Theonila Tantenani Roka Matbob proudly carries the name of her late
father, John Roka, who was lost to her family nearly 30 years ago during the
Originally from West New Britain, in 1977 John married his Panguna-born
wife Therese in Arawa. They raised their family in Central Bougainville – the only place John truly considered home.
John was a man of family, church and community. He understood the
importance of building communities and was an active participant in doing
so throughout his life.
As well as her father’s name, Theonila possesses the same community mindedness – a trait she has coupled to great effect with expertise and knowledge gained with a degree in social and religious studies.
Theonila – the recently elected member for Ioro and education minister in
the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) – completed her final year
of studies in Madang in 2013 and commenced initial discussions with her
family and in-laws to build the early childhood learning centre.
The first classroom was constructed and the centre fittingly named John
Roka Memorial School in honour of her late father. In 2014, Theonila returned home – degree in hand – and joined her sisters Jessica and Dolorose to continue work at the centre.
She soon saw the potential to offer a wider range of services to support local people, many of whom – like the Roka family – also suffered loss and trauma because of the crisis.
“The tragic death of my father left my family in a traumatic situation,”
Theonila said. “Seeing my Mother’s suffering challenged me to use counselling methods I learned during my student days at university.”
In 2019, the institution relaunched as the John Roka Memorial School and
Child Counselling Centre with an expanded remit that included family
counselling services. In many ways it was materialisation of Theonila’s desire to address the needs of those impacted by the Bougainville crisis – including herself and her family.
“If I can achieve the desired outcomes, then I can go beyond my family and
community circle as a counsellor and help others as well.”
“Help goes beyond just a classroom education. That’s why I had to take this
path to help my people and help them to find opportunities amid the day to
day issues we face.”
A key part of the expansion was construction of a new 3-in-1 community
development hub – an initiative made possible with a grant worth more than K80,000 combined with an investment of nearly K6,000 by the centre.
The grant was supported by the Autonomous Bougainville Government
(ABG) and the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia through
the Bougainville Partnership Program.
It was one of 60 grants awarded to empower local associations to improve
livelihoods, community cohesion, and health and wellbeing.
The new infrastructure provides a safe space and functional environment for the centre’s additional community development activities. It replaced a thatched-roof structure where 15 students first started attending classes back in 2014.
Counselling services are available to children, youths and adults exposed to
a range of traumas, including physical and sexual abuse, parental conflict
and underage marriage.
In addition to counselling and the continuation of early childhood education, the centre now offers adult literacy classes and generates additional funds by hosting meetings and workshops.
The centre now has three times as many students in preparatory, level one
and level two (those 5-8 years old or with learning difficulties) as when it began, and staff have noticed that they have shown a greater interest in
learning and improved attendance.
This change is starting to yield results and in the 2020 national grade eight
examinations, one of the school’s students scored 135 out of 150 – the
highest in Paguna District.
Theonila said she was encouraged by the level of engagement and wants to
do more to bring back the spirit of unity, trust and cooperation.
“When children go home with confidence it gives hope to the parents that
the future of the place will one day change positively,” she said.
“Training youths and adults who missed out on education and have now
become parents is another positive achievement.”
This has been made possible in part due to effective and efficient
coordination, which was reinforced through Bougainville Partnership supported training on leadership, governance and financial management.
The community has taken ownership of the project and more than 350 local
people support the centre through the Village Council of Clans, and there is
a culture of contribution.
A local electrician secured pipes from local shops and houses in exchange
for electrical wiring work, which were used to complete the water supply to
the ablution block and enabled the project to meet its scheduled completion
When they’re not teaching or counselling, the centre’s staff grow vegetables
and raise poultry to generate funds to maintain the school, while students
get involved and learn about livelihood activities.
Other local people lend a hand with maintenance and catering for
workshops held at the centre. Teachers reported the overall confidence and morale of the students has grown, and community support has also improved because of the project.
Over 100 primary school teachers attended two in-service trainings in
phonics and teacher-to-child relations in a post-conflict setting trainings at
Sustainability is a priority and staffing requirements are being addressed
through the adult literacy program, with four women currently being
mentored to one day teach at the centre.
“They will be trained to be teachers and counsellors so they will work at the
centre in years to come,” Theonila said.
“Our primary role is to provide sound foundation education to our young
children. In that way we contribute to the development of promising human resources for our community’s future.”
The spirit of community is at the foundation of everything the centre
pursues and achieves – that is perhaps the ultimate tribute to John Roka.