Reflecting on resilient communities and repatriation

 Australian volunteer Maureen Bolawaqatabu has shared her skills and experience in Papua New Guinea and, more recently, in Tonga. After completing a two-year assignment in Papua New Guinea, where she supported the Red Cross to strengthen community-based disability services, Maureen embarked on another volunteer assignment in Tonga, in 2019.

Maureen was halfway through her two-year assignment with Tonga’s Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communication when she was repatriated due to COVID-19. Here she shares her repatriation story and reflects on her time in Tonga.

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Maureen Bolawaqatabu, Australian volunteer disaster management officer (left) with Mafi Penisoni, disaster management officer walk around the local area planning safe routes for tsunami and storm surge emergencies. Photo: Darren James
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Maureen at the MEIDECC office. Photo: Darren James

Q. Can you share some of the highlights from your time in Tonga?

Maureen: The best part about my time in Tonga was learning from my team, especially the strong female leaders who made things happen in their gentle, humble manner. I learnt so much from my colleagues in both Vava'u and Nuku'alofa.

Community engagement in the outer island communities to collect traditional knowledge of early warning systems from the community, and seeing my colleagues delight as they saw humpback whales for the first time as we traveled between islands were also highlights. 

I enjoyed joining the local residents who volunteered at the Vava'u children's library each Saturday morning. The morning’s activities included yoga, storytelling, singing, performing a skit from the story, guest speakers and finishing off with painting or drawing. It was the first public library in Tonga and now focuses on arts and creativity for children. One of the local resident volunteers used to be a volunteer when the program was the Australian Volunteers Abroad.

Another highlight was my journey to and from work where I encountered tiny puaka (piglets). They would dash off in all directions - sometimes towards me and then a quick change of mind!

I was also fortunate to have access to a little reef as my swimming pool for daily physical exercise and mental well-being.

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Maureen pictured with Mele Finau, environment officer at MEIDECC office. Photo: Darren James
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Olivia Moli, corporate division, colleague of Maureen at MEIDECC office. Photo: Darren James

Q. What was the focus of your volunteer assignment?

Maureen: As a volunteer disaster management officer, I supported my counterpart in Vava'u's Disaster Management Division. We are part of the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO), under the Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communication. (MEIDECC)

Our focus was to prepare for disasters by raising awareness with communities, respond during these events, assess affected communities so they could continue with their lives again as quickly as possible with a long term aim to rebuild better, and work with government agencies to mitigate further risks. In response to cyclones, earthquakes, pandemics and other emergencies, the Vava’u District Emergency Operations Centre is activated and works 24/7. The Operations Centre is in constant communication with the Town and District Officers and first responders in Vava’u, and head office team in Nuku'alofa.

Our community and school awareness sessions focused on how to reduce risks and vulnerabilities when exposed to hazards in Vava'u. For example, due to the measles epidemic in neighbouring Samoa, relevant health prevention information was included from December, and since February information on public health measures for COVID-19 were included.  

The interactive Q&A sessions at the primary schools lead by my counterpart were always a delight. A highlight was seeing an older child picking up one of the younger boys as they dashed for safety during the earthquake / tsunami practice drill, ensuring no one was left behind.

Plans were underway to engage with other sectors including Vava'u's small business community to develop disaster management plans, and update existing plans with the communities. 

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Maureen pictured with Mafi (left) and Mele (right). Photo: Darren James

Q. I understand returning home early due to COVID-19 must have been difficult. Can you share your experience?

Maureen: My repatriation was a whirlwind with my priorities constantly changing, and it happened in two parts – leaving Vava'u and then leaving Tonga. 

I had my grab bag ready and 36 hours in Vava'u to pack my house and desk and say brief farewells. The few gifts I could offer, through glistened eyes with smiles and laughter, were not enough to express my immense gratitude for my colleagues’ wonderful generosity and support in Vava'u, especially as most of my team were away. 

In the capital, Nuku'alofa, I had a quick coffee catch up with my boss before she returned to Vava'u. I spent the last few days working long hours with the NEMO Tonga team preparing for Tonga's COVID-19 response. I left immediately from a COVID-19 preparation meeting for the airport. 

My organisation flagged the need for me to stay in Tonga to support the National Emergency Operations Centre and the COVID-19 task force to prepare Tonga's COVID-19 response. Unfortunately, that was not possible and I was repatriated along with hundreds of Australian volunteers across the region. We were all very disappointed but I’m continuing to support my colleagues from afar.

Q. How are you staying connected with your NEMO colleagues?

Maureen: Relationships are key in the Pacific. I am in regular contact with my colleagues supporting their work in disaster risk reduction and with their preparation and response to COVID-19, at both the national and district levels, and with the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Harold.

I remain humbled by the opportunity to be able to support my colleagues and the Tongan community remotely.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share about your volunteer experience?

Maureen: My volunteer assignments have shown me that Tongans - and Pacific Islanders in general - are inherently resilient, adaptable, strong and very generous.