WHEN a well-travelled, energetic young middle-class New Zealander arrives in Luganville, Vanuatu, she sees immediately that it’s more than merely her street – the literally named Road No Good – that’s in need of improvement.
Deployed to the country’s second-biggest population centre to help support preschool teachers on Espiritu Santo island, ‘Missus Bridget’ discovers a hierarchy in which the kindhearted, patient women who take on delivering early education to Vanuatu’s next generation are considered lower in importance than even domestic pigs.
From her base in a town where having a telephone line to her breeze-block apartment reactivated takes several months and the only internet access is through a single café, Bridget Isichei begins visiting far-flung community preschools via a time-consuming and frustrating combination of road, river and walking-path jungle travel.
Her task is to develop a reliable system by which the standard of preschool teaching on Santo can be strengthened and the status of the occupation raised in the eyes of the public.
She uncovers a millennia-old culture centred around communal village living, shaped by an absolute belief in black magic overlaid heavily with relatively recent Christian church-going.
The preschool teachers – all women, many of whom speak only the local dialect of pidgin English, Bislama, and are technically illiterate – are passionately proud of their work but readily accept that theirs is not a respected career. Because they do not hold any form of qualification, they are looked down on socially, poorly resourced and chronically underpaid.
As genuine friendships form, Isichei is enveloped in Melanesian family life and becomes fluent in Bislama, enabling her to communicate freely with her new colleagues.
She tells with sensitivity, humour, respect, discretion and love the story of the teachers’ achievements, disappointments and unquestioning acceptance of circumstances unimagined in developed countries and of her own learnings and realisations along the way.