01 Feb Solomon Islands with the Australian Defence Force
‘I don’t want to be where there are any pubs, clubs or under-35 tourists. I want to get away somewhere that has cultural and historical significance. And I want to go to the beach. Somewhere tropical.’
That was the brief I gave a travel agent when I was 25 years old and going on my first solo overseas trip. It wasn’t a holiday in the traditional sense. I don’t go on ‘vacation’. I go and do stuff. Adventure. Anyway – this travel agent sent me to Guadalcanal – the site of vigorous battles between the Japanese and the US during World War 2. So that’s where I went. And in February 09, I went back there. This time, with a band (Asleep In The Park), a comedian (David Jory) and a singer/songwriter (Mark Wilkinson) along with assorted Australian military and federal police personnel. Here’s what happened.
The place hadn’t changed. Honiara was exactly the same. That’s unusual in a time of rapid social and technological revolution. I learned:
– the Solomon population is around 500,000
– The Solomons is a cluster of hundreds probably 1000s of islands in the Pacific Ocean north east of Australia
– It’s one of the extreme hotspots for malaria in the world
– It has the highest percentage of murderers in the jail over any other jail in the world
– the Solomon Islands has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
All of this is just a 4 hour flight north of Sydney. We went to a remote village school and mixed it up with the kids. They learned the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance which was sweet and funny at the same time. They’re beautiful people inside and out. I went into their small library and saw how a donation of books from Australia would fatten up the shelves. I was told transportation could be arranged. (See how easy it can be to make a difference!)
We were taken into another village and I took photos of the medical clinic. While it’s clean and tidy, the people of the Solomons are poor – among the poorest on the planet. Village clinics would greatly benefit from small bar fridges so they could stock medication that requires refrigeration. A second hand one in Australia costs around $90. It was here I connected eyes with one little girl and almost did an Angelina Jolie. I think this may be the most beautiful little soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Many of the kids are ‘cute’ I guess, but there’s something about this little girl.
I had the role of MC – Mistress Of Ceremonies – with my own little segment I nickname ‘It’s Interrogation Time! With Renee Brack’. There’s a prize and there’s a punishment. Audience applause decides who gets which one. It’s easy to poke fun at anything. And I love doing it. But there’s a side and a soul to what the Australian military and Federal Police are doing in the Solomon Islands. It’s a supportive role in a small country that relies mainly on subsistence farming. It’s a nation that is vulnerable to military coups.
So in my intro, I quoted something the great activist Henry Rollins told me in an interview last year (2008): ‘To make a difference in the world, you have to care about people you don’t know.’ This resonated with me from that moment. And beautifully, it did with people in the Solomons too.
After our last show, a soldier came up to me, he was very moved, and asked me to repeat the line. I understand the impact it had on him because I feel the same. He had renewed appreciation and understanding of his own work there. (I’m not paraphrasing his thoughts – he said this to me.)
Please do not take it personally if you are not mentioned below – write me and I’ll put you in! But special mentions must be made of soldiers and personnel in the Solomons who made our time there fun and meaningful and went out of their way to share their working lives with us. They include: Suz Law, Rob Coales, Dominic Feenan, Mark Sparkles Routledge, Stefan Webb, CJ – aka Clarke Zenon, Casey Jones, Elliott Snowdon, Kylie from Perth, Mark Langley, Kylie Kroker, Bec Butler, Asleep In The Park, Mark Wilkinson, Dave Jory and of course – all the hard working men and women in The Solomons helping to make it a safer place.
Thanks again and March 21 – I went along to The Annadale Hotel in Sydney to see Asleep In The Park as they are now part of my extended wontok. Boy, did we have fun!