When I was 7 years old, my mother went to work at Atoifi in the Solomon Islands where there is an Adventist Hospital. She trains nurses & midwives for a living. It wasn’t the first time she was sent off shore and it wasn’t the last. The difference about this trip is that she took me.
We were gone for a few months. During my time there, I felt welcomed by the community. They even had a feast in our honour – the only time I’ve enjoyed fish! They respected my mother a great deal and little blonde-haired blue-eyed me received lots of attention. I remember someone telling me that people stared at me because I was the first white child many had seen. Even though Atoifi can be dangeous, I never felt in danger and I was never scared.
The differences between our way of life and theirs were so apparent to me, even as a child. When I wore swimmers and showed my thighs I was considered to be very rude, yet to me the women not wearing tops was unheard of.
I learnt Pidgin and could speak it fluently by the time we left. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten all but one word now, Bairengu (My Friend) and only remember that because it’s part of my cat’s name.
I learnt the importance of education. The school there was tiny building where everyone was in together and despite being the top of my class here in Sydney, I was the bottom of the class there. School only ran from early morning to lunch time because the afternoons were simply too hot to concentrate. At recess we would all jump off the pier in our uniforms to cool down.
I learnt I have a sugar addiction. On Atoifi we received a food delivery once every week or fortnight, not sure how often – I just remember the waiting – to me it felt like years. In that food delivery there was one packet of biscuits; they were chocolate favoured, although I use the term loosely. They were more like a slightly cocoa sao. The packet was split up and sold individually. Only the very fortunate could afford this treat (I think they were 30 cents each). We would all line up for ages to buy one biscuit. There was a limit on how many you could buy to ensure fair distribution, but I remember buying as many as I could to eat and share with the girls.
I learnt that hospitals where clean water isn’t freely available smell funny, that death is a common occurrence and that different cultures have different attitudes towards child birth. I learnt that jumping from roof to roof is easy when houses are close together and that guavas are absolutely amazing when picked straight from the tree. I learnt what a custard apple is, and that mosquito bites can be fatal.
The biggest thing I learnt while I was there didn’t really dawn on me until later in life. I spent most of my time with one group of girls. Between the group they owned one headband. One. It was their prize possession and they shared it. It had little fake pearls on it. One day they lent it to me and I fell over, hitting a tooth and breaking the headband. I was absolutely traumatised by this. Even writing this now, I almost cry with the guilt of breaking their headband and knowing how many we have in our country. They were upset, but they didn’t blame me. That just blew me away, and made me feel even worse.
As so often happens, one of my friends was my favourite. My brother had brought over lollies from Australia when he came to visit. Those fizzy little lollies that come in little clear wrap. I gave each of the girls one roll of lollies, and pulled aside the girl I liked the best, giving her 2 extra rolls. In Australia, this would be perfectly normal behaviour for a child. In Australia, we wouldn’t think twice about accepting something we were given and enjoying it. Not there. That girl waited until I had gone home for dinner, then she shared all her lollies with the group, with all her family and with the rest of the school. She did not understand the concept of having something nice and not sharing it. Wow. What a lesson for a 7 year old.
The biggest difference, for me, was humility.
Have you ever had a lesson in humility? Have you ever been somewhere that changed your life?
Photos in this article (except those of me) were taken on location at Batuna by my cousin, Kent Marcus, on his trip there in 2010