As I reported in an earlier post, Charlie Pierce, my friend and neighbour in Vanuatu was awarded an MBE in the Birthday Honours list for “Services to Education in Vanuatu”. I wrote a brief account of his life and times for the British Friends of Vanuatu’s August 2017 newsletter. I thought I’d put the unexpurgated version on my blog. Charlie has led a very full, interesting and useful life. Typically, he was in Port Vila on one of his frequent extended visits, running the first ever course on climate change and disaster risk reduction (CCDRR) at the Vanuatu Institute of Technology when he received the news of his honour. Not bad going for a man in his mid-seventies who celebrated the forty-sixth anniversary of his first arrival in Vanuatu earlier this year!
Originally from Nottingham in the East Midlands, Charlie lost his father to TB at the age of four. His mother Mollie shouldered responsibility for raising him and his younger brother Hugh, resisting all efforts by the authorities to put the two boys in “care” as was common in post-WWII England. He was a sickly child who experienced the full gamut of childhood illnesses from pneumonia to scarlet fever and the mumps together with plentiful spills from his bicycle. The family moved to Kent to live with his mother’s parents in Rainham and it was there that he spent his formative childhood and teenage years. The family were habitual rather than devout Anglicans and there was little discussion of religion or faith at home. At quite a young age, Charlie was given the option by his mother of joining the boy scouts or the church choir. He chose to sing and became head choirboy, even performing solos until his voice broke. His mother had enormous influence on him during his early years, encouraging him to develop his abilities in singing and piano-playing, and through stressing core values such as perseverance, punctuality, responsibility, high moral standards and care for others.
The young Charlie
The young Charlie (known at the time by his second name Andrew) was a clever lad and a very good student, easily passing the 11+ exam which allowed him to attend to Gillingham Grammar School for Boys. He had decided at an early age that he wanted to be a Geography teacher, despite being advised by Miss Banister, an elderly spinster on the teaching staff that he should seriously consider the priesthood. The academic hurdles he encountered at school and later university were easily surmounted in pursuit of that objective. In O-level Geography, he achieved the highest mark in the UK in the exam set by the University of London Examinations Board. This very impressive achievement confirmed for him that he was set-fair and travelling in the right direction. He passed a clutch of A-levels, including French which ensured a very good command of that language; important to him later-on in Vanuatu. He studied Geography, Geology and Psychology at Bristol University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science honours degree in 1961. This was followed by a post-graduate certificate of education that enabled him to practice as a teacher.
By the time he had finished university, Charlie had drifted away from Anglicanism. Whilst still a young choirboy in Rainham, he had baulked at the church’s insistence on the avoidance of contact with Catholics and others of different denominations or faiths, which was quite common in those days. Since then he had travelled quite extensively in Europe and North America, met many different sorts of people of all kinds of different faiths and had come to the realisation that there were many more things that united people rather than those that separated them. In essence – he had concluded that the human race is one.
First job in teaching
His first job was as a teacher at a large comprehensive school in Bristol where he gained much rich experience through working with a wide range of children and learning to fit-in with a huge teaching staff. His social life revolved around playing for the staff rugby and cricket teams, singing in the staff male voice choir, and playing the piano in the local pub. Yet deep down, he had a yearning for more, a quest for something deeper. After three years, he felt that he could make a success of teaching, but needed to know more about the wider world. He answered an advertisement in a national newspaper and joined a mixed expedition of twelve people that was taking a Land Rover from London to Kathmandu. On September 3rd 1966, Charlie left the white cliffs of Dover behind to travel on the ferry to Ostende and from there into the unknown.
It’s time to see the world
It was the journey of a life-time, and one that would change him forever. Not only did he come across so many different belief systems – various denominations of Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – but he also saw that all these belief systems were essentially the same. After reaching Nepal, he continued along the “hippy trail” through Burma and Thailand to Malaysia. It was there, when he ran out of money and took a job in a Chinese-run private school, where he first came across the Baha’i Faith. It taught that all religions originated from the one God, that all races and genders were equal and it emphasised the importance of truth, honesty and service to others. It was going to profoundly shape the rest of his life although it would take Charlie another year or so to understand that, and to fully embrace its ideals and teachings. He eventually did so at the end of his two-year long world trip in Sydney, Australia. It was 1968: a year of tumult and change everywhere.
New Hebrides here I come…
Charlie first arrived in the New Hebrides in March 1971 as a volunteer teacher. There are no missionaries in the Baha’i Faith. Instead, its members are encouraged to leave their homes and settle as “pioneers” in another locality or country in order to disseminate the teachings of Baha’u’llah through the example of their daily lives. They try as far as possible to work and earn a living to ensure their independence.
He had recently become engaged to Barbara, whom he had met in Perth, Western Australia, while teaching at a high school there. He says of his budding romance with Barbara: “It wasn’t love at first sight. But it was when she began to be interested in the Baha’i Faith, and we found we had so much in common – both teachers, both with a love for humanity and a desire to serve others – that the attraction grew deeper.” Forty-six years later, Charlie and Barbara are still together. Charlie thinks “The secret of our long and happy marriage is the spiritual union that comes with us both being Baha’is. We also allow each other to be independent, each able to do his or her own thing. Family consultations are important.”
His task was to take over the running of a small, poorly resourced Baha’i school that had been operating in Port Vila since 1954. Due to the lack of funds and the increasing availability of places in schools newly constructed by the British and French condominium administration all over the archipelago, it was decided to close the school. Many clouds have a silver lining and this one enabled Charlie to return to Perth to marry Barbara in December 1971. They completed their honeymoon by catching a flight back to Port Vila in February 1972. Back in Vila, he became an employee of the Condominium Bureau of Statistics, responsible for collecting and processing statistics on migration, retail prices and overseas trade. His main responsibility, however, was to help manage and conduct urban & national censuses.
Malapoa at last!
In 1979, Charlie was offered the post of head of Geography and Social Science at Malapoa College and he taught there on expatriate and local terms for twenty years, until 1999. He was responsible for the academic and pastoral well-being of the large number of children in his care.
He also undertook a number of important, additional activities which included: developing Vanuatu’s national curriculum for Social Science and writing fourteen textbooks for use in schools nationwide. He pioneered a new course in Development Studies for final year students. This course was recognised as a full examination subject in the Pacific Secondary Schools Certificate administered by the South Pacific Board for Educational Assessment (SPBEA) in Fiji. He worked too as a moderator in Geography and Development studies in the regional PSSC examination, and was Chief Examiner in Development Studies from 1996 to 1999. During this period, he served as the Vanuatu correspondent for the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.
In addition, Charlie was also the careers guidance counsellor for all senior students at the College and he ran the music and cricket clubs. A highly proficient musician, Charlie assumed responsibility for organising the annual Malapoa Music Night – a nationally renowned festival of student musicians that continues to this day, and involves at least 200 students in each performance.
In August 2016, the Nagavika Band reunited for the Malapoa College Golden Jubilee celebrations. This was the first time the lads had played together in about 35 years!
VIT – working very hard
In 1999, Charlie moved from Malapoa College to become an adviser and lecturer at the Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education (VITE) under the newly established VASTEP programme. After 2002, when this was localised as the Diploma of Secondary Education – Anglophone Programme, he remained there on a local contract as a lecturer in Social Science. From 2009 onwards he was given the extra responsibility of serving as Head of the Social Science Department, in which he was involved in the design and delivery of a new “harmonized curriculum” in both English and French at VITE. In addition, Charlie taught several Earth Science and Geography courses at the University of the South Pacific’s Emalus Campus in Port Vila. He served as Chief Examiner in both Development Studies and Geography for the regional PSSC examination set by SPBEA. He was also involved in the design of the new Year 11-13 curriculum for Vanuatu schools in Geography and Development Studies, and had on-going responsibilities for “climate change education” in Vanuatu. It is very difficult to imagine that Charlie ever found himself at a loose-end for long…..
Charlie’s work for the Baha’i Faith
Outside of his work in the education sector, Charlie was also a very active and prominent member of the local Baha’i community during his long residency in Vanuatu. For almost thirty years, he was Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Vanuatu, the administrative body responsible for the affairs of the whole community. In that capacity, he wrote thousands of letters in Bislama, English and French related to community building, spiritual empowerment and educational programmes throughout the archipelago. Whilst I am not a person of faith myself, I do recognise the significant contribution that the Baha’i community has made to national development and moral education in Vanuatu over many years.
Fear & forgiveness
In July 2013, following a robbery in May 2012 at their home at Malapoa, Port Vila, during which he was brutally beaten, Charlie and Barbara decided to relocate permanently to Albany in Western Australia. Fortunately, Barbara was overseas at the time of the attack. The robbers, drunk and high on marijuana at the time, were caught (one was shot dead by the police) and given long sentences in the Port Vila maximum security prison. In May 2016, Charlie travelled from his home in Western Australia to meet, reconcile with and to forgive his principal attacker, who remains in gaol. It was the act of an extremely decent man and a tremendous example of personal courage which was widely reported in the region. An interview with him talking about his assault, the subsequent meeting and reconciliation with his attacker was recently shown on television in Papua New Guinea. Warning – it is impossible to watch this video without being very moved.
Changes in Vanuatu over the last forty-six years
I asked Charlie to highlight some of the major changes he has seen in Vanuatu during his forty-six year long association with the country. He responded as follows:
- “Independence has led to the development of decision-making bodies composed entirely of ni-Vanuatu, at national, provincial and local level. This empowerment of the indigenous population is a very positive development. Things may not yet get done as efficiently as, perhaps, in condominium times, but it is an on-going process that will take many years, and there are now some really capable leaders in place.
- A parallel development is the increasing confidence and self-assurance shown by the ni-Vanuatu population. You can see this at all levels of society, ranging from the market sellers and peanut-vendors to senior personnel in banks, offices and private businesses
- A less positive development perhaps has been the huge influx of Chinese small business people and building workers who may be crowding-out the ni-Vanuatu from access to important sectors of the economy such as retail and construction. Vanuatu’s leaders need to think carefully about developing appropriate policies that will encourage and enable entrepreneurialism amongst the indigenous population and protect their access to skilled and semi-skilled work.
- Although French and English are still the official languages of education, Bislama has become more and more important as everyone’s working language. Bislama itself is changing all the time, adding new English words and adopting short cuts as a result of the use of texting and FB. Thus “blong” is now “blo” and “long” is now “lo”.
- I get the impression that French is declining in importance and use. Most government offices communicate in English rather than French. The newspapers publish most articles in English or Bislama. In the past, and just after Independence, we had champions of the French language such as the late Georges Calo, but the only champions I detect now are the Alliance Francaise and the Agence Universitaire Francaise (AUF). All French speakers try to talk in English. Hardly any English speakers want to use French, and still have the mental block that was there before Independence.
- There is massive urban migration and Port Vila’s roads are choked with traffic, especially now, when there is a major roadworks project in operation and constant traffic diversions.
- I think there are also signs of increasing social breakdown, characterized by drug-taking, on-going domestic violence and continued suppression of women’s rights, robberies, family breakdown and a rise in one-parent families, increasing teenage pregnancies, loss of respect, vandalism, increased casual sexual relationships, etc.
- There is growing proof of environmental degradation, ranging from wholesale deforestation in coastal areas of the largest islands to widespread land pollution from the indiscriminate use of plastic bags, and over-fishing in coral reef systems.
- I don’t like to say this, but I see more and more evidence of teachers being absent from class without valid justification, and the negative impact this has on student motivation and learning.
Yet it would be unfair to say that everything is changing. Some things remain constant, such as the all-embracing extended family networks, home care for the elderly and disabled, reconciliation ceremonies cemented by the exchange of mats and other traditional gifts, the intense love shown for children, the often harsh treatment of teenagers by their families, the ubiquitous use of kava in both urban and rural settings, string band music, a diet overwhelmingly rich in carbohydrate, the on-going fragmentation of Christian churches, and a sense of acceptance of the negative impacts of natural hazards that seems to translate into a form of resilience.”
Charlie is hopeful for the future of Vanuatu but he thinks there are a number of important issues its leaders need to pay keen attention to going forward:
“Yes, I think there is an inbuilt resilience to change and an ability to recover from set-backs. If political leaders can learn to put aside their own personal interests and advancement and focus on service delivery down to the level of the basic family unit, then society can flourish. As a Baha’i, however, I believe that the key to achieving a sustainable future is for due recognition to be placed on the equality of men and women, and on achieving a society characterized by unity in diversity and a recognition that religious differences must be overcome. It is clear that environmental degradation is a real issue, and that increasing efforts must be geared towards sustainable development and the conservation of resources. There must be greater emphasis on renewable sources of energy and on climate change adaptation. I guess that’s why I have so much commitment to the development and delivery of the current certificate course on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction at the Vanuatu National Institute of Technology.”
Charlie Pierce MBE – role model
In all the many years, I have lived, worked and been associated with Vanuatu, I have never heard anyone say anything other than warm and affirming about either Charlie or Barbara. He is a humble and unassuming man, universally admired by his former students as a very decent human being, a brilliant teacher, and someone who passionately wanted them all to succeed. Dedication, kindness and generosity are his stand-out qualities. He is highly respected by ni-Vanuatu leaders and expatriates alike as someone who has made it his life’s work to improve education and to promote development in Vanuatu. The “Distinguished Service Medal”, bestowed on Charlie in 1996 by the late Jean-Marie Léyé, a former President for services to the nation, is a real testament to his enormous commitment to the country over his many decades of living and working there.
From my own personal perspective, which I know is shared by many others, I think Charlie Pierce MBE is one of the great, largely unsung heroes of post-independence Vanuatu. His contribution to post-condominium public education in Vanuatu has been very significant, and far beyond what could have been reasonably expected of any expatriate teacher or academic. At seventy-six, he continues to lead a full and productive life, filled with many significant achievements, which he lives with a quiet dignity, simplicity and calm. He is a wonderful role model in a world that all too readily celebrates the shallow, the self-serving and the trivial. I sincerely hope that Charlie, Barbara and their family derive great satisfaction and pleasure from seeing his lifetime of service to Vanuatu, recognised and honoured in this very special way by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
David Lewis, Broadsands, Devon, July 2017