Learning from Cor and his work in The Solomon Islands

Learning from Cor and his work in The Solomon Islands

Cor was born in the Netherlands in 1934.  He was only 6 when the Second World War broke out in the Netherlands and he remembers clearly the carpet-bombing of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe in May 1940 which led to the Netherlands’ surrender to and occupation by the Nazis.  Cor was one of five children and his father had died so the family struggled to survive. During the Nazi occupation children were often sent away from home to families who had a bit more food to share, returning home periodically; however it was in the winter of 1944-45, described in history books as ‘the Hunger Winter’, that things got really desperate – bypassed by the Allied forces as they advanced into Europe, parts of the Netherlands north of the Rhine were left under Nazi occupation, there were severe food and fuel shortages and during that winter 18,000 Dutch civilians starved to death.  Cor’s mother knew she could not manage to support all five of her children – the parish priest and doctor advised her that some must go to a children’s home or they would starve.  So Cor aged just 10 and his 8 year old brother were sent to a home in Rotterdam.  Cor describes the two years he spent there as the period that shaped his life.  Although his family was poor they were a good family – they had little in common with most of the other children in the home, most of whom came from broken homes and some of whose fathers and brothers were in prison.  The uniform the children had to wear each day was grey, reminiscent of those worn by convicts.  They felt a group apart from normal society.  The children were only allowed out on Sundays – Cor and his brother used to walk to their home in the freezing winter, but with no public transport and with the disruption caused by war the walk took hours and they only had about 45 minutes there before having to begin their return journey.  Cor used to watch people through the windows of the home and feel totally isolated.  We at people and places have campaigned to publicise the harm done to children through residential care and I have read a lot about it – however talking to someone who has experienced it gives a whole new perspective – it sent a shiver down my spine when Cor told me that during his ministry he has done a lot of work with people in prison – ‘because I identify with prisoners’.

When the war ended Cor was 12.  Since a small child he had wanted to be a priest (with very little idea of what that meant), so he managed to get a place in the Marist Fathers’ seminaries where he spent a total of 14 years.  Life here was also very restricted – he had in effect moved from one institution to another.  When he had finished his training he wanted to study psychology or psychiatry as he instinctively knew that living in an institution was damaging and he wanted to learn more about this – however when the superior of the order realised their priests and students would be the subject of his studies they soon put an end to his academic ambitions! Unable to see a place for himself as an ordinary parish priest in the Netherlands, he applied to join the Marist Mission in the Solomon Islands where he lived and worked from 1962 until 2017.

Cor in the Solomon Islands

Cor’s work in the Solomon Islands was as a priest, but also as an educator, administrator, finance manager and general facilitator for whatever needed doing.  He employed local people who were unlikely to get work elsewhere, often women trying to support their families – not always a popular choice in a society which is mostly patriarchal – and always the best candidate for the job regardless of whether or not they were Catholic.  His wonderful housekeeper worked for him for 30 years – he first heard of her through members of his staff when she was on trial for cursing her intended husband and refusing to marry him and was about to be sent to prison.  Cor paid her fine and gave her a job, and she worked for him throughout the rest of his time on the Islands.

The Solomon Islands are too remote to be on the usual route for travellers or volunteers, though some of the major charities work there and it has been the recipient of a number of foreign aid projects.  Cor says that occasional foreign visitors do turn up, often from Australia, usually with completely unrealistic expectations as to what they might find there.  Visitors such as these can be a nuisance, unless they are willing to listen to local advice.  The Solomon Islands are in the tropics so can be an unhospitable climate – for example first aid on minor injuries is crucial if they are not to go septic – but visitors often feel they know best.  The area often suffers from what we now call tsunamis (locals always called these ‘big waves’) – they know what signs to watch out for but visitors are often reluctant to listen.  The message is clear – local people know the place where they live far better than outsiders do and it is crucial to take local advice.  It is also impossible as a visitor to have an immediate understanding of local cultural norms – Cor remembers a visitor from New Zealand starting what she thought was a holiday romance with a local man and the distress this caused as relationships are always taken very seriously in the Solomon Islands.  He emphasises how important it is to have someone local to advise foreign visitors, and we hope this is a message all volunteers with people and places understand and abide by on their placements in the countries and cultures where we work.

A typical Solomon Island village

The country is extremely poor so foreign aid donations can be very useful, but again Cor emphasises how important it is to take local advice on where and how these should be spent.  For example, some money was donated specifically to be spent on improving sanitation and the decision was made to build toilets – facilities which Solomon Islanders living in rural areas have no wish to use, preferring to use the ocean or the forest.  If someone with local knowledge had been consulted as to the best area in the Islands to build these facilities or had been given time to prepare the people, the money could have been well spent – as it is, some of the toilets are used, but only for storage – not the original intention and clearly a waste of the time and money spent in building them.  Cor also told me how hard he had to work to change the plans of a group planning to build water storage tanks – not because the tanks weren’t needed but because the donors did not understand that due to the poor quality of local cement and poor design features the tanks would simply be unusable.  Major charities carrying out building projects do usually employ local labour and pay good wages – however this means they attract the best workers and prevent local businesses, which could do the work but can’t afford to pay such high wages, getting the job – the charity gets the credit for carrying out the building work and local businesses have lost out.  Also, foreign aid workers do not always pay their way – their managers sometimes bring their families with them and expect them to be housed and looked after for free.  In Cor’s opinion, there are just too many consultants!

Local people waiting to greet visitors arriving by boat

Cor believes that volunteers coming to share skills with local people can be useful, but that local people must decide where they should do their work (a belief we at people and places wholeheartedly share), and volunteers must understand that sometimes local people know more than they do!  For example, quite a lot of nurses come to volunteer in the Solomons.  When placed alongside local nurses in hospitals in the towns they can be very useful; however they are often sent for part of their placement to clinics in outlying villages.  A local nurse in a village clinic is the only person with medical knowledge in that area – she carries out the duties of a nurse, a doctor, a midwife – then along comes a foreign nurse trying to show her what to do.  Rarely does the volunteer have skills or knowledge that the local nurse does not already have – however the Solomon Islanders are polite and would not tell a visitor their skills are not needed – so the local nurse allows the volunteer to run the clinic for them.  Cor says if he visits a village clinic and the local nurse is sitting outside having a coffee and a cigarette he knows she is allowing a foreign nurse to feel useful by taking the clinic for her.  We hope people and places volunteer placements do not take this format – placement outlines for our volunteers are carefully worked out by our local partners to match volunteer skills to local needs – but the message of not assuming we know more than local people is one it is always good to be reminded of.  An anecdotal example of how easy it is to assume a rather patronising attitude to local people if we do not take the time to understand local circumstances and culture – Cor told me of a well-renowned anthropologist who visited the Islands to carry out research on the customs of people from various Solomon Island tribes.  Her questions were quite intrusive but the local people are polite to visitors and did not want to disappoint her, also she was paying them for the stories they told her.  So they made stories up – they got the money, she went away happy, and the stories became part of her research papers which are still studied by university students today.

Another relevant message I have been reminded of through talking to Cor is that change takes time – we cannot and should not expect that on a short volunteer placement we can change the world!  When he arrived in the Solomon Islands in the early 1960s everyone smoked, including children, and smoking rates are still high there today.  Tobacco is grown locally so is easy to get hold of and in the rural areas they smoked pipes, often made from the fuselage of planes shot down during the war. If Cor or any foreign visitor had told the local people how unhealthy this is they would have listened politely, agreed and made no changes at all to their behaviour.  It took Cor and others many years to get this message across, working very slowly.  He told me that they managed to get the school only to allow the children to smoke on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, and that on a Monday morning they would go round with a big box to collect in all the pipes!  A good example of the importance of reinforcing messages over a long period of time, and that important messages cannot just be imposed by an outsider – it needs someone living locally, who is trusted by the local people, to instigate real change – so another reinforcement of our policy of always working with and sharing ideas with a local person when we go to a different country to volunteer.

Cor talking with local people

Finally, Cor wishes to emphasise that volunteers do carry out useful work, even if sometimes they think they achieve little.  Most importantly, he values highly the impact that can be made by people from different cultures working alongside each other, building up mutual relationships and widening their knowledge of the world.

So thank you Cor for sharing some of your stories with us.  We hear you loud and clear and fully support your views  – when we go as volunteers to a country very different from our own the most important thing is that we work with and take advice from local people who understand local culture and know what local requirements are.  Only in that way can we hope to be of real use as volunteers.

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