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What’s it like to live in the happiest place on earth? Sarasota native Sophie Hollingsworth can tell you.

After attending Pine View School, Hollingsworth went on to get her bachelor’s degree at New York University in environmental science and global public health. A Fulbright recipient, she’s on track to start her master’s degree in Sydney, Australia, next year, and she's also the founder of AquaAid International, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to countries that need it most.

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Sophie Hollingsworth

From August through September of this year, though, she lived in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu—named one of the happiest places on Earth—working with a previously undocumented group of female chiefs, or ngwotaris. “I’m fascinated by remote cultures and the astounding diversity of life,” Hollingsworth says, “so when the opportunity arose [to go to Vanuatu], I took it.”

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In Vanuatu, on the island of Maewo, Hollingsworth spent her days among the ngwotaris, rising with roosters and crying babies in the morning and living the life of a local. “Usually someone will make bread for breakfast, then the women will do the washing, sit and chat and make lunch,” Hollingsworth says. “Then there’s weaving under the palm trees and water collection. Later, dinner will be served, they might sing a bit and then they’ll go to sleep and do it all over again the next day. It’s a brilliantly simple, sustainable way of life.”

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Maewo is matrilineal, Hollingsworth says, meaning that lineage, birthright and social status are traced on the mother’s side. And, she says, on the island “women are valued as leaders because they hold much of the traditional knowledge that men need.”

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However, she adds, many women in Vanuatu are caught between trying to maintain their traditional roles to carry on centuries-old customs while at the same time being drawn toward modern female values of independence. And though Vanuatu is a happy place, Hollingsworth says, on some islands women are still forbidden from speaking in public disputes, and there are cases of public stoning, as well has high rates of violence and sexual abuse against women.

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But Hollingsworth says her biggest takeaway has been that “developmental aid is not always the answer.”

“The people of Maewo don’t have modern conveniences not because they’re incapable of achieving them,” she says, “they’re just not considered necessary. They have their solar lights, a lovely breeze, education their children would find useful, traditional healers and roads for trucks to use when necessary. Anything else takes away from their way of life—and with a life expectancy of 71, in a place continually voted the happiest place on earth, they’re obviously doing something right.”

You can read more about Hollingsworth and her travels on her blog, The Sofia Log

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