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Australian Students Gather to ‘Finish the Race’

Hundreds of secondary students from schools across Australia converged on five capital cities for this year’s One World Wontok Youth Poverty and Development conference.

2015 is fast approaching! The race to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) began in 2000 and the target year is in our sights – so how is the world faring and how far do we have to go? These are just two of the many questions that conference delegates came to engage with at this year’s One World Wontok Conference.

The term Wontok is a Melanesian word that intimates shared family, community, language, history and future – it is about being connected with others in a global community sharing a language of respect, love and dignity. Borders, culture and circumstance need not separate humanity, although far too often we allow them to do just that.

For most students the concepts of Wontok and the MDGs were either very limited or completely new. Regardless of any prior knowledge or understanding it was a chance to dig deeper and to explore some of the root causes of global poverty – largely through hands-on activities with an ‘Amazing Race’ [Finish the Race] format. Who won? You might ask. We will come to that question later.

Tanuj, a character from Sri Lanka, was severely affected by conflict and displacement. Marie from Papua New Guinea can no longer attend school because she must look after her family after her mother died of Tuberculosis. “Are you, as an Australian teenager, similar to the character you will be today?” students were asked and invited to respond by placing themselves on a spectrum from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’. As one might expect, the majority gathered toward the ‘strongly disagree’ end of the spectrum. As the day unfolded, however, those who had gathered at the ‘strongly disagree’ end found themselves beginning to slide toward the end of solidarity as the notion of Wontok carried participants to new levels of understanding.

Interactive multimedia, group activities and Q&A sessions provided a participatory learning environment that was well received by all in attendance. One MDG task required groups to put together the essentials for a birthing kit from an otherwise random selection of items. A role-playing computer simulation presented students with a scarily accurate portrayal of various challenges many farmers must endure, such as natural disasters and civil conflict. “The farmer simulation taught me a lot about sustainability in the face of hardships”, said one student. “It’s much tougher than we all think. It took much more planning and thinking ahead than I expected. I guess you have to always look at what will be sustainable in the long-term.”

The dynamic presence of guest speaker Mr John Mutua (from ABM’s partner Ukamba Christian Community Services in Kenya) embodied much that intimates Wontok. His stories, wealth of knowledge and first hand experience were the highlight of the day for many delegates. “The real-life insight that John was able to give us was invaluable”, one student from Brisbane commented. Another student from Adelaide said the conference “increased my understanding of real world dilemmas and highlighted the importance of developing long-term solutions rather than ‘band-aid’ short term fixes.”

Sometimes the barriers to overcome poverty overwhelm us all and global poverty gets put in the ‘too hard basket’. However, John Mutua’s insights on empowerment and capacity building using real-life stories enabled conference delegates to see how community development in action is actually working and positively transforming people’s lives in his region of Kenya – inspirational indeed.

So, in returning to the day’s Finish the Race and Wontok themes that ran hand-in-hand throughout the day. Who won the race? You may be wondering. Well, everybody won! And the same goes for development: The race to achieve the Millennium Development Goals will only be achieved by partnering together as a global community, intent on eliminating injustice and supporting each other to reach our full potential. The world is small, after all. In a very real sense, we are all Wontoks – we are in the race together!

The One World Wontok conference is a joint development education initiative of the Anglican Board of Mission and UnitingWorld. Conference locations for 2013 included Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Stay tuned for details of Wontok 2014!

Greg Henderson
Education Officer
April 2013

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