Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images
Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

OPINIONSocietyJune 21, 2016

I reported from South Sudan and Sierra Leone. What I’ve returned to in New Zealand still shocks me

Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images
Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

Former Al Jazeera journalist Caitlin McGee spent years living in the Middle East and has reported from South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Indonesia. Recently returned home to New Zealand, she’s dismayed with what she’s found.

The girl sitting across from me never had control of her body. She’d spent her childhood as the possession of her father and now at 12 years old she was to become someone else’s property, married off to a 60 year old man who already had two wives. Her youth made her worth a significant dowry in the form of cattle and her impoverished family in South Sudan, all the more desperate as famine loomed and conflict raged, needed it.

Her life, like so many others in a country that was rated the world’s most fragile state in 2015, had been marked by hardship, brutal violence and grinding poverty. Like James, who had held his children’s heads underwater while hiding in the marshes as bullets cut through the air above them after government troops rolled through his village in Unity state, burning, raping and killing as they went.

My time freelance reporting in South Sudan last December made me grateful. So too in Sierra Leone, where my Al Jazeera English team covered the 2012 election, 10 years on from the peace deal which ended the brutal civil war there. In Freetown’s Kroo Bay slum, thousands of people were crammed into a squalid space forced to share three dilapidated toilets. Children played among raw sewage with no opportunity for education. And then a few years after my visit, that same slum was ravaged by Ebola.

In Qatar, I watched on as Nepali labourers constructed buildings in oppressive heat for little and sometimes no pay, while some South Asian maids and nannies were raped, beaten, trapped and enslaved behind closed doors.

As I wound up my life in the Middle East after five years with Al Jazeera English and eight years abroad, I turned towards New Zealand, knowing how lucky I was. As one colleague once said to me: “You Kiwis won the birthplace lottery”. My home was the first to give women the vote more than a century ago; social security was invented in Kurow in the 1930s; and we said no to the United States: we would not let their nuclear ships come to our shores.

My, how things have changed.

This is not an attempt to pretend that New Zealand has slipped so far down that it is in anyway comparable to the hardship playing out in the majority of the world. It is a peaceful, stable, democratic society with press freedom. But we are slipping. I am not only disappointed in what I’ve seen in the six months since I returned, I am angry.

A homeless man keeps warm in the doorway of a central city shop in Auckland. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
A homeless man keeps warm in the doorway of a central city shop in Auckland. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

To not be able to swim in our rivers because they are so dirty would’ve been unthinkable to me 10 years ago. In March, the Waikato River Authority said it could take up to 100 years for the Waikato and Waipa rivers to be restored to clean and healthy levels. I’ve seen first-hand waterways that run off the Waikato River blanketed in a creeping toxic algae, festering like a black drain, lifeless. Meanwhile, what remains of our pristine water is being sold by the likes of the Ashburton District Council, to be extracted, bottled up and sent overseas.

Above ground, New Zealand’s reported rate of intimate partner violence is the highest in the developed world. Our incarceration rate is also one of the highest in the developed world and more than half of the men behind bars are Māori. According to Corrections Minister Judith Collins, our prison population topped 9,000 for the first time last year: “Since 2014, the prison population has increased… leading to record highs throughout 2015 and early 2016.” In part, she said the booming prison population was due to locking up family violence offenders for longer.

According to Infometrics analysis the health system has been under-funded by $1.7 billion since 2010, leaving it unable to keep up with inflation and population growth. Meanwhile District Health Boards are being squeezed, exemplified by a recent report into the Waikato DHB’s Mental Health and Addiction services that argues for the need to “secure adequate resources and meet staffing gaps” immediately.

Then there’s housing and homelessness. New Zealand has one of the fastest growing rates of income inequality in the OECD and it’s on show in our biggest city. In Auckland, families with at least one working parent are living in vans and cars, with marae and charitable trusts stepping in to fill the breach left by social services. How galling it must be for those parents trying to find a warm place for their children to sleep to then see the Prime Minister’s son in all his privileged glory, posing with a Lambourghini and helicopter in his music video.

John Key has long wanted New Zealand to be seen as the Switzerland of the Pacific. The Panama Papers showed we are, but not in the way he envisioned.

Of course, apart from the stench from the Panama Papers, none of these issues are new nor is the government solely to blame. House construction in Auckland has long lagged behind population growth and New Zealand has a well-publicised and also very long battle with family violence. What I find so difficult is that these wounds have been open for so long, and still, they’ve been allowed to get worse. Surely, we can do better.

Maybe because I’ve returned after a long period it has struck me with greater force. I still feel disconnected, like an outsider, and that may well give me a very different perspective on the issues facing New Zealand. But to me it seems as if a few people are shouting warnings while the rest of the country is like the oblivious frog in a pot of water who only notices it’s boiling when it’s too late.

I have lived a privileged life. As a woman, I have had basic rights to education, employment. I choose who I love and I grew up in a financially stable household. The majority of the world’s women do not have these luxuries. I know I am lucky. I may have not lived through injustice and hardship but I know what it looks like. And I am seeing more and more of it in the last place I expected: home.

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