From the Victorian countryside to remote island life

Retired couple share unique experiences of living and volunteering in Kiribati.

Jenny and Tony Waldron met in the 1970s as volunteers in Papua New Guinea. Now reaching retirement, the couple from Swan Hill decided to end their careers as they began. In 2019 they took their years of teaching experience to Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass), a country of 33 low lying atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Through the Australian Volunteers Program, Tony mentored the principal of the Kiribati School and Centre for Children with Special Needs (KSCCSN) - Kiribati’s only school for children with disabilities, while his wife Jenny assisted teachers at the school with their English.

Here Jenny and Tony share the experiences and challenges they encountered while living and working on South Tarawa, Kiribati’s main island. 

Kiribati landscape
South Tarawa from the sky, Kiribati. Photo: Darren James
Australian volunteers Tony and Jenny Waldron with Miss Kiribati 2019. Supplied: Tony and Jenny Waldron

Jenny: The Kiribati position really suited Tony. It was a bit daunting for me to be working in a special school because I hadn’t done that before. However the emphasis at the school was most definitely on ability, rather than disability, and I found I fit in. It was a beautiful school to be part of.

Tony: The majority of students at the school were between four and 18 years old. My role was to mentor the school principal, through a new approach to have more students transitioning into mainstream schooling. I also gave her advice and supported her at meetings.

Jenny: I taught English three times a week after school to the whole staff and also helped three teachers who were on their teacher training course. I assisted with their English assignments, and just gave them some help along the way because they were all juggling full-time work, family commitments and assignments in their second language.

Jenny with colleagues performing a traditional dance. Supplied: Tony and Jenny Waldron
Kiribati boat
Boat on South Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo: Darren James

Tony: The school had the biggest bus in Kiribati - one that had been adapted from a Fijian inter-city bus. It had a chair lift fitted to it, and would pick up kids along the length of South Tarawa.

The island is 30 kilometres long and in some places only 30 metres wide. So that bus trip, although just 30 kilometres, would take over an hour, because the speed limit was 40 kilometres per hour, as  so many people walked on the road.

Jenny: My favourite times were when I was with the staff. They turned everything into fun when they were learning English. One special memory was when the staff included me in a local celebration, which was a dance. They taught me the Kiribati dance to do on stage. I really felt a part of the group and was so welcomed.

Tony: For me the best part about my assignment was being with the kids.

The greatest enjoyment came from my interactions with the kids and the school staff, who had such joy and celebration of life.

— Tony Waldron

Jenny: In Swan Hill we’re inland. But in Kiribati we had the ocean on one side, which we could hear every night as we went to sleep, and the lagoon on the other. It was just 50 metres one way to the lagoon and 50 metres to the ocean. So that was very, very different for us – the physical nature of the place.

Another big difference was the availability of food. In Australia we’re so used to having an amazing variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and delicatessens. In Kiribati, there were several little supermarkets and many small roadside shops – but they mainly sold tinned meat and rice.

It was definitely a challenge for me. We had two or three shipments in the seven months we were there, where oranges, apples and some capsicums arrived.

— Jenny Waldron

We did have bananas arrive from other islands, and Tony grew pumpkins.

There was a lot of fish though! Fresh fish would come in the evening to one of the villages.

Tony: One piece of advice for a volunteer going into Kiribati: take some cheese!

The other thing I would suggest is make an effort to join in groups that are different to your work groups. Because the island is drawn out over 30 kilometres, there’s no centre of town where you can see what’s happening.

children kiribati
I-Kiribati children enjoy relaxing and playing by the lagoon at the end of the day on South Tarawa. Photo: Darren James
Kiribati fish
Fresh fish is a relied upon as part of daily diet in Kiribati. Fish are becoming harder to catch with the combined challenges of reduced breeding grounds from warmer waters, acidification and over-fishing. Photo: Darren James

Jenny: The advice I would give other volunteers going to Kiribati is to enjoy the culture.

Kiribati has a beautiful island culture, so make the most of it. If there’s a holiday or a birthday – take part in that, even if it means putting your work aside.

Jenny: Volunteering this time around in Kiribati was a very different experience to when Tony and I first volunteered in the 70s.

I felt like the younger volunteers looked to us for a bit of advice or to listen to a difficulty at work or at home. That experience was a privilege.

The other thing I learnt this time around was to fit in with the local protocols and systems. We worked at the Kiribati pace – even if that was frustrating at times, we realised that it was their country, their place, and we needed to respect that.

Maybe as a younger volunteer I might have gone in and just done what I wanted, rather than seeking advice and asking colleagues, ‘what do you need?’

— Jenny Waldron

At the beginning of my assignment I said I was not there as the canoe – my colleagues were the canoe, they were driving it, but I was the outrigger, and that’s what I felt like.