It was Monday 1 March 1976.
At 7.30 am, I walked through the glass doors of my new school, Nauru High School.
I was about to start on a journey that would change my life forever and then be purposely forgotten.
This was the ‘Pleasant Island’, so called by the first British traders. Now independent and the world’s smallest republic; now the place to live the life of an expatriate seeking a place to call home.
A speck in the Pacific with a population of 8,000 people made up of 12 traditional clans or tribes; these were proud people who lived by matriarchal rule and decent. They fished the surrounding waters and cultivating the small areas of arable land.
Its history and place in the world began back in 1830 when one of two prison escapees from Norfolk Island became a self-appointed Dictator.
Its journey into the world of influence, greed, exploitation and destruction had begun and, along with the introduction of firearms and alcohol, the once peaceful nature of this nation was eradicated. It progressed through the years to self-government and independence from the reigning foreign powers of UK, Australia and New Zealand.
For an island nation that had only 21 square kilometres of land, it was the biggest wake-up call to me after being part of island culture in Kiribati and Tuvalu.
I had come from a teaching post where I used cardboard boxes for books, where children sat on the floor, where lunch was dried fish and coconut to a fully air-conditioned school with boxes of exercise books, pens, pencils and textbooks piled in a corner in each classroom. My pupils came dressed in the latest fashions, with the mandatory ‘boom buster’ radio balanced on their shoulders. Times for classes were ad hoc yet compulsory. In their minds, school was a place to socialise and, at best, perhaps to catch up on sleep, head down on the desks.
My life was blasted apart after my first day. I was about to learn how money can destroy the richest nation per capita in the world.
Welcome to Nauru.
The discovery and mining of phosphate in the 1900’s brought this little speck of a nation to becoming the most significant in the Pacific and Australasian area. I won’t discuss the mining company’s methods, long-term destruction and final dismissal of this 21 square kilometres of land, but suffice to say that the result of the plunder and rape leaves it an environmental wasteland.
Australia, UK and New Zealand all offered out of court settlement compensation for the damage, but the $57 million dollars soon ran out.
But I jump ahead of myself, when I was there, I saw all the craziest and unbelievable lifestyles ever.
The island itself rises abruptly out of the ocean, mainly volcanic; it has no harbours or places for protected anchorages. In places, the coral cliffs rise to 65 meters. This was the rich rock phosphate leached from guano, or bird droppings. The mineral deposit covered more than two-thirds of the island and once extracted, left pinnacle-shaped outcrops of limestone. The landscape was never ‘beautiful’. There were a couple of beaches, all shingle and never used by the Nauruan people.
So everything was brought to the island either by ship or plane. Food, water, supplies, medication – everything required to exist. There was no self-sufficiency by this time even though the islanders used to exist on fishing and small farming areas to plant vegetables and of course coconut trees.
When I lived there, Nauru seemed like a group of people who had suddenly opened their wallets and just seen money. Lots of it!! Landowners received royalties from the phosphate earnings, and many Nauruan’s were unemployed by choice. Other Pacific Islanders and Chinese were employed to work the mines. Commerce and finance were run by Europeans and Australians. The Government relied on expat expertise to run the country.
They owned two cargo ships which travelled to Australia and New Zealand for goods.
An Airline with two 727’s and five 737 Boeing aircraft.
National pride was their ‘pièce de résistance’. ‘Nauru House’ in Melbourne was the tallest building in the city in 1977.
Other lifestyle choices were all influenced by the sudden realisation that money could change their lives. Abandoning their traditional lifestyles they turned to unhealthy food, alcohol and cigarettes. My weekly trip to the co-operative supermarket soon showed me their staple diet. Trolleys loaded with frozen chickens, bags of white rice, cases of condensed milk and cartons of soft fizzy drinks and cigarettes.
Life expectancy was around 50 years, and the rate of diabetes was 94.5% of all adults. 71.7% were obese.
Life, it seemed, was one long party.
Soccer was played at weekends, and the winning teams would be rewarded with $20 notes shoved into their uniforms. In fact, anyone who won anything always received dollar notes.
When something broke, it was tossed away and a new one bought – if not in the store, then ordered to be on the next ship or plane.
The Chief of the Police and Politicians had this friendly rivalry about who had the best house, furniture, clothes, whatever. The ultimate challenge was when the Chief ordered, through the Co-Ops Australian manager, a Lamborghini to be delivered for him!
No amount of discussion or persuasion would change his mind. Two months later, I think the whole Island went to watch this car being offloaded from the barge. There was much cheering and hullaballoo going on until reality came home to roost.
There are only five miles of tarmacked road on Nauru, and the most important obstacle was the 23 stone body that was to drive the car.
The outcome (as you may well have expected) was the manager inherited the car until the Chief lost enough weight to be able to get into his new Lamborghini (which never happened!).
There was no regard for the future, no plans to invest and secure their wealth. Life was for living today.
My two years on Nauru were deeply inhibiting and disturbing; a vacuum in my life that I tried to fill with positivity and possibilities. It never happened, and subsequent years of watching the country’s slow death into bankruptcy, their selling off of assets and the state of political, financial and social unrest that is now Nauru, makes me heavy hearted.
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
Now I see the legacy of what money, profits and commercial enterprise can do to destroy individuals, groups, communities and Nations and can say ‘AMEN’ to the above scripture.
Love can lead us in many ways and journeys, and unless we act and move through Godly love it can bring devastation and suffering.
Nauruans can no longer be proud matriarchal people; they struggle under the realisation that choices made in the past are now are being revealed openly on the world’s stage.
It is no wonder that the Australian government’s offer to give money to house refugees on this now broken Island Nation seemed a no-brainer. Which nation in despair and without any hope would not accept a supposed life-line?
Culturally they operate out of their past and learned behaviour. Generations have been influenced by possessions and lack of ambition and insight; they have been robbed of any sustainability as a people. They have an island, their home, which is isolated, broken, reduced in land mass, infertile and regarded as a convenient prison for refugees.
Money and greed have destroyed a culture, and in my mind, the Nauruan people are just as much ‘imprisoned’ in their own nation as the refugees which the Australian government has placed there. There has been no investment in the restoration of this nation or its people by those who used their resources before moving onto greener and more profitable pastures.
Physically, spiritually, socially and emotionally, Nauru is in great need of the loving hand of God.
The integration of cultures doesn’t happen overnight; history and inherent behaviour determine the here and now.
Here and now, I have made myself go back to remember how Nauru used to be, should I judge what is going on there today? Should I base my frustration on a people who have themselves lost their identity their dignity and purpose in life?
There is no doubt in my mind that my prayers should be focused on the real reason that the Pacific solution is based in Nauru.
It’s a nation who have been robbed of their identity and independence and live daily in a new world of survival.
Through no fault of their own, they have become a pawn in a world of political contempt for individual identity and hope.