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Character Education

Tahiti, a Turbulent Paradise in Quest of Internal Peace

Papeete, Tahiti - At the close of the 19th century, the French artist Paul Gauguin painted his famous masterpiece in Tahiti entitled "Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?"

“While Gauguin’s questions were a bit philosophical, they were also practical and down-to-earth,” said Laurent Ladouce from UPF-France, who was presenting a two-day character education program September 19 and 20 to a delegation of local leaders gathered in the city council room of the town hall of Papeete.

The event was organized by the local branch of UPF on the topic: “The Family, a School of Love for a Successful Life.” Dr. Colette Takigawa, who has coordinated UPF activities in French Polynesia since 2007, prepared the seminar in close cooperation with local Ambassadors for Peace. Mrs. Kay Teriierooiterai, legal adviser at the city hall and supervisor for the education department, and Mrs. Jacqueline Lienard, president of Vivre sans drogues (Living without Drugs), generously mobilized their resources and networks to prepare the venue. Mrs. Catherine van din Klage had traveled from Sydney, Australia, and represented the Secretary General of UPF-Oceania.

One could feel the warm heart and dedication of everyone upon entering the hall. Gauguin’s painting shows a group of Tahitians at all ages of their lives, from womb to tomb. The painting has a horizontal panoramic format, with most characters sitting and chatting. Time flies, life goes, and the painting suggests a nonchalant, easy-going life, yet, the standing figures express the quest of higher values and a superior dimension. The seminar was introduced as part of the 21st century pursuit of that balance.

The audience nodded in agreement. Most had come to the seminar with casual wear and sat quietly and attentively during the two hot days of meetings. Most of them joined or created associations out of concern for the unpleasant trends in their pleasant society.

The Edenic archipelago has always attracted foreigners in search of new spiritual and social horizons. Life was rather clement until recently, but the territory has been facing a serious crisis for a few years.

A few days before this seminar, a documentary produced by French television made people nervous. It showed the dark side of Tahiti with few nuances: French Army helicopters tracking marijuana crops in the Tahitian jungle, police forces burning tons of drugs at their headquarters, brutal scenes of abject poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, prostitution, and powerlessness, if not blindness of local leaders. It raised the same questions as Gauguin’s paintings without the images of solace and the peace.

“This documentary is a disgrace,” middle-age Tahitians commented. “Journalists are only concerned with sensationalism. They scratch the surface and don’t ask the real questions, especially the responsibility of Paris in the current mess.” Younger Tahitians or those who live in Tahiti but don’t belong to the mainstream Polynesian culture had another reaction. “The film is a brutal mirror of a reality that most people here refuse to see, or for which they don’t feel responsible. We don’t like it when others see our sins, but our conscience knows them anyway.”

The 250,000 inhabitants of the south-east Pacific archipelago are scattered across a maritime expanse about the size of Europe. It is part of French Polynesia, a semi-autonomous overseas collectivity of France. For many years, French nuclear experiments brought huge investments to the islands. Many feel nostalgia mixed with guilt for the recent past. The heavy French presence was more or less accepted by local Tahitians, but undeniably money was flowing. Paris coveted its distant possessions and showed concern. After France acceded to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the facilities are no longer used.

French Polynesia enjoys much autonomy, and talk about independence is no longer taboo. But prices have soared, unemployment is high, and the future is gloomy for the young people. Drug production and consumption plague the main cities. The local police and the French armed forces have different agendas about this issue, and the local ministry of health is unprepared to face this huge social problem. Prostitution in the streets is causing much uproar, and family breakdown is serious.

“Seeking the good while seeking goods, harmonizing spiritual values and material values is difficult everywhere", said Laurent Ladouce as an introduction to the character education program. "We may endlessly blame others or ourselves for the lack of balance, but one thing is sure: we seek the harmony between the internal and the external because it is the essence of happiness. The question is not whether Tahiti has problems. The question is more whether Tahitians seek real joys for themselves and their loved ones or are tempted by illusions.”

Asked about their life goals and role models, participants came with different answers: “I want to set up a humanitarian project in Vanuatu," said one man. "Obama is my hero, his life is my model.” A smiling young mother, wearing a white flower on her ear, said, “To protect my children and make them happy is my life goal. My model is my mother; I wish I could resemble her.”

A whole family had come, and the father is educating his elder daughter, aged 22, to take over his printing shop. “A happy family and a good business which is useful for the population, these are very concrete goals,” the father said. “You need a strong character and cooperation to fulfill this dream.”

The next presentation was on universal principles and life goals. Character education is not merely about virtues but about life goals which make people’s lives meaningful and rewarding. The first life goal is maturity of character and harmony between mind and body. Everyone wants to experience love. It starts with harmony between husband and wife who work together to make their family a school of love. Finally, each person should develop creativity and skills that will benefit society.

Sunday morning focused on training about drug addiction. Working as small groups of three to four people, they addressed some basic questions: What is a drug? What are its effects? Why do people take drugs? What is the profile of a drug addict?

Through the presentation that followed, participants could improve their understanding of drugs. “Drugs are a substitute for the real joy-makers of life," Laurent Ladouce said. "One takes drugs to get a high. Prevention based on character education emphasizes the role of natural highs. What are they? They are based on the fulfillment of the life goals. When teenagers make efforts to grow toward maturity and strive to go beyond their limits, they experience an exhilaration that is more thrilling than artificial highs. Likewise, loving relationships in the family and with friends are the best prevention of addiction. Drugs are poor substitutes for love. Ultimately, a life of creativity and excellence will give great satisfaction.”

Mrs. Jacqueline Lienard is a famous figure in the fight against drug abuse in Tahiti. President and founder of Vivre sans Drogues (Living without Drugs), she attended the seminar with her staff. Despite the pain which she felt as a mother when her son fell into the abyss of addiction, she had the courage to create an association that is now widely recognized in Tahiti for its prevention and rehabilitation programs. She supported the presentation and added some points related to the local situation, where marijuana (called paka lolo), Ice and GHB (the "rape drug") are the main substances favored by addicts. Stressing that the situation in Tahiti is serious, Mrs. Lienard called for moral conviction and a comprehensive approach.

The two-day program ended with a presentation on family ethics and sexuality. In the past, Europeans who discovered Polynesia were struck by what they perceived as a certain innocence of Tahitians regarding sex. Today, the situation is rather tragic, as Tahitians themselves recognize. Incest, teen pregnancy, rape, prostitution, and family breakdown are common, and no family is immune.

Following the lectures, many participants received certificates as Ambassadors for Peace. The reactions to the presentation were honest. “It is quite idealistic," one said, "and as such, we feel challenged.” Another person said, “These teaching strike a deep chord in our hearts. Our culture is supposed to be spiritual and value-oriented. We are now confronting a complete confusion in our value system.” Ambassadors for Peace agreed that they need to meet regularly and work together as a network to address pressing local problems. They felt that the UPF presentations were extremely useful and provide an axis for reflection and action.

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