Meet my former colleagues

This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling. Currently in Solomon Islands.

Jenny Wate (2nd left) with daughter Christina, 15, husband Arthur (works on Solomon Star and became a West Ham fan when he visited Pete and I in London) plus their son Emanuel, Nell and Lola.

A long time ago, June 1990 in fact, I arrived on a plane as a VSO volunteer (voluntary service overseas) in Solomon Islands. The UK organisation had found me work at a local NGO (non governmental organisation) called Solomon Islands Development Trust where I was to work with five colleagues on an existing magazine, Link. The mag was bimonthly, about 16-20 pages and not bad. I was 26: my colleagues were far younger, except for the existing editor Santos Paikai who was perhaps in his 50s but too busy to train the young staff, and perhaps not very keen to do so. (Santos has now passed on.)

Jenny Wate with today's editions of Link and my old friend Patrick (leader of SIDT's Sei! Theatre group) in the rebuilt SIDT office.

VSO had a clever remit – you worked closely with your colleagues and gradually worked yourself out of a job. You were meant to do this two years later. I left Solomons in June 1992.

Me, with Nell, Lola, Dot and her two boys Adrian (standing) and Dean.

At the start of 1991 I needed to change my housing, so took on editorship of another bimonthly magazine – working closely with Helen and Dorothy (Dot) Wickham – just to pay the rent. This created a schedule which kept me extremely busy considering that a good story took a lot of travel and patience to get, especially for SIDT when it came from people living on one of the many islands. (There are 8 main big islands here, but about 1,000 make up the whole country).

As my colleagues kept getting better/gaining confidence, I had less to do – so had time to run a short training programme for the cadet journalists at SIBC radio, Solomon Star and various other newspapers at the request of MASI, the Media Association of Solomon Islands. Not surprisingly I met a lot of very talented people who’ve gone on to do great work sharing news and views via the different media.

I’d come from London at IPC magazines, the 21st floor, and couldn’t quite believe how different the Solomons seemed to be – the city Honiara was tiny and both dusty and filled with puddles (a Paul Theroux line), ever so humid and with better equipment than London (the weekly mag I’d worked on back home had just got rid of typewriters – it was the first at IPC to get computers; here at SIDT was an Apple Mac with PageMaker DTP!). And then when I’d started to find my way around I couldn’t believe how wonderful it is to live in a place – Honiara – where everything happens. Here’s the government building, there’s the PM’s house, look at the Minister of Education doing…, who’s that at the Mendana Hotel etc.

Twenty-one years on it is astonishing how welcoming and successful my old colleagues are. Many things have happened while I’ve been away: the most obvious is we all have children but the ethnic tensions of the 1990s (a major land ownership row) have left scars on the country which made life even harder for most Solomon Islanders – this is after all a very poor country even within the context of being a developing nation. In 20 years the population has doubled, it’s now around 500,000 and that’s had another big impact.

But fundamentally the Solomons seems very similar (there are more cars, a bigger road – but really only one in or out of Honiara, and a lot more housing in the ridges and valleys behind the main street).

Women seem to have gained in confidence. They always sold piles of fruit and veg and leaves at the market (men seemed to sell fish and firewood), but now throughout the town women are growing and selling flowers, shell necklaces, lavalavas (like a sarong), food of all sorts (cakes, cassava/coconut pudding, fish fritters, doughnuts, betel nut), perfumed oils etc.

And my lovely ex-colleagues seem to have thriving careers. Jenny Wate is now the big boss at SIDT and the mag we worked on together, Link, is still going providing a valuable bank of alternative-view local stories, educational material and regular free English-langague magazine for anyone, from public servants to school students.

My other close colleague Dot who I worked with on Bisnis Nius (also published in English though we took all the stories in Pijin) is now the Exec Director of the country’s first TV station.

Two amazing women and it’s been lovely catching up with them again – and of course meeting their families. It is wrong to compare but there aren’t many British people I’ve worked with 20 years ago who’d be so welcoming after such a very long absence.

How I wish for a teleporter so I can return Jenny and Dot’s friendship and hospitality back in the UK (without adding to all of our carbon footprints).

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