Monday, 9 November 2015

I'm terrible at goodbyes...

I can’t quite believe it, but in one and a half days I will be leaving Bougainville. 


This has been such an adventure. I find it incredibly hard to put my experiences in to words, but I am going to try. Because Bougainville has so changed me, and I am not returning back to New Zealand the same woman that left nine months ago. I need to be able to articulate that, even if only for myself. 

This time last year, I received a call from VSA about an assignment they had available for me – “How would you feel about volunteering in Bougainville?” Like most New Zealanders who didn't hear of the Bougainville Crisis in the late 1990s, I had to Google it to gain an understanding (past having read Mister Pip) of these small islands. Thereafter followed three months of frantic medical checks, packing, security briefings, and goodbyes. Finally, nine months ago, I left New Zealand. I wrote in my journal at the time “Can I do this? Have I the strength to pick up and leave for ten months, to go to such a vastly different place? Fuck Olivia. You must be crazy.” I chose to leave behind my family, Dan, my friends, and the familiar, to pursue a dream and to throw myself headfirst in to the unknown. And I am so, so glad that I did. 

I feel like Bougainville has stripped me down and shone a light on who I am, and what is important. Coming here, witnessing a country rebuilding itself after decades of conflict and unrest, and seeing people working to improve healthcare, education, employment opportunities and governance, has led me to radically reconsider my assumptions about development and aid. Showering with buckets of well water during a drought and sitting through regular power cuts, has led me to assess my own privilege and the inherent inequality of our global economic systems. Experiencing times of intense loneliness and isolation has required that I build up resilience. Walking to work every day and seeing a sea of plastic bags and soft drink cans has shone a light on my romanticised view of the Pacific, leading me to think critically about waste management, the epidemic of diabetes in countries even as heavily subsistence-based as Papua New Guinea, and the way that we simplify our ideas of the Pacific islands and helpfully ignore the ugly corners of this beautiful region. Living and working in Bougainville has by far been the hardest thing I have ever done. 


It has also been one of the most liberating and empowering things I have ever done. Standing on the edge of what was once the largest open-cast copper mine in the world, which sparked a decade-long civil war, humbled me. Seeing a culturally-specific, community-led reconciliation process in action, amazed me. Creating meaningful and life-giving relationships with both Bougainvilleans and other foreigners sustained me. Swimming in pristine waters, with clown fish and water snakes, watching marlin soar out of the ocean and dolphins glide by, has made me profoundly grateful. Climbing the mountains and staying in a remote village overlooking an active volcano took my breath away. Eating fresh food grown by people living sustainably and retaining their language and culture has opened my eyes to ideas of holistic and sustainable development. Working with Bougainvilleans who are desperate to bring peace and self-determination to their own people has inspired me. Doing something by myself; creating something and being open to new dreams, new possibilities, new experiences, exhilarated me and made me stronger, more confident, more independent. 

I am both excited and terrified to return to New Zealand. I will be returning to a new job, a new flat, in a familiar place, but I feel so changed. I am looking forward to the opportunities ahead, and I am anxious about the transition back to such a busy, technology-saturated, over-privileged lifestyle. I’m also incredibly sad. I am sad to be leaving such a unique, inimitable place; to be leaving friends behind; to close the door on such a short but rich chapter of my life. I would love to return to Bougainville one day, but the possibility of that happening in the near future is slim. However, I have high hopes for Bougainville in the next decades; they will be a time of rapid change and political uncertainty, but Bougainville has a unique opportunity to ‘do development’ in a different way to other countries; it has an opportunity to retain the culture and values and the passion that underlies the Bougainvillean psyche, while benefiting from the physical and social infrastructure that could improve people’s lives. 

I have met wonderful people in Bougainville, and I feel like I have come out the other side of my experience a better person because of all the wisdom and kindness shown to me this year. Despite the sadness at leaving, I am also looking forward to returning to NZ again. I am especially excited to drink flat whites and have hot showers! I suppose if I have learned anything through this experience, it is that life is short, that we are more courageous than we realise, and that we all share this world, in all it's beauty and pain.

Arohanui, Bougainville. Mi laikim yu tumas!! 

Women at a market in Central Bougainville | photo by Vasti Woest
The boat stop and ferry in Buka | photo by Vasti Woest

Young guys in the back of a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) | photo by Vasti Woest

A typical roadside petrol station in Buka (note the old-school pump and drums of petrol in the open - all administered by a young guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth!) | photo by Vasti Woest
My final weekend in Buka | photo by Vasti Woest

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Jungles and volcanoes {photo essay}

My mum, Anna, and my cousin, Robyn, visited me in Bougainville for 10 days. It was so fantastic having family around, and taking the opportunity to have a few adventures! Once they arrived I took them on a hike through the Bougainvillean jungle with Rotokas Ecotourism, a fantastic local tourism initiative run by communities in Wakunai, Central Bougainville. After a few nights in the mountains of Rotokas, we spent some time in Buka and then headed for a relaxing few days at Rapopo Plantation Resort in Kokopo, East New Britain Island.

We had the most awe-inspiring and challenging few days at Rotokas. After catching a Land Cruiser PMV two hours south of Buka to Wakunai, we jumped on the back of a ute and headed an hour up the mountains to Ruruvu, following the Wakunai river. Perched on the tray of the ute as it traversed up and down the mountain roads, through rivers and under immense trees was vaguely terrifying. At Ruruvu (400m above sea level, a big village of 600 people) we met our guides, Amos and Pedro, and started walking further up the mountain to our destination, Sisivi (800m, 300 people). The walk took about 2 hours, a steady climb kicking off with a river crossing in which the water came up to my hips! Pedro, who owns Rotokas Ecotourism, was a fantastic guide, regaling us with stories of the history of the area, including where the WWII bunkers used by American and Japanese soliders were, able to tell us the local name for every tree and every creature. Finally, we arrived at Sisivi. Such a beautiful little village! All bamboo-walled huts, with beautiful gardens, perched on a little peak, with Mt Balbi rising behind it with such strength on one side, and the active volcano Mr Bagana smoking on the other side. To the east the jungle rolls down to the ocean and in the evening we sat outside while bats swooped only a few metres above us.

We slept in a basic Bougainvillean hut; bamboo walls, floors made from the trunk of the sago palm and sago palm leaves on the roof. I managed to sleep a few hours on my thin mattress on the floor, despite the mouse running across my forehead! On Wednesday morning we explore the waterfalls; we walked through some beautiful cascades, amongst giant ferns and vines hanging down from the trees, emerald water flowing over beautiful, ancient stones which the locals use to sharpen their knives. The scenery was absolutely stunning, and just amazed me. To be so far from Buka, and so far away from the nearest shops, up a tiny mountain track in the middle of the jungle, was incredible. I thought I’d seen it all, and then we crossed another river and came upon a beautiful waterfall. The water roared over the rocks and created a huge foaming pool 10 metres below, settling in to a gorgeous aqua pool and continuing over smooth, grey boulders to the river below. We took our shoes off on a little grassy patch under a shady tree and jumped in; I swam under the waterfall and climbed the rocks, and savoured the bite of the river after 7 months of swimming in a luke-warm ocean.

In the afternoon we sat with Pedro's wife, Josephine, and his daughter as they taught us to weave baskets. It was lovely, especially after the previous day travelling and a morning of walking and swimming for three hours. We also ate well; beautiful fresh organic vegetables cooked traditionally in bamboo over the fire and delicious fresh baked bread. Then we walked back down the mountain, through the river again, and stayed the night at Ruruvu before catching an open-back truck from Wakunai to Buka. Two hours on a dusty plank seat that I am not sad to leave behind!

After a weekend recovering from our intrepid journey in Buka, we headed off to Kokopo. Our stay in Rapopo was beautiful, a taste of luxury that is hard to find in Bougainville. We lay by the pool, drank cold beer while watching the sunset, visited extensive tunnel systems from the Japanese occupation during WWII and saw otherworldly volcanoes and hot springs at Rabaul. 

I had such a fantastic time with family, and have returned to work with renewed motivation and an excited to finish my project, something that seems so achievable after 7 long months of hard work! I have some exciting potential opportunities that may come up upon my return back to NZ, and now it feels like my final weeks in Bougainville are flying by. How can I even put in to words how much I love this beautiful country and it's wonderful people?! I can't begin to do justice to how much this year has shaped me, but in my next blog post - possibly my final blog post in Buka - I will try.

Enjoy the photos below!

Crossing the Wakunai River 

Amos and Pedro, our wonderful guides, with Robyn, me and Mum upon arriving at Sisivi

A view of the mountains and the distant Wakunai coastline from our hut

Showering under a piped spring, bush-style!

Beautiful cascades

Men from Sisivi, Rotokas

Mum and I visited Callan School in Buka, where another VSA volunteer Vasti works as a teacher. It was Teachers' Week and they invited Mum to speak about why she decided to be a teacher. She was great!

Sunset over Kokopo town

Kokopo markets - so many mangoes!

Southern Daughter in the background, a dormat volcano, with the active Tavuvur in the foreground and the beautiful hot springs. This site was formerly the old Rabaul CBD, before it was destroyed by a 1994 eruption.
My beautiful mother, with our lobster for dinner on her final night in PNG!

Gorgeous cousin Robbie, outside the old New Guinea Club in old Rabaul town.

Sunday, 13 September 2015


The past few months have been full of emotion, yet I have been struggling to articulate my experiences. After several attempt at writing esoteric, philosophical blog posts and hating the end result, I decided to just write an update, without trying to turn my experiences in to a lessons learned, or epiphanies about the meaning of life. The result of this is the following blog post; just me, what I’ve been doing, how I feel, and not much else.

In July I spent a lot of time missing Dan and filing. The Archives Office is implementing a new classification system, which involved Michael and I re-classifying and re-labelling some 2000 or so files so that we can transition to a new database. This is a huge job, and while important, it’s mind-numbingly mundane. Thankfully, the monotony was broken by a few VSA volunteers from East New Britain visiting Bougainville and staying with me. I have always lived with family, or flatmates, and one of the hardest things about this year has been the isolation that comes with living alone. The pain of this isolation is sharpened by the fact that in Buka, there isn’t a lot to do outside of working and going to the market. I spend a lot of time hanging out (read: drinking on my balcony) with Bryn and other migrant workers (read: expats), but I still find the solitary nature of living alone unbearable at times. There are only so many books you can read, movies you can watch, and journal entries you can write, before you start talking to yourself a lot more than usual. Having friends to come and stay was such a relief for me; a month of various visitors to fill my house with laughter and conversation, and put my soul at ease. In particular, having Laura and Hadleigh from Wellington come stay, was wonderful. We spent late nights lying on the couches and discussing life, religion, love, travel. I felt at home amongst similar-minded people…bliss.

Me and Laura in my office; you can see the filing work has resulted in a chaotic mess of files. Photo courtesy of Hadleigh Tiddy.

After three days of this, as well as wonderful hugs from Laura (I’m starved of physical contact!), I received a call from Mum; my Baba (Dad’s mother) was sick, and the family was all flying over to Launceston, Tasmania, to be with her. The doctor didn’t think she would make it through this illness, after various other illnesses in the past. After an evening of frantic emails and calls to the travel agent and Mum and Dad, I decided to fly to Tasmania also. It was exorbitantly expensive to get from Buka to Tasmania, and required two to three days of flights and stop-overs, but I needed to go. I hadn’t seen Baba in two and a half years, and had been planning on visiting her on my way home from Bougainville in December. I hated the idea of her dying without me seeing her, saying goodbye, and being there to support Dad. So, the next morning I flew out of Buka, stayed a night in Port Moresby, and was in Tasmania the following afternoon.

I was so overwhelmed to be in Australia. Skyscrapers, flat whites, huge supermarkets with thousands of products, busy streets and footpaths and people who didn’t say “avinun” and smile as they walked past you; overwhelming levels of wealth, efficient airports, all kinds of restaurants with all kinds of food, shops that sold everything. When I arrived in Bougainville I didn’t feel too overwhelmed with culture shock, but arriving back in Australia just knocked me off balance. It was incredibly difficult to adjust to a culture that was so prosperous and had such easy access to amenities after having spent the previous six months in a town that had water shortages, power cuts, poor internet coverage and people living in villages, living subsistence lifestyles. It made me realise that for all my homesickness, when I actually return to New Zealand I’m going to be in for a shock. I don’t think it’s possible to live in a country such as PNG, where 80% of people still live in rural villages and so many people have such a hard time accessing quality education and healthcare services, and transition back to life in New Zealand effortlessly.

Seeing my family was incredible; when I left New Zealand, I didn’t anticipate seeing them until the end of this year, and yet here they were as I walked up the stairs in to the Launceston Airport arrivals lounge; Mum in her red coat, smiling and waving and crying; Dad in the background, looking mighty pleased, Veronica receiving my euphoric hug with her typical PDA-averse grin. I think I really needed them at this point in my assignment. The past months had been difficult, with my work satisfaction levels flagging and no holiday in sight. Being surrounded by people I loved, who looked after me and loved me, was so soul-restoring. No matter how old I get, nothing quite beats a hug from my Mum or Dad.

The Tamar River, which my Baba lived beside in Launceston.

Baba had pneumonia and was very weak when I first arrived. She was awake, however, and I was able to tell her I was there, I had missed her, I loved her. I told her about Bougainville, about the bright flowers she would love to see, about the beautiful parrots and the stunning Bougainvillea that was just blooming. Over the next few days she slipped away from us and on the morning of August 15 she passed away. From the moment we arrived until the moment she died, Baba always had one of us there with her. She was an incredible woman; born in Melbourne, she was one of the first Australian women to join the Royal Australian Air Force and she spent the WWII years as an aircraft mechanic in Northern Queensland. She faced incredibly tough times and poor health but she pushed through, raising two boys, becoming an award-winning gardener and writing her first book aged 92. She was determined, intelligent, loving, and extremely witty. I’m so glad that I got to be with her before she died, despite the difficulties of getting there. 

After the funeral I flew back to Buka. It was a shock to be back; after spending two weeks surrounded by family, in an environment of love and care and remembering, I was back in my house, all alone, missing my family and not wanting to go back to filing records. It took a while to get back in to the swing of things; eventually, going to work, walking to the market and buying my vegetables for dinner, passing the weekends by with pot lucks and episodes of Parks and Recreation, all became normal again. In the past few weeks the Media and Communications team at work has been holding community awareness workshops in Haku, a northern district on Buka Island. I’ve been able to travel with them and talk to people about the Archives Office and the importance of records management in Bougainville. People have really been engaging with us and many people have a lot to say on the importance of retaining Bougainvillean history and custom in this rapidly developing region. If I had the capacity, I would run community workshops all over Bougainville and work with people to preserve local history and oral traditions, but we just don’t have the resources or funding to do that. So, we take baby steps and do what we can within central government. 

Moses, the community liaison officer for the Bureau of Media and Communication, speaking during our awareness workshop in Lemanmanu, Haku COE.
A group of boys from Tung village, Buka.

So now it’s already half-way through September and I only have around two and a half months left in Bougainville. It is very strange to think of my assignment here finishing up. I feel like I haven’t achieved much, but I suppose the research project, the file classification, the Human Rights Film Festival and the policy work I’ve done with Michael isn’t insignificant. There is a lot more work to get done before I leave! Mum and my cousin Robyn are coming to visit in two weeks, and once that holiday is over it’ll be no time before I’m home. Being in this time and place, I feel every emotion under the sun; exhaustion from the struggle that is working and living in such a different environment, in awe of the beauty of Bougainville, desperate to get home to Dan, excited to see my family, stressed about job hunting, lucky to have had such an amazing experience, ambivalent about preparing to leave behind friends (and the dogs). I am aware that I want to fit as many experiences and memories in to these next few months; they will be over too soon. In which case, hopefully my next blog post won’t be too far away.

Saturday, 29 August 2015


Thunder rolls, breaking and exploding through the thick grey clouds. As the torrential downpour ceases, young boys kick a football around on the grass between the houses and lopsided cooking sheds that lie underneath hanging electrical wires. The young bodies throw themselves towards the ball, brown limbs and flashes of white soles as they run, fixated. A goal is scored and they whoop, one cartwheeling, another attempting a one-handed handstand, showing off for invisible spectators. The game ceases momentarily as the ball flies over a hedge and against the mosquito-netted veranda of the town pharmacist. A lithe body runs through the trees, throws the ball back and the game instantly continues. Fat, lethargic rain drops slowly slide off the leaves of banana trees, and sleeping bats hide from the rain under the fronds of the coconut tree.

I walk down the main street in Buka, beads of sweat wearily rolling down my spine. The market on my left hand side, it’s high, woven dome sheltering women from the heat. Piles of mango and coconut amongst the elongated eggplants, yellow tomatoes, tiny capsicum, and endless piles of choko, ibica, cabbage and pumpkin tips, green leaves spilling out from tightly wound vines onto the abraded concrete floor. To my left, the bright signage of Chinese-owned trade stores and men taking refuge from the sun under the narrow awnings, exhaling exhaustion and spitting the juice of the buai on to the dust. Viscous, crimson marks on the white coral road. Further on, the boat stop, full of banana boats jostling for a position in the small bay. Some are loaded with rice and beer to take to the mainland, some full of school children, so packed that six-year-olds perch on the bow like minute figureheads. Skippers converse with no words; a raised eyebrow, a tilt of the head, a brief hand gesture, and the chaos is transformed in to a complex ballet of churning motors and imperceptible motions. 


The temperature has dropped and the clouds have been hanging low for weeks. The hot, thick, searingly blue heat that I love has turned in to a grey, humid, heavy lethargy. The cooler weather has brought the rarely-heard song of the cicada out of the fractured and thirsty ground, a sound that makes my heart ache for New Zealand. We haven’t had a proper rain in a long time. People dig wells in their back yard in the anxious struggle to find water, while the newspaper stories outline failed crops, uncommonly cold frosts, schools having to shut early to allow children to go home to search for water. Brightly-coloured buckets stand guard around the house, collecting the last few drops of water that fall from the gutters high above. I sit and watch the droplets painstakingly hang on to the rusting aluminium and finally, slowly, fall in to the buckets. The air smells sweet and as I breathe in the rainforest and smoking rubbish and the ancient reef and damp grass, I listen to the cicada and think of the brackish wind that means home, of standing atop the hills at Makara, of feeling like I could be the only person left in this world.

Sunday, 23 August 2015


I fly through the air at 4000km per hour, the red earth I had returned to hurtling below, eucalyptus dotting the ancient earth. Tired, dried out husks bearing the weight of the world. I am leaving again, but now I don’t have anything to return to. She had been a constant. She had sat in her armchair, fingers embraced by golden rings; a colour for the ages, so she said; she had sat amongst the trees which bowed to the river and the sun, boughs of green and then grey and then green again, seasons changing and still she sat amongst her gold. Then she moved and again she sat, this time surrounded by three small walls and one of roses, sitting amongst papers and that which she loved; and then she lay down, and she didn’t sit up again. I flew to her, over the banana trees and coconut, over the deep green of the sea, and then over that red earth and over the dry eucalyptus. She lay amongst us and we didn’t leave her; we whispered and laughed and cried and we massaged her feet and stroked back her hair and we kissed her forehead and we said things we felt guilty for, as she lay with her eyes hooded and mouth agape, each breath accompanied with a deep rasp, a clenching of life in her fists, a refusal to go without a fight. I sat and I whispered to her; “I love you, I have been so shaped by you, I didn’t even know you, but I knew you were in me.” As I watched her cheeks sink and her chest fall with each moan, I couldn’t help but think of the dog we’d had amongst the bananas and coconuts, whose chest had fallen and eyes had faded in the same way. But that dog had died quickly, with no one to mourn as the edge of the spade fell from the hands of the villager. Perhaps it had been surprised at this final betrayal. Its bones and the skin that held them together had ceased to shudder, and as I watched her eyes slowly lose focus and forget me, her fingers with their golden rings loosen their grip on mine, I absurdly thought of the fall of the spade and that dog with the kind eyes and the heaviness in my heart. And then she was gone. Her papers and her room and the pungent sweat and incense and smell of sickness ceased, replaced with stripped sheets and second hand donations and the unsettling feeling that I hadn’t cried enough. Yet I loved her, and had been shaped by her. So now I fly over the red earth and the eucalyptus, this land I never really claimed but always felt a part of, unable to brush the ochre dust off of my palms, relishing the dry, acrid taste of the bush on my tongue. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Five Reasons Everyone Should Move to Another Place in Their 20s

At the tender age of 23, I have moved away from ‘home’ twice - first from Auckland to Wellington to go to university, and then to Bougainville, to pursue my ‘dream job’. I stayed in Wellington for four years, and it was in Wellington that I became an adult, so to speak. I fell in love; with guys, with development studies, with the city, with new friends. I was able to reinvent myself in a way that I had yearned for all throughout high school; to leave behind the people who had known me all through my awkward teenage years and had me labelled, to pursue my passions without being compared to a version of me I had long outgrown. While I still treasured the old friendships that survived the geographical distance, and missed my family like crazy, it was in Wellington that I tried, failed, learned, and discovered who I really wanted to be.

But then I got itchy. After four years of university, of living in the same suburb, of eating at the same burger joints and drinking the same (admittedly amazing) coffee, I wanted a change. I found myself making an even bigger move; to the post-conflict, ‘under-developed’ islands of Bougainville. This move has by far been one of the biggest challenges of my life so far. In all honesty, I have found it lonely, and difficult, and painful at times. But while I’ve been here, I’ve thought a lot about where home is; where do I belong, where do I want to settle down, and how can I be the best possible version of me? I’ve come to the conclusion that moving away, geographically, can be one of the most empowering things a 20-something-year-old can do. Of course, some people in their 20s have responsibilities that hold them to a particular place like children, or a mortgage. I am also aware that travel can be a huge privilege in terms of money unless, like me, you move somewhere through a volunteer position, or with a job to go to. But if you are able to, I highly recommend challenging yourself and leaving your comfort zone for the following five reasons.

1. Self-discovery

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
There is nothing quite like walking down the street, or sitting on a beach in a completely new place, and realising that people don’t know who you are, where you’re from, who your parents are…and they probably couldn’t care less. You now have a new blank canvas on which to draw a picture of yourself. Whatever you want to be and do, you now have all the chances to explore and create without any influences from people you grew up with. 

At first, this can be a lonely experience. When I first moved away from Auckland, I called my mum every night sobbing and wanting to come home. But little by little I discovered that ‘alone’ didn’t necessarily always have to mean ‘lonely’ and that actually, being alone is when you are able to really get to know yourself best. In a new place, you can build a whole new ecosystem around you — be it new friends, a new job, a new flat, new flatmates. You get to really follow your heart and your instinct and, having now seen how huge the world is around you, you can decide on the place you want to occupy within it.

2. Independence

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine
When we first move away from our parents, we relish our newfound independence and think we’ve made it; in the wise words of one of my friends, we “learn how to adult”. But every time you move away, whether it be out of home, or away from your support system of friends, we gain a little more self-reliance. 

Being independent takes courage to face your fears and face the unfamiliar. When you move to a new place, the unfamiliarity can be terrifying and incredibly debilitating. But when you practice courage, overcoming your fears becomes easier. Soon you will be discovering the new streets alone, talking to new people, learning to a new public transport system and ordering foreign food in a new language. When you don’t have family nearby to help or familiarity to fall back on, but still succeed and come out stronger, you get to say things like “I CAN DO ANYTHING!!” (I say this as a mantra quite often. Sorry/not sorry). 

3. Relationships

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” – Wendell Berry
While this is third on my list, I honestly think it is the most incredible and important aspect of life itself. But I think that in order to have healthy and life-giving relationships, you have to learn to love yourself first; hence the number three.

With each friend who didn’t grow up in the same place as you, with a similar socioeconomic background, you can learn so much and develop a much more open mind. This is relevant in both overseas and within New Zealand – until I moved to Wellington, the majority of my friends were Pākehā, middle-class and straight. Now, I have a beautiful and diverse group of friends who have supported me, opened my eyes to different experiences and helped me grow into who I am. Moving to another country is even more of a learning-curve regarding relationships. It is your friends in your new home country that will be the ones to teach you how to cook with local ingredients, what is a socially acceptable way to interact with other people, or where the hidden local gems are that the tourists don’t know about. And it is these new friends who will open your eyes to how the world works outside of yourself, and help you realise the common bond we share with all living beings; not just our fellow country-people.

4. Adventure

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller
You likely have a social pattern with your old circle of friends back home: Friday dinners in a certain suburb, drinks at your favorite bar, weekend trips to the markets, a recipe for every social gathering developed over years of interactions. These routines can be wonderful, and I miss them so much, but are they really stretching and exciting you?

I remember my first breath of Bougainvillean air as I stepped out of the airplane; sweet, wet, hot air, full of rainforest and smoke and dusty smells. For me, that is the smell of adventure. To live adventurously is to look every opportunity in the eye and say yes. This time last year, I couldn’t say that I had been trawling for yellowfin tuna, snorkelling with clownfish and giant clams, seen a huge marlin soar out of the water, or kayaked in to the sunset in the New Guinea Islands. But now I have, and I am so grateful for those opportunities. Adventure doesn’t have to mean running away from your friends and family to a different place. But it definitely means taking stock of your life, and making a decision to challenge yourself.

5. Home

"I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself." - Maya Angelou 
When I was growing up in Auckland, I was always wishing I was everywhere else, but now that I live far away, I look forward to my time there. I love spending time with my family, catching up with old friends, and just enjoying the place for what it is. Someday, I might return home (except I’m not sure where that is anymore) and put down roots, but for now, there is too much to discover on thie breath-taking planet of ours. They say home is where the heart is; I say the heart can be in many different places. Home is subjective concept, constantly changing as you change yourself. Being away from everything you know and love can have such a clarifying effect on your thoughts and values. And who knows – perhaps once you leave you’ll realise where home is for you after all, wherever that may be.

This post was written with inspiration from the following articles:

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

simplicity | complicity

People tell me that I must enjoy living in Bougainville, because "life must be so much simpler." I find this view interesting; so many people from ‘highly developed’ (I use this word with a full awareness of the shortfalls and assumptions that accompany the word developed) societies seem to romanticise the lives of those who live in subsistence-based societies. Our understanding of the wider Pacific region comes mainly from tourism brochures, in which happy brown people serve delicious food to tanned white people lying on a picture-perfect beach, or from the news, which only shows stories from the Pacific in times of natural disaster, such as Cyclone Pam, or political instability, as with Fiji and Bougainville. One could go so far as to say there is an element of paternalism and condescension in this view of Pacific Islanders as a simple people, with few cares in the world, who grow food and occasionally instigate coup d’etat which never affect our own lives in quiet New Zealand. And so, having grown up with disposable incomes in technology-saturated societies, being desperate to shed the complications of always being busy, always consuming, always communicating, we look at the wider Pacific region and think “life must be so much simpler”.

I do think that life in Bougainville can be simpler; people are laid back and friendly, time goes slowly and yes, if you have land, you can most likely live off it. There is nothing malicious in thinking such things. But to romanticise the lifestyle in places like Bougainville doesn't do justice to the resilience of its people. Bougainville has come out of a 10 year war with Papua New Guinea, fuelled by the clash between neoliberalism and customary traditions, a people born of the land and a mine that scarred the land. During this conflict, PNG blockaded Bougainville, denying Bougainvilleans access to any goods, services or freedom of movement. Women gave birth to children without access to maternal healthcare, children grew up in the bush without education, men fought and killed and died in the tens of thousands. New Zealand, in fact, was the country which successfully organised and hosted peace negotiations between all parties involved. But it took 10 years of horror before we did anything at all.

15 years on, many people living in rural areas still struggle to access education and healthcare of a high standard, and to attain employment opportunities outside of working their land or running a trade shop. Arawa, the second largest town in Bougainville, has not had access to power for the last four months. The river from which Arawa town sources its water runs thick with heavy metals leached from mining in the mountains and is dangerous to drink. Buka itself lacks any fresh water source apart from rain, and is a dry place. In the past month, I have had my water tank refilled with bore water, rendering my tap water unsafe to drink; a problem many people in Buka encounter and a likely source of gastrointestinal problems. A large proportion of Bougainvilleans don’t have access to radio coverage, mobile reception, or newspapers. Their knowledge of current affairs comes from market gossip and campaigning politicians, and local government structures often fail to give any of these people a voice in the political system. Women lack proper access to reproductive health services and men often die drinking potent home brew.

I do not want to paint a grim picture of Bougainville. It is truly one of the most beautiful, friendly, wonderful places I have ever visited. White sand beaches fringe the turquoise seas which teem with colourful and plentiful marine life, lush green palms and bananas contrast with the blue sky. Bougainvilleans will open their arms to you and gift you with the most wonderful relationships; this is a land of hope and determination and reconciliation. But I think it is important for people from New Zealand to think about their privilege, and their complicity in the political and economic structures that render New Zealand seventh and Papua New Guinea (including Bougainville) 157th on the HDI ( Human Development Index) scale (note: both Papua New Guinea and New Zealand are not included in the Inequality-adjusted HDI rankings from 2013). 

Bougainville’s war wasn’t an isolated event founded purely in ethnic differences. It was the product of a century of colonialism, land-swapping and land-grabbing between Germany, Britain, Japan and Australia. Its roots are deeply intertwined in the growth of neoliberalism and extractive industries during the era of PNG independence. Since independence, rapid urbanisation led to huge growth in Port Moresby, resulting in increased loss of village culture and an increase in crime. This accompanied a boom in extractive industries; 78% of PNG’s exports are derived from natural resources, oil and gas accounts for 23% of government revenue and GDP growth has been averaging about 7% annually. Despite living such wealthy soil, 75% of Papua New Guineans still live subsistence lifestyles and injustice and inequality are rife. 

While New Zealand doesn’t have a direct colonial history in Papua New Guinea, it is implicated in the growth of neoliberalism and consumption of non-renewable resources, and the local and global consequences of such ideologies. Many authors have argued for the link between neoliberalism and inequality, and consequently the link between inequality and violence. In the 1980s, under Labour, New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to leap eagerly forth and voluntarily impose neoliberal reforms in its domestic market under ‘Rogernomics’. The current National government is equally as eager to privatise education, healthcare and assets, and all the while, income inequality in New Zealand has risen to an all-time high. In recent weeks, the National government has released a climate change target for the (New Zealand’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)) of of 11% emissions reduction below 1990 levels (30% below 2005 levels) by 2030. There were 17,000 submissions to the recent government consultation for New Zealand’s INDC. Of submitters who recommended a target, 99% recommended that it be either 40% below 1990 levels or higher, or zero carbon emissions by 2050. The National government has shown that it is unwilling to listen to New Zealanders and is unwilling to lead in taking real climate action. 

While New Zealand continues to pursue a neoliberal ideology of economic development and fails to take serious action on climate change and emissions reduction, how can PNG, a country that is highly dependent on bilateral aid, hope to decrease inequality and create a more sustainable economy? Aid is heavily political, and heavily influential. New Zealand, amongst others, is a major aid donor to PNG. In 2013, NZ gave a total of $35.8 million NZD to PNG. Along with this money comes advisors, requirements, evaluation and monitoring. PNG does not just spend aid money as it likes; it spends aid money in a very nuanced and diplomatic way, satisfying the political and economic motives of donor countries. In this way, through the way our government manages aid and bilateral relationships, New Zealanders are complicit in the politics and economics that affect places like Bougainville and conflicts such as that over the Panguna mine.

Within all this, we as New Zealanders have a political voice, we have the privilege of education and literacy, and we can hold our government accountable. We must remember that government decisions do not just affect New Zealand; they affect those that receive politically-laden aid money from the NZ Aid Programme. We must ask ourselves; what are they doing to contribute to making the world a more equitable and kind place? How are we working towards changing the systems of oppression and inequality that exist both in New Zealand and in Bougainville? Are we active in our local government processes? Do we live a life that is heavily dependent on non-renewable resources such as oil and gas? Do we buy products that are produced sustainably? I realise that a lot of these options can be a middle-class privilege, for example, buying fair trade products which cost more than the standard product. But there are many things we can do that are within our means; take the bus, become a member of a political party you truly believe will make a difference, lobby the government to implement more incentives to develop renewable energy sources. I know that when we ask ourselves what kind of difference we are making, it is often overwhelming. I am working in Bougainville, in the development sector, and more often than not I feel like I am not making much of a difference at all. But I think that whatever your path, it is incredibly important to live your life in a way that is self-aware and analytical of the choices you make, and the impact of these choices on other people and the environment.

So, yes, life can be simpler in Bougainville. This is true. Life can be plentiful and beautiful and fulfilling. But it can also be very hard and lack some of the most basic services. Be aware of your privilege and of what Bougainvilleans have spent the past 15 years working towards. We must ask ourselves; how do I as a New Zealander contribute to the political and social systems that so heavily impact people in other parts of the world, and how can I make that contribution a positive one?

A child in the South Bougainville mountain village of Singkondo. Singkondo is two and a half hours away from the closest urban centre, Arawa. It does not have access to power or radio coverage, but it does have mobile phone coverage.

Monday, 22 June 2015

[a long-overdue update]

Happy June, everyone! I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written; it’s been such a busy month! Here is a mammoth blog post to sum up the past two months…

Buka has been full of activity for the 2015 ABG election which has been running since May and only just wrapped up. This 2015 election is incredibly important; the referendum for Bougainvillean independence from PNG is due to be held before 2020 and so the winner of the presidency, incumbent John Momis, will have a huge influence on the future of Bougainville. In the meantime, I have been working on some ABG research that is being undertaken by the Centres for Social and Creative Media (CSCM, University of Goroka). My counterpart Michael, another staff member from the ABG called Moses, and I are working alongside researchers from CSCM to coordinate the project. The research seeks to increase understanding of the information and communication landscape in Bougainville, including current knowledge and misconceptions, regarding the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) and referendum. Hopefully, the outcomes of the research will directly inform the development of communication materials in regards to the referendum.

In mid-May, we held a five-day research workshop that included 16 field researchers from all around Bougainville. Following this workshop, the field researchers were sent to collect data from every COE (local government body) in Bougainville, while Moses, the CSCM team and I travelled around Bougainville assisting field researchers and gathering completed data. Not only was this an amazing experience in which I learned a lot about Bougainville and research is this very unique context, but it was also so much fun! We travelled with Llane and Cythia, two Bougainvilleans working for CSCM, and they provided constant entertainment; we had singalong sessions in the car while driving down to Arawa, spent the afternoon swimming in the cool water of the Bovo River, sung songs with Llane’s family from Kieta on a Saturday night and ate a lot of cake. It was really lovely to be working alongside young Bougainvillean women, and also to work more closely with Moses. 

The Bougainville Audience Research Study field research team.

Young boys playing in the Bovo River, Arawa.

During our first few days coordinating the research, Cynthia, Moses and I drove through Panguna and over to Bana, which is in South Bougainville. The journey through Panguna was pretty incredible. Until a few years ago, not many non-Bougainvilleans had been to Panguna since the Crisis. An armed road block at Morgan Junction was set up by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) during the Crisis to control entry to the mine. Even now Australians are rarely allowed through; New Zealanders receive a much friendlier response, but the likelihood of passing through Morgan Junction depends largely on who is manning the road block that day, and who you are travelling with. Sitting in the back of the Land Cruiser with Cynthia, I broke a sweat as we approached the road block. What if we were turned back, just because of me? What if my blatant foreign-ness meant I had to return to Buka and leave the research behind? Despite my active imagination, I needn’t have worried; our driver, being familiar and likely related to many BRA families, was waved through without a fuss.

The site of the copper mine which sparked the 10-year conflict in Bougainville, Panguna is high up in the mountains and is a vastly different environment than Buka. The clouds graze the treetops of the bush, which gets thicker and more impenetrable the higher you climb. Panguna mine itself is breath-taking. Once the largest open-cast copper mine in the world, injecting billions of dollars in to the PNG economy and in to the pockets of its Australian owners, it now sits in silence, slowly being reclaimed by the bush. Mining machinery lies in disrepair, gathering rust. Many parts were collected by combatants during the crisis; when PNG imposed a blockade on Bougainville in retaliation to the protests around the mine and desire for Bougainvillean independence, Bougainvilleans no longer had access to medicine, machinery, petrol, clothes or any foreign goods. Having fled in to the bush, away from the PNG defence force, many Bougainvillean villages devised genius ways of surviving. They created DIY hydro-power plants using local rivers and materials sourced from the mine; they created generators out of mining machinery engines; they made coconut oil and ran their cars off it; they used coconut water in IV lines and revived the art of bush medicine. Now, many of the landowners that originally lost their land to the mine and saw the subsequent environmental degradation are once again living on the land; in old miners’ accommodation and in traditional bush material houses looking over the huge hole in the earth. Two hundred meters either side of the huge Jaba River, the vegetation has died off due to leaked and toxic mining tailings. Amongst the tailings, without any protective equipment, women and men bend over and sift through sediment to extract what precious stones remain in their land. Bougainvilleans take the idea of the ‘number 8 wire mentality’ to a whole new level. 

Me and Moses, with Panguna mine in the background.
A liklik pikinini in Maletai, Central Bougainville.

As we drove west of Panguna, we entered Bana. We stayed in two villages; Mavele, a village just off the main road through the district, and Singkondo, a mountain village which is much more remote. Mavele is the village of Cynthia’s father’s family to which she had only been once before. When we arrived, the people in the village organised a welcome ceremony to allow us on to the land and to welcome Cynthia back to the place of her ancestors. We were made clean by water sprayed over us and each given gifts; I was given a beautiful necklace made from tiny polished shells, which traditionally were used as a currency in the Solomons and Bougainville. Now, people usually trade with the PNG Kina, but this shell money is still used in ceremonies such as the exchange of the bride price. Bana is, like most of Bougainville, matrilineal, and Cynthia’s aunt Grace is the chief of Mavele. She is a hilarious woman and I spent all afternoon ‘storying’ with her and laughing. We were surrounding by a gaggle of young children listening to us and after a while Grace asked me to talk to them all about New Zealand (in my limited Tok Pisin). I was showing them photos of Wellington on my phone and they were all impressed by the huge buildings and the harbour, but the photo that got the most uproar and wolf whistling out of them was when I showed them a picture of man blong mi, Daniel; they all thought he was VERY handsome!

Following my crazy weeks of work and research, I flew out of Bougainville to New Britain, one of the New Guinea Islands, for a wee holiday and to meet Dan, who was flying in from New Zealand. I flew in to the capital, Kokopo, around midday. Given that Dan wasn’t to arrive for another five hours, I was FORCED buy some lunch at a nearby resort, which I ate while lounging by the pool. After a week of sleeping in bush huts and eating two minute noodles and rice while researching, I was in dire need of a bit of luxury. Some people may call this “white development worker privilege”; I do find it difficult to reconcile myself to the fact that I am able to live in the relative poverty of an average Bougainvillean and then fly out to a resort to make myself feel better. Nonetheless, it was amazing to finally relax and soak up some sun. Once Dan arrived with very little fanfare (it would have been incredibly inappropriate for me as a woman to hug, let alone kiss, a man in public, so I settled for an adoring gaze) we made our way to our accommodation for the night, at the house of another VSA volunteer and a university friend of mine, Laura.

Dan and I spent a fantastic week exploring Kokopo and spending time with other volunteers. I did get especially excited to find out that the shops had a lot of food I’m unable to buy in Buka, and my bag was distinctly heavier on the flight home due to my cravings for pasta and mustard, coffee and tea. We also travelled about an hour out of Kokopo to a place called Kabaira and stayed in a bungalow on the beach for a few nights. Tucked away amid thick banana groves and slender coconut trees gently swaying in the wind, we lounged, swam, snorkelled and kayaked for four glorious days. There was no real beach to speak of, but right by the shore there was a gorgeous coral reef, teeming with brightly coloured fish. Wispy angel fish, curious clown fish and a grim looking eel, besides innumerable other species, flitted through the other-worldly coral. Having lived in the region since pre-independence days, the Australian-PNG family who ran the guest house regaled us with the histories, myths and politics of the area.

Dan and I on our way to Kabaira, East New Britain.
A cultural performance group from Nissan Island, with the duk-duk, of the Tolai people.
Dan has come back to Buka with me for the next two weeks, and while I have to work (sometimes), we will also do a bit of travelling around Bougainville. We have spent some time exploring Buka and its surrounding islands, and next week we will travel down to Arawa and Kieta. Last week we spent the day watching the celebrations for the inauguration. A lot of different groups from different clans around Bougainville performed their traditional dances and there were quite a few (live) pigs offered to the new members of parliament as gifts; quite a valuable gift here, but one that I do cringe to see trussed up by its trotters while waiting for the ceremony to be over so it can be slaughtered. The colours and traditional dress donned by the dancers were pretty incredible; my favourite is the duk-duk from Nissan Island and the New Guinea Islands. This costume involves a person being covered in large green leaves, topped with yellow leaves, until he/she looks a lot like a giant pompom with legs; on top of this leafy body is a tall, conical head topped with feathers and flowers. The duk-duk is a representation of a particular spirit or ancestor of the Nissan people, and the dance it does while flanked by warriors can tell all sorts of stories. It was a beautiful, if not somewhat unusual, sight to see!

Having a  holiday has reminded me how much I love Bougainville, and what a fascinating place PNG is. It’s also made me incredibly homesick though; I have a lot more time to think about home and although I’m amazed that four months has passed already, I’m very aware that I still have six months to go before I can see my beautiful New Zealand again. I suppose that is the double-edged sword of such adventure; to explore the world one must leave home behind. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Welcome to the Bureau of Media and Communications

Hello, everyone! 

I’ve been fielding a question from a few people about my work, and I realised that I haven’t really told anyone what it is I’m doing here in Bougainville in any depth. So I decided to write a post about my office and the projects we’re currently working on. Sorry if this is boring to anyone who is completely uninterested in archives, but hey, at least my Mum will appreciate it.

The ABG Archives, where I work, is a part of the Bureau of Media and Communication (Media and Comms), which is an Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) bureau. Our office is 100m from the airport (which is little more than a shed) in a complex of low-lying buildings. Media and Comms has a focus on print, radio and web communication, as well as being the centre for the ABG Archives and the Bougainville Arts Federation, which is relatively new project that Annabel, another VSA volunteer, has been working on. Media and Comms produces the Bougainville Bulletin, an ABG newspaper published every two months and distributed throughout Bougainville by some particularly dedicated staff who take it in to even the most remote communities. We also run Radio Ples Lain, a mobile (as in moving, not cellular) radio station which is dedicated to bringing ABG news to all of Bougainville by broadcasting in the field. The Radio Ples Lain truck is able to broadcast its programmes up to 50km away, depending on the geography of the area, thereby communicating information to communities which do not receive radio or mobile coverage. The Radio Ples Lain staff also work with NBC (the PNG National Broadcasting Corporation) to provide Bougainville-based content for the NBC station. Media and Comms is also currently building the ABG website and Tanya, our incredibly talented website and audio-visual staff member, is responsible for sharing media online.

Ben, Radio Ples Lain presenter, outside the Media and Comms office.
 The ABG Archives office is a 4x8 metre room to the rear of the Media and Comms office, which houses three walls of floor-to-ceiling shelving for archived files and three desks (one of which is piled one metre high with extra files). My counterpart, Michael, and I work here. The purpose of the ABG Archives programme is to collect, manage and archive records created and received by the ABG, and to provide access to records and archives for ABG staff. My role as Records Management and Archives Assistant is to support Michael in his role as Archives Officer, to assist with the digitisation project and the promotion of the ABG divisional file classification, and to train ABG staff in records management procedures. The ABG Archives contains around 4000 records, mainly from 1990 – 2005, and includes highly important records from throughout the Bougainville Peace Process which are of significant cultural and historical value to Bougainville. In a somewhat sub-standard shed next to the Media and Comms office, thousands more old files await processing by Archives. The capacity to do so is extremely low, given that we lack the storage space and (wo)man power to efficiently process records. We are also slowly embarking upon a digitisation project. Again, until the ABG Archives Policy is approved by the government, we lack the finances and resources to scan archives efficiently and effectively.

In addition to our role in Archives, Michael and I are working with another person in our office, Moses, to coordinate some audience research commissioned by our office and carried out by the University of Goroka’s Centre for Social and Creative Media. The research will look in to the information and communication landscape in Bougainville including current knowledge, attitudes, misconceptions, risk perceptions and beliefs regarding the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) and referendum among key audience groups. Our role is limited to organising field researchers and assisting with logistical preparations, but it is pretty fantastic to be able to assist with such an important project. Perhaps as much as 90% of Bougainvilleans have access to mobile coverage, but access to more traditional new sources such as radio and newspapers is incredibly limited in rural areas. The communication landscape is fascinating in this respect; social media in PNG is booming, but the online presence of government bodies and other major organisations is limited. In this sense, as far as I have observed, there is a huge gap between the primary communication method of Bougainvilleans, and that of the government. However, this gap is closing quickly due to projects like the ABG website and social media presence.

Priscilla, the Media and Comms Corporate Services Assistant, and me.

While it sounds like I have a lot on my plate according to the above job descriptions, my day-to-day work life is somewhat more sedate. I wake up around 7:45am, have a cold shower, breakfast and coffee. I generally try to leave for work around 8:30am, with varying success. It takes me just five minutes to walk to work – with my laptop in my backpack and my umbrella arming me against the rain or the sun, I turn left out of my driveway and walk along the roadside, parallel to the airstrip. As I walk past the tyre workshop and the trade shops halfway down the road, I respond to a chorus of “Moning!” from the men who work there. As I arrive at the Media and Comms office I have a chat with my friend Priscilla, the administrator, for a while, as well as other workmates. Michael and I usually chat while working, and lately he’s been speaking to me only in Tok Pisin so I have to learn. Work is slow, as everything is done on Bougainville time which means two-hour long meetings are the norm, and everything is discussed at length. Lunch is at 12:00pm, and I often go in to town to do a vege shop at the market, or else I go home for the hour to eat there. We clock off at 4pm, although often the power will go out some time around 2:30pm and so I go home early and work from home.

Me and Michael sitting in the ABG Archives Office.

In sum, my job is fascinating, frustrating, difficult and enjoyable. I am really only just getting the hang of things after two months here, and have accepted that it will take a long time for anything to happen. In fact, 10 months in Bougainville seems like barely enough time to really do anything! The core aim of VSA is ‘capacity building’, which means that when I leave here, Michael will hopefully have gained skills and knowledge as Archives Officer and therefore the capacity of the ABG Archives Office will increase. It feels a bit daunting to be faced with this challenge – as a young Development Studies and Maori Resource Management graduate with no experience in records management, I feel somewhat under-qualified to fulfill those expectations. However, I do have basic skills to contribute; computer literacy, time management, research skills, development knowledge and organisational skills. I remind myself that I am not a white savior flown in to ‘do’ development ‘on’ Bougainville; rather, I am here as a student. As I learn and build relationships, I will hopefully also bring something different to the table that may be useful. It is all about relationships, humility and reciprocity; this is Bougainville, after all.