PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
LETTER TO THE EDITOR (re: John French report)
FROM: Ken Taylor (email@example.com)
SUBJECT: "Report From Tuvalu - Personal Reflections"
DATE: March 2, 1999
I must say I am shocked that you would post on the ‘Net’ an article such as that by John French on Tuvalu. I spent nearly three years in Tuvalu working as the Engineering Manager of the local telecom, and while some of what John has to say is truth, there are inaccuracies as well, but more importantly there is a display of a person who has become jaded with his life in another culture. While there were always "challenges" involved in living among a people who didn’t necessarily see material outcomes as being the be-all of life, there were many rewards to overshadow this.
Several important issues come to mind when I read John’s report. Firstly, he was clearly unprepared for the physical environment when he got there. Indeed, he evidently never recovered from that. He didn’t realize how small the island was, or how crowded it would be; he didn't even realize that there were cockroaches. Gimme a break! The blighters live all over the planet, particularly where it is tropical or sub-tropical. Even if John hadn’t seen one before, did NO-ONE tell him about them? What does this say about his briefing? I confess to culture shock upon arrival too. Fortunately pride (and an already-departed plane) meant I had to stay at least three days, but by then that part was over and I was settling in. Many times I thought to myself "Geez, this is unbelievable/unbearable" at some disaster or personal crisis, but then I would remember that my recruiter had warned me that things would be tough at times, so I shrugged it off and got on with life. In all, a very Polynesian response!
Did he know of what facilities were available? I suspect he may well have been told of these and other ‘familiarization’ data but chose to ignore them. He demonstrates ignorance when he sneeringly refers to the "Telecommunications Center" with its one telephone hanging on the wall.
Did you go inside, John, or just look down your nose from afar? A telephone is outside so it can be used when the office is shut; more are inside. Telephone penetration per capita in Funafuti actually approaches that of the highly-developed economies; see the ITU web-site (http://www.itu.org) or http://www.globalcomms.co.uk/articles/glut.htm. Think of the economics of 'hanging' many pay-phones on the wall in a small town and you will see why there were only ten (count them!) scattered around the island in strategic locations.
The implications of island life are also important. John is surprised that a storm comes, then when it is gone people go back to normal life. What would island people do - be surprised also? Storms happen in the mid-Pacific, John! The Polynesians have had several thousand years to get used to them. Yes, it is unnerving when the water laps at your door (it happened to me, too) but these things happen. Weren’t you warned you were on a low-lying island?
Secondly, John had the fairly typical volunteer’s view that he would change the world (tomorrow he would rest). Sure, that is a generalization. I guess there are several types of people who go to under-developed countries as volunteers or contractors (I was in the latter group); volunteers - idealistic, unrealistic do-gooders who would educate the masses with their superior life skills and intellect, and the majority who do a hard but enjoyable and rewarding job as best as they can. Contractors - shifty money-grubbers out for a buck at someone’s expense, and the majority who are like most of the volunteers.
Sadly John, I believe, belongs in the first group. I can recall a group of do-gooders at a conference in Fiji who had the idea that "islanders should not get telephones or television; they will lose their culture." Meanwhile, back home, these same people expect to get educational television for they or their kids; they expect to pick up a phone and get emergency services.
He constantly talks of how badly the education system is treating the students, and how no other teacher there is doing it for the same noble purposes as he is. Maybe everyone else IS wrong, but frankly I doubt it. He also complains about how external influences have changed the local culture and how bad it all is now, and if ONLY people would listen to him it would all be better. Maybe John is one of these people he complains about, who comes in and tries to change everything?
It must be pointed out too that John mentions, several times, how other staff are only trying to further their career, not put the kids first. What career, John? There are two school principals and one Director of Education in the whole country; is there REALLY a career path for most teachers, or are people teaching because they like it and find it rewarding despite the problems?
He also mentions how inappropriate the education system is when many kids don't go on to higher education (although more than he suggests in his ignorance), and how many kids just become fishermen or a fishermen’s wife (I won’t pick on your English, John, even though you teach it, but how many of the girls are a wife to how many men at once?). Well, welcome to a subsistence economy. A surprisingly large number per capita actually go on to get a tertiary degree (I'd love to compare numbers with Sweden!), but there are limited jobs for the majority until their opportunity arrives.
There are certainly problems with teachers in Tuvalu, and from my feeble point of view it has not necessarily been helped by the influx of foreign teachers struggle to come to grips with a foreign culture while also trying to teach the kids. (Having said that, there have been many notable success stories too, but since John does not mention them…) From observation and personal experience it takes longer than a year to just get your bearings in a new culture, before you can really start to be productive.
Thirdly, John obviously struggled personally and emotionally. He alludes to several problems on these fronts, firstly the constant bickering with other staff (how many toes did he tread on in his eagerness to change things?) and secondly his marriage broke down. I will go out on a limb and suggest it happened during, or because of, his time in Tuvalu. It is happened before, and it will happen again. Not all relationships survive a period in an isolated small community; even here in Australia it is common for there to be these problems in the small remote communities when ‘big-city’ folk arrive. I certainly don't mean to criticize John for this, he has my sympathies, but he should realize where some of his bile and vitriol is coming from, and why. If nothing else it would help his own healing processes.
Initially I was furious as I read John’s jaded and caustic ‘report,’ then I was saddened as I realized that he had let his own personal and professional problems get the better of him and destroy his chances of a truly wonderful and rewarding experience. I still look back with great fondness at my time in Tuvalu between ‘93-‘95, and catch up with Tuvaluan and other overseas friends whenever I hear they are in Melbourne or are on the ‘Net. Nearly all the contractors and volunteers there during my time were of a like mind; we involved ourselves in the community without actually meddling, we assisted change where it was desired and generally had a ball.
I can honestly say that my time in Tuvalu was the most enjoyable and rewarding time, personally and professionally, of my life so far. John, you have my pity.
Ken Taylor, an Australian, was Engineering Manager for Tuvalu Telecommunications Corporation from mid 1993 to December 1995 on an AusAid funded contract.