After an earthquake, finding magic in a commitment to children on Solomon Islands
By Lois Harvey
Solomon Islands, October 2007 - We should not have seen the coral. But an earthquake seven months earlier had raised the sea floor three metres. Mounds of coral now popped out of the water around Ranongga Island, one of nine Solomon islands severely affected by the 8.1 magnitude earthquake.
The April quake also had triggered tsunami waves up to ten metres high. A second earthquake followed at 6.7 magnitude. After the floodwaters receded, 54 people total – half of them children – were dead. Thirteen villages around the Western and Choiseul provinces had been wiped out, and at least 7,000 people were homeless.
Now I and my UNICEF colleagues along with local Rural Water Supply and Sanitation counterparts were visiting Ranongga to see how the disaster had affected its 5,000 inhabitants and their communities. As the UNICEF education consultant, I was concerned about the situation of the 21 schools, every one of which had been damaged by the earthquake, the tsunami or resulting landslides.
The sun was sizzling on the hour and half boat ride from Ghizo in the north-western area of the Solomon Islands. Approaching Ranongga, we could see that the sandy beach was gone and the first village we were to visit had moved higher up the cliff.
On the way up, we passed the health clinic now sheltered in a tent. The kindergarten had found refuge in the church meeting house, but there were no teaching resources or learning materials for the 30 children who entertained themselves on the dirt floor.
Farther up the path we found the schools and teachers’ housing, or rather, what remained of them. The primary school had mostly collapsed. Five teachers’ houses had toppled from their stilts, as had the secondary school dormitory. The 12 teachers and the Form Three (grade 9) boarding students were now living in the secondary school classrooms. But only the 33 Form Three students had been called back for classes and that was to prepare them for final exams. They studied in a nearby makeshift enclosure of donated tarps and plastic sheeting.
Back in the boat, we motored another 15 minutes to the next stop. The path to this village had disappeared, lost to a landslide. It took 20 minutes to scramble up the cliff to the next school, where we met the head teacher but saw no students. He pointed to a tilted storeroom to explain why students were not back in school. Inside, the school books lay crumpled in a sodden heap.
The head teacher said he was waiting for the community to build a secure place for the books before resuming classes for the 41 students. The community had raised 6,000 SBD (US$860) for a new storeroom, he explained, but nothing had been done yet. On some mornings, the teachers did organize games using the UNICEF recreation kits they received after the disaster struck.
From an education perspective, it was turning into a fairly depressing morning.
A little girl assured me, “Just up there!”
“Just up there” took another 40 minutes of climbing. In fact, the school was about 2 km from the beach, and those 2 km were straight up. Finally, the path opened onto a plateau with green hills and ravines in the near distance. Small thatched houses, tents and tarp structures dotted the view; each accompanied with a garden and flower bed and connected by a twig-fenced pathway.
Mondo’s head teacher came to show us inside. Cramped but tidy, 80 students squeezed into these two rooms. School-in-a-Box posters were on one wall and alphabet letters on another. Books were organized on the teacher’s desk. The head teacher said that the school (and the village) had been down near the beach but that the community had taken it apart and brought it up here, board by board and heavy desk by heavy desk.
I was flabbergasted. “What is the magic?” I asked. “How does one village move every house, pot, pan and school board up mountain and get everything back to normal in four months and another is blocked by a messy storeroom?”
The head teacher explained, in a matter of fact way, that the village had to move to higher ground for safety reasons. “What would the children do?” He said, “We could not leave the school down at the seashore, so when the community moved, we had to move the school.”
The magic was leadership and cooperation. “The community leaders gave out the work and supervised,” said the head teacher, “and the community worked together to get it done.”
“We did it for the children,” he said.