A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stranded in Samoa

Its amazing what damage a bird can do, the feathered kind. One flew into the engine of the plane I was meant to be on leaving Samoa, and grounded the aircraft ‘indefinitely’. One very dead, silly bird.

Turns out that 'indefinitely' was really just as long as another plane from New Zealand could arrive, some 17 hours later. It is a reminder that I really am far from a large chunk of land. In the meantime I get put up in a fancy pancy hotel, watching the pacific waves crash, savouring the sun.

Thanks bird!!

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The Tongan Ocean of Light

When you live on a small island, far from even other small islands, life takes on unusual dimensions, and challenges.

One of those challenges is getting a quality education. There are schools of course- a primary school in each village, and a secondary or high school in the large towns, but the standard is low, class sizes large and resources limited. This makes for some frustrated brains.

However, ten years ago, the founders of the Ocean of Light Primary School, decided to take on the challenge and in doing so are raising the educational bar in Tonga.

Back when I was last in Tonga, on a gap volunteer year after school, I worked for a some time at the then infant Ocean of Light Primary School. It has just 27 pupils and was very much still trying to find its feet. Ten years later, with new school buildings and a pupil intake of about 340, it’s feet are clearly found. There is now a kindergarten and a secondary school, and plans for more buildings. Last year the school opted for the Cambridge International School certificate, and now students can take A levels and compete for university places in whatever part of the globe they wish. The exams are tough, the standard high- and given the relative shortage of local teachers who are available to teach at A level standard, it’s hard to get staff.

But still the school continues, believing the just because you may live in an isolated place, it doesn’t mean opportunities have to be isolated too.

Interstingly too, and I dare say unique to Tonga, the school takes moral education and pastoral care as a very high priority. Although inspired by the principles of the Bahai’i Faith, the school uses ‘The Virtues Guide’ which a methodology for teaching social and moral behaviour across the religious and cultural spectrum. The principle of the secondary school, Nick Flegg, told me that about one third of the current pupils are Baha’i while the remainder are from the many other denominations which make up the Tongan population- Methodist, Baptist, Seven day Adventist, Mormon, all seeing advantage in the methodology.

Ten years on, it was fantastic to see the growth of the school. The challenges are still there (funding, staff, resources), but the school is committed to tackling them, and keeping the bar high. I hear too that other schools that other schools on the islands are sitting up and taking note… which is a good sign for educational opportunity but at bad sign for frustrated brains. I’m on the side of the good sign.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Tongan Tactics

Outside dogs bark. The air is a heavy mix of humidity and jasmine. A fan rattles around to cool. I hear distant cicadas. Across the veranda, the stars are out in abundance. I sit here thinking about Tonga, for that is where I am, and I think about the States, where I am heading, and I think too about, Ireland, where I’ll soon return. The final leg of my travels is about to commence, but first, let me indulge. Let me tell you about Tonga.

Spin the globe around many times and randomly select a place. Do this over and over again. Chances are you won’t land on Tonga. The reason being, there isn’t very much to land on.

To be official, The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific. 176 islands. 36 (last count) inhabited. Population 98,000 (last count). Some islands so small you can walk around them in five minutes. I ran around one earlier in the week and it took me ten. Think palm trees. Think white sandy beaches. Think pineapples. Think coral reef. And importantly, think ocean, lots and lots of it.

That is Tonga. That’s the bit the tourists, the few that there are, get to see. But given the size of the place, there is so much more.

There are a few basic rules to survival in Tonga. Follow them, and you’ll be a step ahead to finding out what that more is.

1. Don’t be in a rush. Things don’t happen quickly here, so what is there to rush to? You’ll be amazed at what you notice when you slow down.

2. Like your vowels. Because at least every second letter is going to be one.

3. Don’t be on an Atkins diet. Carbs are in here. Taro, yam, tapioca, bread fruit, potatoes.. often all on the one plate at the same time.

4. Stop and chat. It is the way this place works. If you can’t think of anything to talk about, talk about carbohydrates. They are really popular.

5. If you don’t swim, learn to, and get a snorkel- there is a magical world of reef and colour just below the surface, waiting to be explored. Dive in.

6. Swim with most of your clothes on. Bikinis are NOT in. Togs are very 2050. Try shorts and a t-shirt instead. You’ll fit in better.

7. Go to church. You don’t have to believe in it, but at least appreciate the singing. It will give you a glimpse into the Tongan soul.

8. Share. Share whatever- smiles, sweets, greetings. People give here. They give a lot. Give a little in return.

9. Get off the main island. The capitol of Nuku’alofa may seem like a one street wonder, but it is a metropolis compared to the rest of the islands. Hop on a ferry. Hop on a plane. Explore.

10. I’ll say it again. Slow down.

Follow that, and exploring doors will be opened. I have only a few hours remaining here. I’m off to knock on a few more.

Some of the faces and frolics

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Take II to Tonga

Did someone just press pause?

I’ve jumped back in time, ten years in fact, when I lived on these islands. I’m now on Vava’u, my haunt back then, to visit the family who I lived with, and give myself a dose of the pacific, which time and memory has somewhat warped.

But it is all coming back to me now. The sights and sounds are familiar; crickets at dusk, a gecko’s chirp, cockerels crowing at ungodly hours, church bells ringing out for attention, palm trees everywhere, green green land, and ocean- lots of it.

It is so familiar that it’s almost as if time has stood still.

The pigs still torment the dogs, the dogs still torment each other.
The Vava’u high school uniform; deep wine, white shirts and the girls wearing bright yellow ribbons. They wave gestures of welcome. Malo’e’leli’, I shout, ‘Yo’, the reply.
Women in mourning, dressed in black, with traditional woven straw mats tied around their waists.
The shop fronts colourful, inside selling not much at all or overpriced imported goods.
A box of cornflakes is a treat. An ice-cream, pure indulgence!

Coming back I expected many changes, but what I see is not as dramatic as I thought would await. I see too many cars, too many plastic bags and more yachts in the harbour. There are some more shops, more restaurants… but not that many more. The market has moved closer to the wharf. There are a few internet café’s. The post office is looking more bedraggled. It still takes about 2 months for a letter to arrive from Europe, and that’s by airmail!
There is an ATM machine, which makes life a lot easier. The roads have been resurfaced; what once was like negotiating a deep ravine is now a smooth cruise (EU funding made it here).
The graveyards are even more colourful, with knitted quilts adorning gravesides.
The mosquitoes still bite.

The coral around my regular swimming spot has grown. I’ve seen new fish which I never saw before; in all a myriad of colour and stripes and shapes bringing new meaning to magnificent. The water is a warm bath, the snorkelling a meditation on diversity.

Yes, this is the Pacific.

The people are still big; big boned, big wasited. A heavily starch based diet- taro, tapioca, breadfruit, sweet potato, yam combined with coconut milk make this place a slimmer’s nightmare. Tasty but ‘waisty’. But then there is mango, passion fruit, soursop (a white fleshy sweet fruit), watermelons and pineapples so juicy, they dribble sweetness with every bite. These islands know how to provide.
I wander the streets and memories come back. Wonderful!

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Community Communing

Thoughts of community centres used to conjure images of grey haired grannies nodding off in chairs. A visit to Karori community centre, in one of the suburbs of Wellington changed all of that. There was indeed lots of grey hair, some no doubt the heads of grannies, but there was little nodding off, and lots of young faces too.

Eithne Wyndham Smith, one of two managers of the centre, gave me a tour around and a run down on activities. There is indoor bowls, meals on wheels, a drop in centre, a youth centre (complete with pool table and video games and two youth workers), a toy library (like a book library, only with toys- great idea), a parenting room.. among other things.

To help fund it all is an ‘op shop’, manned by volunteers, where the sales profits are fed back into the community centre to help with the running and maintenance of the services.

I popped along to the centre because in all of this talk about social change it is easy to ignore the things on our doorsteps. Community centres are hubs for bringing people together and for many an entry into new friendships. To others it is more than just that, but a lifeline.

(It was a case of small world syndrome when meeting Eithne. She mentioned that her daughter, Theresa, is currently working with the UN in Lesotho. I mentioned that a friend of mine, Joanna, is also working with the UN in Lesotho. One minute later Eithne pulls out of her email a photo of Joanna and Theresa having dinner together. Small world indeed- I love it!)

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Morgan’s Magical Madness.

So what do you do when a good investment turns into a NZ$47 million bonus. For Gareth Morgan, you give it all away.

I first came across Gareth not through his philanthropic streak, but his adventurous one. Gareth, his wife Joanna, and a team of others have taken long distance motorbike trips around the world. An Indian journey across the Himalayas; another they entitled ‘Kimchi Kiwi’s’ across Korea; and an epic, retracing the journey of Marco Polo from Venice to Beijing across the Silk Road. Photos and astute commentary are captured on their blog, www.worldbybike.com

Their travels are reminders of the cultural and geographical diversity of the globe, while also the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ which punctuate it with disparity. So when Gareth’s investment came through, he decided to set up the Morgan Charitable Trust, and seek ways of redistributing his gains.

The money came as a result of the sale of Trade Me (New Zealand’s equivalent of Ebay), which Gareth’s son Sam had set up. At the time when Sam’s business was getting going, Gareth saw the investment potential and placed his bets. The horse came in a winner.

Seeing investment potential is something Gareth himself has made a business of. Trained as an economist, Gareth set up Gareth Morgan Investments, which now has a portfolio of ‘about NZ$1 billion’. He is also a director of Infometrics, an economic forecasting company based in Wellington. Between all that, his bike trips, and being a father to four, grandfather to one, he still has had time to write several books on financial investment including the recent New Zealand bestseller, Pension Panic, which he wrote while on his US bike trip (He packs a PDA, a fold-up keyboard and a satellite phone onto all this trips which make up his mobile office). Between all of that Gareth is a regular contributor to New Zealand’s Dominion Post and Christchurch Press, where his economic rambling are expounded with wit and charisma. He is also a regular voice on radio with dispatches while on his bike trips (including one from Iran when he and fellow travellers were under house arrest!)

Gareth speaks with a slight lisp, a remnant from an early cleft palette, which he says made him a prime bullying target. School was troublesome, grades were weak. It wasn’t until university where his academic focus was found. But by the time he had his PhD in economics from Massey University in Wellington, with a wife and two kids, he wanted a break. His wife Joanna is ‘bus mad’, and so they packed up home into a converted bus and went on the road for three years with a growing family; picking up odd jobs along the way. He was while living in the bus Gareth set up his first business (bus at night, suit by day), convincing investors to back a horse racing guide called Bettor Informed. It eventually failed, but the lessons were there to go on to set up Informetrics, and onwards from there.

Gareth is indeed a busy man. More bike trips are planned for the coming years. More books to be written, and meanwhile, the Morgan Trust will be redistributing the winnings.

(Gareth Morgan was named by North South Magazine as New Zealander of the Year in 2007. You can follow his blog, photos and commentaries on http://www.worldbybike.com
An account of his travels across the Silk Road is published as ‘The Silk Riders’)

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My Photos in Action

A collection of my India photos have recently been used by GlobalGain on their relaunched, revamped website. GlobalGain is a US based organisation which promotes and supports the replication of successful development projects.

To see how my photos look and to read more about Global Gain, click here…