My time volunteering
I had the privilege to be a teacher of English and Social Studies at St.Joseph's High School at Kieta on the island of Bougainville, politically a province of Papua-New Guinea (PNG), geographically part of the Solomon Islands. The school was part of the Catholic Mission and staffed by mainly Australian Marist Brothers and four VSOs. I was given the task of teaching a class of students who were due to leave the school at the end of their second year, equipped to begin work, many in the gigantic copper mine then being developed on the island.
The impact of my placement
As a teacher dedicated to those who would not progress further in the school academically I hope that, in a small way, I helped to develop their self-esteem and knowledge of the outside world (about which they were so eager to learn) and to equip them to pursue their jobs and careers.
My unforgettable moments
There is no one best memory. It was all an amazing experience for someone from a provincial background who had never travelled further from the UK than a couple of hitch-hiking expeditions to the European Continent.
Unforgettable moments include:
- The sheer exuberance and thirst for knowledge of the students and the camaraderie of the Marist Brothers and the VSOs.
- Crossing the turbulent Solomon Sea in a small, copra-carrying mission boat (captained by a VSO) and entering the calm waters of Rabaul Harbour at the time when the huge tropical moon was rising behind the volcano which dominated (and eventually destroyed) the town.
- A candle-lit Christmas Eve procession of the whole school along the palm-fringed beach to celebrate midnight mass in the Mission church. I am not a religious person, but for me that was the most spiritual Christmas I have spent, far from the commercial excess of the western world.
- Walking around parts of Bougainville island, being welcomed by pupils and introduced to their families in their home villages.
- The unreal sight and sound of the Royal Yacht Britannia steaming into Kieta Bay carrying HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, whose itinerary included a visit to St. Joseph's School.
The impact my placement has had on me
I left St. Joseph's after just one year to take up a deferred appointment in the British Diplomatic Service (who sadly, but understandably, would not agree to my request for a further year). My first job in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was dealing with Australia and PNG and other countries in the Pacific. VSO in PNG had given me a taste for far-flung postings and my subsequent career focussed on the Asia-Pacific region.
Like many, it was through VSO that I met the person, another volunteer, who was to become my life partner. Later, when I was British Ambassador successively to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, my wife and I made a point of supporting the VSO programmes in those countries and visiting and entertaining the volunteers.
Perhaps, after 47 years, I am viewing my time at St. Joseph's through rose-tinted spectacles. And if I am honest, I probably gained more from VSO than I was able and equipped at the time to give. But that is partly what it was all about. The people, the place, the job, the whole experience will never be forgotten. Many sincere thanks, VSO, and good luck to the organisation and future volunteers.
St. Joseph's High School
Papua New Guinea