Published on 21st October 2014
Keziah George arrived in the Solomon Islands in May 2014, as Honiara Province was still cleaning up after April’s flash floods. Keziah is the second of six Downer NZ cadets who will work over two years with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development (MEHRD) to assess school infrastructure, perform repairs and eventually create a standard classroom design.
Keziah says the majority of the first schools she visited were affected by flooding. “The most significant damage was to the local gardens, meaning the community did not have their usual food security.” Many of the schools had been used as emergency housing immediately after the floods.
As Keziah’s predecessor, Simon Trotter, found, school buildings in the Solomon Islands are more often than not in poor repair, unfinished and not maintained. The Solomon Islands Government has a goal of universal primary school enrolment by 2015, so making repairs and building new classrooms is vital, especially as the Solomons has one of the fastest growing populations in the region, with 40% of its citizens under 15 years of age. Just 17% of the population is fully literate.
The challenges are vast, in a country with low cellphone and internet coverage. “Getting school supplies out to more than 1000 schools is extremely difficult. Even just in Guadalcanal, it can take a very long time to reach one school, and then to get to the 'neighbouring' school, it can take another two-three hours. Travel is also very expensive, very slow or infrequent. A lot of the schools have no cell phone reception, so teachers have to travel to the nearest town which can be up to four hours by boat. There isn't an internet connection in most of the country, so communication is all by word of mouth or by written letters handed person to person.”
Keziah says the nature of the partnership between VSA, Downer and MEHRD, with cadets working in three-month stints to achieve the two-year goal of a design for prefabricated school buildings, means that each cadet builds on the work of their predecessors, while bringing their own strengths to the task.
“Each of us has a different skill set,” she says, “so I have just been trying to work on activities that I know I can help with. Using something I heard mentioned in the briefing - I do think I am 'watering the seeds Simon planted'. For example, he had suggested concepts to our counterparts and I have encouraged these ideas and provided support to start implementing them.”
Downer’s Executive General Manager, Chris Meade, a former volunteer herself, says “From Downer’s point of view this opportunity in the Solomon Islands is a real test of an individual’s leadership and resourcefulness and our graduates are fully up for that! What we are pleased to see is the level of interest now amongst other graduates who are queuing for the same opportunity.”
From a professional point of view, Keziah says she’s developed more than she could have working in New Zealand at the same time. “I am definitely learning skills which I will be able to use back home - one of the biggest ones is confidence in what I know. Being here in the Solomon Islands, where my counterparts respect me as an equal rather than a recent graduate, I have been able to improve my ability to lead work.”
Personally, she says, “In the contracting industry, far too many people let work take over their lives. I have a greater appreciation and more time for family, friends and even just acquaintances. I enjoy being able to stop and talk to someone and not having to rush back to what I was doing.”