By Linda Kenni, Regional Associate at Humanitarian Advisory Group. 

“I did not expect to get this far, with HAG. It was just the usual, find a short contract, do all the things required, get paid a sum of money that may get things or do things on your wish list.”

Life was good. It was good even though of course you don’t get to do everything you wish to do in life. I had a job, and my children were going to school. My two eldest children were fortunate to have completed their secondary education in Australia.

I finished university at the age of 23 with a bachelor’s degree in Social Studies in 1994. I was very happy. BUT I came back pregnant with my first-born daughter. My parents were happy but you can appreciate that they were not so sure of how things would turn out for me. They started making arrangements with two different families, to try and get me to marry one of their sons. I was stubborn. I told them no way was I going to settle down with either of the two boys. My dad gave up eventually. He was worried that no man would want to marry me now that I was going to have a child. The men he chose for me both had children with other women. I did not want to be forced into marrying someone I didn’t like, so it didn’t happen.

I started teaching Year 7-10 English in a private school called Port Vila City College. I was lucky. But life was so hard. I lived with my sister when I was short on cash. I was getting 19,000 Vatu from the school I was teaching in after Vanuatu National Provident Fund was deducted from my pay. I sent most of what I earned home to my Mum and my baby at that time. I had reluctantly let her go and live with my Mum on Tanna. I could not afford to pay rent, someone’s salary to look after my child and to have three decent meals a day.

Looking back, it was just so hard in those early years. I was straight out of university with no experience and I didn’t know anyone. And my future with the father of my child was a BIG question mark. Everything was hard and frightening in a way. I walked around always looking down and always feeling bad that somebody else is looking after my welfare while I sent every cent I had back to my mother and my baby.

My teaching career ended one and a half years later. I was to start working with the Young People’s Project as a project manager, but it ended before it started. My husband, who is from Papua New Guinea, was at the time just starting a job at the PNG Banking Corporation and decided to take responsibility to look after the baby and me. I was really happy. All I wanted was to be near him. He was not getting much as a junior banker. After many disagreements with my mum (my dad died of heart attack on the last day of 1995, few hours before the year 1996) and a disappointed new boss at Young Peoples Project, we flew to Papua New Guinea with much joy.

I become a full-time housewife after we got married in December 26, 2001. By then, we had two more daughters. Life as a full-time housewife was really good. I was living with the father of my children. But I had not had a real job since I completed university besides teaching for a short period. I cannot say I was tied down with raising our kids. It won’t be true. I was living yet again in another country and this time, I didn’t even have a working permit to apply for jobs, and I had no confidence to find a job in a foreign country to begin with.

I had just come out of university and did not have much work experience on my CV. Come to think of it, I had no CV. This did not push me to ask my husband to apply for a work permit. I felt that I was nobody really. What chance did I have with others out there who are from PNG and more experienced than me? I had a degree, yes. But what is a degree when there is no work experience to give you confidence and believe in your ability? I did not have this.

Returning to live in Vanuatu in 2003 when my husband was given a job at Vanuatu’s own National Bank, I started thinking seriously about getting into the work force. Yet I was not applying. Back then it was very scary to apply for a job. I had thoughts like ‘I am not right for the job’ and ‘I don’t have the right qualities.’ I would end up not applying. The next minute, a whole year had come and gone.

I got a real job or my first real job, one I had applied for and been accepted after an interview, back in 2005 with an international NGO. It was a Lead Researcher Position on an education project. It was a three-year project but I resigned two and a half years’ later in 2007. I had gone to speak to my boss about a raise in salary. I told him the reasons my salary should be raised. He listened and made a few comments. But that was it. After giving time to him to call me back, I decided it was time to move on. I handed in my final report on the study and I left. I heard later from one of my friends that my boss didn’t think I was going to complete the research report on time. He had advised that I would only get my complete pay if I handed in the final completed report, which I did. I felt like a champion. I felt good.

My next role with a UN agency in 2008 was yet another level for me. It was a higher-level job with a higher salary. I felt pleased with myself. In fact, I did not believe my good luck. I passed the interview and was given the job. I spent most of my working days in the office and visiting the government partners. I had a good time there but did not make it to a permanent position because another staff member had a Masters degree and I only had a Bachelor degree to my name. That was the explanation I got. I could not believe it at first. Work experience was the most valuable thing in getting a job. So I thought.

After going through training with Australian Accelerated Academy in Moreton Caboolture, I became a full-time supervisor for my children at home. We decided to do home school after a serious incident with one of my youngest children.

Another door opened for me with the Pacific Institute of Public Policy. It started off on a temporary or short contract work basis. I was travelling to Vanuatu islands doing research with their other research staff. I became a permanent staff member June 2011. Five years later the organisation lost funding and had to close down. During my time there it was one of the few most rewarding experiences ever. We had a great boss. But the perfect boss, the perfect salary and the perfect organisation came to a stand-still. There was no more funding to continue the great work it was offering to the nation and its people. We went our separate ways.

“Mum, you need to get another job,” was the nagging voice from my eldest daughter nearly once every week. It was 2016. I did not feel motivated at all to start all over again in a new organisation. That year was going to be very tough. To start applying for jobs again I needed to be inspired. I needed something to motivate me. There didn’t seem to be anything to push me. I was stuck. Not because there aren’t jobs out there to apply for. There were many in fact. But something was holding me back. I must honestly say I did not really like the idea of working for another NGO after my having worked with the Pacific Institute of Public Policy. They had set another level for me. It was a think-tank and something very different from the rest, which I came to enjoy very much.

I was also running out of patience. I’m in my mid-forties. I could not go back. I needed to go forward. The only thing to get me back to work again was going to be something I had never tried before. Something better, a bit different, which I can enjoy and learn from at the same time. Something like starting a small business was something always going around in my head. It sounded perfect and was something I have thought about for so many years.

Life will always be challenging no matter how hard we try. It’s that part of life we cannot run away from. My children, the two eldest and I sat down for some serious conversation. We decided to each find a job. We could not all continue to depend entirely on my husband’s earning. It was not enough. They both applied to work in a bank. One got in and the eldest got a job as a sales person. That is something else to celebrate, our older children entering the adult work force. But I still worry about them a lot, especially for their safety – something I need to slowly stop because I can’t follow them around making sure they are ok all my life. I guess it’s something all mothers do to their children, never knowing how to accept the fact that they are adults now and can look after themselves quite well without the need for parent’s help.

Then…. a moment came that I would always be grateful for as long as I live! I still can’t believe it’s true. I feel so blessed. I got an email from an old friend who was more of a friend to my eldest sister than me, asking us if we would be interested in a contract job, for a research team from Australia. I took the opportunity. I did not stop to think about it. That was going to be the beginning of my story with HAG. Another great chapter added to my life.

It was a life-saving day for me and my family in many ways. I was jobless. No motivation and not a trace of inspiration to cheer me on to find something. I felt unimportant. I felt that there was nothing more I could do to contribute to my family or the nation. Except when it comes to my children, I felt content that I can proudly say that I did the best I could for them and I am still doing that to this day. Now this came as a great opportunity to work again. To be back in the workforce yet again.

I did not know much about HAG then. From what I read they were just another humanitarian body that were going to be working alongside DFAT. I did not think much about HAG then except for the fact that they were looking for a local consultant. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

After meeting the rest of the team, I had a feeling I was going to enjoy hanging around with them. The study was on evaluating the assistance provided to Vanuatu by the Australian government during Cyclone Pam. I learnt so much from that study. Even learning about things in my country I did not know existed. Take transportation for example. Because I grew up on an island where roads are accessible to everyone. I thought the rest of Vanuatu was the same. Or at least by now every island should have good road infrastructure. But that was only true for one island we went to.

I’m very thankful to this friend of my sister who gave my name to get engaged in this study with HAG and DFAT. Because of that, HAG again engaged me in another study with Deakin University on a localisation study for Red Cross Australia. When Kate sent me that email asking me to join her team I said yes, I’m available during that period. The truth is I’m always available and being asked to take part in yet another study was a blessing indeed.

I would come in as Lead Researcher for Vanuatu. I couldn’t hide my joy and said yes! I did not need to think over it. This team had my back. HAG made me comfortable. They made me have confidence. I was not scared because I knew the HAG team were the kind of people who will always help. That was something I never ever thought would happen to me. Who would have thought that one day this group, this humanitarian organisation would take me on to work for them and value my contribution? I am very blessed indeed.

Being asked to join in any study with HAG and being paid well for the job done is something I would always be grateful for. After Pacific Institute of Public Policy I thought ‘that’s it’. But HAG gave me the courage to start again. This time in a new and different field altogether. The humanitarian world. My friends would tell me, ‘you are so lucky’. And I would say, HAG is giving me that opportunity to keep on learning things that I had no idea about before. If I had, they were very limited. And I’m going to continue to be grateful for that.

After when I was still enjoying the comfort of knowing HAG will continue to use me in their work here, I was asked by Kate if I was interested in being HAG’s Regional Associate. Wait. What? Regional Associate? The world Regional was a bit scary. Does that mean I get to attend those big meetings I know nothing of? Those were a few of the first questions that made their way in to my mind. But wait. HAG is a great team. I’m very, very humbled that they decided to choose me. Even if I do not have all the qualities to be a Regional Associate, I’m very confident that I can do the job that I have been tasked with. The best team, the best humanitarian team is behind me. They come with all sorts of excellent different qualities and skills.

I went to Melbourne, one part of Australia I have always dreamed of going. I attended two conferences because of HAG and its networks. I worked under great professors and professionals. I interviewed great important people. These I believe are just the beginnings of many more excellent opportunities with HAG. I have met new people and made friends with some during this short time with HAG. But the most important thing to me is the fact that I was given the chance, the opportunity. The chance that so many people may be dying to get. The chance to learn and become part of some of the work that are being done with HAG. Some of the things I’m not really good at, like presenting in front of so many people. But I know I will get there soon.

My greatest desire is for all organisations, be they international or local, to work through national consultants and staff. I want others like me to have that opportunity as well. There are many like me out there, just looking for opportunities to get somewhere in life. For now, it’s just the beginning. A beginning I’m already enjoying very much. Because I know there are great people surrounding me with great hearts for humanity.