Kate Donnelly: New Colombo Plan Scholar interning in Tuvalu
We took our descent into the tiny capital of Tuvalu twice. The flight from Suva passed quickly enough, until the seat belt sign flicked on. The plane began to sink closer and closer to the gun-metal grey surface of the Pacific Ocean, at a rate exactly converse to my panic as I searched below for any sign of land. Seemingly out of nowhere, I caught the first sight of waves breaking. The tip of the islet widened just enough to support a handful of coconut trees, and then some shanty houses, and eventually the central district of a town with barely 200 meters between the lagoon shore and its ocean side.
Locking eyes with locals who’d come out of their houses to watch the arrival, and bracing myself for our landing (5 seconds, 4, 3, 2…) the plane suddenly veered upwards and away from the runway we’d been so close to hitting. Five confused minutes passed before the pilot’s voice nonchalantly crackled over the speakers: we’d be descending again soon, not to worry, just as soon as air control confirmed that the authorities had successfully run down a pack of dogs that had strayed onto the tarmac. Until then, enjoy the view. With plenty of swearing and full-bellied chuckles from the Tuvaluans on board, we circled back and touched down in the world’s fourth smallest nation.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where on earth this country is. Hop on Google Earth satellite view, and search for Funafuti. I got goosebumps the first time I saw the capital like that – it seemed so vulnerable, a tiny crescent of land built up over millions of years from the broken down coral reefs that rimmed ancient ocean volcanoes – but the birds-eye perspective has nothing on the feeling you get when you first stand at the tip of the islet. On your right, there’s the crystal-blue water of the salt-water lagoon. On your left, the heaving inky waves of the Pacific. It’s unlike anything else.
I spent three months interning with the Tuvalu Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (TANGO), supported by the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan. In the tiny box of TANGO’s office, I wrote Cabinet Papers and delivered training workshops, developed project management tools, and memorised the words to Tuvalu’s favourite reggae remixes. Timelines were short, plans inevitably fell through or changed at the very last minute, higher decisions didn’t make sense, our internet never worked and my laptop died in the humidity of my second week. Improvisation became my most valuable tool, and relationships my greatest asset. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this country rewrote me.
It might have been the ocean breeze, the mandatory midday siestas to escape the sluggish heat, or the easy-goes approach of every person I worked with, but somewhere along the way I changed my tune. From the busyness and competition of making every minute a productive one, I slipped into days that moved slowly with the sun. Life became just that again – not endless work, not long commutes nor unshakeable exhaustion. Just life. I swam and listened and made friends and stumbled upon a secret.
Tuvalu is a country whose future is a woven basket of unknowns, made and remade around the changing advice of scientists and foreign diplomats but held together by the stories and pride of generations of island people. When today is what you’ve got, you savour it unapologetically and fight hard so that your kids might do the same.
And that’s just it. From Tuvalu, to me, to you: slow down enough to enjoy what’s precious, then give your best to preserve it. From Australian or atoll shores, I can’t imagine doing life any other way.