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

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