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Surprises in the Solomon Islands

Elizabeth Baker in Honiara. © ABM/Vivienne For 2013
Elizabeth Baker in Honiara. © ABM/Vivienne For 2013

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many different countries, some developed, some not. So when I was told I’d be spending a week in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, I thought I’d set my expectations appropriately.

I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a developed city and I was also not expecting it to be a remote village. Yet when I arrived in Honiara in August I was surprised.

Surprised at the village-style markets we saw on the street kerb immediately outside the airport, interested by the lack of infrastructure that was presented as we drove down the one main road and shocked at the stares I was getting as a blonde.

The surprises didn’t stop there. I spent a week interviewing the people working and volunteering for the Anglican Church of Melanesia and its affiliated projects and was continually surprised by the wonderful work I was witnessing and the inspiring people I had the privilege to meet.

On day one I met Sister Doreen, a vivacious woman filled with the strongest faith I have witnessed. Sister Doreen runs the Christian Care Centre, the only women’s refuge in the Solomon Islands.

During my visit we were shown the sewing machines and material that is provided through support from ABM and Sister Doreen made comment that she risks her life for the women and children who stay at the refuge. I quickly realised this wasn’t just an expression.

So far in 2103 the Christian Care Centre has supported 70 women and 56 children. In 2012 they had barbed wire erected to protect the women as the perpetrators discovered their location.

When a fight erupted on the road outside the centre and the police failed to show up, Sister Doreen marched out the gate, stood between the men and put a stop to the fight.

When a man threatened to burn down the centre because Sister Doreen wouldn’t unlock the gate, she in fact opened the door and offered him the opportunity.

It is not just Sister Doreen’s charisma that gives her the strength to do this work and support the women at the centre. Her faith and love for God shines from her smile and through all of her stories.

When dealing with perpetrators she told me this, “I said I am not scared of you, I am ready to die if you know what you are doing is right. Sometimes you just have to do this. My faith carries me through, my faith in God. I say to these people, I’m not scared of you and they don’t know what to do.”

Mothers' Union HR Officer Anne Saenemua, Provincial President Edith Mary Koete and Program Coordinator Mary Vunagi
Mothers’ Union HR Officer Anne Saenemua, Provincial President
Edith Mary Koete and Positive Parenting Program Coordinator
Mary Vunagi. © ABM/Elizabeth Baker 2013

From one inspiring woman to others, day two introduced us to the women of the Mothers’ Union (MU) in the Church of Melanesia who volunteer their time to run the Positive Parenting Program that ABM funds.

These women are transforming communities by educating and empowering women with parenting skills and information that helps them to build community and strengthen values.

During the visit I was pleased to sit in on the first session of the Positive Parenting Program where I met seven women who were enthusiastic to learn. Jillian, a young woman with a 1 month old baby confessed she knew nothing about child health, hygiene and disease. The majority of the group admitted to knowing little about HIV and AIDS spread.

I was reflecting on this time and I realised my surprise had not come from this lack of knowledge, but in fact the similarities I had with the young women participating in the session. Some of them were educated women starting families who, through this program, were learning about parenting skills and support systems they could call on. Such support and knowledge that we take for granted in the developed world.

Without this program, MU and ABM’s financial support, these women would continue to lack opportunity to learn and more importantly, teach their families and own communities.

Mary, the Program Coordinator who works full time but in a voluntary capacity told me, “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. We value our work, it’s God’s work.”

Our week continued and I met Fr Philemon Akao who is working to build a university site in Honiara and in turn, strengthen the education the church can offer.

I met the Archbishop of the Church of Melanesia (which encompasses Vanuatu and New Caledonia) who told me, “I encourage people to pray but we must also do practical things to support our communities. I thank ABM for the support and the behind-the-scenes work to achieve these practical things.”

I visited the Provincial Press, the only press in the Solomons and is run by the church, and saw the The Melanesian Messenger hot of the press!

I went to church at a local parish on the outskirts of Honiara and was welcomed by the hundreds in the congregation.

I interviewed Melanesian Brothers, learnt of the Climate Change project supporting villages to build sustainable water supplies and spoke to the Pacific Facilitator of the Anglican Alliance who told me about the gender inequality and reiterated the family violence issues in the country.

As if these huge challenges aren’t enough for the communities in the Solomons, those working to support these initiatives are challenged by unreliable internet, regular electricity shortages and lacking technology they need to do their jobs.

Towards the end of my stay Fr Hillary Anisi, who had chaperoned us around for the week, told us about his time in Australia as part of ABM’s Encounter program which offers opportunity for learning.

Fr Hillary spent time in Tasmania and Gladstone in 2008 learning from Mission to Seafarer Chaplains. He has returned and established a Centre for Mission to Seafarers in the Solomon Islands which offers hospitality, pastoral care and a safe place for international and national seafarers.

He said, “I really learnt how to run and administer a centre whilst on the Encounter program, and the importance of hospitality and I’ve tried to implement that here in the capital.”

It was clear that the work ABM supports is making real differences in the lives of locals in the Solomons. A week amongst this work proved to be full of surprises, some pleasant, some shocking, and it is perhaps the resilience and the strong sense of faith that I witnessed amongst this shock that made the visit such an inspiring one.

Elizabeth Baker
ABM’s Media Consultant
August 2013