights of 177cm as a 12-year-old. Forward pocket off the bench was where he ended up as he topped out at 178cm eight years later. The trajectory of a career in health fortunately didn't peak during the pre-teen years & a keen interest in footy has turned from playing to coaching, volunteering and writing.


  1. Wonderful story Jarrod. And what an inspirational woman is Nancy! With more people like her in the world, the sooner we’ll overcome the many barriers that currently exist – in all spheres of life. Thank you.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab story JL. Nancy certainly is an inspiration and her story needs to be told.

  3. Thank you Jan and Col for your comments – I agree on both counts; the world would be better off with more Nancys and we should make sure the story of the Nancy we’re lucky to have is shared far and wide!

  4. “infectious optimism”
    Such an apt descriptor for Nancy.

    Thanks, Jarrod. A wonderful read.

  5. Thank you for the support, Smoke. Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Great piece. Privileged to call Nancy a dear friend and among my best memories is that of sitting in a sports bar in Port Vila with her watching her beloved Tigers win the 2017 GF! Only second to the joy of watching her run one of her weekly pikinini kik clinics at a local school.

  7. Thanks for reading Jill, and what a thrill to have seen that drought breaking win with Nancy! Nothing beats the happy kids at the clinics though, I agree.

  8. Thank you for this great article…
    Nancy is a wonderful person.. I’m glad she is highlighted by your words..
    She’s a very kind person who never hesitate to share and give.
    Lot of girl could be inspired by her.. she’s a beautiful person.

  9. She’s made a great impact on many people, hasn’t she Benito? Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the article.

  10. Pikinini KIk – how poetic.
    Love the story and the photos.

  11. Thanks Kate, it’s a clever local spin on things isn’t it? The story was an absolute pleasure to put together, I’m glad you liked it.

  12. Great piece, Jarrod. I remember seeing the familiar goal posts on a visit to Port Vila a few years ago. All strength to Nancy’s arm

  13. Cheers MOC. Yes, they’re pretty clear to see next to one of the main roads close to USP. The crab holes are a little more camouflaged from a distance, however…

  14. Kevin Densley says

    Enjoyable and informative piece, JL, with an appealing warmth! I certainly learnt a fair bit reading it.

  15. Well that’s a wonderful outcome, KD. I hope a few people learn a little about some of our closest neighbours reading our series.

  16. Thanks Jarrod, Great story

  17. Thanks Rodney, much obliged.

  18. Daryl Schramm says

    All of the above. Great read.

  19. Luke Reynolds says

    Jarrod, I’ve read this twice and echo all the above comments. An inspiring story well written.

    Nice to hear Nancy on the Coodabeens on Saturday, as well you getting a shoutout!

  20. Thanks as always for your ongoing support Luke, giving it a second read is telling!

    Yep, despite the first few seconds of awkward radio silence I think she did a fantastic job in what is her third or fourth language – she was pretty nervous leading up to the call too!

    I wasn’t expecting get much of a shoutout, it was a nice surprise that so many of them had read and enjoyed it too.

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