Inclusivity, inclusion, to include – I suspect that, from our earliest memories, we have been challenged by these concepts. Not even knowing what these words meant and perhaps having never heard them, from a very early age we all encounter people who we hope will include us, and others who wish to be included by us, writes Judith Holt.
My earliest memory comes from primary school when I was around the age of six. There was a boy in the year above me who was different – he wore what we called leg braces and walked with a heavy limp. To us, he also behaved strangely. He was usually on his own. He seemed to have no friends and tried to get our attention by doing silly things. He was bigger than us, and we were frightened of him.
I clearly remember him on our school playground plunging through puddles that formed in the bottom corner whenever we had heavy rain. He was laughing loudly and scattering the water with his crutches towards us. Quite a few kids were standing around watching him. If it had been anyone else, some of them would have joined in because it looked like fun. But instead, they were laughing – at him, not with him. I felt sorry for him, but what could I do?
Today, I understand why this boy was different and I can account for it all. But as a child, it was easier to exclude him.
As I grew older, I became quite a pudgy child. From around nine to 12 years old, I felt the unhappiness that accompanies being different – the nicknames, the neighbourhood boys throwing stones at me when I walked past their houses, and the desperation of trying to avoid them by crossing the street before they could see me. I remember it well.
Of course, such experiences do not only happen in childhood. They continue to accumulate during adolescence and adulthood. Family, friends and students who were different touched my life. I learnt to accommodate my discomfort and tried to take time to understand their situations, but I was still limited in my response to include them.
Then, some years ago, I was given the opportunity in my work to travel to a small Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. I had heard a lot about this country, but it was nonetheless remote and mysterious. So the opportunity to travel there and stay for a week was exciting.
As the plane flew over the main island of Tarawa and prepared to land, I could see the whole island through my cabin window. I was daunted by the numerous places where the sea appeared to sweep through the narrow island from the deeper ocean into the lagoon on the other side.
An overwhelming sense of its isolation swept over me, and a certain fear of the ocean swallowing up Tarawa, and everything on it. So it was with trepidation that I prepared myself to be immersed in the culture of its vulnerable people and prayed that there would be no major storms, tsunamis or cyclones while I was there.
I found the Kiribati people were welcoming, self-assured and resilient. Many had very little in the way of personal belongings, although I was most surprised and impressed to see the odd solar panel to power TV sets – for most, an important connection to the rest of the world.
In the villages, each family had a small space for a thatched, open-sided hut with a raised floor for storing their belongings and sleeping, and for a small vegetable garden and pigs. Community living was a focus of the culture.
I had travelled to Kiribati to observe the work of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and other religious orders working in the schools and community support groups. I saw that the education of the children was important to their parents. Although resources were very limited, the quality of the education in both the primary and secondary schools and the support for disadvantaged groups, were exceptional.
The traditional threads of the culture were strongly woven into a simple but multifaceted daily life, infiltrated by music, dance and drama. Competitions for sailing, football, choir and bands were highly esteemed. That brings me back to inclusiveness.
One would suspect that a developing country such as Kiribati was challenged to provide the basics for its population, and it was. However, there was a richness of spirit, happiness and mutual support inherent in its people in this remote republic that appeared to offset these difficulties. The values that underpin what most would agree should be fundamental in any strong culture were there. In my limited time on Tarawa, those were my impressions.
The band competition held during Education Week was well attended. No less than six bands competed. Bands from the primary school included children, all in uniform and bare feet, from K-6, with the kindy mothers occasionally rounding up a young runaway and returning him or her to the front row.
The older children demonstrated their significant expertise acquired after numerous years of band competitions. The position of bandleader, I was told, was in fact hotly contested and carried the highest honour.
Somewhere in the middle of the competition a band made up of men and women of mixed ages, all wearing white shirts and black trousers, filed on to the stage. This band had some seven or eight members and their bandleader. They formed a particularly inhomogeneous group. However, it wasn’t until they finished organising their positions and instruments and embarked on their first rendition that I realised everyone except the bandleader was blind or visually impaired. I was amazed and looked around in disbelief but no one else seemed to notice.
The group played about four different compositions competently and received the same resounding applause as had the previous bands. I remember feeling a sense of awe and wonder, as if something intangible had touched me. That a group of talented people such as these could perform without needing, nor expecting, any special considerations was a true learning and awakening for me.
The next day I was to learn again! The Sisters had invited us to a lunch and entertainment. When we arrived, we were met by a lovely Sister called Judith, and 20 or so local people who made everyone welcome, offered us a cool drink and introduced us all to each other.
We chatted and intermingled, shared a delicious lunch and then, to my surprise, the music started, and we all danced. Our hosts, with the exception of Sister Judith, all had some form of disability but were undaunted by any limitation they experienced. They helped me overcome my shyness and two left feet. What can I say? A great time was had by all!
I have many valued memories of Kiribati and its people, too many to share here. Kiribati is not a place where everyone can go. But those like me, who are given the rare opportunity, should take it with both hands gratefully. It was a place of learning for me. It is a place where inclusivity is intrinsic in a culture.
‘And the band played on’ was an entry in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.