Kevin Wilson: Kevin Wilson’s CommUNITY News no. 1

The board of Tunaniya Open Learning Centre
Greetings from Tunaniya! If you have a map of Bougainville, Tunaniya is probably not shown but is just south of Aropa on the east coast. Talk about beautiful exotic tropical locations- This place looks straight out of a Bond movie! What you won’t get seeing a movie though is the intense sand-fly experience. I came prepared for malarial mozzies but no repellents seem to stop these guys. So far I have had a few infections but nothing too serious..
Also unlike Bond, there are no vodka martinis but the local hombru (read that aloud- you’ll get it) or moonshine is a good, if dangerous, substitute. This is coconut milk fermented to almost pure spirit. It can be used as disinfectant on all those bites.

Of course coconuts are extremely abundant here. In fact this was the largest coconut plantation in the region during the German, then Australian administrations. This history has provided Tunaniya village with a degree of infrastructure in the form of concrete foundations, wells, septic tanks and drains. All these have been made good use of in building the Centre.

Doing any sort of business in Bougainville is very difficult. Buka (in the north) was the only town not destroyed during the Crisis and so it remains the only place in Bougainville with reliable electricity, a bank, post office and a working airfield. This is despite the fact that most of the population is centred around Arawa, a very 70’s western style town built to serve the Panguna mine. Buka is a very rough 4 hour Landcruiser drive from Arawa, weather permitting. From Tunaniya it’s a day trip so we don’t get our letters often!

Recently a communications centre (or internet café) has been set up in Arawa using generator power and a few phone lines. My process of emailing this note now is to save it to a memory stick and copy it to the web when I next visit Arawa. Naturally bandwidth here is very slow and frustrating when you are not used to it. It reminds me of the early web days! I will probably need to spend 20 minutes and 10 kina to get this through. My old company in Australia would find the communications situation intolerable, but it has made me appreciate what it must have been like for volunteers before the days of email and mobile phones. Even today there are many aid assignments completely cut off.

Any difficulties though are more than made up for here by the people. I knew to disregard all the dire warnings I was given by friends in Australia and PNG about coming here, but I was still unprepared for the fact that the Bougainvillians are certainly the most friendly, vibrant and hopeful community I have come across in my travels. I have made a great many friends here since I arrived and feel welcome everywhere I go. This does not happen in Sydney! The kids are always fun but I particularly enjoy meeting the older people who have seen so much change and impart many wise insights. Often their conversation reveals the high standard of education which the missions provided “in the good old days”. My friend Paul for example is both a subsistence farmer and a scholar of Greek and Latin. We have had many discussions on the Classical Word, the Reformation and Calvanism! You won’t find that in Lonely Planet!

I have made a great many friends here since I arrived and feel welcome everywhere I go.

Combining traditional and modern building techniques
To work. So far in my official role as Program Co-ordinator for the Open Learning Centre I feel little more than a typist. It can be mundane but my regular visits to village schools are a welcome exception. The people are very surprised and delighted that a masta (yes- it makes me cringe but they still call us that!) is happy to hike to their ples. In turn it is encouraging to see the enthusiastic commitment to education displayed by students and teachers alike, despite a chronic lack of resources. In Domakuung village, there are 57 adult students and often just one teacher using only one proper classroom and two converted shelters. Attendance is usually 100%.

As often happens, it is in the unofficial extra-curricular activities where one makes a real contribution. Since this is a rural environment with few medical facilities, I have provided first aid at a number of accidents. After the initial shock and panic, it is very rewarding to receive a thankful smile from my “patient” when they are bandaged up. Many of the locals had never seen CPR performed before I used it and would now like me to train them in life saving! This needs caution: I’m a qualified First Aider but not a First Aid Trainer so it won’t be a certificate course!
Unfortunately though we did lose someone- a determined suicide by overdose. Apparently suicide is a widespread but generally unspoken problem here. Hopefully it can be addressed through education and open discussion.

Death always seems very close here, but as Fred Smith says Life seems much grander too. Many occasions lately have the stamp of history being made before our eyes. The first Bougainville Remembrance Day commemoration on May 17 was a moving experience. It gave me an insight into what the first ANZAC Day ceremonies were like: All the veterans are still quite young men, and tributes to the fallen were laid not just by widows and children, but parents and grandparents as well. It hits home just how devastating a war is to all aspects of life. I had the humbling honour of helping to prepare the Day’s program and was asked to provide a suitable reflective phrase or ode. I came up with:

That we may have a better life
They gave us their own.
We owe it to Them!

Participants at the 88th Orientation Course
And on the day everyone took it to heart and made it their own! I have to pinch myself sometimes: Did I just coin the “Lest We Forget” of Bougainville?
How have I fared personally? It’s becoming a cliché to say this, but the Palms Orientation was the best preparation for this experience. Even so, I probably made myself too aware of the “Culture Shock Bell Curve”. My own emotional graph looks rather more like the NASDAQ. Earlier travel in PNG had given me a love of Melanesian culture which has only grown here but I was surprised at just how strong feelings of homesickness could be. Often we must leave our home environment to really appreciate the things and especially the people -in both cultures- which really matter. The journal has certainly had a workout! Skimming through it now, it seems to express more inner feelings and reflections. Hopefully there will be space left for external experience!
Being the only westerner in my area (and always willing to a fault) meant cultural immersion was swift and deep. The continual building program in Tunaniya was a great opportunity to learn traditional construction and other bushcrafts while integrating with the community. My grandfather would have loved this! Ironically I also worked in familiar areas such as plumbing and concreting which I have never done in Sydney.

Sam said he had not known any other Australians to live at such a “Bougainvillian” level. By no means am I anything special but I cannot think of a more encouraging compliment to any volunteer. Admittedly though sometimes it would still be nicer to eat more than boiled kaukau and have power at least daily! Sorry, I lie- my diet has included occasional pig, shark, turtle and cuscus.

There are many ongoing challenges —physical, personal, business and practical, even some dangers- but I have no regrets that I came. On Remembrance Day I remarked to the Police Sergeant “I think we’re on the verge of real improvement here.” “I agree!” was his reply and the many exciting developments in Bougainville since that landmark day are proving this correct. There is such a positive vibe in the air! If there is any time to be in Bougainville it is now!

My warmest regards to all at Palms and especially to those working in the field. Very special wishes too to the volunteers and staff from the July ’08 Orientation. I often think back to our intense “bonding session” and reflect on how far we have come already. In many diverse places and roles we still have a common journey, so with you I share this observation:
In Bougainville a mandarin will be perfectly ripe and sweet even though the skin is still green, yet a banana may not ripen until it is almost black, then it quickly decays. The result of our efforts may arrive sooner, or later, than we expect. We might not even be around when it does, but know it will happen and it will be sweet.

add to Digg it Stumble It! reddit facebook TwitterSHARE THIS PAGE

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. - African proverb