E kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.
I specifically acknowledge: Bill Macnaught, National Librarian; Lloyd Jones, Chair of the Bougainville Library Trust and your fellow trustees – tēnā koutou katoa.
Thank you for inviting me here tonight for this reception to mark the opening of the Bougainville Library in Arawa on 21 June last. I have been involved in opening lots of buildings in my 22 months as Governor-General, and most of them had been in use before the official opening. However, this is the first long distance opening. And while we are thousands of miles away, and not in Bougainville, at least we’re in a library!
On a more serious note, we all know there are novels that stay in our heads, and in our hearts, for many years after we have read them. There are very few novels, however, that have literally changed the landscape. In the case of Lloyd Jones’ award winning novel, Mr Pip, we have a book that has built a library.
And not just a library, as we have heard, Mr Pip has created a community centre. Books will be read there, and the ancient storytelling traditions of the people of Bougainville will find a new way of being told and being preserved in the library’s Oral History Room.
So, I was delighted to hear that the library is now open, and that it immediately became a community hub. I am very aware of what that community lost in the decade of war and devastation before 1997 from my time when I commanded the regionally-based Truce Monitoring Group on the island of Bougainville during Operation Bel Isi in 1998.
I saw that Bougainvilleans enjoyed coming together. Often they would come to our headquarters to sit and chat – before we moved in it had been the community centre after all. And on Friday nights, they would come and sit on the back lawn of our house to watch movies. What started out as a few kids trying to sneak a glimpse of the TV on our deck ended up as Bougainville’s “walk in theatre” when we put up a massive screen and projected rugby games and a movie each Friday night.
Sir Don McKinnon is another who had close dealings with Bougainville at that time as our Foreign Affairs Minister. Under his leadership New Zealand diplomats like the indomitable John Hayes brokered a truce that brought the civil war to an end. It is great to see that he agreed to be Patron of the Bougainville Library Trust.
That New Zealanders should form such a trust and reach out to provide a library is impressive, but not as unexpected as it might at first sound. I think of the schools and hospitals Sir Edmund Hillary built in Nepal. I think of Wellington writer Jean Watson who sold her house in Aro Valley to go and support an Indian orphanage, and wrote about it in her book Karunai Illam: The Story of an Orphanage.
I also think of the thousands of New Zealand volunteers who gift their time and skills to go on Volunteer Service Abroad assignments - since 1998 ninety-seven volunteers have been to Bougainville. Now a young Auckland librarian, Philippa Robinson has followed in their footsteps, and will spend a year at the new Bougainville Library. That is a very important assignment because according to local figures, Bougainville has a literacy rate of 57.3 per cent. It’s a long way from the pre-conflict days when Bougainvilleans boasted the highest literacy rate in PNG and the Pacific!
New Zealanders, however, are well placed to help with reading and writing. We had high literacy rates even in the colonial period. Samuel Butler recorded that in the late 1850s he shared a hut on Lake Coleridge Station with three other men – and noted that under their bunks they stored their Tennyson, Ovid and Sophocles. Butler later wrote a book about his experiences in early Canterbury, as well as his famous novel, Erewhon. And he also appeared in Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand.
When New Zealand passed the 1877 Education Act, and sent all children to primary school for a free education, the country stole the march on both the United Kingdom and the United States. In almost a century and a half since, we have been renowned for our high count of libraries and bookshops, and writers and readers.
In Mr Pip one of the women who comes to Mr Watts’ classroom to give the children their wisdom, is Mrs Siep. Mrs Siep says to the children: “I want to tell you this. Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something.”
I think it can fairly be said that Lloyd Jones has written a story that has done a job – a big job – and one that is growing bigger. I have been told that, having heard about the library, the Marist Brothers have said they will donate their early photographs of Bougainville to it, and that a Japanese man has offered to translate oral stories into written form.
I am sure there will be many more such chapters in this story. I wish you all the best for fundraising tonight. And I now – remotely, symbolically and ceremoniously in New Zealand – declare the Bougainville Library open. Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.