Volunteer dreams in Pukapuka

Tuesday February 14, 2012 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka

American Amelia Borofsky spent her formative years in Pukapuka, where her father was stationed as an anthropologist for the University of Hawaii. She came back to the islands last year to get a taste of her childhood, and has been in Pukapuka since the end of last year. A writer, she has agreed to share some of her adventures and conversations on Pukapuka with Cook Islands News. Here she discusses life at Niua School.

One hundred and fifty students with ribbons in their hair, clean white shirts and blue shorts and skirts arrive at school early. The new four-year-old preschoolers run around the field screaming with delight. Most children carry uto, yum-yum noodles or niu for lunch. The nine teachers gather on the field preparing for the new school year.

I am the newest English volunteer for F1-F5 at Niua School. Usually, the principal attends to his administrative duties while teaching English full-time. He requested funds for an English teacher, but the Ministry of Education does not have sufficient funds for Pukapuka.

“They forget about us up here,” report the teachers.

Niua School has no English teacher, no assistant teachers, no teacher training programme, no staff room, no science lab, no technology teacher, no art teacher, and the list goes on. Still, the students scream with delight.

Back in 1977, when our family lived in Pukapuka, teachers from New Zealand came on a two-year exchange programme and teachers from Pukapuka went to New Zealand. The exchange programme created a rich resource for the students.

Lomani Katoa reminisces, saying: “I was lucky and had a couple of really good teachers from New Zealand.”

My parents cite one of the New Zealand teachers, Ron Vetter, as “a dear friend and collaborator”. Walewaoa Teingoa tells me: “Ron stayed with our family and named one of our children after his mother.”

Pukapukan teachers equally benefited from the exchange, returning with renewed energy and ideas.

“I would love to go to New Zealand for a year,” says Matapi Teopenga, “but then I want to come back and serve my people.”

When I ask what happened to the successful programme, people tell me some teachers found it too isolated here or funds ran out.

I cannot think of a better use of funds as research shows that a well-rounded education saves money in the long-term. People graduate and contribute back to the community with money, resources and jobs. In trying to understand why so many Pukapukans emigrate, I often hear “I left Wale for the education of my children”. The children that leave Pukapuka may benefit from a western education but they miss out on the survival and cultural education of an atoll child. Ideally, children could benefit from both education systems.

Pio Lavalua, the chairman of the Kau Wowolo, states the main problems he sees facing Pukapuka as “education, transportation and health”. Most Pukapukans give these same three reasons for leaving their island.

As a volunteer, the principal, teachers and school committee go out of their way to welcome me. As I walk home, the Kirabati principal returns from fishing and offers me an entire skip jack tuna and three tin cans of pineapple. The science teacher loans me his bicycle. His wife sews me three work blouses. The school committee offers to pay me from its local village fund, but I don’t want to take money from an already financially strapped school. I am paid with fish, canned pineapple and the students’ enthusiasm.

I will leave Pukapuka on the next boat and return to Hawaii. A lack of jobs, education, transportation and health will be the same reasons I leave. The principal will return to teaching English full-time on top of administering the school.

I dream that the next time I return to Pukapuka, I will find the New Zealand teacher exchange programme running, a school garden full of new ideas sprouting, and all the Niua school students thriving.

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