Teachers return to island

CARALISE TRAYES
Last updated 12:08 17/01/2013
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HEADING BACK: David and Pam Walters have embraced adventure and are returning for their second year of teaching on Bougainville Island.

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Like teacher Mr Watts in the book Mister Pip, David Walters aims to inspire Bougainville Island teenagers.

Mr Walters and wife Pam are teaching English on the island, the setting for the New Zealand novel by Lloyd Jones.

The Red Beach couple have just returned to the island for a second year of teaching after taking a break back home during Christmas.

Bougainville is the main island of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville of Papua New Guinea, and is also known as North Solomons. It faced major civil unrest from 1989 until 1998 when the indigenous people asked for intervention from the PNG Government in the mining of one of the world's largest open pit mines by Australians.

"They wanted an agreement from the government and the Australians to help with the pollution it was creating," David says.

"Whatever agreement was offered, they weren't satisfied and a civil war started. It polarised the community.

"Between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed from a population of 150,000 on the island," he says.

"When the crunch time came, Australians left, and the centre of the main town Arawa was destroyed. Derelict places still stand today. The hospital is overgrown and buildings abandoned."

This is the setting the Walters arrived to.

The couple decided to face the challenge after David retired from teaching in New Zealand and Pam wanted a change.

"We signed up with Volunteer Services Abroad and chose the position from a short list of opportunities."

David teaches at a high school and Pam at a primary school.

Children generally start school at age 7 on the island but some were 10 years behind as there had been little education offered for a period after the war.

"There are some students in high school who are adults as they didn't start until they were 15," David says.

The island has two main towns, Arawa, where the Walters live and work, and Buka, which is technically on another island just off the northern tip of Bougainville.

"We live in one of the old homes that the Australian miners abandoned. We get water from a nearby police facility and most of the time we have electricity. We have some phone reception too but no car," Pam says.

David says local families are relatively self-sufficient, farming their own food and building houses out of bamboo and local materials.

While the island has a sordid history, the Walters say they don't see the tension in the area any more.

"But we don't really look for it. We don't take sides and we don't even enter certain areas. It feels politically safe. But of course there is some danger. We don't go walking at night as there are young men who have nothing to do and are looking for trouble," Pam says.

The work ethic was a bit of an eye-opener as some staff would just not show up for work some days.

"The students are the kindest, most pleasant I have ever taught," says David who has taught in six different countries.

"But they are as lazy as the day is long."

David hopes to extend the English into year 12 level this coming year. It was only last year that year 11 was introduced.

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"I would also like to help teach the teachers a few more modern techniques if I can."

Pam is helping develop a reading recovery programme for the primary school.

In spare time on the island, Pam plays scrabble, reads and swims in a nearby river.

"Not the ocean. I'm not keen on crocodiles."

David writes and records the island happening. The beginnings of a Mister Pip sequel perhaps?

- Rodney Times

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