Meet Michael Billington - Volunteer at Salelologa

 

27 October 2011 | OUR PEOPLE

Michael Billington volunteered for the Cagliero Project, the Australia-Pacific Province’s youth missionary programme, after hearing about it from friends who had worked as Cagliero missionaries in Thailand.

 

After six years as a student at St Joseph’s College, Ferntree Gully, a year as a trainee IT Technician at his old school and a solid grounding in Salesian youth leadership at Don Bosco Camps, Dromana, Michael is thoroughly Salesian and thought twelve months as a Cagliero volunteer would be a “good chance to catch a different perspective on Don Bosco”. He was certainly right there.

Like his friends who inspired him to join the Cagliero Project, Michael thought he was headed for Thailand. However, a last minute change of plan saw him packing his bags in January this year and heading for Samoa, where he joined the staff of newly established Don Bosco High School and Vocational Centre at Salelologa on Savai’i, the larger but less populated and less developed of Samoa’s two main islands.

He arrived at the airport expecting to meet Fr Mosese, only to be greeted by Br Tovia, who was also a foundation member of the new school staff. After a couple of days in Apia, the capital, Michael joined his host family in Salelologa.

When Michael began work a week later there were about 100 students but no school, as construction was still underway and would not be finished for several months. He recalls that his first thought was “boy, this school needs a lot of work!” “It was a bit intense,” he acknowledges, “as the temporary premises were literally in the middle of the village and you didn’t always know whether you were at school or in the village and there were people coming and going all the time and the access road to the main road ran straight through the school grounds.”

Michael was initially commissioned to assist in the administration section and soon found himself immersed in setting up the main student data base and helping the other administration staff to establish office procedures. Michael’s technical background proved immensely valuable and he was able to introduce the office staff to spreadsheets to assist with the accounts.

Initially the school facilities were rudimentary, classes were in the parish hall and two nearby houses with the staff room in the kitchen of the Presbytery and the ‘main office’ in a room at the front of the parish. Michael’s first experiences as a reading instructor were under a banana tree as there was nowhere else for the group to meet. It was this contact with the students that Michael has loved most and led him to the realisation that he’d have to get his head around the language. Now quite fluent in Samoan, Michael says that although he used almost every spare moment in the first two months studying from text books he picked up most of his words from working with the students. “I speak Samoan like a 6 year old” Michael humbly says. “They students use simple words about simple ideas and so do I. I’ve learn from them and I have to use their language to communicate with them in class.” His Samoan colleagues, on the other hand, are genuinely impressed with his Samoan language skills.

Computers are Michael’s great passion. However, for many Samoans they are still a novelty. Fr Mosese had promised Michael that there would be computers for the students when the new facilities were completed. There seemed to be little progress until two days before the official opening of the new school when Michael discovered that 20 computers had arrived without previous notification. And they all needed to be set up ready for dignitaries including the Archbishop and the Prime Minister and hundreds of visitors to inspect on Opening Day. Needless to say, Michael had everything ready and operational on time much to the amazement of all who visited the newly established Don Bosco Computer Centre.

Michael commenced giving computer classes almost immediately after the new facilities opened in June and they have been a real hit with the students. “The kids really love it. They are still getting used to these strange machines which they haven’t used before and don’t have at home. They are very visual and use lots of colour in their computer work. Lots of them stay behind after classes to get some extra experience or just to draw with the computer.” There are now 23 working computers and Michael’s goal is to have 30 working machines by the time he finishes at the end of the school year. Fr Mosese Tui SDB, Principal of Don Bosco Salelologa, is effusive in his appreciation for Michael’s work, which he says has brought great benefits to the students.

The year is fast moving to a close and Michael is conscious of how short his remaining time is at Don Bosco Salelologa. “I’ve just loved school life here,” Michael says. Village life, however, has been more challenging: “I know lots of people, I see them walking, I meet them at the shops, I ride the bus with them, I go to church with them. It’s really great and I really love it but you also feel like you’re being watched and scrutinised all the time. Understanding the nuances of culture and traditions has been frustrating at times because you don’t always know where you stand.”

As Michael reflects upon this time at Don Bosco Salelologa he is appreciative of the insights he has gained into Samoan life and culture. “The most rewarding thing,” he says, “has been to see the students appreciate how much is possible with a computer and how it can assist them in their daily life.”

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