Diana Burns | September 12, 2017
Tuvalu is one of the most remote places on Earth. Its nine tiny islands lie midway between Hawaii and Australia, to the north of Fiji. It’s also one of the most vulnerable places in the world — the highest point on Tuvalu is only three metres above sea level. So climate change, king tides, and tsunamis are all imminent threats to their survival.
Its tiny population — about 10,000 — mostly live on the small main island of Funafuti. Theirs is a largely subsistence lifestyle, so you’d think that the people of Tuvalu wouldn’t have much need of writing. And much less, report writing. Surely, in such a small society, they can just talk to each other face to face? Well, no. Even on a small remote island, people need to write.
Recently I was asked to spend a day with six people from Tuvalu, who had been brought to New Zealand by our Ministry of Primary Industries. The Tuvaluans all work for their country’s Fisheries Department. They cooperate closely with New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. The tiny country’s major source of revenue is selling fishing licences. They have to collect data on their fisheries, and report on them regularly to the overseas agencies that provide funding. So, like it or not, they have to be able to write reports for their funders.
Fish is essential for the Tuvaluans’ survival. It is their only locally produced food. Everything else has to be imported, they told me — even fruit and vegetables. Fish is also Tuvalu’s only marketable product. The Pacific Ocean around them used to teem with tuna, but overfishing, especially by foreign ships, is threatening that.
Most of the Tuvaluans I was training to write reports are former professional fishers. It makes sense. Who better to recruit to promote sustainable fishing, and discourage poaching, than those who truly understand the mentality of fishers? And being a fisheries official in Tuvalu doesn’t just mean sitting in an office. They told me they also dive for fish samples, and collect data in a completely hands-on way.
Naturally enough, writing was their least favourite part of their job. They’d believed they needed to write complex, official-sounding documents, and they struggled with how to make their reports sound sufficiently bureaucratic. To make matters worse, some of them had little formal education, and they were writing in their second language, English.
We looked at what their reports needed to do. Who would receive them, and what did they need to know? We broke the information down into simple chunks, and encouraged them to write their messages in everyday language. Wide smiles broke out on their faces as they realised they could write in a more natural-sounding way, and that short reports are good if they contain everything the reader needs.
For me, working with the Tuvaluans was inspiring. I could see how writing reports connected with their work and lives — and why it mattered. Giving them a few simple writing tools could make a huge difference for them. They knew it too, and loved the chance to learn practical skills. Writing good reports won’t solve Tuvalu’s problems. But it can help them explain their situation to those who can help. And that’s a good start.