Special education advisors Warwick and Jo Bowden returned to their Auckland home in July after their fifth volunteering stint stretching back over 23 years.
The most recent was six months in Niue. Although they had arrived in the middle of a cyclone, Niue was a ‘safe and friendly society’ that offered the luxury of watching the evening news on TV1.
It was a stark contrast to their first assignment, in the Solomons in 1993. “Volunteering was a lot riskier then,” Jo says. “We were in a very remote area. We took a lot of risks and thought it was just part of it all.”
Warwick had a near-death experience with a stingray, tribal fighting frequently took place nearby and, on frequent boat trips, life jackets were borrowed if used at all.
Two years in PNG with VSA and six years with CBM, a disability support NGO, had some volatile moments too. Hold ups occurred and it was important, especially in the Highlands, to listen to the local people for advice. The boss of one volunteer in Lae was hacked with a machete while lying in bed, Warwick says, and there was often tribal fighting and run-ins with local raskols.
Greater safety consciousness today is welcome in many respects but the feeling of not being closeted is amazing, they say. “To live in extraordinary situations is truly an experience.”
Another memory of the pre-digital '90s was the pain of leaving their children behind. Without water, phone, power or transport in the Solomons, Jo and Warwick hitchhiked to Honiara every week to phone home. “It was a huge wrench and you sacrifice a lot. We missed our second grandchild’s birth, so our children had to make sacrifices too.”
Today their three children and two grandchildren live in Auckland, Dubai and the Philippines, a global family that communicates closely by email and phone. “If someone sneezes the rest of the family knows within minutes.”
Apart from Niue, the Solomons and PNG, they’ve also been to Samoa three times. “In some ways, it’s hard to adjust to life without a major challenge. With each assignment we see the most marginalised people in the Pacific getting a little more support from their own people, and that’s what keeps us going.”
So after just a few weeks’ back in Orewa, Warwick and Jo are already thinking about another VSA adventure.