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Australian volunteer Isabel Michell with her counterpart, Gavin Edward, Buk bilong Pikinini Goroka Regional Coordinator

International Volunteer Day speech

On December 5 Isabel Michell, Australian Volunteer for International Development, presented a stirring speech at the Australian High Commission in Papua New Guinea on International Volunteer Day. Isabel has spent almost 12 months volunteering with Buk bilong Pikinini, helping to increase literacy rates in PNG by providing vulnerable children with access to books.

Isabel kindly shared her speech with us.

Papua New Guinea is often called the land of the unexpected.

I prefer to call it the land of contrast; its geographical landscape is rugged yet beautiful; its people fierce yet friendly; its culture ancient yet living. The dichotomy is both dizzying and delightful.

Australia and Papua New Guinea have a significant shared history and important ongoing international relations. However, despite being our closest neighbour and largest recipient of foreign aid, most Australians know very little about PNG.

In researching for my volunteer assignment application, I was shocked to discover the gaping holes in my PNG knowledge.

I didn't know that New Guinea was a German territory; I didn't know that people actually fought on the Kokoda track; I did know that rugby is a religion!

I also learnt many shocking statistics about PNG, such as those relating to gender based violence, child mortality and education. I wasn't sure if I was ready to live and work in such a challenging environment.

However, it was the words of my aunt who gave me the greatest comfort, as she told me unequivocally that Papua New Guineans are the friendliest people on the planet.

So here I am, an Australian Volunteer for International Development working as an Education and Community Development Officer for Buk bilong Pikinini.

Australian volunteer Isabel Michell reading with a child at the Buk bilong Pikinini library at the University of Goroka

Children from the remote Wandakia community in PNG enjoy their new books

BbP is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that aims to foster a love of reading and learning, raise children's aspirations and increase literacy rates in PNG. They establish libraries in vulnerable communities and run free early childhood literacy programs.

Although I am now based in Port Moresby at the BbP Head Office, I spent the first 9 months of my assignment in Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province.

The PNG highlands are stunning. At 1600m above sea level, Goroka is a fertile green paradise with a climate often described as 'perpetual spring'. The Goroka market is famous for its amazing array of traditional fresh produce, particularly fruit and vegetables.

Although violence and crime is still prevalent in PNG, I have been overwhelmed by the immense kindness and generosity shown to me by people who have so little.

Just walking down the street in Goroka, I say hello to more people in 5 minutes than I would in a whole day in Australia; everyone wants to talk to you, shake hands with you, help you choose the best tomatoes, make bilums for you, and become friends with you.

Papua New Guineans are honestly the friendliest people I have ever met.

My aunt was right.

Mi save laik tok pisin wantaim ol wanwok bilong mi long Goroka. Oli halpim mi long lainim Tok Pisin hariap. Nau mi ken baim gaden kaikai long maket, na stori wantaim ol manmeri long rot. Klostu taim bai mi go long Australia na tok pisin long olgeta poro bilong mi.

Bai mi nonap lus tingting long Goroka. Mi meri Goroka!

My Tok Pisin is still limited, but I absolutely love interacting with / entertaining my PNG wantok.

This year I've danced with highlanders at the Goroka Show, snorkelled with turtles in Milne Bay, and eaten freshly caught fish in Madang; it's no wonder my friends think I'm on a 12-month holiday!

But it ain't all bilums and coconuts.

From social isolation and illness, to culture shock and security restrictions, many PNG volunteers face both professional and personal challenges on a daily basis.

I've experienced some really confronting moments this year and there have been times when I've wanted to leave. I've pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, and in doing so, I've gained an insight into the lives of the men, women and children who live here.

There are many reasons why a person may volunteer under the AVID program.

Some want to gain valuable experience to create professional opportunities at home. Some see it as a stepping-stone to other roles in the development sector. Some feel like they have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves.

As a child, I knew that safety, food, education and love were a given. However, as I grew, so too did my realisation that many other children had a very different understanding of the world and their place in it.

Life in PNG is hard.

Not enough jobs for men, not enough rights for women, not enough 5th birthdays for children.

There is a reason why Port Moresby is considered to be one of the least liveable cities in the world. It's expensive, dangerous, and opportunities are limited.

As an Australia citizen, I have always had financial security, I have always been safe, and I have always had the capacity to decide my own future.

I have a choice, and I choose to empower others to have a choice as well.

The emphasis on capacity development was one of the key aspects that originally attracted me to the AVID program. I believe that connecting people who want to improve development outcomes in their country, with people who can help them achieve those dreams, is a powerful philosophy for sustainable development.

As part of the AVID program, each volunteer is aligned with a counterpart whom they are meant to capacity build. I feel exceedingly lucky to have been paired with my counterpart, Gavin Edward, who is the Goroka Regional Coordinator for Buk bilong Pikinini.

Gavin and I have worked as a very successful and cohesive team this year, overseeing many projects such as the opening of a new library, assisting library enrolments, and delivering mid-year regional training.

He is an intelligent, diligent, and passionate worker, who is a fine ambassador for both his organisation and his country.

It has been an extremely rewarding experience to see Gavin flourish in his role as Goroka Regional Coordinator, so much so that he has been promoted to a new position as the National Regional Coordinator for BbP in 2015.

I consider myself to be a person of conviction, and I truly believe in Buk bilong Pikinini.

As the only provider of free early childhood literacy programs in the country, the organisation currently has 16 libraries with nearly 40 teacher librarians who are educating more than 1500 vulnerable children every day.

BbP is making a tangible difference to the lives of thousands of young Papua New Guineans who seek to alleviate themselves from poverty, and I am honoured to be working with them.

My assignment is amazing, but it is not unique.

Many of my fellow volunteers are doing equally important and incredible work in other sectors, from health and governance, to sport and tourism.

Some are supporting healthy village projects in the highlands; some are assisting youth organisations develop media and communication strategies; some are helping to establish Meri Safe Houses for victims of gender-based violence.

I have been irreversibly changed this year, my worldview forever altered.

Things that I previously took for granted, such as vaccinations, low teacher student ratios, and running potable water, I now look upon with new appreciation.

In returning to Australia, I know I will be somewhat isolated by my experiences; many of my friends have never been to a developing country, and it can be difficult to understand concepts that are so far removed from your own reality.

However, I believe I have a responsibility to teach my fellow Australians more about PNG so that they may gain a greater appreciation for, and be inspired to support, our closest neighbour.

I love Papua New Guinea.

It will always be a second home to me and I know I will continue my connection to this country in one way or another.

In writing this speech, one of my fellow volunteers gave me this advice: remember who is the real hero of the story.

There are many important characters in my volunteer story.

There is DFAT, who is helping to fund both my volunteer assignment and my host organisation; there is Scope Global, who has supported the development and management of my AVID assignment; and there is me, the volunteer, trying my best to make a positive difference in my short time here.

I am not the hero of this story; DFAT and Scope are not the heroes either. We are maybe the noble steed, or the surefooted donkey, helping to carry the load.

But irrespective of whether we neigh or bray, the true hero of any international development story is the local: the brave knight, the passionate activist, the inspiring crusader – my host organisation, my counterpart, my colleagues.

It is the local Papua New Guineans who should receive the greatest recognition and the greatest thanks.

So today on International Volunteers Day, I would like to thank Papua New Guinea and her people for striving to improve the future of this beautiful country.

I am honoured and humbled to have been part of your story.

I look forward to the next chapter.

Thank you.


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