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Learning from the locals!

Learning from the locals!

By John Roughan - Honiara.


When Peace Corps, as well as other volunteer sending groups, initially arrived in the Solomons, the first thing on the agenda was to help their volunteers get an accurate feeling for the local scene. The best way of doing it, after much trial and error, was a seven-week village stint: learning Pijin, sensitizing the volunteer to people's customs and traditions but especially putting them in touch with the average Solomon Islander, the village person.

In those early years, however, some employers opposed this as so such 'waste of time'. One school headmaster complained: "He (the volunteer) is now in country and should get inside the classroom quickly. He'll learn all he needs to know about the people by teaching class". But this headmaster and other like minded individuals were informed in no uncertain terms that the newly arrived overseas person wouldn't even qualify as a volunteer until successfully completing village training. In a short period of time, employers began to sense how vital it was for new comers to get a firm grasp and appreciation of people's customs, culture and traditions. How could a stranger, a foreigner, an outsider be effective in the classroom or any other work area if he hardly knew the how and the why of these people.

Would that those same lessons were in operation now! When RAMSI landed on our shores in mid 2003, that exercise was all muscle. There was no time and certainly little effort to instruct, train and sensitize RAMSI soldiers, police and security personnel in the ins and outs of Solomons culture. That had to wait until peace and order were fully in place. But that time has already come, many months ago if the truth be told. Yet, still there is little effort to bring these foreign workers up to speed, to help them get a firm grasp on island people's thinking and to have them understand how a typical Solomon Islander sees, feels and acts in his/her own land.

A seven week village stay is out of the question for a newly 'parachuted in' worker. But a 7 to 10 day village sensitizing course, a brief introduction to Pijin but especially getting the overseas personnel to feel how island people, live, see and understand their world would go a long way in breaking down stereotype thinking.

It is clear that no matter how clever the overseas accountant, police person, investigator, lawyer, caterer, etc. is in his own world of Australia, New Zealand, etc. he is now a guest living in a strange place, working closely with a people he hardly knows.

Few disagree with the idea that the typical villager could ever create a jet engine from scratch. But outsiders' first hand experience of how a Langa Langa villager makes canoes, small craft and world class yachts might be an eye opener to them. Solomon Islanders come up short when it comes to higher degrees and professional expertise. But in spite the low literacy rate here there are few Australians or New Zealanders who can boast of mastering three, sometimes four, languages which is normal and natural to many Solomons people.

Currently the nation has moved beyond the 'muscle' period when disarming, arresting and jailing criminals was the major task at hand. Now nation building is the accent and different skills are called for. This is the time when close collaboration and working together at all levels of society has to kick in. No one group can pretend that it has the answers. But as true, no societal group can be safely left out of the re-building process if we are to re-fashion this nation.

Village people's strengths--the ability to read body language, pay close attention to what and how things are said, even the exact meaning of silence--give clear sign whether respect is shown or being withheld. Little is accomplished in the Solomons unless respect for each others way of living is recognized and followed. Rarely does a higher education standing, a fat salary packet or position in society really hack it with local people.

Respecting the dignity of the other person--in spite of skin tone, poor command of English, limited education, having a different world view, etc.--is a fundamental asset for basic good relations and thereby getting things done. Tourists need not worry about such differences. But for an invited guest who is expected to work closely with Solomon Islanders to re-create a nation, getting a healthy handle on these new unfamiliar surroundings is a minimum for effective work. It won't come automatically!


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