My new home in Bavu village, Fiji
Bula! When I applied to Think Pacific, for the chance to volunteer in Fiji, it didn’t seem possible that I could actually be going. Fiji was an exotic, other worldly place, a paradise island half way across the world. When I received the phone call telling me I had secured a place for June, only six months away, I was elated. Yet, for months my expedition to Fiji seemed like dream in the distant future. But June came quickly. It wasn’t until I was sat in Heathrow airport with my rucksack on my back, trying to stop the uncontrollable shake in my leg, when realisation hit me in the face. I was about to travel for 36 hours solo around the world. It was the most daunting prospect I had ever experienced. I didn’t know that the next four weeks of my life would be the most gratifying and rewarding weeks of my life…
Primarily, Think Pacific volunteers are in Fiji to provide support in underprivileged schools. In Fiji, most schools are composite with one teaching looking after over 40 children – they learn through repetition and text books, many of which are factually incorrect. We identified the slow learners and gave them one-to-one, or small group sessions. Using the school grounds as a different learning environment, we were able to present them with new, interactive ways of learning, focusing purely on their needs.
During my time at Nawai Primary School, I worked closely with Simeli, a six year old boy who has learning difficulties. For three weeks I worked on his number recognition, as this is something his teacher had identified as a problem. He spoke very little English, and found it difficult to understand my instructions to him. This meant I had to initiate a new style of teaching in order to demonstrate the task in hand. I made colourful and interactive work sheets, played number games, used tennis balls and cones to introduce a fun, active way of learning numbers. I rewarded him with stickers and high fives to create positive reinforcement. Despite the fun we had, on some occasions our sessions were tiring and repetitive. This was a personal challenge that I had to overcome, to remain positive and help Simeli get the most out of this experience. Through discussing alternative approaches and using other resources with the other volunteers, I was able to overcome this hurdle. Gradually, Simeli became more confident and receptive to learning, and suddenly we had our breakthrough moment. Simeli could confidently recognise and count numbers 1 through to 10. This is undoubtedly my biggest achievement and something I am so proud of.
All of the volunteers faced the same, if not similar challenges whilst living in Fiji. A change in climate, diet, and cultural and social attitudes, paired with the fact we were over 16,000 miles away from home meant we all struggled at one time or another. Without the luxury of flushing toilets, running water, modern technology or western foods, we were stripped of all sense of familiarity, and in some ways, our identity (not defined by makeup, clothes, or material items). We were sent back to basics. Though some days were tough, and we cried because somebody ate our last biscuit, or we used the last of our Tang, or simply we hadn’t had healthy bowel movements in two weeks, we looked to each other for comfort and support. These challenges actually promoted honest conversations between the volunteers about our physical and mental health. We were no longer worrying about the latest trends on Twitter or craving to post something on Instagram, we were simply enjoying life as it happened, engulfing these new experiences one cassava bite at a time.
I will never forget the sense of togetherness and community spirit that the Fijian people have, which is so overwhelmingly opposite to many western societies. Throughout the three weeks, we integrated into village life by learning about their customs and traditions (vital in Fijian’s identity). We learnt how the ceremonial drink Kava is produced, watched villagers perform their Meke (a traditional dance) and learnt how to make straw hats. We were made members of each family that we were staying with, sharing every aspect of daily life with them. We were regarded as their own children, and thus real members of the community. What is most gratifying is that these people have so little, yet want to give so much, in order to make a complete stranger feel so welcome. It is true, when people say that Fijians are the most welcoming and friendly people you can meet. Beaming smiles. Big hugs. Even bigger laughs. On the final night, the whole village gathered in the community hall, we ate together, sung and drank kava. In tribute to the village, we performed our own meke, and then sung You’ve Got a Friend In Me, much to the delight of the community. The next morning was our last one. We left with unforgettable memories, but with heavy hearts. There was not one person who wasn’t dreading leaving their Fijian family, and not one person who didn’t have streams of tears running down their face. I have never felt so attached to a community in such as short space of time.
I truly believe that traveling to Fiji was the most rewarding experience of my life so far. I can confidently say that my Fijian experience was a life-altering, unforgettable one. I am a strong advocate for doing things outside your comfort zone. For me, Fiji was so far out of my comfort zone, that I didn’t actually think I could reach it. It wasn’t until I arrived, lived with my family, worked with children much less fortunate than I and watched them reach their goals, that I realised my capability, and theirs.
I’ve made unforgettable memories, rewarding friendships, and now I have a second home at Bavu Village in the Nadroga-Navossa Province, Fiji.
Vinaka vaka levu.