I was in a meeting in Wellington thoroughly enjoying the harangue directed at the collected Vice- Chancellors of NZ by the Prime Minister David Lange – it was the famous occasion on which the VC’s, spread across the front row and collectively attempted to demolish Lange’s plans for reforms only to be beaten down by the Prime Minister who boomed out “I’m not afraid of you, you’re just a gang of bikies in suits!”
I remember this because just after that an official from the Department (I think it was just before Tomorrow’s Schools elevated education to a Ministry), awkwardly shuffled up the row I was seated in to say he needed to talk with me, right now. I had no idea what it was about or who he was.
It turned out that he was an official from Education who was responsible for liaison with Foreign Affairs and his request was an off to me to take up a contract to go up to the Solomon Islands as the New Zealand English Consultant – three weeks that were to introduce me to the Solomons and start a six-year period of my life that saw me up there two or three times each year. “What were the expectations as to outcomes?” I ask. “See what seems useful once you are there – they haven’t a consultant for a few years and we have some money, enough for two visits this year,” I am told.
The key event of the visit was a weeklong meeting of all the English teachers in the Solomons held in the middle week of the three-week period to give the government time to collect them all from the outlying islands and deliver them back for the next term – a vast undertaking for a fleet of rather small boats. When they gathered and I was able to meet them, they turned out to be a group of keen and dedicated teachers – native teachers, ex-patriots, young and pld, a group of teachers of wide dispositions. Some were missionaries, some were highly trained citizens, some were very young indeed – most had been working with few resources and with not much guidance. It was a privilege to undertake this assignment.
The islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal had both been hit seriously by Cyclone Namu some months earlier. Damage was severe, especially the coastal roads that ran alongside the ocean and therefore were positioned close to the water’s edge. The officials wished to have me see as much as possible and that led to a request that I make a visit to Malaita to be a special guest at a Prizegiving that Namu had made impossible to hold earlier. This was to be somewhat difficult logistically and involved a flight – leaving Henderson Field (a famous airfield in the Pacific War) at one end, and at the other landing on a small strip that went from one beach across the island to a beach across the island to the other side. There then followed a fifteen-hour canoe trip in a fibre glass boat/canoe driven by a teacher who went on to be a significant academic in New Zealand, Professor Kabini Sanga. I was nervous about this especially when Kabini slowed the open boats down to throughfully tell me that “We usually see sharks around about here.”
Over years when I was engaged with the Solomons, I enjoyed opportunity and excitement.
It pains me greatly to see the suffering that they must now endure and wonder why for the second time in their recent past that they have felt the need to take extreme measures to reconcile the disparate factions and views of people who are drawn into a country mostly by the pen of some British diplomat who had decided that this long straggling chain of islands would be one country!
O returning to my day job in New Zealand (training English teachers exhorted the students who were heading to teach English to consider not teaching the book that was A Pattern of Islands, Arthur Grimble’s story of his time in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. These islands are now called Kiribati and Tuvalu. And did you know that the movie South Pacific (1958) was based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein (1949) musical which in turn was loosely based around James A. Michener (1947) short story collection Tales of the South Pacific. As T.S.Eliot said – “Human Kind cannot bear very much reality.”
I can’t help thinking that different ethnicities need to be left to work in their own ways, a visit from a consultant doesn’t really solve it.