Published on 28th October 2012
When a small blue envelope arrived in Russell Priest’s Feilding letterbox last year, it marked the start of an extraordinary journey back to the Solomon Islands to reunite with his friend Edward Haui – 44 years after they last saw each other.
In 1968 Russell spent a year as a school leaver volunteer, teaching at All Hallows School on the island of Ugi in Makira province. He became friendly with Edward, a prefect at the school and the pair corresponded after Russell returned to New Zealand.
“He was several years older than me, as most of the students at the school were, but it didn’t seem to matter,” he says. “He was a humorous, loyal and generous young man and we just clicked.”
Eventually, though, Edward’s letters stopped arriving, leaving Russell both concerned and curious about what had happened to his old friend.
“I thought about Edward a lot – where he was, what he had done with his life, whether he had a family. My wife and I even considered going to the Solomon Islands for a holiday to try to find him, but it seemed pointless as I’d lost all my contacts.”
Meanwhile, in the Solomon Islands Edward was also keen to reconnect with his old friend. Last year, thanks to the internet, he did. A chance internet search by one of Edward’s sons turned up Russell’s contact details and the reunion wheels were set in motion.
“I got this little blue airmail letter from Edward and I knew I just had to go and see him.”
In July this year, Russell flew to Makira to reunite with his friend. He found a man who looked a lot older – “I was warned by his sons that he was an old man and they weren’t wrong” – but otherwise unchanged.
“He’s still the same wonderful guy with a great sense of humour that I got to know so well in 1968. We just picked up where we had left off all those years ago.”
For Russell reconnecting with the Solomon Islands was an emotional experience. Once again he found himself sleeping under mosquito nets in villages with no electricity and sharing feasts with Edward’s extended family. At one feast he even gave a speech in Pidgin.
“I got a standing ovation.”
He also discovered that, despite their years of separation, he and Edward still had a lot in common, including the fact that both spent their lives working in the agricultural sector.
That shared interest has set the stage for a future collaboration between the pair. Russell is now looking at providing some venture capital to help Edward and his family set up a cocoa-drying operation.
“They have a dryer but they need money to buy cocoa beans from local villages until they can grow enough cocoa of their own. It’s a great opportunity to provide employment for people in the area and I am really keen to support them.”
Russell Priest is one of 20 returned volunteers who have shared their stories as part of this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Others include Helen Forrester-Brown, who recalls running into a naked man with a strategically placed gourd and carrying a spear while she was making her way to a government outpost in Papua New Guinea in 1978.
"I don’t know who got the biggest fright,” she says of her encounter.
One of Jan Niven’s most vivid memories is of being asked if she and her husband Rex didn’t “champor” (meaning to mix) while they were on assignment in Malaysia from 1965 to 1967.
"This was a polite way for people in the Muslim community to ask if we were having sexual relations,” she says. “This of course led to the inevitable question – then why was there no pregnancy? From there we had many a conversation about family planning, leading eventually to me setting up a community family planning clinic.”
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This article was originally published in VISTA magazine, October 2012.
Read more about how VSA volunteers are working to strengthen education in the wider Pacific and Asia.