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Dr Jones and Esther

A life-changing encounter


How a chance meeting changed the lives of two women who share a passion for educating others.

Mellita Jones remembers her first trip to the Solomon Islands like it was yesterday. 

“I was quite naïve and, dare I say it, ignorant,” says Dr Jones, a science education lecturer who was in the capital Honiara for a teaching conference in 2009. 

She remembers the barbed wire fences and metal screens protecting businesses from looters, the tropical overgrowth and roadside shacks where locals sold cigarettes and betel nut chew.

“One thing I recall vividly was these huge, muscly Solomon Islander men carrying big machetes, walking towards me with serious looking faces,” Dr Jones says. 

“Seeing all these things, I guess I was overwhelmed with fear. I remember feeling sick and thinking, ‘How am I going stay here for the next week?’”

As she was soon to discover, her fears were misplaced. 

“The next day I met the teachers we were going to work with at the conference and they were so friendly and gracious and gentle and kind,” says Dr Jones, ACU's Deputy Head of School Education in Victoria.

Dr Jones with Sodality teachers

Dr Jones with local Catholic school teachers and ACU students.

“By the end of that day, I’d had a complete turnaround. I learnt that the machetes were actually bush knives used for gardening. I went for a walk down the street and everybody smiled, and they smiled with their whole faces.” 

It was, she says, an important life lesson. 

“It was a big learning epiphany about how we rush to judgment, and how fear is a normal reaction when we’re in strange situations or don't understand something,” she adds. 

“It taught me to never judge things by first appearances.”

Meeting Esther

That first Solomons visit was to change Dr Jones’s life in another way.  

Later that week she met Esther Rongukulia, a 20-year-old who was desperate to become a teacher but lacked the means to pursue further study. She attended the conference to ask for help to achieve her dream. 

“She came back to the house I was staying at and told me her story, that when she was 16 her father arranged for her to marry a 60-year-old man from the neighbouring village in order to settle a dispute,” Dr Jones says. 

When Esther bravely defied her father’s wish, she was renounced by her family and driven out of her community.  

Forced to set up camp in a deserted area that locals knew as ‘no man’s land’, Esther built a shack, grew her own food and looked for a way to keep studying. 

Life was a constant battle. Out on her own, she had no way of paying her fees to attend high school.   

Dr Jones still finds it distressing to recount the story. 

“It still upsets me because if I was in Esther’s place, I don’t think I would have had the strength and conviction to do what she did,” she says. 

“I think I would’ve married the 60-year-old man. And that cuts me so deeply that almost every time I tell the story, I cry.”

Born to teach

Esther Rongukulia’s struggle lasted for four long years. 

During that time, her commitment to her dream of becoming a teacher was so steadfast that she refused an elderly man’s offer to sponsor her to study nursing. 

“That’s one thing that really gets me,” Dr Jones says. “That she had no money and no support but she knocked back that offer because she was just so desperate to teach.” 

Dr Jones and others who were on that trip sponsored Esther, providing her with the funds needed to complete her Diploma of Education. 

Now 31, she’s a teacher and assistant principal at a school in the remote village of Bolale, where she inspires young girls to follow in her footsteps. 

While Esther’s experience may be confronting, it’s not uncommon.  

The forced marriage of teenage girls is rife in parts of the Solomon Islands, with one in five girls married before their 18th birthday and six per cent before they turn 15. 

“They’re forced to enter marriages with older men in order to support their communities and strengthen ties between villages,” Dr Jones said. 

“That robs these girls of any chance of getting an education and pursuing a career they’re interested in. It robs of them of any chance of empowerment, just because of their gender.”

A life-long bond

Dr Jones’s ties with the Pacific Island nation have only strengthened since that first trip.

Dr Jones with local school children

Dr Jones connects with local students.

Every year she leads a group of pre-service teachers from ACU on a four-week placement in the Solomons — a cultural immersion program she’s been running for more than a decade.  

Up to 30 Bachelor of Education students live in the community and teach at a local primary school, gaining an insight into what it’s like to reside in one of the region’s poorest countries

“One of the most profound things I think has happened with this program is when I go and watch our students have these big smiles as they see a different culture, different people and a whole different world to what they’re used to,” says ACU’s Dr Renata Cinelli, the program’s co-leader. 

Dr Jones says local schools report improved literacy rates and higher confidence amongst the Solomon Islander children taught in the program. 

“It benefits them, but it also benefits our students because they get a sense of the privileges they have, and for many, that’s truly life-changing,” she says.

“They go over there thinking they’ll be the ones who’ll help the locals, but they come back realising they’ve learnt some valuable lessons, too. They marvel at the fact that some of these kids have nothing in the material sense, yet they seem like the happiest people in the world.”

Student teachers enjoying the Solomon Islands.

ACU students enjoying the Solomon Islands.

Determined to do more to address gender inequality in the Solomons, Dr Jones set up the Esther Education Foundation, with a goal of helping women and girls who lack educational opportunities.   

Among those that the charity is currently sponsoring is its namesake Esther, who will soon complete her Bachelor of Education — a qualification that could one day see her leading her own school. 

“Esther has changed my life, and I’d like to think that in a small way, I’ve also changed hers,” Dr Jones said. 

“She risked everything and is now a leader in her community and one of the bravest and most inspirational women I know, and I’m so glad I met her.” 

To donate to the Esther Education Foundation, visit the website.

Want to learn more about ACU’s Solomon Islands Community Engagement Program? Head to our website.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G