Part One - A summer spent living and teaching in a deprived Fijian village.
Two years ago, as a student at Cardiff University, I received an email seeking volunteers to take part in a youth, sport and education project in Fiji with the charity “Think Pacific”. Keen to spend my summer abroad and with Fiji sounding like a desirable place to go, I decided to send off an application and hoped for the best.
Seven months later I found myself travelling with 26 other volunteers to a remote village in northern Fiji by an aged but sufficient boat. The remaining 5 km of my journey towards shore consisted of dragging a large suitcase on wheels through knee-length water and precarious volcanic sand (it was here I realised why the pre-departure handbook had recommended a backpack as suitable luggage). But alas! It was an uphill journey from here! Quite literally- the village I was to live in was situated on top of a hill. Here was to be home for the next 6 weeks.
Approaching the top, I began to hear the hollow sound of beating of drums, soulful voices, and the laughs and screams of children. The other volunteers and I were greeted by the village chief who wore a grass skirt and a Hawaiian-looking shirt. He assigned us each to a family with whom we spent the remainder of our trip. I was greeted with open arms by a family of seven (a mum, a dad, two sons and 3 daughters), a grass garland was placed around my neck accompanied by an overwhelming hug from the family’s youngest daughter- Akor.
On meeting the mother and father of my assigned family, I was asked to refer to them as “na” and “ta” (meaning mum and dad). This I admit was strange, but it was the first of many encounters of kindness, warmth and sheer feelings of gratitude I received from the Fijian community - who genuinely felt blessed to have us stay with them, feelings that I soon reciprocated.
I was chaperoned to my home, it wasn’t the brick laid, fully furnished home I was accustomed to in the UK. But it was an unusual looking building- assembled with random material such as straw, wood and concrete. Maintaining the “if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it properly” mentality I was raring and prepared (or so I thought) for the experience.
My “na” lay “the table” (a Fijian table consists of placing a table cloth on the floor). If only I had known this information before mistaking it for a blanket to sit on, oops! I washed down my embarrassment with a Fijian traditional lemon tea.
The first day of the project was occupied by attending the annual sports day for the village children. This was a familiar experience, consisting of sports such as netball and rugby. It was here I was quizzically approached by two Fijian mums who when they had finally sourced the word for “lenses”, asked if I was wearing any. When I quizzed why they thought this, they replied “because your eyes are blue”. It soon became clear that they didn’t know that blue eyes existed - let alone have witnessed any first hand!
This wasn’t the only instance of naivety which took me by surprise. I was also asked if I had travelled from the UK to Fiji by boat, why the soles of my feet were white and not pink and after trying, for some considerable time, to explain to my “ta” what Europe was, I decided it was time to abort the mission and retire.
The first day was over and it was time to get a good night’s sleep (on the concrete floor) in preparation for my first day teaching at the village school. If I thought I had already experienced the Fijian culture I was wrong…
Two years ago, as a student at Cardiff University, I spent a summer volunteering on a youth, sport and education project in Fiji with the charity “Think Pacific”.
On arriving at the school, the headmaster and his pupils welcomed us all warmly and a pupil placed another grass garland around my neck. The school was an impressive looking building – unlike most other buildings in Fiji it was made of bricks with glass windows, it’s exterior painted a vibrant blue. I was asked to choose an age group which I would like to teach and was subsequently sent to that classroom to introduce myself. On entering my chosen classroom of year 5 pupils, the children promptly stood with military precision from their seats and exclaimed “good morning Madame” in perfect synchronisation. Immediately afterwards, the teacher shook my hand and swiftly exited the classroom without further word.
With that handshake I had transformed from volunteer to teacher and was left with the responsibility of over thirty children’s education. I was, however, both teacher and pupil – my first lesson being a greater understanding of the expression “out of your depth”. At first this was a daunting task but it very quickly became a role which I loved and relished.
The school and its ways of teaching were very different from what I had known in the UK. There were minimal resources, merely a blackboard and chalk and a few texts books (roughly enough to share one between 5). If a child couldn’t afford pen and paper, they simply didn’t have them. This made the already difficult task of first time teaching, that much more difficult. But what struck me the most was the children’s respect, good behaviour and genuine enthusiasm to learn – this made teaching a pure joy.
The experience to engage in interactive lessons appeared something rare for the children who seemed used to working in silence from text books. The opportunity (or should I say “privilege”) to write answers on the blackboard became a real excitement for the children (which conveniently also worked marvellously as a motivational strategy for myself in order to keep them engaged and receptive). Among more serious lessons, I remember fondly teaching the children how to make and fly a paper aeroplane. Believe it or not, the children had never done nor seen such a thing!
Unlike within a UK school where the cleaning, maintenance, and preparation of school lunches are operated by employed individuals, within a Fijian school these roles are controlled by the children and their mothers. The children didn’t deem these job’s chores but fought for the opportunity. Their mother’s willingness to cook school lunches free from wage once again reflected the strong community spirit amongst Fijian villagers.
In addition to my role as academic educator, it was also my role to educate them on matters of personal health and hygiene. Shockingly, before Think Pacific’s (the NGO with whom I was volunteering) arrival, the majority of Fijian children didn’t own a toothbrush and didn’t understand the importance of brushing their teeth. “Toothbrush club” (an event organised by the volunteers and I which encouraged all children to meet with provided toothbrushes at the beginning of the school day to collectively brush our teeth) became a popular and seemingly worthwhile activity – something I am told is still in practise within the school.
I left Fiji feeling that as a team we had achieved great things in our short time and undoubtedly had made some lasting and worthwhile changes to the education of many Fijian children. I was sure that this experience had made a footprint in my life forever but at this point I didn’t realise something far more memorable was to come…
Part 3 - Beds, Babies and Good Bye! (& Lemon Grass Tea)
The third and final edition of my Fijian experience with charity “Think Pacific”
Like most “luxuries” that you and I might take for granted, beds were something of a rarity in Fiji. This was particularly the case for my Fijian family of eight who occupied one, old, worn, double bed between them. Predictably, my “Na” and “Ta” (Fijian for mother and father and as my hosts like to be called) occupied this with their youngest child whilst the other children, who knew better than to dispute this set up, slept on the concrete floor. A bad deal it might seem to you and me but they seemed quite content with this arrangement- presumably because this was all they’d known.
Lemon grass tea had become a daily ritual - one with which I had quickly become rather bored. Early in my Fijian experience I had claimed to enjoy it – from that moment on, it was lemon grass tea left, right and centre!
One evening, I was sitting, drinking the lemon grass tea which Ta had kindly made for me, while Na began carrying the family mattress into the house. She asked if I’d mind giving her some help. I quickly jumped to my feet and proceeded to assist. Na then casually revealed that she was pregnant with her sixth child and that carrying a mattress alone was probably not a good idea (carrying a mattress at all was not a good idea I later suggested).
Soon after, we sat talking about her pregnancy. I was interested to know how pregnancy and labour was different in Fiji compared to the UK. Na revealed how our neighbour, Aqcorcita, had not managed to get to hospital before she went into labour, and of course with no emergency services available, she was forced to give birth in her home. Na recalled how there were little resources for the birth other than some warm water which she managed to boil and a razor blade which was used to cut the umbilical cord. Here, might I add that the razor blade was apparently “sterilized” by being dipped into hot water. I couldn’t help but be alarmed by this narrative, but was reassured to know that the child, now seven, is healthy and still lives next door.
After this, Na announced that if her baby was a girl she would name her after me. As you can imagine, this was a gesture which exceeded all expectations and caused me to feel incredibly fortunate (and couldn’t help but hope it was a girl)! I remember feeling as if this was an excessive gesture for somebody they had known only a short amount of time, but it soon became clear that this was yet another representation of their kindness and generosity.
All too soon, the trip drew rapidly to a close and I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of sadness as I said my good byes to a family who had once been strangers, but who had happily “adopted” me as one of their own. That which was originally imagined as a holiday in paradise, away from the responsibilities of spending the summer working in the UK, had become an experience which entailed so much more than that. Sitting on the plane home (all 24 hours travelling of travelling in the comparative luxuries of economy class) I couldn’t help but make plans to go back sometime soon.
Roughly six month later and after a considerable number of phone calls, I had news that a baby girl had arrived and she was, as promised months previously, to be named Rachel. If this wasn’t a reason to travel back to Fiji at the next opportunity, I don’t know what else was!
It was precisely one year after my first visit to Fiji that I travelled the twenty-four-hour flight again to visit a country which I had grown such a strong attachment towards. But the two occasions were different. The first time I flew out there hoping for an exciting opportunity and the hope to help make some difference to the educational and youth development of Fiji’s deprived children (and obviously, a glamorous holiday). But the second time I had a whole new family, friends, a baby named after me and very many memories all of which will stay with me for a long time.
From "East Brent Parish Magazine" Issues 5, 6 & 7
Author: Rachel Champion
Read more from the back issues of the East Brent Parish Magazine here