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When you work with NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organisations) you’re viewing life amplified. For a small window of time, you leave the comfort of the First World and are thrust into a situation that is measured in terms of life or death.
When we arrived in Bougainville Island, we found ourselves in a shell-shocked nation. Just ten years ago, the region had been brought to the point of implosion by civil war, with bloody raids and political strife running a swathe through the region’s way of life. We had been commissioned to cover a World Vision project there, following the stories of two children for the 40 Hour Famine. The situation we landed in was infinitely more complex than any thirty-second soundbyte could cover.
The need was endless; the result of a desperate cycle that had begun generations ago. Ten years of civil war had stolen a decade of education from the children of that conflict; those children were now the adults running Bougainville. The new village leaders had all been a part of the war, their school years traded for fighting, their cash crops left untended and failing. This was a different type of poverty, a poverty of hope.
Men, unable to provide, had turned to alcoholism. Most of them were suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress. We met a man from the next village who would travel with a machete in hand, his face covered in thick dreadlocks. When we interviewed him, he extended his finger behind him and pointed out a scarred concrete slab where his uncle’s house used to stand. He had watched a crowd burn down that house and throw his uncle over a nearby cliff.
In a way, it was the women who held their community together. They lacked the resources and rudimentary nutritional knowledge to feed their children properly. We met a mother who spent eight hours a day in a garden just to cultivate enough food to feed her children. When her children got sick, she would run them down to the local health centre, which was perpetually closed. It was these women who would throw their homes open to us; joyfully receiving a crew of strangers with open arms, laying out what little she had for us.
One day we trained our cameras on the communications manager who was travelling with us as she met with a circle of the local women. She sat with handfuls of vegetables and explained basic nutrition and the women’s eyes lit up as they hung on every word.
Life amplified that seemingly unemotional, non-romantic experience. When you looked in the eyes of the Bougainville women, you knew you were witnessing the breaking of a decade-long cycle of hopelessness.