Volunteer stories from Melanesia.
Published on 31st May 2012
Most of us have had memorable teachers, but few of us could say that they had truly changed our lives.
Peter Arwin, manager of the Arawa Health Centre in Bougainville, is one of the few who can. He says that his Year 9 maths and science teacher, VSA volunteer Leigh Joyce, had a profound effect on the future course of his life.
“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be in the position I am today,” he says. “She laid the foundation – without her I wouldn’t have made it this far.”
It was 2001 and Peter, then aged 22, wasn’t your usual first-year secondary school student. Neither were his classmates at Mabiri High School in Bougainville. They ranged in age from about 16 to 30, and they were all former combatants who had fought in the 10-year civil war in Bougainville.
The conflict, which finished in 1998, had disrupted their education, but they were keen to learn – a quality that Leigh quickly recognised.
“They were all incredibly bright and motivated and amazingly dedicated,” she recalls. “I operated an open door policy, and many of them came at night for extra tuition – some turned up even though they had malaria.”
When she first arrived in Bougainville with her partner, Richard Walle, who was a VSA volunteer based at Arawa Carpentry, Leigh intended to spend the year working on her PhD, a study of kakapo.
Instead, she found herself teaching maths and science at Mabiri High School, a former boys agricultural college. Although not a trained teacher, she had taught briefly in Samoa and Thailand, and had also done some university lecturing. Despite her academic background she found the Papua New Guinea examinations for maths and science surprisingly demanding.
“I remember reading through some of the national exam papers they had to sit and I found it some of the questions really difficult to interpret in terms of what was required.”
Fortunately, Peter – along with many of his classmates – passed the exams. He went on to continue his secondary education at Bishop Wade High School, before studying applied science at Divine Word University in Papua New Guinea. He became manager of the Arawa Health Centre last year.
As for Leigh, her life has remained largely island-based since she and Richard returned to New Zealand. They spent five years working for the Department of Conservation on Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds, and are now based on Little Barrier Island. And while Leigh has never returned to the classroom, she is still teaching.
“I home-school my two children using the Montessori and New Zealand curriculum. They’re great students.”
This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of VSA's magazine Vista.