Pasifika students working in the field

by Alison Fleming, ANU graduate in Pacific Studies.

It’s a Thursday morning and as the first purple rays of sunlight creep over the horizon, I find myself on a wharf, making out faint shapes in the water, pulsing and throbbing to the sound of kundu drums and ritual chanting. I was privileged to be invited to see the Tambuan dancers of clans around Rabaul come into shore, worshiping and celebrating the lives of the Catholic nuns in the month of the Virgin Mary. As the sun rose it revealed five flotillas of dingys, each tied together with an outrigger that held their clan’s Tambuan, or in some cases three or four. These incredible masked dancers rose and rocked as the sound of the drums reverberated from the mountains. For me, this was yet another day in the office.

As Senior Project Officer with the International Heritage Section, Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, I have an opportunity to work on a range of projects that help support effective management as well as promoting and celebrating heritage in our region. These include supporting Chief Roi Mata’s Domain World Heritage Area in Vanuatu and engaging with our regional bodies such as Pacific Islands Museum Association and UNESCO to support them to work with heritage managers within our region.   Today I am writing this blog from Papua New Guinea, where we have just concluded the Sustainable Cultural Tourism Conference in East New Britain. This is part of the Kokoda Initiative, a program delivered in a partnership between the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments, working towards sustainable development of the Owen Stanley Ranges and the Kokoda Track Region.

It doesn’t take long when working in the Pacific to realise that this particular part of the world functions on relationships – people to people connections. While in Canberra, position and pay scales seem to be the point of introduction for most public service events; within the Pacific we ask, “where do you come from” and “what is your story?” As one of ANU’s original Pacific Studies undergraduates, I had the opportunity to know and understand the region in ways which are inaccessible for many graduates. Through Pacific Studies, and working with Pasifika Australia, I was able to work with Pacific Youth, attend the Festival of Pacific Arts in 2008 and read the writings of Pacific scholars about their own region. This grounding in the rich and varied cultures of our closest neighbours has opened doors into some truly amazing experiences.

In 2009, I worked as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development in Mangaliliu Village, North Efate, Vanuatu.  My job was to work with the Lelema World Heritage Committee, supporting them in site management and expanding and developing the tourism business.  To begin with, I took part in two weeks of workshops, conducted in Bislama by a team of consultants from Stepwise Heritage and Tourism. A baptism of fire for a young volunteer, but having just completed the PASI linguistics course in Melanesian Creoles, I could not only understand the workshop but also facilitate sessions. It was a little shaky at first but I got the hang of it by the end. Throughout the year my position morphed and changed, I worked on everything from tourism to land use planning. This role marked the beginning of a close relationship with two truly inspiring communities and a team of people that I continue to work with. I have watched the Chief Roi Mata’s Domain World Heritage Project blossom and grow, supported by an an ever increasing alumni of devotees and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have contributed in some way to progressing the protection and sustainable development of this region.

Field experience with its incredible highs and devastating blows, can teach lessons, both professional and personal more quickly than any academic learning, but I was well equipped with fundamental skills and insights through Pacific Studies to undertake this work with the people and communities of the Pacific.

In my daily work, connecting with people comes through culture, not through the bureaucracy of paperwork. More can be achieved in an afternoon under a mango tree than months over emails.

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