Reaching out to our Pacific Neighbours
The "Aleang Radios"
In early 2007, the Parish Council and Fr Rex agreed to involve the Parish in a project to assist the Parish of "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary", Shortland Islands in the Solomon Islands. The assistance was by way of fundraising enough money to purchase a High Frequency two-way radio for a particular village.
Before the fundraising actually commenced, a very generous family offered to contribute the whole cost of the radio, battery, solar panel, antenna and transportation to the remote location. As a result of their generosity, a village of 600 people is now "connected" to the rest of the world and their health and well-being have significantly improved as a result.
Some months later, another generous family made a similar donation for a second radio which was sent to a second remote village and in like fashion, they have also been greatly benefitted.
Both villages are in the Nila parish of "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary".
There are many people in Australia and vast numbers overseas who are less fortunate than us. There is undoubtedly an almost infinite need. Frequently, people are unaware of situations in other countries, or if they are, they feel powerless to help other than through donations to charitable organisations. There is little personal involvement and sometimes little specific feedback as to how their donations are used.
Parishes need to spend time and effort inwardly focussed. That is important because only a strong, healthy community can hope to reach out to others; but sometimes, it is hard to know just where to reach out to externally, so nothing specific happens. This project was one which could involve the Pittwater Parish community, have no waste through overheads and which would forge a bond between two very different parishes which are geographically not that far apart but culturally and financially very different.
We have previously undertaken very similar projects using our own resources and those of friends and these have been very successful. We have the necessary Diocesan and Parish contacts in the Solomon Islands.
The project was as follows:
To provide a High Frequency, two way radio with antenna, to the Catholic village of Aleang (population approx 600) in the Shortland Islands. In addition, a solar panel, regulator and battery are required to provide power to the radio. The village of Aleang is the most isolated in the Diocese of Gizo, with dangerous access by sea and difficult land access.
The Solomon Islands
The Solomon Islands are very poor. Ethnic tension on Guadalcanal has exacerbated this. Caritas, Ausaid, AVI (Aus Volunteers Intl) and others do good work there, but money is sometimes not spent in the best way. Most aid projects are large in scope with a lot of overhead and bureaucratic complications from the government. Quite reasonably, they cannot be partisan to one village or one religious faith.
This project was one which offered significant tangible benefits at modest cost and had an excellent chance of success.
The people of the Solomons are very poor. The unemployment rate is over 90% and the OECD has stated that the per-capita income is the lowest in the world. A skilled labourer earns enough in a day to purchase one or two litres of petrol (some have outboards). The Solomon Islands (which became independent in 1978 after life as a British colony) is still heavily dependent upon external aid. Tourism is low and ethnic tension on the island of Guadalcanal has severely impacted the parlous economy. The ethnic tension was a consequence of WWII. Despite all this, people do have enough to eat due to the excellent fishing and good quality soil for subsistence farming. There are no street kids, no orphans, no homeless, no beggars and drugs are fortunately not too common. People tend to die young due to lack of money and lack of adequate medical resources. The number of smiles-per-person-per-day way exceeds the what we experience in Australia.
The nation consists of 1,000 islands populated by approximately 500,000 people. Over-logging and the decline in the worldwide Copra market have ensured a steady decline in GDP. Travel is by motorised canoe, dugout canoe, or by air/ferry between some of the more major centres.
Christianity is very strong in the Solomons and visitors have often been humbled by their wonderful faith, generosity and spirit. Villages are typically all one religion. So, there might be a Catholic village of 1,000 people and 99.5% of them will all be practising Catholics! Music is wonderful and it is fantastic to experience the singing, harmonising, pan-pipes (from huge to tiny). The styles differ from island to island.
Education is difficult, more so when one realises that an education is not a meal ticket (given the very low employment rate). Despite this, people sacrifice virtually everything to try and get their kids educated. We worked out that a person must sell between 1,000 and 2,000 pineapples to raise enough money for one child to attend one year of secondary school! All agriculture is by manual labour, often one or two hours walk from home and up steep hills.
The Diocese of Gizo covers an area exceeding 40,000 square kilometres of which approximately 5,000 square kilometres are land. The most remote part of the Diocese is the Shortland Island Group which is located on the border between the Solomon Islands and PNG's Bougainville. The Shortland Islands suffered greatly in WWII and more recently in the 10 year Bougainville Crisis. The principal form of communication in the Diocese is by two way radio. This happens twice a day, every day of the year, for those Mission Stations, Parishes and villages with a radio.
The Shortland and Faroe Islands are almost 100% Catholic and served by the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish at Nila Mission Station on the island of Poporang, which is just below the larger Alu (=Shortland) Island.
The village of Aleang has approximately 600 people and is on the weather coast (or Western side) of Alu. It is battered by large swells which roll in from the Pacific most of the year. Transport by dugout canoe is approximately six hours each way to/from Nila. Or, you can spend a day walking through jungle. Aleang has a primary school and a basic medical clinic. The village is slowly building a church from local materials (trees and sago palm thatch). The only income for the village comes from the sale of Trochus shell to Bougainville and some vegetables to other villages. Occasionally they sell Copra. However, this must be taken to a location near Nila and left in the hope that a Copra buyer will come along. Often the Copra rots first because the village has no advance knowledge of Copra buyers and their travel plans.
The first Solomon Islands priest from the Diocese came from this village of Aleang. Unfortunately, he died within ten years of ordination. Indeed, there have so far been three priests and two (Dominican) Brothers from Aleang- more than from any other village. A number of dedicated Diocesan workers come from Aleang.
Aleang is very cut off from the rest of the Solomons because they have no radio and because of the difficult access. The Parish Priest attempts to say Mass in each village, once per month. He travels by motorised canoe. If the weather is too rough, Mass is cancelled because of the danger but unfortunately it is not possible to notify the village.
Villagers will sometimes paddle for hours to attend a meeting at Nila, only to find it has been postponed. The only way to notify medical emergencies is by canoe. The only communications about the wider Church come by word of mouth or letter. Messages about dying or sick relatives are frequently received too late.
The village income is way too low to afford a two way radio (total cost A$4,200) which is the communication medium used throughout the Diocese. The village has been trying for over eight years to obtain a radio. Two years ago, the NZ High Commissioner promised one, but then wrote back eight months later rescinding the promise ("too administratively difficult"). The Diocese is just as poor as the villages and also barely manages to stay afloat financially otherwise it would attempt to provide a suitable radio. We tried Catholic Mission Australia. This would have been their first project in the Solomons. Fr Paul (the Director) presented a submission. He was advised that it would have to go to Rome for a decision (along with all other submissions) and approval/non-approval would take up to a year! We gave up on that avenue.
In 2006, the Filipino-born Parish Priest with boat driver, two PNG novices and a local woman were attempting to visit Aleang. The canoe capsized as they tried to enter the treacherous reef opening. One novice (who could not swim) managed to survive by holding the fuel tank. The priest came close to drowning, being burdened by full length clothing to ward off the hot sun. He was only saved by a novice holding his head above water until they were reached by villagers who paddled out to the rescue. It was a full day before word could be communicated to the Nila Mission Station. Fortunately, injuries were not life threatening.
Another incident recently concerned a five year old girl who became sick. By the time a message could be passed and she could be picked up & transported to better medical attention, her condition worsened and she died one day later. Medical opinion is that she could have been saved. The Solomon Islands has a clinic radio system which operates much like the original Royal Flying Doctor Service in Australia. Aleang cannot participate without a radio.