I had already paid one return visit to Kiribati in July 2005. At that time I visited some AVI Volunteers who had been placed in Kiribati with me in 2002-03, and who had returned for a further one year placement at the same school. It had been interesting to hear how different they were finding their return year – things had changed in their one year absence, and they were finding it difficult to continue the same experience that they had had previously.
This visit in July 2007 came about because a Canadian VICS Volunteer who had also been placed at my school in 2001-02 is currently working in a Sydney school for one year as an exchange teacher. This trip was an ideal opportunity to travel together back to Kiribati to see our former students (the youngest of whom are now in their last year of school), revisit our school, and experience some more of the extraordinary Kiribati culture that we had been so privileged to enjoy during our placements.
We were lucky enough to be in Kiribati at Independence anniversary time, and so we were able to see many cultural and sporting events, such as the inter-school sports, singing and dancing competitions, Miss Kiribati pageant, Battle of the Bands, Gospel Day, and Independence Day itself.
The return visit proved a very worthwhile experience. We caught up with many of our former students, and heard the good news about others – two are in Cuba being trained as doctors, several have earned scholarships to university in New Zealand or Fiji, some have good jobs in government or business, some are continuing their school studies. They were all excited to see us and to learn of our ‘adventures’ since we had gone home at the end of our placements. As ever, they were especially excited to see photos of our families and present schools and students.
Our overnight return visit to school (minus students, they were all on Independence holidays) lead to mixed emotions. We stayed overnight with a local teacher couple and their family, whom we had been close to during our placements, and it was wonderful to catch up. The school itself showed the inevitable signs of the struggle for maintenance in the tropics. Both maintenance and staffing are ongoing difficulties faced by many schools in Kiribati. Our local teacher friends agreed with us about these ongoing problems, but seemed happy neverthless, as ever. But it can be a challenge to one’s feeling of accomplishment to see that many aspects of school management continue to present the same difficulties. Had we really made a significant contribution during our placements? Had we really helped the school and our students in the achievement of sustainable progress? These questions we couldn’t yet answer.
But then we thought again of our former students, their achievements so far, and their positive outlook for their own and their country’s future. We also thought about the many wondrous cross-cultural encounters we, our students, and the local people had shared. We marvelled yet again at our incredible experiences of the Kiribati culture, that we have done our best to share with others since our return home.
I think one can’t really return to placement – both oneself and the placement will have moved on – but one will never lose the connection, that connection with mission that may see one volunteering for another placement adventure, to do it all again. And that connection is marvellous. I hope you also get a chance to enjoy a visit back to your cross-cultural home.