6 months ago, I dragged myself through Honiara international airport, to the plane that would take me home. A sea of crying faces lay behind me, and in front of me airport security guards, who I doubt could have looked more scared had they found a bomb in our bags. Jet and I were in an absolute state: weighed down by generously gifted presents, which we were ready to defend to the death from security; crying inconsolably after having just said goodbye to our Solomon family; and crying all the more as we laughed at our ridiculous situation. But while we undoubtedly looked like a mess from the outside, what we were feeling on the inside would have made my dump of a teenage bedroom look like a model showroom. We were painfully aware that we were about to do one of the most difficult things we have ever done: to leave the Solomon Islands.
Before you pass judgment, yes, I am aware how over the top that sounds. But no matter how much Project Trust talked to us about reverse culture shock (effectively homesickness for somewhere which isn’t your home) nothing could quite prepare us for the reality. When you throw yourself into another life like we did, it is not just decent chocolate, hot showers and a life without ant infestations that you leave behind: you leave behind your entire support system. Left in this new country without my family to lean on, my friends to laugh with and my dogs to smother with cuddles, I had to make new foundation blocks pretty quickly or risk failing the year before it had even got started. This resulted in friendships as strong as those I’ve had at home for years. Not just because the people there are the most amazingly warm people I’ve met, but because it was a necessity. The teachers at St Nicholas, my wonderful church Graonz family, the two boys also volunteering with Project Trust and, of course, my incredible partner Jet, became the crutches holding me up throughout the year. I genuinely couldn’t have done it without them. And while this was wonderful when I was living in the Solomons, it meant that when I returned home I was once again left defenceless. I had grown so accustomed to my life there, that upon returning home I was once again left feeling like a fish out of water.
This may be why it took me so long to do something I have been meaning to do since returning; to say a big thank iu tumas (translating to thanks too much from pidgin) to everyone that helped me get to the Solomons and have the most amazing year of my life. To all of you who gave such generous donations to help me get overseas, who sent such lovely messages throughout the year and those who helped me readjust upon returning home, I want to say a huge thank you. You have changed my life more than you can imagine. While trying my best not to spout any ‘gap yah’ clichés, you have truly helped change my outlook on life, my belief in myself and the lives of many people I met while out there. The idea of a gap year being a break from education is completely false: it was likely the biggest learning curve I will ever experience.
It gave me an unparalleled insight into life in a developing country: the hardships and struggles that this can entail, but also the incredible benefits of living in a country with such strong community values. The Solomons are riddled with corrupt officials, wide-spread poverty, poor education and healthcare systems. It is one of countries with the highest rates of domestic and sexual abuse, there are limited opportunities for employment and having very few valuable resources of its own, it is low on the priorities of other countries to help it develop. But despite all this, the people we came across were filled with the most infectious joy that I have ever seen. From the moment I woke up in the morning, until my eyes were closing at night, I would have a constant smile on my face, as our friends could turn even the most mundane of tasks into a comedic skit that had us crying-laughing. Before Jet and I arrived in the Solomons, we believed one of the highlights of our year would be travelling the luscious islands of this palm tree paradise, yet by the end of the year we were passing on travel opportunities to stay in the dust filled town we can now call home. The highlight of my year was not scuba diving coral walls or drinking coconuts on sandy beaches; but singing worship songs with the All Saints church youth group, whose incredible voices can produce an energy and emotion which surpasses anything I have felt in my life.
The Solomon Islanders are incredibly strong in their religious devotion and experiencing this side of the culture redefined my view on the power of religion. I’ve always viewed faith as providing a strong moral compass, yet it wasn’t until I saw people going through truly shocking experiences and turning to God to comfort them that I came to appreciate religion’s true power. To some people a belief in a greater purpose is not a helping hand through tough times, but the last line of defence between them and the blow that could break them. It unites people of all ages from all backgrounds and creates such strong bonds that no one is ever truly alone. It has the power to inspire people, to sustain people and to give this country, trying so desperately to develop, the unity and strength it needs to keep pushing forward. For the glory of God.
As volunteer teachers, there was only so much difference we could make in the classroom. However, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we had a positive impact on the people we met in the islands. Throughout our year we were very conscious to not step on toes: we conformed to cultural expectations; we made sure we showed our gratitude by putting our absolute most into our work; and also worked hard to create positions where we didn’t steal the employment of the hardworking teachers at St Nicholas College. Jet did some amazing work with her remedial grade 1 and 2 classes, which saw many students learning to read. Some students who had been struggling improved so much that they were integrated back into the main stream classes. Meanwhile, I shared year 8 and year 12 classes with some secondary English teachers, helping to teach basic English as well as literature to the older grades. This meant I was teaching at most 290 students. It was incredibly rewarding to watch them improve, and even in these first few weeks of 2019 I have had ex-students messaging me to let me know that they have passed their exams and made it into the next year of school. It made me indescribably happy that they felt the need to thank me for this result, but their success is wholly their own and down to their incredible hard work and determination.
I believe the most significant impact I had while away was done by just interacting with the students in English. Learning the language for them, had mainly just been copying from text books, focussing on passing the next exam and getting good grades. Yet I believe, and hope, that our presence there helped remind them that learning English is not primarily for these motivations: it opens the doors to a huge wealth of opportunities, waiting to be discovered. And this impact was not just confined to the school. As very few foreigners visit or live in the Solomon Islands, many of our friends there had never really interacted extensively with white people, which was very evident when we first arrived. It took months for us to build up relationships with some people, as they felt uncomfortable or unconfident in talking to people from such a different life. Yet as we spent more time there, and learnt the local language of pidgin, we could see their expectations of white people changing. Both we and they came to appreciate that background and culture had no impact on our friendships: cultural differences only cause division if you let them. Two new volunteers replaced us in August in the Solomons and this unexpected impact of our project was heart-warmingly evident, as those who had taken months to become comfortable with us rushed to become friends with the new ones, and got to know them well in a matter of weeks. Giving people confidence in their English is fantastic, but to give them confidence in themselves: in their identity, their community, and their culture, is the most rewarding feeling ever. You are not defining their school career, you are helping them to redefine their self-worth. And if we helped make the people there respect themselves even a fraction of the amount that we respect them, then that is my greatest achievement to date.
When you live with the same people, in the same country with same culture year after year, it is easy to become desensitised to how fantastic our lives are. Living for 12 months in a developing country really opened my eyes to how incredibly lucky each and every one of us are in the UK. Although we may claim that we don’t, most of us will take for granted things which we are, in fact, incredibly lucky to have. Such as a bed to ourselves, access to healthcare and the ability to kick back and relax after a long day at work. While living in the Solomons, I heard regularly of people dying of conditions as basic as asthma, and virtually everyone I knew had lost at least one family member far below the age of 60. People were often living with multiple families in a two-roomed home, leaving everyone sleeping on the floor, balcony or under the house. Some people’s houses get washed away every single rain season, but they can’t afford to build anywhere outside of the flood plains. While we may complain about school being boring, kids in the Solomons must sit in classes of up to 70 in the same room for 6 hours, without the relief of any subjects like art, drama, music or sport. And then they may well have to work for a family business or help take care of siblings after school. A vast majority of teachers had to work other jobs, such as selling food outside of school time, just to make ends meet. It is easy to get bogged down by the small things and get annoyed at having to wait a while at the doctors, or your TV breaking or WiFi being slow, but we are all incredibly privileged to live the lives that we have. Sometimes we just need to slow down and take a look at what’s around us. The people I met in the Solomons made me so incredibly happy and I was so incredibly grateful for their kindness that I went out of my way every day to show everyone my love and appreciation. But that does not mean that everyone around me at home is not equally as amazing. I had just got out of the habit of noticing it. Therefore, I am now making a conscious effort to always appreciate those around me now too. And the thing I have learnt is that, I guess unsurprisingly, the happier I make the people around me, the happier I am myself. While I’m still working on keeping my room tidy and helping around the house enough to make my mum truly happy, I am making an increased effort to smile more, chat more and just put more effort into the relationships that fill my life. Each and every one of us has the power to make life better for others, whether that be through volunteering, giving to charity or even something as small as paying someone a compliment or smiling at a stranger. And the benefits will be threefold.
I’m still trying to get my head around living so far away from so many people I love. For example, having the incredible priviledge of having a baby named after you (with the combined name of Flojet – name a more iconic duo), and then not being able to watch it grow up is incredibly difficult. But in the six months since coming home, I have come to see that I will never really leave that part of my life behind. What I learnt is always with me, and it has luckily made an amazing cheat sheet if I haven’t finished my reading for seminars! I am now studying at the University of Leeds, doing International Relations; a course I switched to as my interests changed overseas. It is amazing how regularly something we came across while away is discussed, and I am sure the first-hand experience of living in a developing country will provide an extra drive throughout the rest of my studies and beyond. While it was, at first, difficult to watch two new girls step into our shoes, we are so happy that Project Trust’s work there is continuing. We have come to appreciate that to the people there, being replaced doesn’t mean we’re replaceable, and that no matter if people there are moving on, it doesn’t mean they are moving away. We know that the friendships we made there were meaningful enough to all of us that neither the 10000 miles nor the time apart could diminish them. While I wish I could have stayed in my Pacific bubble forever, life continues. It is more than time for me to move on: if not to let the Solomons go, then at least to loosen my grip enough that I can reach the next ring of the ladder. I will always be incredibly grateful to all of you who helped me make this year happen. I am now officially signing off from my Project Trust blog. I would say over and out; but while we are out, it is definitely not over.