Volume 19 Number 3
Changing the Country One Vote at a Time
01 June 2006

In the run-up to the Solomon Islands’ April elections, Mary-Louise O’Callaghan met a group of young people fighting corruption, starting with themselves.

They were small slips of paper, and yet what they represented may be the most powerful force to hit the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific since a 3,000-strong military intervention force landed nearly three years ago.

Distributed by a group known as Winds of Change, these bits of paper were voters’ pledges. Each one held the promise of an individual not to engage in corrupt practices during the general elections, in April this year.

This Clean Election Campaign is the first major initiative of Winds of Change, which grew out of a conference of the same name held in June 2004. With the help of Initiatives of Change Australia, the conference gathered young and old for a week to hear from people such as Joseph Karanja, a young lawyer who launched a Clean Election Campaign in his country, Kenya.

Before the arrival of Australian-led intervention forces, known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), in July 2003, there was near national collapse. The Winds of Change conference was an opportunity for Solomon Islanders to explore ways of healing their nation, and to restore personal and public integrity after years of ethnic conflict.

A week before the April polls young men and women occupy four rooms of a converted shop on Honiara’s grubby seafront—Winds of Change’s humble headquarters. Chatting and laughing, they fold thousands of colourful brochures, enjoying that most soothing of Solomon Island pastimes, ‘storying’.

These brochures, for distribution through the country’s 50 constituencies, use words and pictures to explain to 400,000 mostly pre-literate voters how they can make the national election clean.

In one of the smaller rooms others are carefully filling out the cash-reconciliation forms to account for the money they used during their awareness-raising tours. Funded both locally and by donors such as the Australian and British Governments’ aid agencies—as well as Initiatives of Change in Australia and the UK—the volunteers are required to handle money in an organised, open and transparent way.

Suddenly there is a buzz of activity as a group of hot, sweaty and satisfied people—just off the boat from the Russell Islands in the outgoing prime minister’s constituency—arrive in the door. They excitedly report that over 200 people have signed the Clean Election pledge.

In the background passionate pleas pour forth from the loudspeaker of 19-year-old Jamie Rex. On the footpath outside he is encouraging passers-by to post their pledges in a giant white Clean Election ballot box.

A few years ago Rex was living a dramatically different life. At 14, as a result of the country’s unrest, he found himself as a cook for the self-styled Malaita Eagle Force, a semi-criminal militia which in June 2000 staged a coup with some of the police.

‘I got involved in smoking and drinking all kinds of no-good things,’ says Rex. Things went downhill ending in a police case against him for SI$21,000 damages to a bus. But while RAMSI arrived in 2003 to restore law to his nation, it is Winds of Change which has brought order to Rex’s life.

’I heard how the Winds of Change workshops really helped people to change their lives, so I decided to attend,’ he says. These workshops have been run since last year to train volunteers for the Clean Election Campaign. Those taking part were asked if they wanted to change the nation, and if so how they might start with their own lives.

For Carol Bulu, a student at Honiara High, it was a chance to break away from a rather selfish approach to life that in reality was making her unhappy. ‘I am a first-born. For 12 years I didn’t have a brother and sister so I found it difficult to let my sister borrow my clothes,’ she says, with a fierce look as she remembers how cross this used to make her. ‘Now even my dad has noticed that I don’t worry about those things any more.’

The second stage of the volunteers’ commitment involves accepting absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. At this point, quite a few decided that this approach was not for them. But for others, like Rex, these goals became a starting point for a whole new life. ‘It was here that I really found myself,’ he says. Back living with his family and working long hours with the Campaign, life is full of promise once again.

The co-ordinator of the Clean Election Campaign, 26-year-old Eric Houma, hopes that it will lead to the election of a government that has a ‘heart for the people’. ‘I hope things can improve for our people,’ says the first-year marine science student. ‘I experienced a little of their hardship when I went back to my village, Palasu’u, in Malaita during the tensions. The university was closed so I went home and made a garden.’

Winds of Change has changed the course of his life. ‘I was the naughty one in the family, and I was leading my younger brothers the same way. Now if there are any family discussions, my uncles wait to hear what point I might make.’ He has gained confidence and learnt practical skills such as writing project proposals and budgets which he hopes to pass on to others.

None of the volunteers receive any payment. Timothy Goulolo, the 25-year-old Winds of Change ‘artist-in-residence’, has spent hours designing the Clean Election Campaign cartoons, and Harry Maesua has written and recorded the Campaign’s popular anti-corruption song. But, for all of them, what feels so good is to be working for the good of the nation.

by Mary-Louise O’Callaghan

As we went to press Solomon Islanders were trying to make sense of the devastation caused by unexpected riots following the election of former Deputy Prime Minister, Snyder Rini, on 18 April. Honiara’s Chinatown and the main shopping district were razed to the ground, following claims that Rini had ‘bought’ MPs’ votes, using money provided by local Chinese business people and Taiwan which is recognised by the Solomon Islands. Rini denies this. Winds of Change (whose office windows were smashed) are already planning how to respond to this setback and how to help the rioting youth find a better way forward.